Vulnerable, Pentecost 18 (B) – September 23, 2018

Proper 20


[RCL]: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Mark’s Gospel was the first written. It is the shortest. Likely it was a one-person play, something that was first memorized and shared via oral tradition. Only in time did it go from one-person dramatic storytelling to gospel text, written down, copied, and eventually read throughout the Church and the world. Mark’s Greek is quick and to the point, not as elegant or poetic as Luke. Jesus and his disciples are always on the move, with Mark constantly saying, “and then.” Mark and the storytellers who gave us his words have a sense of urgency about the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching.

This quick, urgent storytelling also yields excerpts of stories that are very direct and to the point. With such directness and pointedness, the Church in the 21st century can be left asking, “So what?” or “What else is there to take from this?” This is particularly tempting or easy to do if the story is one of familiarity — the likelihood of which increases if a version of the passage is contained in Matthew, Mark, and Luke…like today’s excerpt is.

Jesus is walking through Galilee with his disciples. He’s gathered those closest to him to teach them (not a crowd), and he tells them for a second time what’s to come: that he will die and be raised again. Last week the Church heard Jesus say that the first time in Mark. In the space between last week’s text and this week’s text, Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and Peter, James, and John see him transfigured with Moses and Elijah there to offer their approval.

On the way down the mountain, Jesus tells those three not to say anything because it’s not time yet. This week he and the disciples are on the move so that others don’t hear the teaching, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Despite Jesus doing a really good job of using his words, saying almost the exact same thing for a second time, having a transfiguration transformation experience, and just healing a demoniac, the disciples don’t understand.

That’s how revolutionary the Resurrection is. Jesus says exactly what he means, and yet the disciples don’t understand. As Christians who find our hope of all things being made right at the end of time in the Resurrection — that death itself has been defeated — we know that Jesus means exactly what he says. The disciples, so used to seeing one self-appointed messiah come and go while their occupation under the Romans remains, can’t fathom that Jesus actually means that he will die and that he will be raised up. It’s not even what they’re looking for! Their imaginations are limited to hoping for a king to lead an army against Caesar, not a man to open his arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

This lack of imagination about how the world might be, a world where death isn’t the end, is what fuels the next part of the story from Mark. Jesus and the disciples reach Capernaum and he asks them what they were arguing about. Do you remember being a child and having some argument with your siblings that you were sure your parents didn’t know about? Maybe it was mostly in facial expressions or hushed tones. You may have known it would be something your parents didn’t want you fighting about — or thought wasn’t even worth fighting about — so you kept it a secret. Then they asked you at the end of the car ride or at dinner, “What was that commotion about?”

That’s the disciples with Jesus when they reach Capernaum. He asks what they’ve been arguing about among themselves and they don’t answer him. They probably felt sheepish and might have looked at their feet or food or off into the distance (still inside the house), pretending not to hear him. Again, he sits the twelve down. This is not a crowd or a medium-sized group. This is the twelve, the twelve who have committed to following him — literally following him around the countryside — to whom he is giving the next two teachings.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples — unable to imagine a world where death has been defeated, empire overthrown, and all of creation restored to right relationship — are fighting over who will be first, and Jesus tells them who will be first: the person who doesn’t want to be, the person looked at as not having ambition, the person who shows vulnerability and servanthood rather than seeking their own glory.

Then he takes a child, puts that child in the midst of them, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children weren’t welcomed in the first century. They were tolerated. They played like all kids do, but children were an economic asset, able and expected to work. They were property until they were either old enough to own property themselves — boys — or sold in marriage to another male — girls. They couldn’t speak for themselves and had no power.

Yet, a child — powerless against the world around her, vulnerable to the powers that existed, and unable to defend herself — is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome: the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are ignored in the world. Jesus says that by welcoming people like that, the ones who can’t influence society and don’t strive to be in charge, they welcome Jesus. Not only do they welcome him, they welcome God who sent him. Welcoming the powerless is a far cry from arguing over who is the greatest!

