From the Greatest to the Welcomed

Mark 9: 30-37

There are three predictions in the gospel of Mark Jesus shares of his own arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. At each of these points, Jesus predicts, the disciples respond with misunderstanding, and Jesus instructs his followers about discipleship. We read and heard the first one last week, and the second such foretelling this morning. Jesus’ instructions on discipleship here address an argument between the disciples of who was the greatest.

Saint Peter and Satan were having an argument one day about baseball. With an unrelenting stare, Satan proposed a game to be played on neutral grounds between an all-star team from heaven and his own hand-picked squad from Hades. “Very well,” Simon Peter agreed. “But you realize, I hope, that we have all the good players and the best coaches, too.” “Sure,” said Satan calmly, “but we have all the umpires.”

Who was the greatest? These days we use the acronym, GOAT, meaning the Greatest of All Time. Ty Cobb, maybe the greatest baseball hitter of all time was asked by a reporter long after his retirement, “What do you think you’d hit if you were hitting these days?” Cobb, who was a lifetime .367 hitter, said, “About .290, maybe .300.” The reporter said, “That’s because of the travel, the large number of night games, the artificial turf, and all the new pitches like the slider, right?” “No,” said Cobb, “it’s because I’m seventy.” 

A professional basketball player known as ‘Hot Rod’ Hundley roomed for a while with Elgin Baylor when they were both on the Los Angeles Lakers. Baylor was one of the greatest scorers in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA). One night, Baylor set a league record by scoring 71 points in a game. In that same game Hundley scored two points. In the taxi ride back to the hotel, ‘Hot Rod’ put his arm around Elgin and said triumphantly, “What a night we had buddy! Seventy-three points between us!”

We so often determine the greatest of all time to be based on numbers accumulated, scores collected. So, this morning, I ask who was keeping score among the disciples? A father and his son once paused to watch some kids in a sandlot baseball game. “What’s the score?” the father asked one of the players. “We’re behind 27 to nothing right now,” the kid said. “Aren’t you discouraged?” the father asked. “Nope,” the player said, “we ain’t been to bat yet.”

The disciples were obviously comparing accomplishments or accumulated numbers or scores. They fell into the temptation of comparing one another through competition. Competition creates a false narrative among brothers and sisters in Christ of there being winners and losers, but it’s the world that keeps score. A Hasidic Jewish story tells of a little boy playing hide-and-seek with his friends. For some reason, his playmates stopped playing when he was hiding. When he realized that, he began to cry. His grandfather found him to see what the matter was. After learning what happened, the grandfather said, “Don’t cry because the boys didn’t come to find you. There’s a lesson in this for us. All of life is a game of hide-and-seek between God and us. Only it is God who is weeping. God is waiting to be found, but many have gone in search of other things.”

Are we meant to keep score and hope our score, our grade, our accumulated point total will be enough to win God’s approval or our companions’ respect? To be the greatest, you’ll have to be judged. And we think the best way to be judged is to have a score of some sort that we can compare with somebody else. “As long as we’re not as bad as that guy.” Jesus, in this lesson to his disciples, puts this argument about who was greatest, who was the Goat, in a Kingdom context. To be the greatest, you must become the least and the servant of all because that’s what Jesus did.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father

(Philippians 2: 5-11).” Paul understood Jesus willingly humbled himself and became an obedient slave and surrendered to his destiny on the cross. From there, and from there only he was exalted by God the Father; therefore, no one could be his follower and make any kind of argument to justify their place as the greatest among other followers and disciples. That settled that.

It’s not who’s the greatest among the followers of Christ,  but who do you welcome? In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke, chapter 10, a lawyer asked Jesus, first, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? (verse 25)” Jesus asked him what was written in the law? The lawyer said you should love the Lord and love the neighbor. Jesus told him he answered well, but to justify himself, the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor? (verse 29)” Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He finished by asking the question, “Who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus changed the question. He didn’t answer the lawyer’s question of who is my neighbor, but Jesus made the question about who was the neighbor to the one who was hurt and abandoned. Jesus addressed the argument among his disciples in Mark 9 from who was the greatest to who do you welcome. It was and is obvious the greatest among them in human form was the one who humbled himself and accepted his destiny to be betrayed and killed. He directed their egotistical attention away from themselves and toward the least honored and valued in their culture, a mere child. If they were to welcome one like that in his name, they would be welcoming him and the one who sent him. As a disciple, a follower, you can’t justify yourself as great on any level while you’re learning to be like the One who humbled himself to the point of death to set free the world he so loved.

One last baseball illustration: It is said that when Earl Weaver was manager of the Baltimore Orioles (my hometown team) he would charge at umpires on the field to argue their decision, their call, by shouting, “Are you gonna get any better, or is this it?” That’s how the world wants us to think and act. Particularly, religious people figure they have to justify themselves and ascend a ladder to prove themselves that they can get better. By getting better, they win approval or acceptance. Remember, there are three prophetic predictions Jesus made in the gospel of Mark pertaining to his betrayal, death and resurrection. After each, he told his disciples about discipleship. I think he did because it was important to tell them how to live as his disciples after he left. Last week, I read in Mark 8, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (8: 34).” Today, we hear, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” and “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” No argument about who’s the greatest. No other place to be than among those who welcome the least and forgotten like Jesus did.

(Preached at Lincoln UMC in Lincoln, AL, September 19, 2021)


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