“Whoever Wants to Be First…”

Mark 9:30-37

I offer my thoughts today in gentleness to colleagues who climb into the pulpit or rush to the hospital or who are struggling especially at this time of year to keep up with the demands of getting a new program year off the ground. I write this in gentleness and humility, knowing that the words of Jesus now may just hit awfully close to home for those of us who want to do so well, but often believe we find ourselves falling short. Who find ourselves on the losing end of the disciples’ argument about ‘who is the greatest.’ Or who, from time to time, are tempted to claim that we’ve got it all together and our gifts are perhaps even a little stronger than those of a neighbor, a colleague, a would-be-friend down the road. I offer this in gentleness knowing I so need your gentleness in turn. I don’t know how my thoughts will preach this week. But I do know this bears our considering.

For on the one hand, we hope and pray that the argument the disciples battled out about ‘who was the greatest’ actually ended with Jesus’ gentle reprimand. And yet, we know it goes on. Even if it is never spoken aloud. Even if it is not an actual argument, but is simply an internal comparison we make in our own minds and hearts.

Now here I have to say I can only speak for myself. At the same time, I can’t help but believe I am alone in this. For unless I am truly alone, I expect that we find ourselves doing this far more often than we would like. For instance,

We turn to the back page of a neighboring congregation’s newsletter and we scan their attendance and giving numbers. And we find ourselves either gratified that we are not there or envious that they are and we are not.

Or in the ‘safety’ of a group of colleagues, we speak the truth about a particular struggle in our own congregation and we are met not with empathy but with advice — as if the other’s wisdom is so much greater than our own and if I/we were just smarter, more talented, more organized… more SOMETHING … I wouldn’t find myself here. Or, more likely, we never speak the truth at all, fearful that is just what we will receive. And we struggle on alone.

Or we look at the trajectory of our own ‘career path’ and we think to ourselves that we should be serving in a bigger place by now — with more people — either in the congregation or the community. Or with a larger staff. Or a newer building. Or among a people who possession a greater sense of mission. Or whatever…

Again, perhaps this is not so for all of us — but for many of us, while we don’t have the argument in quite the way we believe the disciples must have had it so long ago, still the argument rages on. It surely does.

Indeed, early in my ministry I had a colleague who literally hated to talk to his dad on a Sunday afternoon. His dad was also a pastor and his first question was always, “Well, son, what was the attendance today?” At that point in time his son was serving a congregation with a huge heart — but which only boasted about forty in the pews. And so every time the conversation played out, the son felt small.  As though he was, once again, on the losing end of the argument.

That was almost thirty years ago. Or two thousand years ago. Or just yesterday. And yet, we haven’t learned. And I worry, I do, that if we don’t change now, we stand to lose it all. For Jesus says,

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

It was true then. It seems it must be all the more true today. For it is simply too hard out there, in here, to do otherwise. If anything, we need one another more than ever.

Oh yes, I remember well the day I admitted to a friend that I envied her gifts, her place of ministry, her effectiveness at what she did so well. And she turned on me in anger. For the argument the disciples had and the one that still goes on separates us from one another. It puts us on opposite sides instead of on the same side working together. Where we belong.

And so I wonder now how much different would we look as the people of God — all of us — if we were only doing what Jesus says we must do now? How would our lives be richer, fuller, and most of all more faithful if we saw one another as dear ones to be served and not as rivals to be beaten?

Like I said, maybe it’s just me. But I think not. And I wonder what this means for our future and our future together. I wonder what it means for our collective witness to the world. And I cringe.

And so today I am especially grateful for colleagues.

For the one who was quick to call me back one morning this week as I was struggling through a ministry quagmire. Who didn’t judge. Who offered sage and gentle advice. And before she hung up made me promise I would sit a minute in the sanctuary and breathe before I did anything else. I did just that.

And another who called me up just to commiserate and grieve together at the death of a mutual friend. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for many of us, but he took the time for a ten minute phone call.

And yet another who is working shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with me to shape a confirmation program which our congregations will now share.

We need so much more of this if we are to be those Jesus calls us to be. And the wonder and the irony is that we are all already ‘first in the eyes and heart of God.’  If only we were to live like we were ‘last’ with one another? I expect we might find ourselves to be ‘first’ in profound ways which are, as yet, unimaginable to us.

  • The competition the disciples voice reflect the ‘way of the world,’ both then and now. While I think Jesus’ teaching now hits close to home for those of us in ‘professional ministry’ — surely it must speak in other contexts as well. For those of you who don’t get paid to serve the church, how do you hear these words? Where and how do they speak?
  • Who is ‘last’ in your place? Where you work, in your neighborhood, at your child’s school, at your church? What would it mean to ‘serve’ them? How would that be a reflection of your faith? How might it make a difference?
  • Church workers: how do these words speak to you? Do I come close in describing your experience? Why or why not?
  • What would it look like for us to truly ‘serve’ each other? How might that change everything? How might that shape our collective witness to the world?

4 comments

  1. Steve says:

    I'm a pastor. Guilty as charged. Thank you for reminding me of ways that I neglect to honor my gifts, and be envious of others'; while also saying, "at least that's not happening in my congregation."

  2. Dear Janet,
    Thanks for your reflection. I look forward to reading what you write regularly. It offers me insight, hope, and direction. I will add that this message is timely in terms of how do we now serve the refugees who are desperately in need of being supported. blessings on your ministry.

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