John Weems considered: “And the Winner is . . . ”
In life everyone doesn’t get a trophy. There are winners and losers, right?
Even the first followers of Jesus argued over who was the greatest. How do we balance healthy competitive instincts with God’s call to service?
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 about 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.’
We are all a work in progress. One of the ways God continues to work on me involves focusing competitive instincts on positive endeavors.
I experienced the hyper-competitiveness of the first year of law school in which we would literally run to the library to get a vital book before our classmates. (The Internet was new, so hard copy books were still king J Rival study groups carefully guarded course outlines because we knew that every point on an exam could put us in a stronger position for an internship, clerkship and a presumed better life.
When I realized I didn’t want to be an attorney and left law school to work in business marketing, developing competitive intelligence was a core component of my job. In written materials and presentations, we had to practice the art of telling a prospective client why our services—while virtually identical—were far superior and why our competitors—bless their hearts—offered nothing more than a flashy PowerPoint presentation deck.
I thought seminary would be different. The program students attend to become a pastor and earn a Master of Divinity degree seemed like a place where people would stand around a piano singing hymns and drinking hot cocoa.
Surely seminary students wouldn’t be overly competitive while singing “Kumbaya.”
I can still remember the day we received our first grade. It was a quiz on the Hebrew alphabet—aleph, bet, gimal, dalet, hey, etc.—and a few vocabulary words. We all rushed to our mailboxes and the scene immediately devolved into a “What did you get? What did you get?” party reminiscent of high school.
Like many of my classmates, I carried around Hebrew flashcards in my pocket at all times to do whatever I could to compete. (Oh yes, and to learn an ancient language and better understanding of God’s word) While many of us studied together, supported each other and became lifelong friends, we were very competitive.
Competition can be good. We survive and thrive in part because of our competitive instincts. We can learn a great deal from Darwin.
Scientists competing to fight diseases, companies battling to create the best products, and students putting in extra time studying can all have a positive impact if we don’t take the competition too far.
The first disciples of Jesus weren’t above earthly competitiveness.
In today’s Scripture lesson from Mark, Jesus and the dudes have had a big day. Jesus had healed a boy who had been dealing with seizures since birth. Jesus was trying to explain the suffering he would endure leading to the cross. The disciples “. . . did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:32). They had access to the Son of God and had witnessed miracle after miracle. They could have asked him anything. So what did they do?
They argued. Specifically, they argued with one another about who was the greatest.
They made their way to Capernaum, a village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. As they settled down in a house—some say it belonged to Jesus himself, others think it was Peter’s—Jesus asked a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” They knew that he already knew.
The disciples’ only response was embarrassed silence.
Rather than dismiss his followers, Jesus goes on to explain what it means to follow him, that the first must be last, and servant of all. To illustrate the point, Jesus holds up a child as the example: “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).
This passage is powerful on multiple levels.
Churches, including this one, do well to take it literally as we strive to be more welcoming to children, being open to adjusting worship and ministries to make space. No one here should ever say “You’re in my seat” or give you a dirty look if your child or grandchild is with you in worship. Jesus does welcome the little children.
When you look closely at the words attributed to Jesus in this passage, the meaning transcends the age and innocence of a child.
Numerous biblical language experts point out that the Aramaic word Jesus would have used, talya, can mean both servant and child. At that time, neither servant nor child had any societal power, prestige, or privilege. Jesus was insisting that following him meant welcoming those deemed worthless or of low value.
Some say this counter-cultural model was what caused Judas and others to turn away from Jesus. They wanted their leader to compete and destroy and become powerful.
How often do we take on the traits of Judas?
How often do we respond to the unlimited potential and grace before us by competing and arguing over things that are counter to God’s call for justice, mercy and humility?
Jesus calls us to care for the talya, the powerless, in God’s name.
Some sitting here with us today need help—please speak up.
Others are sitting here today with great power. You have the ability to do something to help one of the millions of refugees from Syria. You have the power to bridge the divide of inequality in our city.
Imagine Jesus asking us, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
Would we be proud of the way we spend our time, or respond with silence as the disciples did?
Sometimes, just for a moment, we are at our best in times of darkness.
Fourteen years ago, I was driving through places like Iowa City and Omaha, thinking about how precious life is. I had been in Chicago for a marketing meeting as our firm prepared to roll out a new branding campaign. We were preparing for a national meeting of the partners, needing to get their buy in for a multi-million dollar investment. Our team had battled over where to place a new sphere logo—when you pay more than $3 million, it’s a sphere, not a dot—and numerous other matters that we acted as though had eternal significance.
After watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center on live television, I went to the office not knowing what else to do. Along with millions of Americans and others around the world, our team watched the horrific devastation on televisions in a conference room. We gasped and cried and prayed.
We didn’t care about logos or taglines or meetings.
With airlines shut down for the foreseeable future and a one-year-old at home, I rented a Chevy Malibu and hit the road from Chicago to California. Strangers at gas stations and restaurants talked to each other. No one spoke about hanging chads or political sour grapes.
Churches and houses of worship, including this one, experienced significant spikes in attendance as people searched for community and meaning.
We could see evidence of God’s love all around us.
What had we been arguing about on the way?
I invite you to enter into a time of reflection. Consider the week ahead.
What ways can you compete in a way that honors God as a servant?
How will you be an advocate for the talya, welcoming the little ones in the name of Jesus and the one who sent him?
In God’s economy, who is the winner?