The 17th Sunday after Pentecost — Proper 20B (Sept. 23, 2012)

Lessons:Jeremiah 11:18-20 or Wisdom 1:16 – 2:1, 12-22 Psalm 54 (4) James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a St. Mark 9:30-37 Semicontinuous Series Proverbs 31:10-31 Psalm 1 (3)

Prayer of the Day: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

9:30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.  33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

St. Mark 9:30-37 New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

First and Last… Last and First

Years ago I spent time with friends, exploring what it would be like to live more simply. Our impression was that we were spending too much time accumulating and caring for our stuff — time that could have been used much more faithfully and productively. (Those were the days before personal computers, cellular telephones, iPads and iPods… seems now like it would simplify our lives just to go back to those days!) Our conversations began out of the desire to step away from “competing with the Joneses” and towards a less competitive, more content, lifestyle.

It never quite took, though, because we only paid attention to surface issues. Soon the competitive desire to have more was replaced by the competitive desire to live more simply. Who could use the least amount of fuel? Who could generate the least amount of waste? Who could pack all their belongings in the smallest trunk? The end result was not contentment, but a restlessness of a different sort.

Throughout the years, believers have been derailed in similar ways after reading this week’s Gospel lesson. It is the second Passion Prediction in St. Mark’s Gospel (second of three), and it includes the conversation that followed between Jesus and his disciples. He announces to them that for him to be Messiah will mean betrayal, death and resurrection, but they don’t get it. They almost immediately begin arguing with one another about which of them is the greatest. Jesus replies with those oft-quoted words, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” A more literal translation from the Greek might be, “If someone desires to be first, he will be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus isn’t inviting them (or us) to strive to be last instead of striving to be first. If we take pride in being last (or being a servant), or if we begin to behave like someone who is last (or who is a servant), all along hoping to become first (after having become last), we have completely missed the point. He is not challenging us to be the most least. He is inviting us to realize that in his kingdom there is no “striving to be.” In his kingdom, social status is meaningless (whether the status is based on who has the most or who has the least). In his kingdom, we are all served by his betrayal, death and resurrection. In his kingdom we are all called to humble ourselves and welcome the least among us in Jesus’ name, and in doing so realize that we are welcoming God into our lives.

We live in this world, and are surrounded by its story. Day after day we are taught that the key to a good life is to become wealthy, powerful and self-reliant. Jesus invites us to shape our lives by a different story. A story in which his betrayal, death and resurrection are central. A story in which those who desire to be first will discover that they are last. A story in which humility and hospitality usher the presence of God into our living.

May his story be our story. And as we humble ourselves, offering a genuine welcome to the least among us, may God’s story be told among us.


David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why didn’t the disciples understand what Jesus was saying about betrayal, death and resurrection (what were they expecting instead)?
  2. Why were they interested in who among them was the greatest?
  3. How are Jesus’ words a refutation of the way their world was ordered?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I been overly concerned about how others perceive me?
  2. When have I been more interested in another’s need than my own?
  3. Who might I welcome into my life, or into my church, and be a sign of God’s presence to them?