A lot has happened since last week when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Bringing us up to this morning’s reading, Jesus has talked to the disciples about what would happen to him and what it might cost them if they continued to follow him. In a stunning display of glory, Jesus has been transfigured on a high mountain. He told the disciples that he was the one John had been preparing the way for. And, to round out a busy week, Jesus cast out a demon. If you are just following the Sunday lectionary, you’ll miss all that. But it is important to keep these stories in context because they are not isolated events. The writer intends for us to see each story as part of a whole. On that note it is most important to note that this morning’s reading is bookended by two stories of Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 8:22-26 and Mark 10:46-52).
Jesus can make the blind see, but he can’t make the disciples understand.
Today we are going to have to look at things in a very different way if we hope to understand.
Here’s a brief recap, in my own words, of today’s story:
The disciples didn’t know what was going on, but it was Jesus who had all the questions. “Who do you say that I am?” He’d asked. Some ideas were batted around, but Peter finally came up with a pretty good answer. Even though Peter had been correct, Jesus was really mean to him about it. The other disciples took note and decided that they wouldn’t let that sort of thing happen to them. So, instead of asking Jesus their questions, they kept quiet. Nobody wanted to be chastised by Jesus, or even worse, made fun of. They had too much invested at this point. None of them could afford to loose face, or appear vulnerable. So, they did what people always do when they have unanswered questions and no way to get an answer: They started talking about it among themselves, and arguing. Then they got in trouble for that too and Jesus told them that they should be like servants.
It’s sort of a no-win for the disciples, and for Jesus too. The Jesus movement nearly died right there on the craggy rocks of the disciple’s egos. That’s what this is really about: Ego.
This reminds me of a story from the Ford Motor Company. You know what FORD stands for, right? Fix or repair daily. That was the saying in 2006 when Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford. The company was set to loose billions of dollars that year, many billions; and their debt was classified as junk. It was a bad situation. So, Mulally started having weekly meetings in which every senior executive reported that their area was either green, for all good; yellow, for problems on the horizon; or red, for need help. Yet in staff meetings Ford’s chief executives reported that everything was going just fine… all green.
You know how there’s always that one guy? Well, at Ford, that one guy was Mark Fields. Mark had been in the running for the CEO job that Mulally had gotten and he figured that it wouldn’t be long before Mulally edged him out of the company entirely. “I’d might as we’ll go out in a blaze of glory,” he thought, and at the next meeting he reported that his area was red. Needs help. Years later people who were at that meeting recall thinking, “Dead man walking,” and “I wonder who will get his job.” But Mulally was thrilled. “That’s great visibility, Mark,” he said, “Who can help Mark with this?” And that was the beginning of the turnaround in Ford’s corporate culture.
The change at Ford didn’t happen overnight, but senior executives learned to work together, share their questions and problems with the expectation of getting help, not condemnation. Mulally gave his senior executives permission to ask questions and to be vulnerable. Ego was replaced by the “One Ford” way of collegiality.
Jesus could have learned a thing or two from Alan Mulally. The Jesus movement wasn’t loosing money, but it was in trouble. The chief disciples had questions that they weren’t asking and, like the executives at Ford, they were afraid of loosing face in front of one another. They were jockeying for position. Things were not going well.
In this milieu Jesus took the disciples to Capernaum, the geographical centre of his ministry, to give this very central teaching:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Then Jesus took a little child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This is not a statement about children, nor is it about management at Ford. We have left that. It’s not even a statement about “the least of these,” or how vulnerable some people are. You know, other people. Jesus is speaking to his chief disciples, remember. The message he has for them has to do with their arguments about who will be first, and who is greatest. The heart of this teaching is about ego. Our egos.
Jesus is saying that we should welcome children, not because it’s a good idea, or because the children need us so much. Jesus is inviting us to welcome the most vulnerable and questioning parts of ourselves and others. And, let’s face it, we have some pretty child-like questions. What kinds of questions do children ask? Mainly, they ask “Why?” If you have spent much time with a little one you surely know that it’s “Why? Why? Why?” all the time.
