September 19, 2021, Free to Lose, Free to Love, Mark 9:30-37 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Today you can really feel that summer is over and autumn is just a couple of days away. We’ve been plugging away at getting ready at our house: picking plums and raspberries and cucumbers and squash to can or freeze or make jam, and all the other things we need to do to be ready for the long cold winter when it comes. We feel a little bit like the ants in the old Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. If you remember that story at all, you probably just remember the moral of the story, which is right out of the Book of Ecclesiastes: There is a time for work, and a time for play. Or, in other words, if you play when it’s time to work, you’ll be sorry when winter comes. And that’s all you really need to know about that little story; the moral is the whole purpose of the story.
I would say that one of the more common problems we have in reading the Bible is that we often read the stories like we read Aesop’s fables. The gospel reading today is familiar; we’ve read it before, many times – and we know the moral of the story. Jesus and his disciples are walking along, and Jesus catches his disciples arguing about who was the greatest, and Jesus gives them a talking to. And the moral of the story is, “If you want to be the greatest of all, you have to be the servant of all.” Check. We’ve got it. Lesson learned.
The problem is that the Bible isn’t a collection of fables with tidy little morals for us to follow so we become better people. The stories of the Bible are about real people. Even allowing for big differences in culture and time, the people of the Bible are remarkably normal. Very often the things they do and say are astonishingly familiar. And because God has given us a book of stories about real people in real situations, the point of reading the gospels is not just to get to the moral of the story and add it to our list of life principles, or our rulebook of do’s and don’t’s. The point is to enter into the story and get to know these people, who walked and talked and ate with Jesus, so that we – we who also walk and talk and eat in his company every day – so that we can share their experiences and get to know Jesus better. That is really the point.
So, I thought a helpful way to take a fresh look at the reading today would be to ask what is possibly a new question. Why? Why on earth were these grown men walking along behind Jesus, arguing with each other like seventh-grade boys about who is greater than who? I’m always tempted to chuckle about them, how they are so typically male, like young bucks butting antlers to establish dominance. It’s always dangerously easy for us to pass judgment on the people we read about in the Bible: those foolish disciples! So full of themselves! And we kind of enjoy seeing Jesus take them down a peg. But if we ask ourselves why; if we read the story with a little closer attention and a little more empathy, looking at them as real people, we begin to get a hint as to what was going on in their minds and hearts that day.
Jesus had just begun to prepare his friends for the days ahead. They were walking along through Galilee, on the way to Capernaum, which was sort of a home base for them, being Peter and Andrew’s hometown. It was just the thirteen of them for once; Jesus was trying to keep under the radar as much as possible for a while, because he had important, and truly difficult, things to teach them. “I am going to be betrayed,” he told them, as they walked along. “In fact, they’ll kill me. And three days after my death, I will rise again.” He told them plainly, but it was more than the disciples could wrap their minds around. They couldn’t understand what Jesus was really saying. But nobody asked him any questions, because they were afraid to ask.
So first of all, this argument about “who’s the greatest” is growing out of a sense of anxiety. And that’s something most of us can easily relate to. Something is ahead that sounds pretty scary, and it’s all the more scary because they’re not really sure exactly what it is. And Jesus, their teacher and friend, the man they’ve given up everything to follow, right now he seems a little scary, too, in a way. He’s trying to teach them things they can’t understand. And they’re not sure they feel safe admitting their ignorance to him. Would he be disappointed in them? Disgusted with them? Angry at them? They’re afraid. And they’re anxious. And they’re insecure. And they begin to argue with one another, kind of quietly, so Jesus can’t hear them. You can just imagine the conversation: “Well, I met Jesus before any of you.” “But I’m the only one who stepped out of the boat when he came walking across the water.” “Yeah, right, and then you sank like a rock!” And so on, and so forth. Because there’s nothing like a little insecurity to set people at odds with each other.
And we all know what that kind of insecurity feels like. We know the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” We know John 3:16 by heart: “For God so loved the world…” But does that really mean me? There have to be some kind of conditions, some kind of standard I have to live up to, right? Am I smart enough, spiritual enough, wise enough? We begin to feel afraid of being measured by God, and by other people, and found wanting. We’re afraid that we really aren’t good enough, or holy enough, or worthy enough of respect or honor or love. And it’s that kind of insecurity that makes us compete with and against each other just like the disciples were doing.
It’s fear that makes us try to make ourselves look greater and our brother or sister less. It’s fear and insecurity that lead us to put each other down. We may not argue openly about who is greater than who – maybe we’re too grown up for that – but how often do we think like that in our heads, because when we look at ourselves we are so afraid that we just don’t measure up.
True confession time – My greatest struggle in the first years of our marriage was my tendency to be really insecure. It was a continual battle for me to trust Carroll when he said that he loved me. I lived with the constant fear of losing Carroll’s love, not because of anything he did wrong, but because I was constantly overwhelmed by feelings of not being worthy, of not being good enough. In my fear, I would compare myself to every other woman I met: this woman was prettier than me, that one was taller and thinner than me; this one had a Master’s Degree from a big-name university, that one had a perfect house straight out of Better Homes and Gardens. I was always measuring myself against the people I met, especially other women. I always felt threatened and insecure, so I was always comparing and competing.
What I finally realized, after an awful lot of anguish and foolishness, was that I didn’t have to be afraid of people who were smarter than me or more beautiful than me or better housekeepers than me – and that’s a good thing, because most people are. I don’t have to be insecure, because Carroll doesn’t love me because I’m the smartest or most beautiful. And he certainly doesn’t love me because I’m the best housekeeper. He loves me because he chose me. And at the Last Supper that’s exactly what Jesus would tell these same disciples. “My friends, you didn’t choose me,” Jesus told them. “No, I chose you…” And he told them, “I am telling you these things, so that you will love one another.” Their love for one another flowed out of their security in his love.
Their friendship with Jesus was absolutely secure, because it didn’t depend on their understanding, it didn’t depend on their courage, it didn’t depend on them being the greatest, however they measured greatness. They were his friends because he chose them. Walking along the shore in Capernaum, he saw Peter and Andrew, and he chose them. Walking through the busy marketplace he saw Matthew at his tax desk, and he chose him. One by one, he chose them. “You didn’t choose me; I chose you. I say all this to you so that you will love one another.” No more arguing about who is greater than who. No more fear.
And now we’ve meandered back to the moral of the story. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus told his disciples. And that runs counter to common wisdom, then and now. In the eyes of the world, coming last is the most threatening and shameful of conditions. You can see that every time you get on the highway, when people risk their lives to pass you just so they won’t be in the back of the line. “Loser” is the ultimate insult. In our day and age we program it into our kids: we make their lives all about winning, competing for grades, competing for sports, competing for recognition of all kinds. The way of the world is an endless argument about who is greater than who. We live and die in fear and insecurity and anxiety.
But Jesus was teaching his disciples to live a new way, a life without fear, a life of absolute security, because it was a life of those who are chosen, a life of those who are loved. Jesus modeled that fear-free life from the moment of his baptism, when the voice of the Father spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am delighted.” Jesus was never afraid of being last. He was never afraid to take the place of a servant. He wasn’t even afraid to wash the feet of the man who was going to betray him. He loved perfectly, because he was perfectly loved. He served freely, because the love of the Father set him free to serve. And he was calling his disciples – he is calling us – he is calling you – to love and serve, to stand with the last and the least, out of the same freedom, fearlessly, joyfully, knowing that he chose you, knowing that he loves you, knowing that he delights in you.