Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
September 20, 2009
As often as I say that good Christian discipleship requires a full use of the imagination, I can’t, for the life of me, imagine what it must have been like to be one of Jesus’ disciples. They were all men, the first barrier to my comprehension. They were poor, and though I am not rich, I’m certainly comfortable, economically. They were willing to spend a great deal of time in the company of someone they didn’t understand and that is really not true of me. I’d rather spend time in my own company where there is at least no language barrier.
But in spite of the limits on what we have in common with those first disciples, the gospels reveal some things about them that I suspect we do understand - universal truths that might not take so much imagination. Today’s story from Mark reveals one of those very times. They were arguing among themselves, which one of them was the greatest disciple.
This is just one of several consecutive stories in which the disciples demonstrate that they do not really get what is going on around them. As they walked through Galilee, Jesus tried to teach them about both the glory and the suffering that awaited him but “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” When they finally arrived for rest in a house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about on the road. They greeted his question with silence for, as Mark tells us, “they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
Were they embarrassed Jesus caught them? It doesn’t require much imagination to know what that feels like – to be caught with our egos puffed up like balloons. Maybe they didn’t know they had done anything wrong. When Jesus asked them the question, they simply didn’t answer. But I think Mark suggests that the disciples had been caught doing something they knew was beneath this man whose ministry they witnessed with awe and lack of understanding. I suspect they were sheepish that they had been discussing something so selfish and unimportant as who enjoyed the greater rank among them. I think we have been given the gift of the disciples’ imperfect, occasionally petty, and oh-so-familiar example of the gap between what Jesus taught and what those around him, including ourselves, are willing to live.
So here we are, strong egos fully functioning, arguing among ourselves which one of us is the greatest while all around us there are hundreds, no thousands of things we could be doing to alleviate suffering.
Jesus questioned his disciples about their disappointing behavior, and they were silent. We do not know how long that silence was. We do not know (though I enjoy imagining) the expression on Jesus’ face as he looked at them. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. His words imply, don’t they, that he knew what they had been discussing. But would they come to understand that greatness is a matter of humility, of servanthood, of over-turned social positions and radically changed stature, of selflessness? Would they ever come to understand that, in spite of the miracles they had witnessed, to be disciples would cost them everything they valued? Did they know it would cost them their lives? Do we?
Today we have named Pastoral Care Sunday, a day when we intentionally introduce the planning our wonderful parish nurse Ann Bradley has been doing to help us all be more attentive to and active in pastoral care and health ministry in our congregation. Some of you have already been on the receiving end of the direct care and attention both Ann and Warren, our senior advocate, have delivered. They have joined the good visiting and care Sally Foss has already been delivering. Some of you have helped us by acting as a test group for the questionnaire Ann spoke about, refining questions and thinking through how best to retrieve the information we are seeking. I think we’re on a good track with this program. It is not intended, in any way, to replace the pastoral work that I do with and among you. But neither is it intended to replace the pastoral work you all are responsible to do as members of this church and Christian disciples. I wish I had a dollar to send to Mississippi for every time over the past thirty years of ministry I have heard some form of this expression – “I know! Let’s you do it!” It’s just another form of the egotism of the disciples arguing among themselves which one was the greatest. It’s talk, talk, talk with hardly any walking involved.
Years ago, I heard a story of a first year college student on the first day of classes, sitting down against the trunk of a tree looking as lost, alone, and overwhelmed as she felt. An older man in a suit happened upon the student and sat down on the ground beside her. What’s the problem, he asked, and out poured all the worry and fear of a young person doing something completely new, and to top it all off, she had no idea where her next class was located. The man spent some time with her, looked through her papers with her, and with the campus map, helped her locate her next class, reassured her that her advisor really was a nice person after all, then got up, dusted off his pants and walked on. Months later, she saw him again, at the end of an academic procession, and she realized he was the president of the university. She never forgot that he helped her without any indication whatsoever that he was a person of some stature and importance.
Someone asked me this week for advice about how to handle a delicate situation with a fellow parishioner, the result of which could be hurtful. I heard myself say to this worried man that whatever decision was finally made, it was important to his own spiritual and emotional health that his motives were clearly faced and understood. Why did it seem necessary to do the thing being discussed? Whose interests were being served? Would it result in something good, something that would improve their relationship or bring about more understanding? Would it serve the church well? Those questions must be clearly answered in ourselves all the time, every day. Why am I about to do this thing? Why am I unwilling to do that thing? Whose needs are being served? Will this increase the reign of God? Or just make me feel superior for a few minutes?
Egos are tricky things. They are so easily influenced by less than honorable emotions like jealousy or revenge or righteous indignation or insecurity or a need to demonstrate power or superiority. I am always suspicious when I hear someone say she or he is doing something for someone else’s good. Really? And you’re telling me about it?
Here’s the thing, the main message for today, the one most important concept you may hear all morning, if I may be so incredibly bold to say – you can’t hire someone else to be a disciple for you. No matter your stature, your greatness, your wisdom, your wealth, your justification – you can’t be a disciple by proxy.
I think maybe that’s why Jesus asked the disciples what they were arguing about. And, perhaps it was a sign that they actually caught a glimpse of what it meant to follow him that they were silent. Amen.