Sermon: XVII Pentecost (20b)

Patrick Allen on September 25, 2012


XVII Pentecost (20b)
Mk 9.31-37
23 September 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

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… [I am] the greatest! Yes!
I am the man this poem’s about,
I’ll be champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
Here I predict Mr. Liston’s dismemberment,
I’ll hit him so hard; he’ll wonder where October and November went.
When I say two, there’s never a third,
Standin’ against me is completely absurd.
When Cassius says a mouse can outrun a horse,
Don’t ask how; put your money where your mouse is!

That quality bit of poetry comes, of course, from Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, perhaps not our greatest but certainly one of my favorite poets, composed, I think, just prior to his 1964 title bout with Sonny Liston.  

“I am the greatest!” It was Ali’s mantra, has shouted over and over throughout his career, and he hasn’t stopped in the in the decades of his retirement.  But of course it was all just part of Ali’s act: wildly over the top, ironic, intended to be laughed at, and, especially, disarming.  Because people don’t talk that way - people often think that way, but we know we’re not supposed to talk that way.  That’s what made Ali so comically outrageous: “I am the greatest!”

Again we know we’re not supposed to talk that way, that we’re supposed to be modest.  And apparently that’s a value that has pertained across cultures and centuries, because 2,000 years ago Jesus’ disciples knew it, too.  

In this morning’s lesson from St. Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus and his disciples had been passing through Galilee and upon reaching Capernaum they stopped at Peter’s house, and Jesus asked them, What were you discussing on the way?  But they were silent, St. Mark tells us, for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest

They had discussed - and that word normally carries the connotation of argument - they had discussed - had argued - with one another who was the greatest.  But they were silent, embarrassed about their argument, embarrassed to have said these things aloud, and too embarrassed to say them aloud before Jesus.

Now, notice that what is being argued about is not who is great, but who is the greatest.  It is the superlative they’re after, not the mere quality of greatness.  After all, by this time the Twelve had been sent out in mission by Jesus, and in his Name they had preached repentance, and lo and behold, folks had repented.  In Jesus’ Name they had cast out demons and healed the sick.  They had all done things.  Impressive things.  Great things.  But they are not satisfied with that.  They want to know who is the most  impressive, who is the greatest.  Which is to say that this is a matter of comparison, of ranking, of competition.  Which is to say that this is a matter of that chief and most deadly sin, Pride.  

And that is to say that this little account of an embarrassing and slightly comic episode among the Apostles actually takes us right to the heart of the problem, our problem, and that our Lord’s response takes us right to the heart of the Gospel.

Again, this is slightly comic:  these disciples of a homeless itinerant rabbi (from Nazareth of all places), these common men - fishermen, laborers, one tax collector not welcome in any decent home, walking along a dusty path in a far rural backwater of the Roman Empire, arguing with one another about who among them is the greatest.  Who is the greatest?  Who cares?  A bunch of country rubes.  It’s comic and small, a little embarrassing.  

Well, there are of course lots of ways to sin, lots of ways to transgress God’s will and run from his love.  But, great or small or just embarrassing, they all begin right here, with pride.  The disciples’ argument may appear at first comic, and it is funny, but but at a deeper level it is deadly serious, because it is about pride.

As we’ve noted, pride is the first and worst of the deadly sins.  The Christian tradition of the “Seven Deadly Sins” comes down to us from St. John Cassian.  Here’s what, 1,600 years ago, St. John had to say about pride.  He wrote,

“[Pride] is the reason of the first fall, and the starting point of the original malady, which insinuating itself into the first man through him who had already been destroyed by it, produced the weaknesses and materials of all faults.”[1]

Pride produces “the weaknesses and materials of all other faults.”  Closer to our own time, C.S. Lewis put it this way,

“Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”[2]

Lewis went on to note that much of pride’s danger, it’s lethality, comes from its competitive nature - pride thrives on comparison, and so it necessarily divides us one from another.  

Again, Jesus’ disciples were arguing, fighting with one another, about who was the greatest.  They were ranking one another.  So it is not that Peter was proud of being a good preacher, and that James was was proud of being an effective healer, and that John was proud of being close to Jesus - but that Peter was proud of being a better preacher than the rest, and James a better healer than the rest, and John closer to Jesus than the rest.  

