Love Comes in Last

A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37 (preached Sunday, September 19, 2021 – Faith in Action Sunday at United Presbyterian Church of Peoria)

As we enter into the text today, we need to start with some context. Jesus and his disciples had just come from witnessing what we call the transfiguration. It was in that moment, that not only did they see Jesus transformed, but it’s also where they heard God’s voice speaking directly to them! “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” So today we’re going to join the disciples in trying to listen to Jesus as he reminds us that those in first place are going to need to get comfortable hanging out in last place wherever God’s will is being enacted and God’s love is being shared.

It’s important to note that as they came down from that mountaintop experience, Jesus is taking them to the place where his ministry began – to the roots of his ministry and calling. At the same time, he is speaking to his disciples again about how his ministry will end. This is one more opportunity for Jesus to remind them of everything he’d been trying to teach them from the beginning.

In short: Yes, he is the Messiah. And… it will be AS the Messiah that he will be betrayed, physically assaulted, and killed.

This declaration is powerful all on its own – but it’s essential that we get the order of operations right here… Jesus is not saying that just because he’s the Messiah they will come for him. He is not saying that he’s going to be killed just because he’s the Messiah. He’s saying that because of the work he’s doing, because of the way he enacts the call to serve God’s will, they’re going to come for him and kill him even though he’s the Messiah who was anointed by God to make God’s reign a reality

Remember – they’re arguing amongst themselves about who is going to be the greatest. When the disciples saw the way Jesus influenced crowds, when they saw him take on the status quo, there was the beginning of hope that their future might be something amazing. Jesus clearly felt the need to get super clear with the disciples – to help them understand he didn’t come to change the political future of his community, to make sure they realized that he wasn’t there to lead a revolution against the Romans. He’s not trying to reestablish Jerusalem as the political and religious seat of power. And that means the disciples aren’t going to get plush roles in some kind of new regime. 

So if Jesus isn’t trying to change the future by reigning (at least as in the way the people around him wanted him to), what IS he up to? And what does THAT mean for his closest allies, his most committed followers?

Jesus calls on them to lay aside their notions of what power and privilege looked like. (We just have to stop for a minute and remember he told his followers that they needed to be “in the world and not of the world.”) The kind of power and privilege that Jesus gave would not be recognized by them and certainly not by the status quo. 

When he named the child as the most important person, he was showing the disciples that their work – what would make them “first” in God’s kingdom – was to be found among the most vulnerable and least valued people in his community. (By the way, it’s important to remember here that our 21st century notions of the value of children are vastly different from our ancient predecessors. Children had no value in community until they became able to work – if they even survived to that age. Don’t get me wrong – Jesus wasn’t saying children are worthless – on the contrary – he’s saying “society thinks children are worthless because they contribute nothing and I’m telling you that they are of the greatest value to God because they are the most vulnerable.” 

To put it plainly – for Jesus, serving God means throwing down with those who are thought to be the least valuable people in the community. Jesus is simply asking them once again to follow his lead – to know the power of servanthood, to feel the privilege of loving the way he loved.

Two millennia later, this should be easy for us. We have all the advantages the disciples and those early followers of Jesus didn’t have:

  1. We know about and can celebrate Jesus’ resurrection – The story of God’s reign didn’t end with Jesus’ death at the hands of those in power.
  2. We have the benefit of the encouragement we have received by the witnesses to the good news who have gone before us over the last two thousand years. 
  3. We have the support of a community of faith called United Presbyterian as we  try to follow the teachings of Jesus. 

While it should be a simple thing for us to live and work, confidently bringing the good news to all kinds of people without the fear that gripped the disciples, it isn’t. We hesitate. We avoid. We struggle with the call to serve in last place. Why is that? 

To be clear, this is not just a United Presbyterian Church question – it’s much bigger than that. The systems we participate in keep people in last place too, so it’s essential that we ask ourselves some tough questions – questions like: Why is it that in a country where there is so much wealth, so much power, that millions of our neighbors still suffer hunger? Why is it that in this country, we move so much more quickly to approve prison construction but we’re not nearly as speedy when it comes to building quality homes for everyone to live in no matter their circumstance? Housing and hunger are just two of the many struggles our neighbors face. Yet we hesitate. Why?

Jesus wanted his followers to understand that even his call to be the Messiah didn’t come with the assurance that all would be well with him, that he would be safe, that he could promise security for any who would follow him. Honestly – if the pandemic has taught us anything – we should have learned that no amount of job security, no property, no 401k can ensure that our future will be comfortable, peaceful, or even that we will have a future.

If this makes us feel a little itchy – if this makes us feel a little bit like we’re risking our own security and safety – we’re in good company. Jesus’ own disciples struggled with this calling – the falling away of the disciples happened pretty quickly when they saw that there wasn’t a palace at end of the road. There were only a handful of people there at the end – a youthful disciple, some women, a stranger from Arimathea, some thieves… Jesus died as he lived – among the ones considered least valuable by society. This is the path he called his followers to walk. 

It’s not surprising that to a certain degree, there has always been resistance to what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. The challenge to take up crosses – to follow wherever he goes? This is not a great marketing campaign for Christianity. Especially not for for those who are looking for a life lived in only in the green pastures. Jesus’ call constantly challenges us to examine our lives while the culture around us encourages us to center our lifestyles around obtaining comfort and enjoying privileges.

We might not need to be afraid of persecution that those long ago disciples experienced, but it feels risky and worrisome when we start to acknowledge and wrestle with the limits we have placed on answering Christ’s call. When we recognize that we have to intentionally share the power and privilege that help us feel secure, we struggle to make that deeper and more disciplined sacrifice. Yet that’s where Jesus’ path leads us.

The path Jesus walked took him deep into the suffering of those around him. His path took him through the turbulent waters of discord and strife about who was in and who was out, who was a sinner and who wasn’t and whose sins were worse. (And here’s a hint – For Jesus everyone who does God’s will is in AND everyone is a sinner AND there aren’t degrees of sin – either you’re doing something in alignment with God’s will or you aren’t.) 

Jesus’ path always led him into the heart of struggle as he strived to lift up those who had been oppressed, to bring healing to those nobody else would touch, to serve those that others rejected. He was never about trying to live a prosperous life. And as we well know, his death was not a peaceful one, surrounded by those he loved. This path is now ours to travel. Jesus calls us to be his traveling companions. And joining him on this road – taking up his work is all that’s required of a disciple. That’s what we’re up to today – we’re headed with Jesus to last place. And there is sure to be abundant blessing for us as we answer that call and learn to make the necessary sacrifices to serve with all that we have and all that we are. May it be so for us as we go forth from this place.

[Image description and credit: Painting of Jesus holding a child. Children and Jesus depicted in the style of Ethiopian iconography – with large black/brown eyes, short afro-style hair and light brown skin. Artist may be Laura James, but I’m still looking for the name so credit can be given.]

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