“Servant of All” Colchester Federated Church, September 23, 2018, (Mark 9:30-37) Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

There was a teacher who delivered a commencement address at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass several years ago called “You’re Not Special.”  David McCullough Jr. (a longtime English teacher and son of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough) lamented students going off into the world as privileged, selfish people who only care about accolades and being special as opposed to living the good life and doing what they are most passionate about to change the world and help others.  The speech made national headlines with some calling it extraordinary and others offensive.  It was well received in Wellesley from what I recall (having served a church there back in the day.)  Because graduates and their families took it as loving and necessary criticism from one of their own beloved teachers.

Here’s some of what McCullough said:

“In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another—which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality—we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point—and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it … Now it’s ‘So what does this get me?’”[1]

This seemingly opportunistic attitude many people have (including ourselves sometimes if we’re honest) of so what does this get me isn’t anything new as far as the human condition is concerned.  When we turn to our Gospel text today, we see that Jesus once had to call the disciples out when they were behaving in this manner.  Though what we don’t see by hearing these few verses of Mark Chapter 9 in isolation (because of how the three-year lectionary cycle is structured) is that this story comes in the middle of Mark’s Gospel and serves as a transitional illustration.  Mark’s Gospel is known for its action-packed narrative.  In the words of Rev. Paul Escamilla, “This is no sit down story.  Jesus is on the move—healing, teaching, exorcising demons, feeding the hungry, and on and on . . . it is very important to notice that the one thing that slows down the pace of this Gospel is the evidence of selfish ambition on the part of Jesus’ disciples. . . When Jesus sensed that that was the subject of their conversation, he sat down.”[2]

This is Jesus’ wait a second, time out, hold the phone, what are you doing moment right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel.  He literally must sit down in the middle of the action to assess the situation and figure out how the disciples are completely missing the point of his teachings and his life.  Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  The disciples are “silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”[3]  They can’t even bring themselves to say that this is what they were talking about as they were traveling around with a person so interesting that thousands of years later we are still debating whether or not he was married or how long he lived or what occupation he held before traveling around teaching and healing or what exactly he said verbatim about certain subjects that are still important to us.

Jesus sits down and tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”[4] This is not what they wanted to hear.  And what we miss in our English translation of the original Greek text is that the word Mark wrote to tell us that Jesus is talking about being a servant of all is diakonos.  Our modern understanding of church leaders as Deacons comes from this Greek term in the New Testament.  Though the diakonos wasn’t just any old servant, a diakonos was known as the “servant of all” and was the servant who served meals.  This servant was the lowest ranking of the servants in the entire household, only allowed to eat their meal once everyone else had been served.  To top it all off, the diakonos ate what everyone else hadn’t finished on their plate.[5]

Imagine this for a second—it’s gross, but let’s just go with it because it’s important.  Jesus is saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all, who serves everyone else their meals and eats the leftovers off everyone else’s plates by themselves in the kitchen.”  This would have shocked the disciples to their core.  That’s what we must do to be first in the Kingdom of God?  Be the diakonos, the servant of all?  Maybe then the whole notion that they were competing to be the greatest didn’t seem like the wisest thing to do.  Because maybe the point was to be the best disciple one could be, to be selfless and humble and compassionate and loving and not worry about being the best, being special, about having others admire you.  Especially since being the greatest disciple was going to be really hard work that none of them (or us for that matter) can manage to be with perfection in the first place!

All this talk about being the greatest can make us recall the story about famed composer and orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein.  He was once asked what the hardest instrument to play was, and he replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle.  I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, now that’s a problem.  And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”[6]

In choir anthems we sound good (if we do say so ourselves) because we learn our soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts and sing those parts alongside the accompaniment from Kim to make beautiful music together.  All of us singing and playing our collective parts are necessary to create the whole.  This life simply can’t be all about our own personal greatness, but about the greater good.  When it’s not all about you or me all the time but the collective good, we can work with others to make something truly beautiful, whether it’s music or family or building up a faith community or anything else.

This is what Jesus was trying to convey in this time out moment in the Gospel of Mark.  To especially bring the point home, so that there would be no future misunderstanding, he takes a little child and puts that child among the disciples, taking the child in his arms.  Jesus must have looked pointedly at the disciples as he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[7]  Because at this time in First Century Israel when children were to be seen and not heard for the most part, when children were not cherished and nurtured in the way that many of us do today, looking to the example of welcoming a child would have driven the point home for those disciples who had gotten lost in their own sense of self-importance.

Sometimes over my years of ministry, I’ve had parents apologize after worship services when their children were especially fussy or spirited.  For the record, children in worship don’t tend to distract me because children in worship are a blessing.  Seriously if we want to know the sound of a dead or dying church, it’s silence.  It’s when we don’t hear that holy and precious noise of children (who aren’t just the future of the church but are the church here and now) that we know a church may be in trouble for the long haul.  And you know who teaches us that children are never a distraction?  Jesus—when he takes a child in his arms, puts that child right in the middle of his own disciples, and talks about welcoming every single child of God in his name.

The disciples were walking around with this remarkable teacher who was Emmanuel (God-with-us) arrogantly arguing about which one of them was the greatest follower.  And Jesus pointed out that the greatest, the first, the most revered is actually the humblest.  The greatest is the one who serves everyone else first and eats what you don’t finish from your plate—the diakonos.  And guess what, if we want to be good disciples, we will welcome everyone in Jesus’ name—especially the most vulnerable among us like little children.  This whole Gospel story challenges us as we contemplate what it really means to be great.  Maybe we should strive to be the best people we can be knowing that none of us are perfect and spend way less time trying to be the most accomplished, the most special, or the most distinguished person around.

In this spirit, we’ll end with a few more lines from David McCullough’s “You’re Not Special” in which he shares some of the greatest advice in his Commencement Address:

“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others . . . And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”[8]

May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] David McCullough Jr. “You’re Not Special” Commencement Address at Wellesley High School 2012, https://theswellesleyreport.com/2012/06/wellesley-high-grads-told-youre-not-special/.
[2] Paul Escamilla Analysis of Mark 9:30-27 in Disciplines 2012, 277.
[3] Mark 9:33-34, NRSV.
[4] Mark 9:35.
[5] Sharon Ringe, Analysis of Mark 9:30-37 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year B, Volume 4, 93-97.
[6] http://www.gospel.com/blog/index.php/2010/03/16/todays-devotional-will-you-play-second-fiddle/
[7] Mark 9:37.
[8] David McCullough Jr. “You’re Not Special” Commencement Address at Wellesley High School 2012.