That’s how these two excerpts of Mark fit together though, the snippet about walking through Galilee and the snippet about being in Capernaum in a house together. When they get to the destination, when the Church continues to come together to a place for understanding, Jesus helps them to see a little more of what he is about and what he’s not about. He’s not about being the greatest. He’s about being a servant of all. He’s not about winning friends and influencing people. He’s about welcoming the vulnerable to be among him and his followers.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they welcome the vulnerable, they welcome him. They’re looking for a leader on a war horse to overthrow the empire. They’re not looking for a vulnerable child. They haven’t been looking for that since he was born, fully God and fully human, as a child himself. Yet Jesus tells him that in welcoming the vulnerable, they welcome him. Jesus tells the Church that in being vulnerable, we are like him.

Being vulnerable, being a servant, being like a child, is what Jesus tells his disciples he’s come to do when he predicts his death and resurrection for a second time. He’s not coming to take over the empire. He’s come to do more than that, something so revolutionary the disciples can’t imagine it: defeat death itself. Death isn’t defeated with a sword, and his revolution is not with generals and battles. Death is defeated with a cross, with Jesus’ cross. And it was defeated in his rising again — just like he told the disciples it would be, even if they didn’t understand him.

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph-St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, WA. He began this cure in September 2017. Before moving to the Seattle area, he served as Working Group Head for Communications for the Diocese of California in San Francisco. When not priesting or lifting, Joseph grabs a whistle as a soccer referee. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their cats Maggie and Stanton.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 18 (B).

The Path of Discipleship, Proper 20(B) – 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

For much of Christian history, being identified as a “disciple of Jesus” has been considered high praise. The disciples, after all, were the handpicked group of followers who lived, learned, and labored alongside Jesus. They were commissioned to heal the sick, baptize sinners, and proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to the ends of the earth.

But if we listen closely, we can’t help but notice that Scripture does not always portray the disciples with such glamor and reverence. Consider today’s reading: For the second time in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes the disciples aside to teach them that he will soon be given over to human hands and will suffer, die, and rise again. And for the second time, the disciples don’t get it.

In fact, Mark’s Gospel tells of Jesus trying to teach the disciples this crucial lesson on three different occasions, and each and every time, the disciples don’t get it. Instead, they’re concerned with things like which one of them is the greatest and what the folks in town thought about them and what they were going to eat for lunch.

But what is most perplexing of all is the fact that, not only do the disciples fail to understand Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection, but they’re also too afraid to ask Jesus any questions about it!

And as maddening as the disciples’ failure to understand or even ask questions with the hope of understanding may sound to us, how often are we guilty of precisely the same thing? How often are we afraid to ask a question because we think we should know the answer, or because we’re afraid our question is stupid, or even because we’re afraid of the answer?

After all, if knowledge is power, then ignorance is weakness.

Perhaps the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus a question because they should have been paying better attention. Or maybe they were afraid to ask because Jesus would think they were ignorant. Or maybe, just maybe, they were afraid to ask Jesus a question because somewhere deep down, they already knew the answer.

Jesus said, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Mark, with his characteristic briskness and brevity, doesn’t reveal the expressions on the disciples’ faces when they heard Jesus utter these words. He doesn’t tell us about the gasps and the horrified stares and the hard gulps. And he says nothing about the heavy hush that surely descended upon the disciples. All Mark says is, “They were afraid…”

And although Mark is also silent as to why the disciples were afraid, we can surmise that they feared for the fate of their friend and leader. Each and every one of them had left their families and their livelihoods to take an enormous risk in following Jesus, and so hearing that he expects to be arrested and killed—never mind the bit about rising from the dead—all comes as quite a shock.

But what if the disciples were afraid for another reason as well? What if, along with their fear about what would become of Jesus, they were also afraid of what would happen to them? After all, if Jesus was arrested and killed, surely his closest associates would come under scrutiny as well. Perhaps what was at the root of the disciples’ fear is the fact that they were beginning to understand, even just a little, what the true cost of discipleship is.

In a world where wealth is good but more wealth is better; where consumerism is king; and where our worth is measured by what we have rather than what we give, the cost of discipleship is hard news that many would prefer not to hear. But it is also the Good News that we so desperately need to hear!

