Go to the back of the line!
I invite you to think of any line you remember being in, and think how it would have felt to be told at some point to go to the end, the back of the line!
Not good, right? Not progressing in the right direction.
So perhaps we can imagine how the disciples may have felt when Jesus sat them down and told them, “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”
I can imagine this being especially jarring, bewildering, and most likely distressing, to these guys because of the experience they had had with Jesus just before this (at least as Mark’s gospel suggests). The lectionary scriptures suggested for each Sunday are usually relatively short, so I find it helpful always to look back at what went just before the suggested passage. Context helps. And in this case what is recorded as happening just before this, at the start of this chapter, chapter 9, was the amazing and overwhelming mountaintop experience when the disciples are described as seeing Jesus bathed in light and surrounded by the two most famous people in Jewish history—Moses and the prophet Elijah. And the disciples are reported to have heard a voice from heaven saying, “this is my beloved son; listen to him.” And those disciples responded by suggesting they build a tent, or altar, or tabernacle to honor the experience.
Clearly they were deeply impressed by the event, and perhaps we can imagine that they saw great things ahead—for Jesus and for themselves as well.
Even so, as they continued traveling, Jesus tried to teach them about what lay ahead, telling them a 2nd time that “the promised One will be put to death but will rise again.” And the disciples still didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
Perhaps that mountaintop experience triggered their conversation among themselves, talking about who among them was or would be the greatest, the most important. And this led to Jesus telling them, “if any of you wants to be first, you must be the last one of all; and you must be the servant of all.”
So what do we do with these verses? What meaning, if any, can we, or are we willing to take from this passage, this pronouncement of Jesus? Clearly what Jesus is suggesting to his disciples is the very opposite of what our culture’s perspective and values suggests, isn’t it? Let’s be honest. How much time do we spend focusing on how to get ahead, or even what we need to do to maintain our present status?
But what if greatness looks totally different to God, from our human expectations and aspirations? Who must we BE, or become, if we truly want to serve as participants in Jesus’ ministry?
Seekers, one of this church’s book discussion groups, has been reading this month a book called The Very Worst Missionary, by a woman named Jamie Wright. I confess I was very skeptical that i would get anything out of it as it was described to me ahead of time, but I certainly enjoyed reading it, and I came to the conclusion that she offers a very real and i think very important message about what it means (and what it does not mean) to TRY to be God’s person in the world-including within the organization of the church.
Jamie had a pretty troubled early life. As a child her family practiced Judaism. Her father decided to go that route at one point and joined a Jewish synagogue, and they attended synagogue and celebrated Jewish traditions and holidays and Jamie went to a Jewish day school for some years, and it was and remained important to her, even though her parents sort of dropped it in later years.
Jamie quit school in the midst of 10th grade, then took an exam which allowed her to start college, but that didn’t work out either. She met and married her husband at the age of 17, a few months after their baby was born, and I think the most amazing fact in this book for me was to realize that they were still married and together as the book ended. I believe Jamie would probably call that part of God’s practical magic.
At some point, as she puts it “out of sheer desperation”, she went to a worship service at the church closest to her house. Just to give you a flavor of Jamie and the book, let me read you one paragraph:
Growing up I’d heard over and over again that Christians are losers who don’t know how to live their own lives. I was told Christians are pathetic dummies who need a crutch to lean on because they can’t stand on their own two feet.
I was taught to see Jesus as a leader for people who couldn’t think for themselves and needed to be told what to do.
So as a confused 19 year old with a child I didn’t know how to raise, a husband I didn’t know how to love, and a life I had no idea how to live, it seemed like maybe I should
meet this Jesus, the God of pitiful weaklings who are limping along without a clue…………………………
I was ready and willing to be trained by the first family who would take me home, and that family was the church. (57-8)
I lapped up their attention and they were kind and gentle and gracious, teaching me the rules and showing me how to behave, and for a while I was content simply to perform. Sit. Stay. Good Christian.
