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Sermon based on Mark 9:30-37
Perhaps we are familiar with the tale about the frog that was being pursued by a fox. The frog was moving along quickly trying to stay out of reach of the fox until the frog came to a river. The current was too strong for the frog and just as it became certain that the frog’s fate would be sealed, a flight of geese were seen overhead. The frog called out to the geese and got the attention of a couple geese. The geese landed near the frog and the frog shared his concerns for his safety to the geese. These geese were not big fans of the fox either. The frog suggested that the geese take opposite ends of some string nearby. The frog would then clamp his mouth upon the string as the geese flew across the river. Just as the fox arrived at the riverbank, he was surprised to see the frog rising up into the sky to the other side of the river and to safety. Not to be outsmarted, the fox cried out, “What a great idea, who thought of that?” The frog proud of his achievement couldn’t resist. He called back, “Well of course I did….” And the frog promptly plunged into the river.
As this story illustrates, our ego can often get us into trouble. Perhaps the ego creates a desire or yearning to be part of the “in”crowd. Whether it is a desire to live in a certain neighborhood, wear particular clothes or drive a certain car, often we do not want to stand on the outside. Many among desire to be the leader as well. We want to be in charge and have people respect us and ask us for advice. In the role of a leader we experience an amount of power and prestige. The disciples of Jesus were no different. They often found themselves having encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were part of the privileged class. They always had the best seats at banquets and people respected them. The disciples often found themselves standing on the outside. With this knowledge, we come to our Scripture lesson this morning from the gospel of Mark. Maybe at first the disciples were innocently discussing among them who would be the greatest. Maybe at first, the disciples were innocently discussing how the kingdom would come about and what role they would play. Maybe this innocent conversation among the disciples got out of hand. It could be argued that for a moment their perceived power and leadership as Jesus’ closest disciples went to their heads.
Through this encounter we see some spiritual flaws of the disciples being exposed. First and foremost we see their ambition and pride being exposed. After Jesus had spoken about His betrayal, death and resurrection we see that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant by those words. The disciples were more focused upon the competition among themselves for first place in the coming Kingdom, than Jesus’ revelation about what was to happen to him in the future. Peter, James, and John, that inner circle of trusted friends whom Jesus had climbed the Mount of Transfiguration with were engaged in a competition among themselves. Our Scripture simply says the following, “they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (verse 34). Let us imagine for a moment what their debate could have sounded like. Perhaps their debate would have centered upon some of these things:
- Who stood closest to Jesus at the Transfiguration?
- Did Jesus hint at a successor by the way He looked or what He did?
- Is Peter or some other disciple really His favorite?
Jesus asked what they had been arguing about but somehow Jesus already sensed what they were arguing about and certainly the silence of the disciples did not help matters. We see that Jesus chose not to berate or belittle them. Instead he used this as an opportunity to teach them about a different kind of greatness. Jesus called his disciples together and said the following to them:
“If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
In the verses following Jesus took a child in his arms. A child is the classic example of the powerless. A great deal over the years have been written about the humility, openness and obedience of a childlike spirit. A child can’t reward or repay anyone. Jesus held the child in his lap and offered these words,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”(Mark 9:37)
It’s interesting to note that in Aramaic, the same word is used for “child” that is used for “servant.” Thus the meaning of the word extends beyond the common virtues of a child to the qualities that a child and servant share. Jesus’ words for the disciples and for us today require us to think of things differently. Our culture is one that stresses a “me first” attitude. We are always in competition to see who will be in charge and who will have the most influence. We honor and give praise to those who come in first. To achieve a different kind of greatness in life we must strive to become a different kind of leader. In this model of leadership we are called first as servants.
The late Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, became a familiar sight to millions in his company’s television commercials. Thomas also appeared in a lot of in store training films. In those, as in many of the more familiar commercials, he would dress as his workers. One year he appeared on the cover of one of the company’s annual reports dressed in a work apron holding a mop and a plastic bucket. For many years, a framed copy of that picture often would appear in the back rooms and manager’s offices of most Wendy’s. That picture was built on the fact Thomas was a self-made millionaire. He didn’t finish high school. He worked his way up through the ranks of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain long before he went off on his own and started Wendy’s. Once asked about that photograph, Thomas responded the following way, ”I got my M.B.A. long before my G.E.D. At Wendy’s M.B.A. does not mean Masters of Business Administration. It means “Mop Bucket Attitude.” Thomas taught all of his employees that service comes before success. The Wendy’s owner could have learned that lesson from Jesus. To be a servant leader we must find our identity and trust not in our vocation or calling, but in our Christ who is our Lord and Savior.
The late Robert Greenleaf, founder of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership once wrote: “The servant-leader is servant first. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?”
Certainly we see in the actions and debate of Jesus’ disciples in this passage that the Achilles’ heel of servant-leadership is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “drum major instinct.” The drum major instinct is a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. Yet through the life and teachings of Jesus we see a different kind of greatness we should strive for in life. Greatness and service are both attitudes that are natural in us. The first illustrates that to which most people aspire. The second illustrates that for which we were called to perform as followers of Jesus. Greatness indicates our quest in life while service exhibits our best in life. In one of his last speeches before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King said the following: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’thave to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’thave to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
In thinking of greatness and service we recall that Jesus, the only Son of God, had everything yet claimed nothing. Out of his unselfish service and obedience came our salvation. Jesus calls us to live and pursue a different kind of greatness, the greatness that comes from giving our lives to Him and practicing a life of service to others and God’s Kingdom.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
September 23, 2018