A few weeks ago, Episcopalians from around the world gathered near Hayneville, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels who was killed during the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1965. Daniels’ death came as a result of his pushing an African-American teenager named Ruby Sales out of harm’s way when the two walked into a corner store to buy a soft drink, only to be met by an irate man pointing a loaded shotgun at them.

The cost of discipleship was, for Jonathan Daniels, his very life. And as the disciples began to process their fear about what Jesus was teaching them, perhaps they were beginning to realize the heavy cost that discipleship would place on their own lives. These are, of course, extreme cases, but they make plain the fact that we cannot confess the faith of Christ crucified and risen without coming to terms with the reality that discipleship places a claim on us—it costs us something. For some of us, it may cost us what is popular. For others, it may cost us our comfort zones. And for still others, it may even cost us a friend.

Of course, there is an easier way. We could simply listen to Jesus’ hard teaching about suffering and death and resurrection and continue on without asking any questions—as if nothing had ever happened. But deep down in our bones, this path will leave us wanting. It’ll leave us to preach a half-hearted and watered-down Gospel that has more to do with being comfortable and complacent than with the cross of Christ.

No, the path of discipleship is hard. It leads us through suffering and even death, and it costs us dearly. But in the end, we discover that it is this path that leads to resurrection and life! Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 20B. 

Written by The Reverend Marshall A. Jolly who is the Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina (Diocese of Western North Carolina). He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Faith matters more than a running tab of good works, 17 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – 2012

September 23, 2012

Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

In the preface to his 1522 translation of the New Testament, Martin Luther famously refers to the Letter of James – from which our second reading today is taken – as a “straw-letter,” or an “Epistle of Straw,” as it is more often called. What he meant by this comment has been the subject of scholarly conjecture and debate for centuries and will probably remain so for some time to come. Curiously, the remark is missing from later editions of the Luther Bible, so perhaps Luther had second thoughts about his initial assessment of the letter.

But no matter how you look at it, the Letter of James is indeed a bit of an oddity in the New Testament canon. One commentary notes, for instance, that Jesus is mentioned only twice in the entire letter and then rather perfunctorily. Little in the letter is specifically Christian, and much of the text is given over to advice and exhortation, not unlike that found in the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – or perhaps even the New Age literature of our own day. Thus, the letter has remained more or less an anomoly and on the back shelf of scripture study for centuries.

Luther was likely most discomfited by the letter’s seeming emphasis on human wisdom and common sense – doing the right thing, we might call it – works, in other words, as opposed to faith. In James, it almost seems sometimes as if salvation could indeed be won by our own efforts and action without the Cross of Christ, which is tellingly not mentioned even once in the entire letter.

Luther’s misgivings may have been justified.

Yet the truth is that most Christians of any age – in spite of what scripture tells them and us about the importance and centrality faith – remain firm believers in works. We are all “Jamesians,” to coin a phrase. Deep down, most of us believe in salvation by works. We readily judge others by their deeds. Ask most any Christian today how they plan to get to heaven, and they will readily tell you that it is by trying to lead a good life and helping others. By works, in other words. Few will first cite their faith in the loving mercy of God and in Christ’s redemptive death on the cross.

Meanwhile, we all want to get ahead in the world – perhaps not unlike the disciples in today’s gospel account.

Asked by Jesus what they were arguing about along the way, they are at first silent but then sheepishly admit that they were contesting who among them was to be the greatest – who would achieve the most. There are probably few better examples in scripture of the allure of works and their presumed rewards over faith and its illusive promise than this telling admission from the closest followers of our Lord. No wonder “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him,” when Jesus spoke of his impending death.

Perhaps the disciples just did not want to hear about it. Likely in their effort to become “the greatest” they were more comfortable matching good deed for good deed with their fellow disciples – as if the spiritual life were a sport or competition – rather than in thinking about the depth of their faith in our Lord, much less in his Cross, about which at this point they admittedly had only an inkling.

