A reflection based on the Lectionary text: Mark 9:33-37
Proper 20B/Ordinary 25B/Pentecost 17September 20, 2015
Jesus asked them, "What were you discussing on the road?" The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest. He sat down and summoned the Twelve. "So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all." He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me." (The Message)
Sometimes I read stories about Jesus’ disciples and think, “What were they, 2nd graders?” I mean, come on. They’re walking down the road arguing with each other about who’s the greatest. I don’t think I’ve argued with anyone about who was greatest since…well since I stopped saying stuff like, “I can jump farther than you, poopy face, Na Na Na Na Na.” Grown ups just don’t say that kind of stuff.
Out loud, at least.
I work in advertising and this I-want-to-be-the-greatest-issue became apparent to me not long ago when we were preparing some new ad campaigns for a big client presentation. The way this goes is, as a creative person, you come up with the ideas and then go to internal meetings with the creative lead and all these business and research and strategy types—we call them suits--where you present your ideas, get feedback and refine the ideas or the ideas get killed completely and don’t move forward to the client. This is a big part of what I do for a living, but this process is always hard, always painful, because deep in my heart, deep in that secret, not-so-evolved-place inside me, I want to be the greatest. I want to be the one who has the best campaign in the room.
Not that I ever say any of this out loud, mind you. In meetings I am calm and thoughtful, and I’m rational and I nod my head calmly and thoughtfully and dutifully take notes on how to change and improve my campaigns and I act like a team player and I’m supportive of everyone’s work…while secretly inside I’m comparing myself and my stuff to everyone else’s, I’m seeing how we stack up against each other, I’m checking to see who’s the greatest among us. Is it him? Is it me? I want it to be me. I work really hard for it to be me. I don’t sleep well at night going over how I can make my work better and how I can present it better so I can be the acknowledged best in the room.
And as we were going through this campaign development stuff a couple weeks ago, I have to say, I didn’t feel like I had the best work in the room. And it was driving me crazy. I was feeling so bad about myself. Every day going into work I had to talk myself off the ledge. Not that anyone could see this of course. Outwardly, zen-like calm. Inwardly, gorilla jumping up and down, beating chest and screaming for more bananas.
So on the day of the big client presentation there’s about 30 people gathered in a room and us creatives get up one by one to present our campaigns. The first guy got up to present—Dom—and I have to tell you, I think Dom is brilliant. He’s funny and clever and quick, and he presents his ideas so well and he’s so likable that whatever he does always seems even better. In contrast I always feel stiff and like, even if my ideas are good, I’m terrible at presenting them, like I’m trying too hard and I’m boring and nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna eat some worms.
But this day Dom got up and presented his stuff and he wasn’t in top form, and the room wasn’t with him. Their body language, lack of laughter, I could just tell, he wasn’t going over like gangbusters. He was maybe even slightly semi-bombing.
And you know what?
I was glad.
I was relieved and happy -- outwardly calm and zen-like, sure, but inside leaping for joy, doing little cartwheels in my mind, full of glee and hope, because now maybe I had a chance, if not to be the greatest in the room, to be at least great-er.
So, yeah, I really wish I could tell you I am not like those disciples, those big babies arguing about who’s greatest. But I am ashamed to say, in my heart of hearts, I really am. And maybe the fact that I do it secretly, maybe that even makes it worse, meaner, nastier, deadlier.
Now, I’ve read this scripture before and the answer I thought Jesus was giving in this story was simple “Stop trying to be great, and put yourself last, be a servant, be humble and be small, like a child…”
But looking at this passage carefully again, I realized that actually isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. First he doesn’t tell you to stop wanting to be the greatest. In verse 35 it says “He sat down and called the Twelve and said ‘So you want first place?’”
See, he doesn’t say not to feel what we feel, he asks us just to claim it, admit it, stop hiding it. To say, yes, I may look like I’m Miss Zen-like Calm, but inside I’m a little rat in a maze desperately wanting first place. “Yes, I do, I do want first place.”
So that’s the first step…to tell the truth, to let go of the secret.
And then Jesus uses a couple metaphors to explain how to be great. He starts by talking about becoming like a servant.
Now for any of us who’ve struggled with codependency, or who just grew up in “the land of the free,” where we are all taught that the end goal of life is to be the boss, the star, this whole “be a servant” thing sounds way too much like “be a doormat,” “be a nothing.”
It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus meant by using this metaphor but I suspect being a servant in Jesus’ day meant something different than it does in ours. One thing that was probably the same, though, is that being the hired hand means you’re not in charge, and you know it. All you really need to do is show up and do what you’re being asked to do. And that’s it. Until the next day, when you show up and do it all over again. You’re not in charge…and no one expects you to be, and you are appreciated not for being in charge, not for being God-like, but for being present and available and willing to do what you do best as a servant, whether that’s washing the donkeys down or polishing the BMW.
