If you have a television set or a computer, you know that we have been suffering recently through a spate of embarrassing public outbursts. First there was Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” shouted at President Obama during the healthcare speech. Then there was Serena Williams’ “If I could, I would take this . . . ball and shove it down your . . . throat” meltdown at the U.S. Open. These were soon followed by Kanye West’s grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards in the middle of her acceptance speech to proclaim, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time!” With the exception of Representative Wilson, whose “they told me I had to apologize” statement ranks with history’s greatest non-contrition apologies, the outbursters have regretted and atoned for their remarks. But even heartfelt apologies do not erase the shock of this kind of public self-display. Tonight is the Emmy Awards, and I’m nervous.
While I’m concerned about the decline of civility in our public discourse, these recent outbursts suggest a deeper cultural problem, one noted by New York Times columnist David Brooks last Tuesday. As he said, “Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. . . . Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration, you don’t even notice it anymore. This isn’t the death of civilization. It’s just the culture in which we live.” [David Brooks, “High Five Nation”, The New York Times, 9/15/09] It’s this culture that allowed Jerry Lewis to announce as he received his special Oscar last February, “The humility I feel is staggering, and I know it will stagger me for the rest of my life.” It’s this same culture that enabled Michael Jordan, in his “egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech” [David Brooks again’] to announce that, though there may be no “I” in team, “There's ‘I’ in win.” Who needs to worry about simple civility when we are surrounded by so many people so loudly and so blatantly and aggressively promoting themselves?
If you, as I do, find all this self-advertisement not only distasteful but profoundly troubling, then how do we as Christians respond to it? Are blatant egotism and false humility our only options? Or is there another way? Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say to us in the Gospel this morning.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."—Mark 9.33-35
As followers of Jesus, we have to begin by admitting our own involvement in the ongoing struggle between self-promotion and humility. The reason the most important person in a church procession comes in last is because early Christians took Jesus’s statement “Whoever wants to be first must be last” literally. In Roman processions the most powerful person went first. The church simply reversed the order. So that’s why, when you see Christian clergy lining up, there is a very polite shuffling about who is going to be last in line. We’re all trying, not unlike Jerry Lewis, to demonstrate who is possessed of the most staggering humility.
There are several places in the Gospels where Jesus catches his disciples either covertly arguing with each other or directly asking him about who is going to be the first runner-up in the Jesus movement. Jesus always responds to these quarrels somewhat like an exasperated Kindergarten teacher, explaining that the community he has gathered does not look or behave like the Empire which subjects and surrounds them. Relationships in the Jesus community are not about power. They are about mutuality. Again and again Jesus reminds his companions that the way through hard times lies through compassion, equality, sharing, and service. We don’t thrive by imitating the self-aggrandizing power structures of the Empire. We do thrive by building an alternative community based on empathy, compassion, justice, and love.
What seems to get Jesus’s goat in today’s Gospel is not only that his friends don’t “get it” that the Jesus community is not the kind of place where there should be power struggles. What seems particularly to rankle is their colossally bad timing: they don’t “get it” at the very moment when he describes what will take place during Holy Week.
"The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.—Mark 9. 31b-32
Here he is talking about the cross, and they’re working on their organizational hierarchy. The logic of Jesus’s life and witness has brought him into such conflict with human power establishments that they will have no recourse other than to kill him. And here are his friends, even as he’s describing this conflict, striving to imitate the structure of those very power establishments bringing Jesus to the cross. It sounds, in its own way, as bad as a healthcare town meeting.
So what we have in today’s Gospel is a snapshot of the human situation. If Jesus is our image for what God is like, then this passage presents us with a glimpse into God’s values: God calls us to live together through faithfulness, sacrifice, compassion—the characteristics that any one of us would define as true humility. We humans usually respond to that call by building our own structures of privilege and authority. How do we make our way forward through this heavily ironic impasse?
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."—Mark 9.36-37
What is so compelling, at least to me, about today’s Gospel is that in it Jesus responds to this moment of misunderstanding by doing something dramatic. He does not give them a lecture about powerlessness, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, or sacrifice. Instead, he holds up and asks us to consider a human child.