Anyway – they may have thought – how would you even measure and quantify faith? Surely, it is easier to count good works and keep a running tab. Perhaps it would be better for them, as some in our society today seem to advocate, to become totally self-reliant and ruggedly individualistic Apostles – with a capital “A” – than childlike and humble servants of all, concerned only for the needs of those less fortunate.

Still, as the medieval theologians remind us, faith builds on nature.

You have to start somewhere. And at some level, we all begin with works. For most of us, including the disciples, this means somehow taming our own base instincts for self-defeating and self-destructive behavior. Where, in other words, do “conflicts and disputes” come from, James asks. Precisely from the “cravings” that are at war within each of us. That which comes from heaven, on the other hand, is in James’ words “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Human wisdom left to itself, James concludes, is too often “boastful and false to the truth” – seeking, not unlike the disciples, self-aggrandizement and recognition – to be the greatest.

He may not have been a great theologian like Paul – or Luther for that matter – but James has a common-sense grasp of the dynamics of the human heart. Works or no works, he appreciates that we must first “resist the devil … and draw near to God.” We must do something. It is only then, he seems to tell us, that God will ultimately “draw near” in turn and approach us with the gift of grace and redemption.

Christ draws near us in his death and resurrection.

Our gospel account reminds us of this reality in our Lord’s own words to his sometimes clueless disciples. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him,” he tells them and us, “and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” For Christians today, rising with Christ still means dying with him to self and “selfish ambition,” as James calls it.

It means finally putting all of our faith in the only “works” that matter: Christ’s own death and resurrection.
— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.

We’re all kin, all a part of the people of God, 16 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – 2009

September 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (Track 2: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Sometimes the expanse of centuries between when the scriptures were written and when we, in the twenty-first century, are reading them seems to disappear. The readings today that supposedly come from Wisdom and James couldn’t possibly have been written that long ago. They must have been written in our time – in our generation, or at least only as far back as our parents or grandparents. They’re too current, too modern, too right between our eyes, don’t you think?

This is true for James, especially. You don’t often hear people say that the letter from James is their favorite. Maybe it’s not used often enough, or maybe it makes us uncomfortable, but we must admit that James is nothing if not practical. James’ very practical outline of behaviors and exhortations on what one must do to live a Christian life is very, well, no nonsense. James really spoke out to his readers back then, but today’s bit of James should still give us a lot to think about. In fact, if it doesn’t, then the bumper sticker that should be speaking to us is the one that says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Listen again to what James says: “Those conflicts and disputes among you … do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

That almost hurts to read out loud because it’s so true. Look at the world we live in. Many of us continue to ask why, in this day and age, the only way we seem to be able to deal with problems among the countries of the world is to arm mostly the poor and kill until someone gives up or one side has no one left standing.

But even closer to home, look at our own congregations. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James writes. Where indeed? What is it about us church folks that makes it so much easier to exclude than include, when we should know better. What Christian can’t recite by heart the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And the bumper sticker adds, “No exceptions.” What don’t we understand about what we can recite by heart?

And then, of course, we have to look at ourselves. It gets really uncomfortable when we read “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Jesus says pretty much the same thing in the gospels – but “adulterers”? That seems a little harsh.

And we can wonder what’s so wrong with “the world.” The world, after all, is beautiful – it’s a gift from God, not something that should put us at enmity with God. But that’s not what Jesus and James were talking about when they used the word “world.” They were referring instead to the “operating system,” so to speak, of the world; the way we interact with each other, the systems we set up to run the world, our rules. That’s where we get into trouble. That’s where we let our conflicts and disputes, our cravings and selfish ambitions prevent us from truly living out those two great commandments that we all say we believe.

And then there’s that rather scary reading from Wisdom. “The ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.”

Well, surely that’s not any of us: “ungodly … summoning death … belonging to his company.” That’s the stuff of a Stephen King novel, this personification of evil. So, we can comfortably read on until we get to verse 10:

“Let us oppress the poor man; let us not regard the grey hairs of the aged, let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.”

