This week I spent some time with a group I will be working with and we took what was called the DiSC assessment. The assessment is a bit like other personality assessments, such as Myers-Briggs or Enneagram. Basically, the assessment helps you understand your own way of relating within groups, how you analyze and solve problems, and how you lead. What was interesting was I received the results of the assessment before we received a real description about how the survey works and what the survey teaches you. Consequently, when I read my results, I began to get a bit paranoid, my mind filling with questions. What would the group think about my strengths and challenges? What if my personality type was a negative outlier? What was the best type, and how far was I from that ideal? But when we finally reviewed the entire group’s results, our instructor told us something that would have been helpful to know from the very beginning: there was no correct answer, or preferable personality type; there was no particular category that produced the most leaders (in fact, we got a list of four worldwide business leaders who came from each of the four categories); and, most importantly, any group would be better with an equal amount of representatives from each of the four categories.
What I realized in my initial anxiety about my own results was that I had fallen into the same trap as the disciples in our text today. Here they are, walking along with Jesus, watching him feed thousands of people, watching him as he is transfigured with Elijah and Moses appearing, healing people, and trying to teach them who he really is. If you remember last week, Charlie talked to us about a shift that happens in the text where Mark stops telling us what Jesus does, and starts reflecting on who Jesus is. When the visceral encounter between Jesus and Peter happens, where Jesus declares, “Get behind me, Satan,” instead of reflecting on who Jesus is, the disciples start bickering among themselves. You can almost imagine their murmurings: Peter is always so petulant – I always knew I was the greater disciple!; You’re the greatest? No way, you weren’t even chosen to go up the mountain when we saw Elijah!; We all know that I’m the greatest – clearly I bring the financial support for all of Jesus’ shenanigans. Clearly the disciples are jockeying what my children would call GOAT – Greatest of All Time.
The self-righteous part of us likes to criticize the disciples, seeing how self-centered they are being, especially at time when Jesus is trying to explain the critical future he is facing. But when we are honest with ourselves, we can totally relate to the disciples’ competitiveness. Our competitiveness starts when we are children: who learns to walk, talk, and read first, who is the is the tallest in the class, or who loses their baby teeth first. Later we compete for measurables: who gets the best grades, who makes the team or gets a coveted position, who is elected for office in a club or organization. And the competition only gets worse: who makes the most money, who gets the most promotions, who gets recognized in the community the most for good works. We are naturally competitive people. Even the people who claim they are not competitive compete to be the least concerned about competition. Competing for humility is still competing.
The truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with competition. In fact, competition usually brings out the best in us, pushing us to be the best versions of ourselves. But when competition starts morphing into self-interest, self-promotion, and self-preservation over the well-being of others, that’s where we start getting into trouble. When the disciples are so caught up about who is the GOAT among them – The Greatest of All Time – they are not pushing themselves to be a greater team for Jesus. Their competition is about tearing down instead of building up. They stop cheering for each other, and start cheering only for themselves. Ultimately, their self-interest will end up hurting their selves rather than helping.
Jesus sees this weakness of course, and calls them out. The text tells us the disciples are silent when Jesus says, “What were you arguing about on the way?” You can hear the guilt in their silence. They know immediately they were doing something hurtful, or they would have had no problem saying, “Oh we were just talking about who is the Greatest Disciple of All Time.” But Jesus doesn’t want them to just feel guilty. Instead he brings in a child, and says the one who welcomes in a child welcomes God; the one who welcomes children is the Greatest of All Time.
Now we have to understand how radical what Jesus is doing with this child. Some of you may be sitting here thinking how right Jesus is, how adorable children are, how they say such simple, profound things, and how innocent they are. Meanwhile others of you are envisioning the last epic tempter tantrum you saw and wondering if Jesus has lost his mind. But Jesus is not talking about the behavior of children. Jesus is talking about the status of children. According to scholars, “Mark’s audience would have heard the world ‘child’ as referring to someone like the servant who served meals to everyone else in the household, in that both were seen as without ‘honor’ or high social standing. A child did not contribute much of anything to the economic value of a household or community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence,” and, now this is the important part, “one would obtain no benefit from according to a child the hospitality or rituals of higher status or someone whose favor one wanted to curry.”[i] So when Jesus says in welcoming the child, you welcome God, he is saying honor and status and recognition comes not from trying to win the GOAT award, but instead trying to outdo one another in service, in kindness, in care for those who seem to be the least important.
Now Jesus is not trying to create another competition. Lord knows we do not need the disciples bragging about volunteer hours or non-profit leadership roles or lives saved. Jesus is not looking for competition, but mutual encouragement. Jesus is looking not for achievements, but those times when we facilitated the achievements of others. Jesus finds we are at our greatest when we are not worried about being our greatest at all. Being a disciple of Jesus is dispositionally about the care of others. Now that does not mean that we are trying to erase or shame the self. Jesus just knows we learn to love ourselves, we find our greatest selves, when we are thinking of others first. Somewhere deep inside ourselves, we know Jesus’ words are true. How much joy do we get when we spend that extra hour with the kid who cannot catch a ball to save his life, only to finally watch him catch the ball? How much joy do we get when we join the group cheering on a competitor in the Special Olympics? How much joy do we get when we find out the woman who we ate dinner with at the Winter Shelter has found safe, stable housing? God is not found when we achieve the most, obtain the most, and win the most. God is found when we help others achieve, help them obtain their needs, and help them or the entire team win.
Today’s Gospel lesson is not a lesson about feeling guilty. Jesus does not long for us to leave this place today in guilty silence. Jesus is reminding us that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we ascribe to a different kind of life – a life not devoid of our gifts and talents, but a life where we use our gifts and talents in the service of others. Church is the place where we slowly, humbly can learn to hone our servant leadership. And the work is just that: slow and humble. Learning to be a servant leader takes time, and mistakes, and corrections. But learning to be servant leaders will also be one of the most rewarding things you will do here at Hickory Neck. Soon you will learn the gifts that come from being a servant leader are way more soul-feeding than being a GOAT – Greatest of All Time. What we learn is servant leadership is not just for our own good, or even for the good of the church. Learning to be a servant leader is the gift that we then take out into world as our Christian witness.[ii] When our servant leadership serves as our witness in the world, then others begin to understand your greatness comes from the one who was truly the Greatest of All Time. Amen.
[i] Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.
[ii] Nathan G. Jennings, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.