And so with us, we may think, sometimes when the spirit of slander is upon us we may even say, that someone is proud of being rich or smart or whatever.  But that’s not it.  Rather, it’s that he or she is proud of being richer or smarter or (excuse me) whatever-er.  So Ali never boasted of being great, but of being the greatest - better than Liston and Patterson and Frazier and Foreman and all the rest, all the merely great.

So, you see, pride always divides us from one another.  Because if I am proud - “if,” who am I kidding? - to the degree that I am proud, I am either looking down at inferiors or looking out at rivals.  But what I can’t see are sisters, brothers, friends.  And of course I can’t, if I am pridefully looking down, see the God who is so infinitely above me.

Which brings us to the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, and his answer to the disciples’ and our pride.

He sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all."

The first must be last.  I think we often approach that kind of saying as just Jesus the Hippie Sage laying down some impenetrable paradox for mystics to ponder.  But I think this really just Jesus the truth-teller, and he’s actually being fairly straightforward.  It’s as if he’s saying, “You all are arguing about who’s the greatest, and you don’t even know what ‘great’ is; you’re judging by the wrong standard.  And in fact, you’ve got it completely backwards.”

And so Jesus takes a child, a small child, a child he can hold in the crook of his arm adn who content to be held, and he says, Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.  

We have to de-sentimentalize this a bit.  Jesus isn’t saying that he “loves the little children ... red and yellow, black and white, they precious in his sight” - although that’s true and he does.  But the culture of Jesus’ place and time placed very little value on children and childhood.  Children ranked in esteem well below even women in that misogynistic age. We have grown up at least hearing, if not living up to, a standard of chivalry which says “Women and children first!”  But no one, no man anyway, in Jesus’ time would have said such a thing.  Children were to be seldom seen and never heard.  They ate what was left after the adults had their fill.  They were without standing, beneath notice.

This child represents not so much precious, innocent childhood, but society’s last and least.  And Jesus says that to receive such a child, to receive the last and least is to receive Jesus himself, and so to receive the One from whom he has been sent - to receive, to welcome and love such a child, is to welcome and love God.

And so this child, this babe in Jesus’ arms, and anyone who is similarly powerless in the world and dependent on the kindness of others, becomes an icon, almost a sacrament of the Lord’s presence:  Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.

We shouldn’t write that off as mere metaphor.

And if it’s true, if that powerless child is the icon, even - and I know we have to be careful here - but even somehow and in some sense the personal presence of the infinite and only and almighty God, of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, then our own ideas of greatness are in need of serious revision.  

His greatness, “his power is declared” - as we will pray in next Sunday’s collect - “chiefly in showing mercy.”  Greatness - we might say Godliness, or God-likeness - consists not in climbing up and looking down, but in coming down; not in being served, but in serving, especially in serving the last and least.

And if we will think about that, if we will allow it to settle down into our hearts, it will be the death of pride and pretense and the birth of a grateful and happy humility.  Because we are finite beings, we know ourselves to be sinners, and, in comparison with God, we are all the last and the least.  

And yet - and yet! - for us men and for our salvation, God the Son became the Son of Mary, “the One whom the Universe cannot contain was contained in the Virgin’s womb.”  God for us became God-with-us, a tiny child, and poor, and a refugee, the last and the least.  

The great God loves us, and in Jesus, as St. Paul says, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”[3] - a child.

And that means that greatness - not the sorry counterfeit of human pride but the real thing, corresponding to the true standard - greatness is within our grasp.  It depends not on talent or native ability but on our willingness to love, to become last of all and servant of all, which is to become an imitator of God and a beloved child.[4]

And for that to happen, we must first we must allow him to love and serve us.  To become a child for us, to die for us, to rise for us, to cleanse us of every spot and stain of sin, and to place himself, his own broken body and shed blood, which is his greatness and glory, within our grasp.

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[1] Conferences, XII.v

[2] Mere Christianity. “The Great Sin.”

[3] Phil 2.6,7

[4] Eph 5.1