That should make us squirm, because we have to understand that as long as there is oppression, disregard for anyone, old or young, as long as there are laws that ensure only the powerful get ahead, as long as God’s people are at enmity with God’s people, we’re a part of that. We share in the life and behavior of all God’s people.

This all sounds pretty negative – bordering on desperate perhaps. So where’s the good news? Is there good news?

I think so. But we may need to turn off our TVs and put down our newspapers so we can better focus on the good that is in our “world,” our “operating system.”

There are innumerable good things being done by people in our country, in our church – there are good that each of us do. When James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” – that says to us that he knows there are those who are wise and understanding among his hearers. We know the same about ourselves.

The connection of gentleness and peace and mercy with wisdom is lovely. Elizabeth Johnson, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes:

“The world as a whole is shaped by Wisdom’s guidance. … This ordering is a righteous one, inimical to exploitation and oppression. Sophia hates the ways of arrogance and evil but works to establish just governance on the earth.”

Like James, she talks about an orderliness in the world. She reminds us that Sophia (“Wisdom”) works to establish justice and righteousness.

Wisdom is a fascinating image. We use it to talk about the nature of God, we use it to describe the gift of understanding that we seek from God. Wisdom is personified as the most hospitable of women. Elizabeth Johnson describes this feminine aspect of wisdom:

“The female figure of Wisdom is the most acutely developed personification of God’s presence and activity in the Hebrew scriptures. … The biblical portrait of Wisdom is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice, and a host of other women’s roles.”

Women can’t leave the doing of justice and the spreading of the Good News to men, and vice versa. We’re all expected to share that work. So there is good news in today’s readings.

And of course, we only read one small bit of Wisdom this morning. If we’d read just a few more verses, we would have come to that most beautiful passage that’s often read at funerals:

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace – their hope is full of immortality.”

That speaks of the dead, but it also speaks of us who still live in this world, especially if we believe in the communion of the saints as we say we do in the Creed. All of us – those who have gone before us and those of us still here – are connected. We’re all kin, all a part of the people of God.

So, to play with this passage a little: “All those who are righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish, the righteous may seem to be weak, to be useless; but they have peace. They have hope, and that hope is full of the promise of immortality.”

And isn’t that God’s promise? Isn’t that what we hope for finally, for union with God? We can experience that here as well as in the hereafter, and part of our ministry is to make sure that we welcome all our brothers and sisters on that journey.

These readings give us a lot to think about. This is just a start, and there’s good news all though it. Because even when we’re brought up short and challenged about how we’re living, and even when we’re at our most unlovable, there’s always the promise of God’s love for us.

Several chapters later in Wisdom we read: “But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours.”

Thanks be to God!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

It does change, starting with us, Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – September 24, 2006

(RCL) Proverbs 31:10-31 or Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 1 or 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37 

What do today’s business leaders and the child that Jesus picks up have in common? Let’s consider this question, in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

An interesting book entitled Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within was written by Robert E. Quinn, who teaches organizational behavior and human resource development at the University of Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. In it, Quinn describes three kinds of people: the individual contributor, the manager, and the leader.

First, there is the individual contributor. Several terms apply here: technical competence; technical standards; cynicism; factual communication; conventional behavior; planning in a way that is rational and tactical.

The individual contributor is the sort of person you want to have working on your car, or doing surgery on your heart, or servicing the plane on which you will be a passenger. The individual contributor knows what needs to be known, and does what needs to be done for something technical to work.

The manager is a different sort of creature. The manager functions in a political system rather than a technical one, dealing with people more than things. Instead of technical competence and standards, what concerns the manager are effective transactions and organizational position.

Rather than having a cynical attitude to authority, the manager is responsive. What interests the manager is not facts, but concepts; not professional training, but administrative socialization; not what happens at school, but what happens at the workplace. Yet like the individual contributor, the manager is comprehensible, committed to conventional patterns of behavior.

The manager is the sort of person you want to have as your attorney, or business partner, or boss. The manager knows how to get things done, who to talk to, and what to say for the right transactions to happen.

The individual contributor and the manager are different roles, different kinds of people. But the manager and the individual contributor have this in common: their first objective is their own survival.

