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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Going After the Little Guys

Mark 09 30-37
“Going After the Little Guys”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Imagine you’re back at school. It’s a warm, autumn afternoon. The teacher has opened the windows because it’s so stuffy in the classroom, but the stillness of the air makes this yet another fruitless act in an increasingly fruitless day. The teacher is talking Algebra, but she might as well be speaking Chinese. “Wah wah. Wah wah WAH wah,” she drones. Thankfully, you’re sitting by the window. If you gaze hard enough, you can actually see the grass growing. Whap! What was that? Against your ear, stinging like a bee’s tail with a broken point. Whap! This time on the other ear, it hits you again. You can feel your ears turn burning red, aching all the way to your nose. As you take your hands down from your throbbing ears, you hear soft snickering. You squint your eyes in recognition. You’ve heard this sound before. Slowly, you turn your head. Two rows back sit the perpetrators, grinning like rabid hyenas. Vinnie. Shane. In their hands, the evidence – Rubber bands. Spit wads mashed tighter than diamonds. What will you do? What will you do? It’s a long class, getting longer by the second. If you ignore them, your ears will become larger, redder targets. If you tell, you’ll become an even bigger target for afterschool retribution. So, you stare at those evil boys with your meanest Clint Eastwood glare. Use the Force, Luke. A miracle! It works. They fold their hands and you can almost see their halos growing. You are one bad dude. You are a Jedi. You turn back around in your seat, bathing in psychic supremacy, and discover the true secret of your strength. The teacher. Standing directly before you. Calling your name in a voice that would make Darth Vader tremble. Now, not just your ears, but your head, your stomach, your lungs are aching. “Uh… I can explain,” you say. “Good,” says the teacher. “I’m sure the Principal will enjoy hearing it. You and Vincent and Shane may now be excused to the Office.”

“But it wasn’t my fault.” “It’s not fair.” “I’m innocent, I tell you! Innocent!” Whether schoolkids or grown-ups, how many times have we heard ourselves thinking, if not saying these excuses? “I was distracted.” “I was just a bystander.” “I haven’t had enough coffee.” But no matter how good the excuse, when we get caught doing something we shouldn’t, the fact remains – we got caught. What we were doing probably wasn’t that bad. But we got caught. And therein lies the rub. It’s not the punishment; it’s the public humiliation, it’s the getting taken down a notch or two that really hurts.

In today’s lesson, Jesus is the teacher. The disciples are the students. Jesus is being very God. And the disciples are being very, very human. These apostles are being more schoolboys than saints. They’re getting themselves into trouble. They’re victims of their own distraction. Jesus catches them, red-handed and red-faced. He doesn’t punish them, per se. But he does take them down a notch or two. In public. In front of the kids. And that’s what really hurts.

Jesus is going through Galilee, trying to keep a low profile. He’s teaching his disciples and he doesn’t want any distractions. He wants them to focus. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands,” the Teacher tells the students. “And they will kill him, and in three days after being killed, he will rise again.” And he may as well have been speaking Chinese. “Wah wah. Wah wah WAH wah,” is apparently all they hear. The disciples are a distraction to themselves. Here’s my favorite verse in this passage: “But they did not understand what he was saying… and were afraid to ask him.”

Everybody knows, there are some kids whose thing is asking questions. It’s what they live for. And if you’re a teacher, you can spot these kids a mile away. Sometimes they ask good questions. And sometimes they run out of good questions, so they ask not-so-good questions, because they feel an obligation. “Is this important?” “Is this going to be on the test?” “Can I get a copy of your lecture notes?” They’re the question people. Every class has one. But more kids are the sit-in-the-back-and-pray-the-teacher-doesn’t-call-on-me type. It’s not that they don’t know the answer. It’s that they’re afraid of being told, “No. You’re wrong.” Or, they’re afraid of being picked on by other kids for always having the right answers. They figure, it’s better to lay low, keep quiet, and spare yourself one or both kinds of humiliation. It seems the majority of us were (or are) like that.

There were no question people among the disciples that day on the road through Galilee. Teacher Jesus was teaching, but the disciples were off in their own world, a human world, filled with human worries, oblivious to things spiritual, swimming in the shallow waters of schoolboy and schoolgirl concerns. Jesus sees the wandering eyes, hears the whispering behind his back. And he calls the disciples on their distraction. He doesn’t get angry and shout them down. He merely asks, “What were you arguing about along the way?” “But,” says scripture, “they were silent.” Jesus knew what they were arguing about. He didn’t even have to ask. We know, too.

