The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - September 23, 2018
   Scripture: Mark 9:30-37       
Sermon Title: “The Last will be First”

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     Last week we heard Jesus say to Peter, “Get behind me Satan, you do not have in mind the things of God.”  A harsh rebuke to Peter and the other disciples who were thinking that Jesus just might be the next king of the newly recreated United Monarchy.  Jesus sets them straight, and tells them that he must die, they all must die. 

     And then they leave that place and are walking toward Jerusalem, and the disciples are at it again.  The writer of the gospel is not clear about what their argument specifics were.  Perhaps they were comparing who spent the most time with Jesus, or who was there to see the best miracles.  They were arguing about who was the greatest.  Once again Jesus says “You just don’t get it.” 

     Greatness has always been a topic.  We had the “greatest generation.”  Muhammad Ali’s claim to be the greatest, right up to the last Presidential election - “Make America Great Again.”  Greatness is often defined in terms of money, prestige, or positions of power.  To be the greatest says that nobody is better than you are; even to settle for second is not what any of us want. 

     I looked into the greatest generation, as described by Tom Brokaw.  Those born in the early 1900s until the 1920s, who were coming of age for World War II.  Certainly there are great things about that generation, but there are also great things about every generation after that, and probably before that.  Certainly every generation has things to be proud of, and things that we should not be proud of.  Generation X, there are a few of us here this morning, I could argue, has changed the world for the good and the bad.  We could probably spend the next few hours discussing who makes up the greatest generation, which is exactly what the disciples were concerned about.  Who is the greatest.

     And once again, Jesus turns our vision on its head. 

     It has taken me quite a while to learn how counter cultural Jesus’ message is.  We have taken Jesus’ message and made it try to fit with America’s vision of itself, and our vision of ourselves. 

     We expect a lot of our children today.  Some of you have heard bits of my schedule.  Sports, scouts, and of course, both of my sons have school work.  Our schools have just changed the whole way they grade students.  No longer do you get letter grades, but you get a 0 through 4.  4 means that you have mastered something and know more than what is required.  A 3 means that you have mastered it, 2 and 1 mean that you have not mastered it yet, and 0 means that you have not even tried.  Each class now has a list of competencies that each student must master to pass that class.  So, for example, if one of the competencies for Math is to know your multiplication tables through 12, the teacher teaches that.  He or she may assign homework.  Eventually he or she may give a test or assign some other project to show that you know your multiplication tables.  Does not matter if you did any homework, or participated in class, or anything else.  If you do well enough on the test that the teacher can say you understand this topic, you get a 3 or 4 depending on how much you understand it.  If you did all your homework, participated in class, tried your hardest but just don’t get it, you will get a 1 or 2.   If you get that 1 or 2, you can go back to that teacher, complete a re-learn contract, do some more work to try to learn the topic and then maybe take another test or do another project to bring that score up to a 3 or 4.   At the end of the semester, as I understand it, if you have mastered all topics, you will get a 3.  If your teacher thinks that you understand more than the minimum, they may give you a 4. 

     I would like Glenn to get a lot of 4s.  He is a bright kid, and his class ranking will be a part of what college he gets accepted into, which will affect what kind of job he gets when he graduates.  I try not to talk too much about that, but sometimes it comes out.  Part of this new grading is to take the pressure off, you either understand it, or you don’t.  If you understand it, great.  If you don’t, we want to work with you so that you do.  But they will still have a class ranking, there will still be honor rolls and dean’s list, there will still be a valedictorian.   So the pressure to be the greatest is still there. 

     But we know that greatness is not just good grades in school.  Glenn is also in Boy Scouts.  If he works hard he can become an Eagle Scout.  Just Wednesday night it was pointed out to him that he is not that far away, and his name can be added to the plaque listing all Eagle Scouts from that troop over the past many years.  Luckily Glenn decided several years ago that he liked playing soccer for fun; while it was fun to be on the winning team, it was not the most important thing.  Collin’s school is also starting to try this new grading system. He is in Cub Scouts, will probably be able to get his Arrow of Light and become a Boy Scout this year.  And of course he plays soccer and is a bit more into the competition than Glenn ever was.  Achievement is fine, but being the greatest in these ways is not always necessary or possible.   

     And then Jesus pressures his disciples, and therefore us, on what greatness really is. 

     Jesus uses a passing child as an example.  Remember that in Jesus’ time children were seen very differently than they are today.  While they may grow up, may use their labor to support you someday, until that time they are a liability, not an asset.   They can not vote, they have no money to spend, they have no power at all.  And this type of person, someone who has no power, is the one we are to serve to be great in the eyes of God. 

     There are a few shows on TV now about kindness.  I saw one recently, perhaps it was Recycled Percussion, the Kindness and Chaos show.  They went to a shelter and picked up a woman and her three kids.  For Mom they went and got her nails done, spent some time doing things that were fun for her.  The kids went to a toy store, were allowed to buy a few new toys.  Then they went back to school shopping, bought them new backpacks, new clothes, got them ready to go back to school.  I enjoy seeing shows like that because of the joy on people’s faces.  For quite a while there was that extreme makeover home show, where groups would come in and rebuild someone’s house in 3 days.  If I were a TV producer I would love to film a reality TV show where people try to out perform others with acts of kindness in everyday life. 

     What would the world be like if we lived like that all the time?  What would it be like if we took the view of the world where the greatest were not the famous, rich, and powerful.  Where it really didn’t matter if you won or lost in soccer, if you got 3’s or 4’s or A’s or B’s in school, where the way you were judged was by how you treated the least. 

     I was watching the news the other day and saw a chef in North Carolina.  Apparently, he went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane and started to cook for people.  They interviewed him, and he said after he started in Puerto Rico he just could not stop.  When Florence hit North Carolina, he went there with his crew.  They were putting together meals for shelters.  He said something like “My only requirement is that you are hungry, then I will feed you.” 

     Jesus frequently puts himself in a position of servant.  Remember before the last supper, Jesus knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples.  The disciples continually tried to put him on a pedestal, encouraged him to make his move, take back the land, become king, and he reminds them, and us, that being great in God’s eyes does not involve fame or fortune. 

     This, without a doubt, offers us a vision for our congregational life. But it also applies more personally. How are we doing with measuring our success, our greatness, not by what we take in but by what we give away, not by the influence we wield but by the service we offer, not by accumulating more but by sharing what we already have, not by being first but by being eager to work hard to see others move ahead?

     This is hard stuff.  Totally different than what the culture – whether in the first century or the twenty-first – tells us. And so it was hard for the disciples and it’s hard for us. They didn’t understand what Jesus meant, and so fell into the trap of putting themselves ahead of everyone else. We will often do the same, looking out for ourselves rather than others, trusting less in God for our security than we do our wealth, shutting others out rather than inviting them in, seeking our welfare rather than that of those around us.

     But here’s the thing: the road the disciples are traveling with Jesus when they fall into their petty arguments about who is the greatest…is the road to Jerusalem. Even while his disciples misunderstand, don’t believe, or just plain ignore what he is saying, Jesus is walking the road to Jerusalem and to the cross willingly in order to sacrifice everything for them…and for us.

     There are things that we can do every day to cheer up someone, tell them that God loves them, tell them that we love them, encourage them, lift them up.  And I have found that when I am able to do those things, it lifts me up.  You see in God’s counter cultural world, lifting up the least of these, does not take away from us, but rather adds to us.  One way to gain power is to put others down, try to say that you are better than they are, but God’s way is to serve them.  In serving them we serve God and can truly learn what greatness is.