Now enters the last of the three. Quinn calls that person the leader.

What the leader inhabits is not a technical system or a political system, but a moral system.

What empowers the leader is not rational competence or effective transactions, but core values.

What makes the leader credible to others are not factual standards or an insider’s position, but behavioral integrity.

The leader communicates through symbols and vivid mental images that provide a general guideline rather than through narrow, specific objectives that are relentlessly clear. The leader’s concern does not center on technique and transaction. What the leader brings about is transformation, deep change. It’s never business as usual with the leader. Instead, the foundations are shaken.

And so the leader comes across as unconventional, difficult to understand, beyond normal expectations, and outside the rules of self-interest. Where the individual contributor and the manager put their own survival first, the leader’s first objective is realizing the vision, regardless of the sacrifice involved. Fear of failure, being fired, or even assassination is not enough to stop a leader. A leader is driven to do the right thing.

People who are leaders can appear in any organization, at any level. They are, as Quinn puts it, “rare but dramatic.” They take risks for the greater good, and they inspire others to do the same.

So much for Robert E. Quinn and the three roles in organizational life he discusses. Let’s take up the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Galilee. Jesus spells out to them what awaits him in the future: he’ll be betrayed into human hands and put to death; then three days later, he will rise again.

What Jesus says has the same effect on each disciple: in one ear and out the other. He might as well have been speaking a language unknown to them for all they understand. They do not get it, and they are afraid to ask.

They arrive in Capernaum, a small waterfront town that serves as a home base for Jesus. There Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about as they walked along the road. The disciples fall silent. What they had argued about was who was the greatest. They were preoccupied with who among them was number one at the same time Jesus was telling them that what awaited him was the agony of the cross.

Whether the disciples are individual contributors, or managers, or some of both is not what’s important. Here’s what’s important: like managers and individual contributors, like so many of us here this morning, these disciples have their own survival as their first objective. That Jesus is unconcerned with his own survival and focused entirely on realizing his vision of God’s kingdom puts these disciples – and us – to shame.

Jesus does not write a book or design a chart to make his point about what constitutes real leadership. Instead, he lives his vision to the point of dying for it. And neither he nor that vision can ever stay dead. His commitment bears fruit in his resurrection and ascension. The vision still resides in his heart and is realized through his church.

But before he goes to the cross for this vision, he speaks through a symbol, a metaphor, an image that still haunts the imagination. Jesus steps out to the street and returns holding a toddler, an ordinary child from an ordinary family. He places this little one in the midst of the circle of his disciples.

Now remember that in the ancient world, children were especially powerless. They simply didn’t count. They were the last and the least, the bottom of the pile.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This is what Jesus says before he steps outside to fetch the child, the kid from the streets of Capernaum.

It is as if he says: “So you want to be a leader, you want to be first? Fine. But do it the right way. Don’t worry about your own survival. Die to your old self. Get born again. Start over as a child. That’s where the real leadership is – with those who are transformed and who help to transform others.

“Have a child’s purity, simplicity, fearlessness, trust. Get a vision and pursue it for all you’re worth, like a little child running full tilt for daddy or mommy. Be single-minded as you chase your vision, even as I’m single-minded making my way to my Friday death and Sunday resurrection.”

Very likely, the toddler from Capernaum was climbing all over Jesus, stepping here and there, reaching out for his beard, sticking fingers in Jesus’ mouth. The man could probably barely get out his next words: “Anybody who welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and anybody who welcomes me is really welcoming the one who sent me.”

The child represents the new birth, the fresh start necessary to real leadership and real life. To welcome this in someone honors Christ, honors his Father who makes it all possible. Vision, trust, willingness to risk, these qualities appear in a toddler, in Jesus, in every saint, and in the people Quinn calls “transformational leaders.” It’s the same Spirit at work in all of them.

When we catch that Spirit, or allow that Spirit to catch us, we are set free from fear. Our own survival is not the number-one issue. Instead, the vision is what matters. And so the world can change. It does change, starting with us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest, writer, and teacher. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002).