They Had Argued With One Another Who Was the Greatest: a sermon for Proper 20B

This sermon, delivered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on September 20, 2015 is built on the readings assigned for Proper 20 in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.


Maybe this has happened to you. It has certainly happened to me. Someone launches a campaign offering, promising something very desirable and of great value at a cost so low that is almost seems unbelievable. So you respond to the call. You show up and you ask for this thing that has been promised; only to be told the supply is exhausted. You start to get upset and even angry. You’re then met with a comforting smile and the assurance that even though the thing that you came her for is gone we have a substitute, every bit as good as what we had offered in the first place, and only a little more expensive than what you were prepared to pay.

So you leave with that substitute confident that your needs will be met and that you gotten a good deal; and then arrive home and can’t understand why this substitute doesn’t perform in the way that you had expected. It doesn’t give you what you were looking for. You can’t understand how this could be. And then it starts to dawn on you… Well maybe I should look at reports the how this substitute stacks up against what I went out to get. But you’re afraid to look because you don’t want to find out that yet again you’ve been victimized by the classic bait and switch. You can’t understand how this could happen and you are afraid to know the truth.

Our Gospel lesson this morning tells us that the disciples didn’t understand and they were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. I wonder if they were worried that they had fallen victim to this classic sales technique. Look at the campaign that Jesus had rolled out.

He started his campaign in Capernaum in the synagogue where he cast an unclean spirit out of a Man. Then he went a few steps to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house and healed her of a fever. So many people heard that story and went to see him and yet he was able to heal all of those who were sick or possessed of demons.

The next stop on this campaign he cleansed a leper and so many people came to the house where he was that you couldn’t get through the door. Some men who had a friend who was paralyzed were so anxious to get that friend before Jesus they actually cut a hole in the roof and they lowered their friend through that hole and Jesus healed him on the spot.

He healed a man with the withered hand and the crowds and the accolades kept growing, people following him hoping to be healed.

Out on the Sea of Galilee when the wind and waves threatened to swamp their boat Jesus calmed the storm simply by speaking “peace.”

He cast a legion of demons out of a man who had been tormented for years. A woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years was healed just by touching his cloak. Right there in the middle of a busy street! And the people were amazed!

He went to the home of a leader in the synagogue whose 12-year-old daughter had died and he raised her from the dead; taking her hand telling her to “get up.”

He fed over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. He walked on the water. Hoards of people in Genneseret were cured by touching his robe. He healed a deaf man, fed another 4000 people with seven loaves and a few small fish.   And then he healed a man who had been blind from birth.

This campaign was on a roll! The disciples must’ve been sure that Jesus was the one who would rise to the top of the heap. That he was the one who would deport the Romans, these terrible foreigners who had wrecked their economy with their taxes and polluted their temples and their faith with their foreign values and ideas.   Jesus was the one who would make Israel great again.

So here “on the way” the disciples are arguing about who’s the greatest among them. They’ve already started jockeying, positioning themselves for prime cabinet positions, plum diplomatic postings, and the seats of power to which rich and powerful people will bow as they seek to curry favor and patronage. They couldn’t be more excited.

But in the midst of all of this excitement, amidst all of this success, Jesus has started crazy talk.   This is the second time that he’s told his disciples that he is going to be handed over and will be killed. To be killed? He is a person whose coattails they hope to ride into power and glory! And now he’s telling them that he’s bailing? He’s going to be killed? All of their dreams are going up in smoke right in front of them! They can’t understand how this could have happened.

And then it gets worse! He isn’t just saying that he’s going to die. Jesus tells them that in order to be first they have to be last. In order to be at the head of the line they have to go to the back of the line. They must be the servant of all.

They had hoped that the rich and powerful would come to them seeking favor and instead of welcoming the rich and powerful Jesus tells them that they must welcome a child; someone with no status no rank, nothing to offer in return. I’m sure that they were very afraid; not wanting to ask what this could be about.

So what do you think? Was it a bait and switch? Jesus lured them in with all of these miraculous deeds and wonderful acts. He got their hopes and dreams for power and glory up. And now he’s telling them that they have to let all of that go…

In that classic bait and switch scenario the key is that the person who’s offering this miraculous deal can’t deliver. You may have gone in there thinking that you were going to buy my vintage Stratocaster with a maple neck in a tortoiseshell pick guard and walked out with a Fender Squire guitar made in Mexico.   But they never had that vintage guitar to sell you in the first place. That’s not what’s happening here.

Jesus clearly can do these things. He can deliver on the promise the implied in this first half of Mark’s Gospel. What is staying in this moment and in this story is that that’s not what’s important about who he is. Jesus is saying that in God’s dream, God’s vision for creation power does not come from taking power. Power comes from giving power away; that in god’s vision of this creation we aren’t to cater to the rich and powerful who have something to give us in return, something that we want. We are to cater to the poor, the marginalized, the left behind. We are to cater to those who have nothing to give us in return.

So it’s not just their personal aspirations to power and glory that disciples are at risk of losing in this moment. Their whole understanding of what power is and how it’s exercised is at stake.

In our collect today we prayed that we not cling to things that are passing away but cling instead to things that are eternal. What’s passing away is that old system of power from power taken; that system of oppression that benefit benefits the few over the many; that greed, that selfishness that James talks about his letter. It’s that way of thinking and that way of being that is passing away with Jesus’ ,life among us death on the cross, and his resurrection.

We are at a critical time in our common life together. We will be asked in the next several months to select leaders who will exercise power among and over us. We are making these choices in a time when the income and wealth distribution in this country is more skewed towards the top than it any time in our history. We’re making these decisions about leadership in our country at a time when around the world hordes of people are fleeing their homes to escape the ravages of war and poverty. We will be making these decisions about leadership in a time when children are washing up on our beaches.

There are many who are on the way arguing that they are the greatest. And we would do well, as we seek to make these decisions, to keep in mind the promises that we have made in our baptismal covenant; the promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to respect the dignity of every human; being loving our neighbor as ourself. If Jesus were here today I think he would ask us to amend that last line to say, “loving your neighbor as yourself… and especially the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the down trodden.

We are faced with some significant and important choices. How will we choose? Will we choose the vision of life together in community that needs, that needs, to pass away? Or will we choose the vision of life together in community that Jesus offers us in his life, death, and resurrection?