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Greatest Of All Time
September 23, 2018
Mark 9: 30-37
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark
They [Jesus and the disciples] went on from there and passed through Galilee. He [Jesus] did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.
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.” 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.”
I can see the scene now— Jesus, overworked and underpaid, standing at the chalkboard writing the lesson down. He calls over his shoulder: This will be on the test later! But the disciples are sitting in the back of the classroom. And they are whispering among themselves, paying no mind to the teacher in front of them.
He calls on one of them. You there! Yes, you in the back! What was I just saying? The disciples stutter and look at one another nervously. You don’t know? He might say. You were talking? What could be more important than what I’m telling you?
Instead of listening to Jesus’ lesson, they have been arguing amongst themselves. And like most arguments, it’s not particularly all that important.
Who among them is the greatest?
I don’t know if by greatest they are having some sort of spiritual spitting contest to see who is the most holy, or who is the closest to Jesus, or who is the best at fishing, or best whatever. But whatever it is—they are obsessed with this question: Who is the greatest?
I like to imagine that upon hearing this debate the disciples are having, Jesus can do nothing else but let out an exasperated sigh.
Really? That’s what you’re talking about? Really? The greatest?
Of course, it’s a question we understand. Humans tend to have some spark of competition in us—and it can lead to great innovation and challenging of one another—but it also can run out of control.
We want to be the best. The richest. The prettiest. The smartest. The winner. We celebrate people who can concretely show us they are the best—athletes, actors, competitors. We have bestseller lists, and award shows all to tell us definitively who is the greatest of all time.
And just as Jesus shakes his head at the disciples for their inability to pay attention to anything beyond themselves, he does the same for us. Because as much as I am frustrated by the disciples’ lack of awareness for the son of God in their midst, and a part of me wishes they would get detention, I am sitting in the back of the classroom with them, consumed by visions of my own greatness, and I frequently forget to pay attention.
It’s so easy, isn’t it? To become so caught up our very important lives that we forget to look around us. When I go to the grocery store, I am so focused on getting what I need quickly because my time is valuable. And my frustration grows as must weave my way around other people whose time is certainly not as important as mine. I begin to view humans as roadblocks in the canned vegetable aisle, rather than as living, breathing people. And—and this happened on more than one occasion—I focus so much on my own needs, that a friend who at the store at the same time as me will stop me to say hello, and I don’t recognize them at first. Our own belief in self-importance keeps us from recognizing those around us.
Jesus has no interest in visions of greatness that abandons our compassion. And he reminds the disciples of it when takes a little child into his arms.
Make no mistake: This is not a pretty hallmark card of a reminder, where white linen robed Jesus is sitting in a pastel-painted field with cute and clean little children surrounding him. The truth is far grittier.
Because what’s likely is that this child has been sitting in this room with the disciples and Jesus for a while because he or she is meant to serve them. It’s not a cute story; it’s servitude. Children in the ancient world are the lowest members of the household. They are servants, slaves, property to be ordered about. They are not considered people of real worth.
This child has probably been present for the whole time, but likely, no one noticed them until Jesus pointed them out. Jesus didn’t just whip up a child out of thin air to prove a point. He makes the disciples pay attention to their surroundings. And if Jesus had not forced the disciples to pay attention to that child, he or she would have gone unnoticed, unacknowledged and we would be reading a story about an evening in which dinner magically appeared, with no mention of the people who made it happen.
Jesus made the disciples pay attention, and in doing so he makes us pay attention to this child whose name we do not know, but is still a part of this story.
How much do we pay attention to the children? To the smallest in the room? The most vulnerable? The ones who are still learning what it means to have a voice? Do we pay attention to the ones that could just as easily be written out of the story? Maybe we don’t think children should be considered property or slaves, but our attention to their plight has been half-hearted at best.