Yet, these days, not being in charge often means you get to do all the crap work and don’t get any credit for it, you’re the first to be blamed, first to get fired. You have no power, no status, and basically you get shit on a lot.
But when Jesus talks about being in servant, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, which could also be called The Hired Servants Who Are Well Taken Care Of, it’s a different story. Remember, when the lost son of the story comes to his senses he thinks, “Wow I should just go home. My father takes care of his servants so well, they’re doing so much better than I am, I’d be happy to go home and just be one of them.” So, that’s a little different view of servanthood, isn’t it?
It makes me wonder if Jesus is saying, “You want to be great? Then be like one of my servants who I feed and clothe and give good beds to and give good work to do, be like one of my servants who people actually envy, because I don’t expect them to be in charge and because I take care of them so well.” It’s a picture of servanthood that isn’t about being a doormat or being responsible for everyone’s happiness. It’s a vision of servanthood that’s about being well provided for, well cared for.
The other metaphor Jesus uses to explain how to deal with our insanity around trying to be great is that of holding a child.
He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me."
You want to be great? Jesus asks. Then embrace the children. As I do. When you do you will be embracing me and the God who sent me.
One day soon after we had our big client presentation, Gary and I met for lunch. Our waitress was in her late 20s and cute and kind of funny and joking around with us and we got started talking—she found out we had kids and she was saying how she didn’t know if she was ready for kids yet, but she didn’t want to wait too long either. And I told we’d waited until we were older and we were happy we did, I basically told her not to worry. And then she said something, kind of off-handedly, about how what she really needed to do was quit partying so much and get her life more together, and she laughed, but beneath the laughter there was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, shining like a tiny gold nugget, small, but hard to miss…a glimpse of her brokenness and need and fear…and it got to me. She walked away to keep doing her job and I almost cried. I thought about trying to say something to her—have you thought about joining a recovery group, or going to church, for example…but I didn’t know if I should, I didn’t want to be weird or preachy or shaming. Anyway, after we were all paid up and we stood to leave she was just standing there and so I went over and hugged her. I embraced her, I held her like she was my own child, or like my favorite niece or something. And that hug, in that moment, felt like a prayer, it felt like me embracing her not just with my arms, but with God’s arms too. I have no idea what she took from that hug—when it was over she kind of laughed and said, “Oh, you’re so sweet…” but I know what I took from it. In that moment I felt…great. Great, not as in brilliant or funny or the best at something. But deep down great, connected to God, filled with love.
You want to be great? Jesus asks. And his answer seems to be: Then embrace the children. Stop trying to do it yourself. Stop trying to pump yourself up with the trappings of greatness. Let go of the illusion that you’re in charge and that if someone pronounces you the best in the room, you’ll feel loved. And you will finally love yourself. And you’ll finally feel loved by God.
Yes, the problem with trying to feel great by being the best in the room is there’s always a Dom in our lives, always someone who seems greater than us, no matter what anybody says. Someone who’s skinnier or smarter or funnier or more talented, or who has a cleaner house or more together kids… As Sarah McLachlan said in one of her songs, “There’s always one reason to feel not good enough.”
So really, Jesus says, to get that feeling of connection and love you want, you might want to stop worrying so much about whether you’re the best, which is really about separating yourself from others, pulling away, standing out. You might want to stop that crazy swirl and look up and notice we’re all just big babies around here, we all just need someone to embrace us. So instead of holding your breath, and holding all the judgments and comparisons and shame, you hold out your arms and you hold all those children around you like Jesus did. You hold them in your arms and your heart.
And you do the same for yourself.
I used to think that when Jesus picked up that little kid in this story, he was telling us to be like a child who’s small and unimportant and knows it but it doesn’t matter—the child just has fun and doesn’t care who’s the best or not. But then I actually had children. And I realized practically from the word go they are in competition with each other, seeing who’s fastest, who has the most toys, who’s first in line, saying I’m better than you poopoo face…it’s amazing how non-angelic the little angels can be. They want to be the greatest, just like the rest of us big babies.
But maybe there is one difference between little kids and us. They let Jesus pick them up and embrace them. When my kids were little and sometimes even now, when they felt bad about themselves they would crawl into my lap and let themselves be loved.
That’s all Jesus seems to want from us. Not for us to pretend that we’re something we’re not. Not to be ashamed of our desire to be noticed and approved of and praised. You want to be greatest? Sure you do. I do. And It’s OK. We’re all big babies around here. Mostly we all just want to know we’re loved.
I think I might be starting to get it. At least a little. At least. just for today, as they say. You want to feel great? Embrace the big babies all around you and the big baby that lives inside you. Embrace them like Jesus does. Like Jesus wants to do with all of us right here and right now.
Just crawl into that lap, and let yourself be loved
Written by Lenora Rand. Talk originally given at a Recovery Worship service, 2009.