September 20, 2015, The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Last week Peter got it wrong and rebuked Jesus when he tried to tell them what it meant to be the Messiah. Jesus goes after Peter and calls him Satan for not understanding. This week, the disciples don’t get it at all, and they are afraid to ask what he means.
So instead of really engaging and getting to the bottom of what it means that the Son of Man will be betrayed, killed by human hands and will rise again on the third day—instead of getting to the bottom of it, they argue between themselves about who is the greatest.
I got thinking about that gang of disciples, listening to the teacher, not understanding and then arguing among themselves. Why didn’t they want to ask Jesus questions? What if they had asked questions?
They sound just like teenagers. They get insecure, they don’t want to admit to teachers or classmates or parents that they don’t know the answers, they are afraid of losing face. And rather than admit that they don’t understand or they feel insecure, they brag and posture.
I listen to my boys talk about who is the coolest at school or in their circles of friends. They talk about what kids are wearing, who is the teacher’s pet, who is popular, who is a great athlete, who’s a good student, who is a loner. They have ranking systems on every level for people they know, people they don’t know but see around, and people who they just know by their reputations (positive or negative).
It seems that all teenagers are focused on these ratings—I hear them comparing video game levels. They compare who has the fastest computer, or the most memory on their devices. They compare their friends, and then they compare people they don’t even know. But it comes down to an insecurity. They are afraid that they aren’t going to rank among their peers. They are afraid that they don’t really have what it takes to be the best.
And here’s where Jesus’ teaching turns everything on its head. Jesus is trying to tell them, that he is the Messiah, he is the Son of Man, he is God—and that he is going to be persecuted, he’s going to suffer and he’s going to die. He’s trying to teach the disciples that being the best is not about being the most powerful. He’s trying to tell them that God himself will suffer. God, the all powerful creator will suffer and die. He is going to die because he has challenged the powerful here on earth. He has associated himself with the outcasts, the sinners, the “others”. Jesus is teaching that God is not going to pick the most popular kid at school. He’s going to serve the least popular. And he’s going to suffer and die because of it.
The disciples are hoping that they are going to be the teacher’s pet. But Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be greatest must be last of all and servant of all. This is another version of his message, “take up your cross and follow me”.
The disciples are focused on themselves. They are ranking themselves and one another—trying to figure out who has the most in earthly terms. But Jesus says, it’s not about what you have, or where you rank. It’s about who you serve.
So I think about our questions. What are the questions that we are too afraid to ask of God? Today, I might ask, “Why haven’t you stopped the fires? Why are some people here, in the richest country on earth who can’t afford housing, or who don’t have good food? What kind of a God permits these terrible things to happen?” Maybe we would ask God some specific questions about what it means to be disciples in a mainline denomination when all across the US, mainline denominations are shrinking. “We used to be able to support a big Sunday school, and a teen program, and a supper club. Things are different now, kids have many Sunday activities, Marin families don’t come to church very much. Jesus, what does it mean to be a Christian here, now?
Sometimes we don’t ask those questions, even in church, because we don’t want to look bad, we don’t want to admit that we don’t know the answers or we don’t understand. Sometimes people tell me in private, I just keep coming to church, but I’m not really sure what I believe. As we look forward to what we are becoming here at Nativity, we might be afraid to admit that we don’t know have answers.
But Jesus wants the disciples to understand. He doesn’t want us to bicker among ourselves, afraid to ask questions. He wants us to put aside our fears, and engage.
Jesus is calling the disciples again and again to understand that God loves God’s people so much that he will give himself up to suffering and death. He wants them to know this love. If the disciples had asked the question, they might have come to know Jesus differently.
Jesus ultimately has an answer about what it is to be the greatest. It’s not about what we have been given, what we posses, who we are. It’s about who we serve. So today as we think about our big questions, we pray that we might hear Jesus’ answer—it’s about who we serve. Our collection of toiletries and financial support for the fire evacuees. This is how we experience greatness. When we wonder who God is, or where God is, we can see the answer in the service of the poor, the infirm, the suffering. When we wonder who we are, and why we’re here, or what we’re supposed to be doing, it’s not about how big we are, or how big our budget is, or how fancy our gardens or our sanctuary---it’s about who we are called to serve. To be first, we must be servants of all.