You’ve probably heard the stories. The stories of children who for decades endured abuse at the hands of religious leaders who were responsible for caring for them. It seems like every couple of years another batch of these stories emerge. And they report how these victims—many of whom are now adults—were told to keep quiet if they spoke up, or they never said anything because they didn’t know they could, and the Church has covered it up, and the world ignored their cries.
This has been going on for a long time, too long, and for most of it, we— and this is not just a Catholic Church problem—we have all failed to pay attention.
It makes my stomach turn. Abuse of any kind should anger us, abuse of any vulnerable person should enrage us, but the abuse of children by institutions that call our passage for today The Word of God? That should be unbearable to us.
Sometimes, it is difficult to pay attention because if we were to actually stare directly at the pain of this world, it might feel like too much. And so we’ve closed our eyes, or only occasionally glanced in that direction because it’s easier to fight about greatness than to do something that is actually great. And so, we fight these worthless battles about our greatness. And in the church it can sound like: Organ or praise band? Which is better? Red hymnals or blue hymnals, wine or juice, which makes us great? Do we have more members than the church down the street? How can we prove our greatness?
Over the summer, I read a lot about person a lot of people think is pretty great and they might have a point. And I’m talking about LeBron James of the L.A. Lakers.
It seems that a lot of people online are having a conversation about who is the Greatest of All Time—specifically in the realm of professional basketball. And on the internet when someone is considered the Greatest Of All Time, they are called the G.O.A.T. GOAT. Greatest of all Time. LeBron James, according to many, is that person.
I’m going to admit to you that this is the extent of my knowledge about pro-basketball. And you are certainly entitled to the opinion that LeBron James may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, and to which I have no rebuttal. I’m just reporting what the internet tells me.
Even with my lack of knowledge about basketball, I read a lot about LeBron James’ greatness this summer. Not because he did anything extraordinary on court, but because he what he was doing off it.
In July, he opened a school—a public school—in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. It is a school for underserved children that is trying to make sure the kids have everything they need to succeed. Their meals are free, their college tuition will be paid for, they can receive counseling and therapy on campus. Their parents can take GED courses and get job help. And the teachers’ classrooms are always fully stocked with supplies.
It is a school that pays attention to the needs of the community. And it is in existence because someone paid attention. Someone—whose wealth gives him endless ways to ignore the world—decided he wasn’t content with personal greatness; he had to pay attention to the children. In an interview, LeBron James called the opening of this school, the “greatest moment of his career.”
And this is the sort of greatness Jesus wants from us. It is a greatness that pays attention to the needs of the world and does something about it, not because it will make us more important or better or greater than anyone else, but because when we choose to pay attention to those in our midst, even when it is difficult, we find that God is already there.
We are called to pay attention to the ways in which God is present in our lives.
And so we are called to pay attention to the children.
To the children of Akron whose school system is suffering.
The children who have been abused and told their pain does not matter.
The children of Flint, Michigan, whose water is still unclean.
The children at the border whose fate is uncertain.
The children in our own communities whose lives we could ignore.
We are called to pay attention to those we once pretended not to see because God always sees them. Jesus asks us to welcome the child, and that includes the children across the world, and the ones sitting in these pews. It means advocating, and nurturing. It means signing up to volunteer for Sunday school. It means listening, and it means telling—in word and in action— every child who walks through these doors that they are welcome here.
We do that because that’s the promise we make in baptism. Parents and children stand at this very font, they face us, the congregation, and we promise them we will pay attention. We promise that their child will be welcome here. That we will love them. Support them. Keep them safe. We will be an extended family to them.
These are the promises we make, over and over again. And we live them out as the volunteers in Sunday school, as their Confirmation sponsors, their youth advisors, their neighbors in the pews.
We will pay attention to each of their needs, to their unique personhood. And we will make sure they know that their story cannot be ignored or rewritten or silenced. And we will teach them to do the same for others.
Pay attention. That’s what Jesus asks of us. Pay attention.
And then, just maybe, we might be actually be a part of something great. Amen.