“It’s Hard to Be Humble”

                                                               September 9, 2012


Mark 9:30-37

Last Monday evening as Labor Day was winding down, I got a call from the Obama campaign people here in Iowa City. I thought it was going to be a typical “get out the vote” call” and responded without much enthusiasm—until I understood the real purpose of the call.

They wanted to know if I might be interested in offering the prayer of invocation during the president’s visit to the Pentecrest on Friday. And after quickly repressing my internal misgivings about the appropriateness of or need for a prayer at such an event, I said, “Sure.” And I thought, of course they’d want to know if I’d be interested. Why wouldn’t they? You’ve seen the bumper stickers or heard the expression before: “It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am.” Maybe you’ve felt that way before. It was that kind of moment for me.

As it turned out, I was one of a handful of people being considered. And by the end of the week, I realized that my position would be more like those in the parable Jesus told of people who were invited to a wedding feast but found themselves outside “where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

What makes someone “great?” Can we be “great” and still “walk humbly with our God” as the prophet Micah recommended?

In Mark’s gospel Jesus and the disciples always seem to be on the move. They go from one village to another, healing the lame, curing the sick, announcing the good news that God is near.

As they walk along, sometimes Jesus talks with the disciples. Sometimes the discussion is just among those who follow.

It must have been a spirited conversation that day on the road to Capernaum. The disciples walked along gesturing wildly with their arms and hands. Sometimes one would stop and just stand there staring in amazement as the others walked on—as if to say: “I can’t believe you would say something like that!” Their voices were loud. Quite often their language betrayed their roots as catchers of fish, collectors of taxes, political zealots.

When they get to Capernaum Jesus takes the disciples inside, where, maybe, he won’t have to raise his voice to be heard.

And he asks them: “What were you arguing about on the road?”

It's a good question.

That comes as no surprise. Listen to Jesus. He is often far better at asking questions than he is at answering them. And his questions are always as sharp as a two edged sword.

“What were you arguing about?” is especially appropriate to ask of any who follow Jesus. Get some followers of Jesus together—get us together—and we argue.

In the United Church of Christ, we argue. We argue at meetings of congregations, in committee meetings and in church parking lots—and if we had a larger parking lot, we’d probably have longer arguments. Check the records of this congregation and you might think a good motto for us would be something like “Worshipping God and Arguing for Over 150 Years.”

We argue for many reasons—not just because we are a cantankerous and quarrelsome bunch.

We argue because we believe that we are bound together by covenant rather than creed. And so we aren't about to let someone else—an individual, a church group—tell us what we must believe or think. We want to express our own beliefs and work them out as they rub up against the thoughts and beliefs of others.

We argue because on the left, the right, and in the middle we care passionately about our community and the world; we care passionately about this church and want to have a future as vibrant and vital as our past. I believe that the Spirit of God works among us as we meet together and speak our minds and our hearts. We don’t always agree, but God can use our spirited and respectful disagreement.

Respecting one another—by the grace of God even loving one another—we argue together on the road. It’s a tradition as old as the church. And Jesus doesn’t say: “Hey, calm down. Why can't you all just act like good Christians and agree with each other?”

No, Jesus just asks: “What was it you were arguing about?”

For a moment that seems like an eternity, everyone is silent. They all know what they were arguing about. And they have the sneaking suspicion that Jesus knows as well.

You see, all the way to Capernaum, they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

There’s a strange comfort that I find in the stories about the disciples in the Gospel of Mark. As the disciples bumble along the way, they say the stupidest things. They appear arrogant and ignorant at the same time. And they never seem to get what Jesus is talking about.

Which is all too often of a picture of my life. And yours. And of our life together as a congregation.

It’s refreshing to me that the models of faithfulness and following that we have in the Bible are so, well, so human. It reminds me that I can let down and be human and flawed and forgiven myself. I don’t have to know it all, get it all right. None of us do.

Those hapless disciples stand in silence because they’d been arguing, not about how best to feed the hungry, or about what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, or even about how to stand up to the Roman government. No, on the way the had been arguing about who was the greatest.

Call it a hierarchy, a pecking order. Every congregation—every organization—seems to develop one. Who's the greatest? Who is the least of all?

Once in a while, however, Jesus shows up and stands that order on its head.

The surprising thing—and if we look with open eyes, if we listen with open ears, Jesus is always doing or saying something surprising--the surprising thing is that Jesus doesn’t object to this argument about greatness. He just turns it upside down. He reorders the priorities. “Whoever wants to be first must be last.”

Martin Luther King, who put it far better than I ever could, imagines Jesus saying:

            “You want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be. . . .Don't give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. . . . Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That’s what I want you to do.

            “Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness,” King concluded. “If you want to be important--wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. All you need to be great is a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.[i]

When I went to the Johnson County Democratic Party headquarters to give them some information for a background check, I met the woman who had suggested that I give the invocation. Our paths have crossed a few times, but I don’t really know her and she doesn’t know me. What she knows is this congregation. “The Congregational United Church of Christ,” she told the others who were there, “has been serving this city in wonderful ways for decades.” I needed to hear that—not only as a sign of how we are known in the community but also as a reminder that my selection was more about all of us—this congregation—than it was about me and my greatness. If anything it was about the greatness of this congregation—great in love, great in moral excellence, great in generosity

The disciples didn’t get it. Often enough, we don’t get it either.

Now, here’s the good news. Jesus doesn’t abandon these disciples without a clue. He doesn’t turn away to look for a better group of people—maybe people who are more “Christian” or more “spiritual.” No. Instead, Jesus gently tries again.

He puts a child in the middle of them, puts his arm around the child and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As with so much that Jesus does, it is a simple action. But it speaks directly and deeply to our hearts. Can we appreciate the shocking nature of this act? Children in the ancient world were next to nothing. They had no influence on adults and were generally disregarded. They should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students. To insist that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples is almost inconceivable.

Two thousand years later, we know that children are still marginal in many ways. In this country they swell the growing ranks of the poor. The news reminds us that children still live in danger and can all too easily be harmed.

There seems to be a connection here with the point Jesus was originally trying to make to his disciples as they made their way through Galilee toward the village of Capernaum. He would be handed over to those who would kill him. That is to say, God does not stand off from human suffering, but enters it fully, bodily. The creator shares in the pain of creation.

At the time, no one understood what Jesus meant. And everyone was too afraid to ask. So instead they walked along to the Capernaum, talking among themselves, arguing about who was the greatest, missing the real greatness that was walking along with them.

In time they would understand better. They would understand that for Jesus to be handed over would mean death on a cross.

They would understand, too, that for Jesus to rise again would mean life for them in ways previously unimaginable.

Sometimes, by the grace of God, we too, understand something of the meaning of that death and that resurrection.

Do we understand this all the time?

Of course not. It is hard to be humble. And it’s hard to be great as Jesus defines greatness. We aren’t perfect and we know that.

But here and there, now and then

            We hold a child in our arms, we love him, we welcome her;

            We put aside our busy and self-important lives to sit with a friend who is ill or facing death;

            We commit ourselves to sharing what we have, to building up the common good;

            We find a way to forgive—and what is often even harder—to accept forgiveness.

In other words, we find ways of being great in our faith, significant in our hope, first in compassion.

We discover to our surprise that we have been given a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

As we do, by God’s grace, we also grow in our understanding of the One who lived his life as the servant of all and who invites us to unimagined greatness as we follow.

[i].Martin Luther King, Jr. "The Drum Major Instinct," in A Testament of Hope, pg. 265-266.