For a while it seems to have been just what she needed, but Jamie is a person who doesn’t hesitate to ask questions and state her opinion, even when it is quite contrary to usual norms, understandings. She does not hesitate to call things as she sees them, and she puts it out there bluntly, often profanely, and without hesitation, which often doesn’t go over so well.
After some comfortable years in that church community, as part of a study of Jesus’ life, she began to view Jesus differently. As she puts it, “when I took the time to examine how he lived out his days on earth, it changed everything about how I saw the club. Following Jesus started to make a lot more sense —but the church started to look kinda wonky.” (p. 61)
Now this is not a book report, but a sermon. So I will leave it to you to read the book if you want to know her full story. I’ll sum up by saying that Jamie and her family left that church. They went on to become missionaries for the church in Costa Rica for a few years until that missionary enterprise began to look “kinda wonky” to them as well, and so eventually returned to the US.
But the reason I’ve brought you this story is that it seems to me to illustrate to some extent what Jesus has in mind when he urges his disciples to be ready to take the “last” place and, most important, to be servant of all.
AS Jamie struggles with depression, a sense of disfunction, always wondering what the heck she’s supposed to do next and where God is in all this, she says,“God takes our crap offerings, our messed-up lives, our garbage, and turns it around on us. God makes it beautiful somehow. Against all odds, God redeems what seems hopelessly trashed and broken and refashions it into something different.” (p.194)
Isn’t this describing the kind of stuff in ourselves and our lives that we see as of the least value? As garbage, even, to be thrown away or at least ignored? But Jamie calls this ‘God’s practical magic’—using the pieces of our lives and of who we are that are at hand, messed up though they may seem to us, and using them for God’s purposes, making them new and beautiful and meaningful in the process.
In her final chapter Jamie says: “I still haven’t come up with a surefire way to heal the emotional, physical, and spiritual wounds of an entire planet full of diverse and dynamic people. Like, I have no idea how to do any of those things.
“I am certain of only two things. The first is that when Jesus told me to love my neighbor, I’m pretty sure he meant, like, my actual neighbor—the person or people nearest to me at any given moment.
At home. At work. On the subway. In the supermarket. On a street corner. You know, neighbors.
“And the second thing is this: The only way to know how to truly LOVE your neighbor is to truly KNOW your neighbor. ….(p. 207-8) and I think she means to do this not just in a polite and superficial manner but as our real, authentic, imperfect selves.
“To bring light and hope,(she says) you and I must show up for life in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, and in our schools…as imperfect parents, genuine friends, competent professionals, and messy people. We must bravely show up in our everyday lives to do our best with what we have, listening carefully, serving sensibly, and loving fully as active participants in the story of who God is and what God does. We must show up as safe havens, not as mini saviors. (p. 211-12)
I read this as Jamie’s conclusion, hard won by her own efforts and failures, that this is the kind of thing Jesus was talking about with his disciples when he said, Don’t focus on being first, on getting to the front of the line, but really pay attention to what’s happening around you right at this moment, and figure out what to do about that, and perhaps most importantly, consider how to become the loving person Jesus truly calls us to BE.
“How we speak to a waiter, treat a beggar, spend a dollar—with every action we take, we are creating the world we live in………………………………………………………….
We don’t need to spend another second of our life wondering about our spiritual calling, because we’re already right here in the thick of it.
We’re already called.————– (and I think she means ALL of us!)
“It doesn’t matter where you live, whom you know, what you can do, or how much you have to offer; you were called into the fray on the day you were born, and your calling is LOVE. Love God and love others. That’s the whole deal. Show up as needed to love your neighbor with your eyes wide open and your arms outstretched.” (p. 212-3)
Might this be our invitation to re-imagine greatness, to think of new ways as individuals, as citizens, and as part of this particular church community, to become more fully God’s persons in our lives and in the world around us?