First in Line

(A sermon for Proper 20B        Mark 9:30-37        September 20, 2009)

My father did a lot of traveling by airplane when I was a little girl, back in the days when you could go right out to the tarmac to greet your returning passenger. When I was 5 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and for the next six years, there were many occasions when my mother drove the family car to our destination and my father met us later, and many other times he traveled to the far reaches of my home state, Virginia, on planes large and small. But most of those planes were medium-sized, and in my memory they all have the name Piedmont painted on the tail. Those Piedmont planes had a back door that opened to form a staircase, and I remember watching the people make their way down, one after another, as we waited for Daddy.
And waited.
And waited.
And waited.
You see, he always got off the plane last. I remember asking him why. Why, Daddy? Didn’t you know we were waiting for you? Didn’t you know we were hungry and in a hurry to go out to dinner? Didn’t you know we wanted you with us as quickly as possible?
He knew. But he felt it more polite to wait and let others get off the plane first. Did a few minutes make that much difference? To a 9-year-old girl and her 7-year-old brother, after what felt like a long drive to the airport, eager for our trip to the Chinese restaurant or the pizza place, it made a lot of difference.
Besides, our daddy was important. We knew that. Our license plate said “U.S. 2.” Our last name had been on bumper stickers and campaign pins and posters. When we went to Disney World, we got the “V.I.P.” tour, which meant “We” were Very Important People. A Disney employee in a uniform topped by a remarkable cap took us to the front of the long line at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and spared us the waiting of ordinary people.
We got to go first in line.
Why, then, did our daddy hold back? I’ve wondered about this many times. It’s partly true that he didn’t like to hurry. He took his time in speaking. He considered all the possibilities. And he took other people into consideration. And if that sometimes seemed more true of people outside the family than in it, well, I suspect his Sunday School education had something to do with the way he behaved . I know his mama reinforced those values at home, for she taught them to hundreds of Sunday School children herself.
Over the past week or so I’ve wondered whatever happened to the behavioral norms of my childhood as one public figure after another burst forth with intemperate remarks. A Representative shouted at the President during his address to a Joint Session of Congress. Serena Williams spoke threateningly to a line judge, and Roger Federer swore at the chair umpire at the U.S. Open. And at the Video Music Awards, Kanye West took the microphone away from an award winner to say he felt someone else deserved her trophy.
Like playground bullies pushing other children away to get to the swings, they used their unpleasant words to try to get what they wanted, to get a word in edgewise, to make themselves first in line.
The disciples, in their travels with Jesus, had a lot of time to talk among themselves. If you’ve been on a long bus trip with a group, or done a hike with a crowd of friends, you know how it goes. The person next to you dozes or looks out the window, and you strike up a chat with the person across the aisle or change seats. You adjust your pace and find a different companion falling in beside you.
So it must have been for them, grouping and regrouping, and doing what is inevitable for human beings: considering their positions relative to one another. A group of 13 must notice who is walking with the leader. Someone must be calculating how much “face time” Jesus gives to Peter and James and John. It seems like he never pays as much attention to Andrew or Philip. And Bartholomew? Forget it. He’s dead last.
Of course what was really on their minds was something deeper and more complicated. In today’s passage we hear the follow up to last week’s lesson, in both of which Jesus tells the disciples what to expect in the future.
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. (Mark 9:31b-32)
This all sounded very, very bad. First off, we don’t know that they understood what Jesus meant when he called himself the Son of Man. In last week’s story, Peter assured Jesus that the disciples knew him to be the Messiah. But Jesus is giving them another title to parse, and we know already, figuring things out is not their strength. Worse, Jesus is asking them again to imagine his death, which they do not want, and his return to life, which they cannot conceive possible.
Sadly, the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus to explain. Instead they drop into little groups and then move into others along the road and find something else to talk about: themselves. They wonder who among them is the greatest of the Very Important Disciples. They wonder who is first in line.
They may think Jesus doesn’t know what they’re talking about on the road, but let us not forget. The man is a teacher. He has eyes in the back of his head. And so when he asks them–“What were you arguing about on the way?”—we can feel pretty sure he already knows.
As he so often does, Jesus uses what is around him to teach the lesson. In the house they have entered, there is a child, and he puts the child in front of them and takes the child in his arms. Now, in first century Galilee, children didn’t count for much. They couldn’t pull the economic weight of an adult, and there was a good chance they never would, since so many of them died before reaching maturity. Since their value derived from their usefulness, they had none. Jesus embraced that child and asked the disciples to reconsider their system of reckoning who mattered most.
Jesus tells us that in our care for others, particularly those who reside on the margins of society, we show love for him. Faithful discipleship is not about being the Captain of the Disciple Squad. The way of faithfulness is putting the little ones first.
Now, in our culture of competition and outbursts that go beyond the celebrity worlds of sports and popular music, we may despair that we can ever be the people Jesus wanted. We have plenty of opportunities to choose how we behave, to respond under pressure with grace or not, with love or not. We forget what matters most or decide we can straighten out that attitude later. The world seems to demand it. But Jesus asks us for something very different.
The other day I saw a story that gave me hope. A young father at a Philadelphia Phillies game catches a foul ball, and the TV cameras capture the look of happy surprise on his face. He sits down and gives this precious souvenir to his little daughter, and before he realizes what is happening, she tosses it back onto the field.
If you get a chance to see this, watch the father’s face. In the mood of our times, you might expect to see it fall, just for a moment, or worse, you might imagine he would be angry with her. But although he looks shocked for just a second, he never stops smiling, and as soon as his little girl makes eye contact with him, he smiles even more broadly and takes her in his arms.
Interviewed later, the dad explained that it made perfect sense. He’s been teaching his three-year-old daughter to play catch with a Nerf ball, and when she gets the ball, she knows she is supposed to throw it!  We can grasp this modern-day parable as quickly as people in the first century understood the shocking nature of Jesus’ action in the gospel story. It turns out the desire for
greatness is not simply a modern phenomenon. It turns out even the people around Jesus needed to learn a new way of being.
And that makes me hopeful, too. The old story and the new can bring us to the same place. The smile on a father’s face reminds us love matters more than who has the ball. The arms of our Savior around a little child remind us that love matters more than who is first in line.
May we live such love in this church and in the world. Amen.

4 thoughts on “First in Line”

  1. Songbird, You and I chose the same title. And what a wonderful, powerful sermon you wrote. Thank you for sharing yours online. May I borrow and tell the story you told about your father, giving you credit? I love that, what your father taught you about being last and how you live it out in your life. I feel honored to know you.
    Your blogpal,

  2. Lovely. Thank you so much. Such a healing thing about dads, for one thing 🙂
    And thanks for the kids time idea too….

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