Text: Mark 9:30-37
Fears have a way of sneaking into our very being and depriving us of truly living. In fact, some of my worst actions and decisions in life have been motivated by fear. Such an experience happened recently. Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from Nora while I was in a meeting here at church. The first three times she called I didn’t answer. But by the fourth call I became worried that something might be wrong so I answered. The conversation went something like this. “Mom, I met a new friend at the coffee shop. She says she hasn’t had anything to eat all day. Is it okay if she comes home with me, and I fix her something to eat?” Not wanting to be distracted from my meeting, I quickly, but with some reluctance replied, “yes, that will be okay.”
When I arrived home, Nora and her new friend were sitting on the front porch. I asked if they had gotten something to eat and both said “yes.” Then Nora said, “Mom, this is my friend. She doesn’t have anywhere to live right now.” Immediately, I could feel myself shutting down. Without saying another word, I looked at Nora and said, “I need to talk with you inside.” Nora followed me in, and I said to her, “Nora, she can’t stay here tonight.” “Why not, mom?” “Because we can’t house homeless people in our home.” I almost couldn’t believe it when I heard the words actually come out of my mouth. But there it was, in all its glory, FEAR. Fear that this person might steal something while in my house. Fear that one night would turn into two nights, then three nights, then a week. And the most irrational fear of all: that Nora would be influenced by this young woman and start hanging out with homeless people. Fear is that insidious. It has a way of leading us to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing our vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities. It’s hard to be wise, creative or compassionate when you are afraid.
I tell this story because I think this week’s reading from Mark is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith. And I also think it offers a bridge across which we can travel from our fears to faith. Did you notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his death (vs. 30-32) because they are afraid? Instead, they begin arguing about securing their place in the coming kingdom. Who will be the greatest? Fear does that. It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.
Micah Kiel points out in his commentary on this passage that this isn’t the only time Mark contrasts faith and fear. In his gospel, Mark tells us that after Jesus stills the storm that had terrified his disciples, he asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And as he restores Jairus’ daughter from death back to life, he tells the distraught father, “Do not fear, only believe.” Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is the opposite of faith, or at least the kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts and drives us to despair.
Now, to be fair to the disciples, it must have been concerning, if not downright disturbing, to hear Jesus talking about how he will suffer, die and rise again. Who wouldn’t be fearful of such talk or, at the very least, confused? So you might ask, “why don’t the disciples just ask Jesus to explain?” Well, I imagine for the same reason we don’t ask a lot of questions when we feel afraid or confused or distressed. Who wants to look uninformed, confused, clueless and, most of all, afraid? So instead of asking their hard and vulnerable questions, the disciples resorted to this unholy argument of who among them was the greatest. Distraction is satisfying even if it is an unproductive response to things we fear.
Before I go further into this story, I do want to acknowledge that fear is real, and that there are times when fear is an appropriate response. There are situations in life where fear can keep us safe. There are also those moments in life when fear can actually keep us from doing something harmful or doing something that is just plain old stupid. To speak the obvious, all fear is not bad. I’m not talking about that kind of fear today. Today, I am talking about the kind of fear that causes us to act irrationally, that narrows our vision and compassion, fear that distracts us from the meaningful and important questions in life, fear that drives us to look out only for ourselves.
In response to the disciples’ fear, Jesus gathers them around him and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put the child among them; and taking that child into his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
So hearing Jesus’ response to the disciples, here is what I want to ask you to consider this morning. I want you to consider that “Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties [is] an invitation not to faith as intellectual assent—as if believing in God somehow prohibits fear—but rather to faith as a movement, faith as taking a step forward in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises” (David Lose, Working Preacher). The kind of faith that we often see represented in the youngest among us—faith that is open, compassionate, trusting, vulnerable and curious. I can’t tell you how many times in the last month I have wished that I had responded to Nora and her friend with such faith.
Early in this sermon, I made the statement that I think this story from Mark offers us a bridge across which we can travel from our fears to faith. Let me explain what I mean. We all know the quote from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 that says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” It echoes the same sentiments as Jesus’ word in our story today, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all…” But often there is one glaring omission when we quote this piece of wisdom. In our story today, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all AND servant of all.”
It is, I believe, this part of the quote, the part we often omit, that becomes the bridge between our fear and our faith: servant of all. I focused on the word servant as I began my sermon study and preparation at the beginning of the week. I thought about the ambivalence that the word elicits—its usage in recent history is so ugly as it recalls our nation’s sin of slavery. And yet, the story of my faith, the Christian faith, is deeply grounded in this word. In lectionary group this week I asked those there how they felt about the word servant. Someone suggested that maybe the word doesn’t belong in our culture anymore. And so I posed the question, “Then how do we talk about being a servant or servanthood in today’s vernacular? What words do we use to replace the word servant?” If the word doesn’t belong, surely the concept and meaning behind the word DO belong, at least for those of us who call ourselves people of faith. So how do we define the word servant in our world today? Is it possible that we define it, like faith, as a movement, taking a step forward in spite of our fears? Maybe servanthood embraces those moments when we interrupt our daily lives to care for another; when we look out for others, not just ourselves; when we make sacrifices for the well-being of others; when we voluntarily go to the back of the line; share power; give something up; are willing to be inconvenienced; to walk with instead of walking ahead—maybe this is what being a servant looks like today. When we act as a “servant to all” we begin to bridge the gap between our fear and our faith.
I leave you with the words of writer, theologian and preacher, David Lose. He writes, “Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children. These are small things when you think about it. Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger. But they are available to each and all of us every single day. And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures of faith—that is find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid—we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear does not have the last word.” Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
For those arguing disciples, I am most grateful. For sometimes it is in the unholy arguments that we find our greatest blessings.