Now, as a Zen master might say, we need to look at the real child Jesus shows us and not at our cultural preconceptions about a child. We need, as Jesus does, to see the child as it is. We live in a culture that is at once sentimental about and abusive of children. We idealize children (especially our own) and then we send them (especially other peoples’) to schools we wouldn’t even want to enter ourselves. We lavish our own children with material things and then we consign other peoples’ children to poverty, disease, and homelessness We talk about them as if they were gold and treat them like garbage.
Because he lived in a culture which was not at all sentimental about children, Jesus does not see them this way. Jesus knows that, like adults, children are complicated creatures, capable of generosity and selfishness at the same time. So Jesus does not hold up this child, I believe, to show us a greeting-card vision of sincere, spotless cheerful Christian humility. He is not asking his companions to be what we would call “child-like.” So what does his gesture ask them and us to consider?
I believe Jesus asks us all to consider a child because in both his culture and ours, the child is the perfect image of the powerless person. A child has no money, few rights, and is at the mercy of everyone bigger or stronger than themselves. Jesus does not hold up the child to say, “Be like this, all cute and cuddly.” Jesus holds up the child to say, “Be like this. Truly poor, truly powerless, truly at one with those who are at the short end of life’s stick.” For Jesus, the child is the perfect image of the powerless person, and it is as the ultimately powerless person that Jesus himself goes to the cross. If we want to follow Jesus, we do so most authentically when we stand with the marginalized, stateless, poor, oppressed, victims of the world. Real status in the Jesus movement does not attain to those who rack up honors, titles, degrees, and awards for themselves. Real status attains to those who become child-like in Jesus’s sense of the word. It has nothing to do with real or false humility. It has everything to do with who you stand for and with in your life and work.
Where is the good news in all of this? It comes to us in the two images Jesus gives us this morning, the image of the child, and the image of the cross.
Whether we want to be or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all, all of us, like the child. We are all vulnerable. In the face of life’s biggest challenges we are often helpless. We survive, finally, not by our own wits but by the generosity and love and compassion of others. When Jesus holds up the child, he asks us to consider not only what we should become but what we actually are. You and I, all of us, are like children. We are limited, we are finite, we are vulnerable. We will make it through life’s challenges only with the help and support of each other. We need help. And that is good news. It contradicts the received wisdom of our sick culture that promotes power and self-sufficiency as the ways to fulfillment. The reality, as Jesus shows us, is not like the mythologies of Rome or late-Capitalist America at all. Look at the child; see yourself as a child; build solidarity with and serve both real children and the vulnerable child you know to be in everyone. That--not greatness, not winning, not even being the last one in the procession—that is true fulfillment on God’s and Jesus’s terms.
And then there’s that image of the cross, the thing Jesus had been talking to his companions about before they started squabbling with each other about their place in the pecking order. In a world that not only tolerates but seems to exalt self-promotion, the church gathers weekly to remember and give thanks for One who, in Paul’s words, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . .[and] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2.7-8] Our self-promotions will not save us. Only the cross—and the kind of divine and human faithfulness it stands for—will. The cross will always stand as the counter-cultural symbol of true Christian greatness. Living into God’s and our own powerlessness is finally the only way to combat the corrosive forces which diminish us, each other, and the creation. And the image of that kind of faithfully powerless living finds its most perfect symbol in the weapon the Empire used to put Jesus to death and which God’s love defeated—that is, the cross.
We are gathered now as a group of vulnerable childlike people around the table of One who lived and ate with us as one of us and in so doing challenged the power structures of Empire. God calls us to this table as children, as vulnerable creatures who know our need to be fed. God calls us to this table as those commissioned to hold up the cross as the symbol which can even now bring down the oppressors who would wield it against the smallest and poorest in this world. May we find in this meal both nourishment in our vulnerability and strength in our witness to stand with those Jesus stood with and, in so doing, discover how deeply they, and we, are loved. Amen.