By The Way

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 19, 2021

Mark 9:30-37

Travel can be an enlightening experience. When I travel, I like to observe what’s going on around me – you can learn things by observation. When I travel, I like to listen to what people are saying – you can learn things by listening.

One summer my brother Jim and his wife Jane traveled to Scotland. We bought tickets to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It was our third time to attend the Tattoo. Military and bands from all over the world participate. One of the things I enjoyed about the Tattoo is what’s called “getting in the queue,” what we would call “getting in line.” The show starts at 9:00 PM and they like to have everyone in their seats by 8:30. You don’t have to get in the queue. All the seats are assigned. You can just wait until everyone is in and then go in. But standing in the queue is part of the experience.

Standing behind us were four people from another country. It was their first time to the Tattoo. One fellow asked me, “It is always like this?”

“Like what?”

“Do they always make people stand in the queue like this?”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s a military Tattoo so they like people to be orderly about it.”

But there was more to it than that. This was Scotland, and there was a certain sensibility at work. The Tattoo has a priority seating process, rather like getting onto an airplane. Across the street from where our queue was formed, there was another queue of people who were ushered in first. These were people who needed extra time because they were in wheelchairs or walking with canes or on crutches or needed assistance.

Once they were in the rest of the queue was allowed in.

“Look at that!” the fellow from another country said. “I should have brought my stick and they would let me in first! They’ll not get me back again!”

It’s funny sometimes how people say things in public to people they’ve just met, and they assume that everyone is in agreement with their ignorant biases. But I suppose that’s the nature of such things. Making assumptions as opposed to making observations – spouting ignorance as opposed to listening and learning.

Travel can be an enlightening experience if one is willing to engage with the nature of enlightenment.

The story of Jesus as told in the version called Mark is like a travelogue. Jesus and his friends are on a journey. The destination is Jerusalem where he meets his destiny on the cross. In Mark, the journey itself is a metaphor for the nature of God’s realm. As they were “on the way,” they were exploring what the “way” of Jesus was all about.

One day Jesus and his followers were walking along the road. He was trying to teach his followers about the true nature of his mission. He was not trying to be the founder of a new religion. He didn’t want to be the head of a new religious empire.

There was talk of a Jewish Messiah. The Messiah was a kind of mythological figure in people’s imaginations. There were hopes and expectations placed upon the Messiah. The coming of the Messiah would herald a new age. Out with the old – in with the new.

The problem was that people had misread the prophecies concerning the Messiah. They believed the Messiah would overthrow the existing power structures and set up a new kingdom. Out with the Romans and in with God’s king.

But replacing one king with a new king doesn’t change anything. It’s the same power structure just with new faces. But people always think the new king will be better than the old king. That’s what they thought of the old king when he was the new king.

Jesus was talking about real change. Grass roots change that would alter the landscape of power and prestige. The kind of change that would bring kings down to earth and turn swords into plowshares. So for kings and kingdoms whose power was based on wielding the sword, the message of Jesus was a real threat.

He was telling his followers that the reality was he would end up being killed. He said, ‘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.’

They didn’t know how to respond, and they were reluctant to question him. If they had, they might have asked, “Why do you always have to be so cryptic?”

What did he mean, “The Son of Man?” What was that supposed to mean? Literally translated it simply means, “One born of a human being.” He was reminding them, “I come from the same place as you. I am made of the same of the stuff. Be careful what you imagine of me, because I can be killed just as well as the next person.”

That’s how power deals with threats. Kill it. End of story.

After they had reached their journey’s end for the day, Jesus asked his followers, “So what were you guys arguing about when we were on the way this afternoon?”

There is a subtle undertone in the question. In Mark’s story of Jesus, “the way” means more than just the road they were on. The “way” is a pathway to the realm of God. It is a “way” of understanding and experiencing God’s desire for humankind. It was counter to the way of kings and kingdoms and the Messiahs who would replace them. It involved –

Living in a non-hierarchical way;

Affirming the dignity of all;

Practicing open table fellowship;

Gender equality;

Non-violent resistance to political and religious oppression;

Is that what they were arguing about? No. “We were arguing about who is the greatest.”

It might have been which of them was the greatest. Or maybe they were comparing Jesus with other religious figures. Or maybe it was a general argument about the meaning of greatness. Whatever it was, they were on the wrong track.

Jesus talked to them about the meaning of greatness. He talked to them about childlike faith. Jesus pointed to a child and said, “Welcome that child and you welcome me. Welcome me, and you welcome the one who sent me.” He wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know. Maybe just something they had forgotten and need to remember. Jesus told them his mission was not about being great, but about serving people.

Welcome the child. That’s easy enough for us to consider; even the ones who make noise about their needs, who ask endless questions, who fidget and display their short attention spans. We understand it. It’s almost a creed we recite on a regular basis to say, “We need more children in Sunday School.” Without them we have no future.

Jesus isn’t talking about the future. He’s talking about the present, the here and now. We notice something in the way Mark the storyteller tells this tale. We don’t know anything about the child Jesus took in his arms. In our “Good News” version the child is called “he.” But that’s just for our convenience. In the original, the child is referred to simple as “it.” Was the child a boy or a girl? How old was the child? We don’t know. We do learn something about how children were regarded in those days by the way the child is described – ‘then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms.’

It. Not he or she, but it. Someone who was not a someone, but a thing, not quite human by the scales and measurements of the day. Someone with no power, no prestige, and certainly no measure of greatness.

And all throughout history, even into the present day, there is a tendency to put people in that category of the it. We could make a list with a big “IT” on top and then start putting people into it. It would be a long list. Some of us here today would find ourselves on someone’s list of the unacceptable and those who should be kept on the outside.

Think about it – age, gender, physical condition, mental capacity, sexual orientation, financial status, skin color, creed, religion, social status. These are just the broad categories within which we tend to divide people and judge who is acceptable and who is not.          

What the story reveals about Jesus is, that whenever we make such a list and whenever we draw the lines of who is on the inside and who is on the outside, Jesus will always, without exception place himself among those on the outside. He is the ultimate outsider and he will not step foot inside until everyone else has been allowed in before him. That’s what he meant when he told his disciples to be the “last of all.” Because if anyone is on the outside, then you need be out there with them.

Jesus revealed God’s message about humanity. Religion is supposed to reflect God’s vision for humanity. With Jesus it’s not about building a religious empire. It’s not about power and prestige – so that the right people are let in and the wrong people are kept out.

Traveling the way of Jesus can be an enlightening experience.  His way is about breaking down the walls of power, removing the barriers of prestige, erasing the lines of exclusion and widening the circle until it includes everyone. 2000 years later we’re still trying to take that message on board – still trying to make that message work. Amen.

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