There are surely times in our lives when that is the best and most appropriate prayer. Almost anybody who Is honest will admit to praying that very thing. “Why, God… just why?” And that seems to be exactly what Jesus wants.
If you want to see what kinds of questions Jesus likes just look at the people he is said to have associated with: Notorious sinners, lepers, demoniacs, bleeding women, gentiles. These people are, as we say, PNQLU, or People Not Quite Like Us. Surely they are not eligible for the vestry. What questions do you suppose they had?
Is there hope for me?
Can things be different?
Can my future be better than my past?
Is it too late?
Have I ruined everything?
If we think about what kinds of questions these PNQLU might have had, and if we are honest about our own unanswered questions, then it might become obvious that we have more in common than we thought.
What kinds of things do you suppose they might have said to Jesus?
I want this so badly
I am sick of being sick
I had such plans
Nobody really knows me
I am unloved
My family are ashamed of me
I am out of hope
These thoughts torment me….Why, God… why am I so tormented? Where is my hope?
Sometimes there’s not a lot separating us from the people in the Bible if we just have a little imagination. Yet, in lifting up children, Jesus is showing us what kinds of people really serve him, and it’s not the big shots in the diocese. The real servants of God are the ones whispering in the night of their lost hope, wondering if it’s too late, if they are loveable, if things can be different. The real service that God wants is your broken spirit, your contrite heart.
The Hebrew word which here is translated “spirit” can also, and I think more appropriately, be translated “breath,” or even “wind.” We have all had something happen that seems to knock the breath right out of us, a moment when we forget to breathe… that’s the kind of ‘broken spirit” talked about here. When the life you had stops, and when you start breathing again it’s all different.
It’s when we are as vulnerable and tender as a little child that we are the servant of all. Children don’t worry about their position in the group, they don’t vie for the best seats or the approval of others. They are innocent of all that.
That is true greatness.
“The Lord is close to those whose hearts have been crushed and she preserves those who have had the breath knocked out of them.”
“The sacrifices of God are broken breath and a crushed heart…”
We are all doing what we can to bring in the reign of God. Some of us are on the vestry, and some of us stand at the altar, some feed the hungry, and some of us write essays. I certainly don’t want to trade places with a leper, or someone who really is unloved, or dead broke, or wondering if there is any hope. But, I know that it’s only in that kind of vulnerability that I serve the heart of God. Why is it that God want’s our broken hearts? I don’t know. There are lots of things I don’t know. Little children don’t know things. But, I can see the pattern here in the Bible. Hopelessness, vulnerability, tenderness are the stuff that God uses.
Use your imagination a little more and think what it would be like if you could bring your deepest questions to God and expect an answer. I know that it seems like God doesn’t answer very often. I mean, God may answer your prayers, but a lot of mine are languishing in the Heavens. But what if the answer is not exactly what we expect? What if the answer is increased vulnerability, more questions, and unanswered prayers? What if God is building a spiritual community of vulnerable, clueless children and not an empire of churches? What if nothing is as it seems? I don’t know. And that might be my answered prayer.
Linda McMillan is still in Bangkok waiting for her visa.
Image: Cambodian Superwoman, Linda McMillan, 2011
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Mark 8:27ff… Jesus talks about the cost of following him
Mark 9:2:8ff… Jesus is transfigured
Mark 9:9ff… Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah and says that he is the one that John came to prepare the way for.
Mark 9:14ff… Jesus cast a demon out of a boy
You can read more about Alan Mulally here.
Alan Mulally’s weekly meetings were called “Business Plan Review” meetings.
Mark 1:13… Tax collectors and other “notorious sinners”
Mark 1:40… Lepers
Mark 5: 1… Demoniacs
Mark 5:24… a bleeding woman
Mark 7:24… a gentile woman
The translations of Psalm 34:18 and Psalm 51:17 are my own