Who’s the greatest, Who’s the best, Who’s the teacher’s pet? Who’s the coolest, Who’s the cutest, Who do you want to stay away from? Whether it’s in school, at work, or even in church, human nature is such that anytime you get a group of people together, we’re going to size each other up. We’re going to divide into groups by order of coolest to weirdest to least likely to be noticed. Most successful, least successful – best dressed, worst haircut. Most likely to win the sales incentive award. Like tends to associate with like, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who we want to be like. Most of the time it’s pretty benign, just the way of the world. But sometimes not. Things can get ugly. Especially when religious disciples are doing the arguing.

We’re Presbyterian. Did you know there are over 20 different flavors of Presbyterian in the United States? You’ve got us, the Presbyterian Church (USA). PCUSA. We’re the largest and the oldest. (One time when being both large and old is something to brag about.) But you’ve also got the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and so on. To non-Presbyterians it must sound kind of absurd. But to those of us who understand the subtle differences? Well, let’s just say, no daughter of mine better bring home some PCA preacher-boy. (Actually, I’d prefer they stayed away from ordained clergy altogether.) Most Christian denominations are the same. And then we hear of Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims and wonder, why are these people always fighting when they’re both Muslims? There are Orthodox Jews and Reformed Jews, Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists. The human tendency to divide into groups and argue about who’s the greatest transcends faith boundaries. That’s scary. It says our divisions are stronger than our religion. Or worse, our religion IS our divisions. Taken to the extreme (and it seems more and more people are doing just that) religion turns into nothing more than separating the godly from the godless, by whatever means necessary.

So on the one hand we hear the disciples are arguing over which one is the greatest and we want to laugh at their schoolboy antics. But on the other hand, we have a ton of evidence of how dangerous these antics can become. Just pick up the paper, or turn on the news, and there it is. “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” Of course they had. What else do religious people argue about?

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."”

What kind of a child was this, do you think, who wandered into Jesus’ classroom? Where were her parents? Why wasn’t he working, like children back then were supposed to? Was he a child of the community, a relative of the disciples? Or was she one of those random children who doesn’t seem to be connected to anyone? This scripture is NOT about sentimentality over children and how sweet they are. This scripture is about putting away childish things, and growing up in faith.

A person who wants to be first has to intentionally be last, be the servant of everyone else. Whoever wants to be first has to intentionally go after the little guys, the least guys – the least children, the least adults – and welcome them – welcome them into faith. Whoever wants to be first has to be an evangelist. Not an evangelist with a TV channel and a Rolex. But evangelists who aren’t afraid to hug people they wouldn’t know what to say to. Conventional wisdom says, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” Jesus would not only agree, he’d add to it. God is known by the company a man (or a woman) keeps. “You welcome them, you welcome me,” he says, “and you welcome God.” But where Jesus defies conventional wisdom is by changing the company. If we follow his logic, then the surest way to mess up our faith is to argue about being the greatest. Worrying about such things distracts us, deceives us into thinking we know better than our Teacher.

In a taped interview that was shown at his funeral, Steve Irwin talked about how his daughter, Bindi, would grab his face between her hands and turn him so he had to look at her, had to listen to her, instead of the fourteen other things he was thinking about. I think, in a similar way, Jesus was trying to let this other little child grab the faces of the disciples and force them to look, force them to listen not just to her, but to Jesus, to look to God, to see the ministry they needed to have. With this scripture, Jesus is grabbing our faces, forcing us to focus. Pay attention. Pay attention to the least people. Look at the people who have nothing to offer you. Listen to the people to whom you have no idea what to say. Welcome the strange.

Outside the Principal’s office, you and Vinnie and Shane sit in three really uncomfortable chairs. The big, round clock above you tick, tick, ticks as you await the chance to tell your story and seek justice from on high. The bell rings. The door doesn’t open. The clock ticks more. Another bell rings. The door still doesn’t open. Is the Principal even in there? Is this some kind of a trick?

God has created a world where it seems all of us are waiting for the chance to prove our case, to show how we’re right, we’re the greatest, we’re most worthy of forgiveness. Meanwhile the people we’re not like are seated right beside us, staring straight ahead, waiting their turn, too. I wonder what would happen if we stopped waiting for godly supremacy to solve our problems, and turned our heads and looked at each other. Talked to each other. Listened to each other. What would happen if we welcomed Jesus, welcomed God in each other? Could the people we think are the very least have something important to teach us about being the greatest?