Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC Bangor, Maine
September 23, 2018

Who Is The Greatest? MARK 9:30-37

One day some winters ago, I found myself standing in a line at a large store in the area returning merchandise. I immediately noticed two things about the woman ahead of me: she was sitting on a motorized scooter and she was crying. I heard her say to the clerk, “You’re not going to make me go out into the snow and try to find that receipt, are you?” The clerk patiently explained that they could not give her a refund without a receipt. And then the woman, greatly distressed, launched into a catalogue of her problems: how her home was being foreclosed on, how she had to wire her brother $1.50, and much more. When the clerk didn’t waver in what she had told her about the receipt, the woman finally asked to speak to someone else. At that moment a young man appeared. She went through the whole story again–how she lost the receipt and just could not go out into the weather and try to locate it. The young man was pleasant but firm and again told the woman what his co-worker had told her. The young man seemed to have much more patience than I did, as I kept wondering if I ever would have the chance to exchange my bottle of cleanser whose cap I could not unscrew– even with pliers! At last the woman asked if she could speak with the young man’s boss. Out came the third person to hear her story, but he cut right to the chase. No receipt, no refund. Finally, the woman–in a torrent of tears–decided that it just was not going to work. As she left after twenty minutes, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The young man then waited on me. When I asked, he told me he was a college senior–and seriously thinking of doing his capstone project on his experiences dealing with customers. When I told him I had been impressed by the way he dealt with the woman, he said, “Well, it’s really very trying, because she comes in here every day.”

Now even a preacher could lose his religion over something like that! And yes, the young man also tried to get the cleanser cap off and couldn’t! I was able to exchange it. ButI’ve never forgotten about that woman who was a pain, a bother, but was nevertheless a certified child of God–one of “the least of these.”

The story of the woman on the scooter sets the stage for our lesson this morning from Mark on “Who is the greatest?” During this month, we have been going through the oldest of the four Gospels. Today’s scripture from Mark 9 picks up where last week’s lesson left off. Jesus is speaking with the disciples, again foretelling his death and resurrection. These are words the disciples clearly do not want to hear. You remember in last week’s scripture from Mark 8 that Peter rebukes Jesus, the Messiah, for such talk. But Jesus reacts harshly to his criticism: “Get behind me, Satan!” Now Jesus predicts his murder one more time and says that he will rise from the dead. Again, the disciples are confused and afraid to question Jesus.

Then the passage moves into the body of the scripture. Jesus asks the twelve about the argument they were having as they made their way through Galilee. The text tells us that they are silent out of embarrassment, as they were arguing about “who is the greatest.” With that word, Mark 9 says that Jesus sat down. We know that any good Jewish teacher would sit down when something important needed to be said (Kathryn Matthews Huey, “First in Caring”). Jesus reminds the disciples about the power and value of being a servant leader: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Every time I visit the Salvation Army here in Bangor, I love seeing the sign that tells the world that within the building is the “Dorothy Day Soup kitchen.” As you may know, Dorothy Day was one of the great saints of the 20th Century and the founder of the Catholic worker movement. Dorothy Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. Her family moved to San Francisco, where they survived the earthquake in 1906. Because her father was unemployed, the family moved to a tenement on the south side of Chicago. The shame that people living around her suffered from stayed with Dorothy Day all her life (Jim Forest, “A Biography of Dorothy Day”).

After a few years of college, Dorothy moved to New York and was sent to prison for standing up for suffrage. She began a nurse’s training program, and gradually became involved with the Catholic Church which for her was “the church of the immigrants, the church of the poor.” By 1922 while working as a reporter, Dorothy Day became a devout, practicing Catholic.

Before that, however, Dorothy Day had a brief, unhappy common law marriage and also had an abortion—to her eternal regret. But she rejoiced in the birth of a daughter, Tamar. After the child was baptized, Dorothy Day came to meet a former Christian Brother, Peter Maurin. Peter was a modern day St. Francis who encouraged Dorothy to start a paper publicizing Catholic social teaching and “the peaceful transformation of society” (Forest). Dorothy Day published The Catholic Worker out of her apartment kitchen and sold the editions for a penny a copy–so anyone could afford it.

One of the tenets of the newspaper was hospitality, that believers should care for strangers in a “Christ’s Room” in their homes. By 1936 there were 33 catholic worker houses of hospitality established across the country. Once a visiting social worker asked how long the “clients” were allowed to stay. With a fierce gleam in her eye, Dorothy Day said,

We let them stay forever. They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ (Forest).

Clearly Dorothy Day’s life was a reflection of someone who decided to take the gospel at face value. For her, being a servant of Jesus was far more than just a goal; it was a lifestyle. The religious path led Dorothy Day to become a committed pacifist–even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She encouraged Catholic worker communities “to care for the sick and the wounded, to the growing of food for the hungry, to the continuance of all our works of mercy in our houses and on our farms.” Not everyone in the movement agreed and fifteen houses were closed. Still Dorothy marched on and was arrested for acts of civil disobedience. The last time Dorothy Day was jailed was in 1973 at the age of 75, when she supported the farm workers.

Many years ago I met Dr. Robert Coles, the eminent Harvard psychiatrist and literary and social critic. Dr. Coles tells the story about the time that he first met Dorothy Day. He found her seated at a soup kitchen table speaking with a woman from the bowery. When he approached, Dorothy looked up and said, “You wish to speak with one of us?” In that moment, the young doctor was introduced to a great ambassador for God who never forgot her mission. For Dorothy Day fundamentally believed that the first shall be last and that she was put on this earth to be a “servant of all.”

Before she died, there was a lot of talk about “Saint Dorothy Day.” She would have none of it. “Don’t call me a saint,” she said. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily. If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (forest). Despite Dorothy Day’s protests, the Vatican is now in the second stage on the road to her canonization.

In our lesson for the morning, Jesus presents the disciples with a powerful visual aid to illustrate servanthood. Mark tells us that he brings a little child into their midst and holds it in his arms. And then Jesus does a surprising thing, as he tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s hard for us to understand what a radical teaching those words were for First Century hearers. Jesus has already told them if they want to gain their life, they need to lose it. Then in today’s passage, Jesus gives them another paradox: that to be the greatest, one needs to claim the lowest and last place, and so to illustrate he picks a small child. Our middle hymnthis morning, “Little Children, Welcome,” reminds us that in our culture girls and boys aredeeply valued. But in ancient Mediterranean culture, girls and boys were on a low rung of the ladder. One commentator says that “Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child” (John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B).

So lifting up a child as a symbol of greatness makes no sense to the people of the First Century. Why use someone who has no power, no status as an example of the reign of God? At this juncture, the heads of the disciples must be spinning. Instead of speaking about victory and glory, Jesus keeps talking about suffering and dying, about welcoming a child as a person of intrinsic value.

Children during the time of Jesus weren’t the only ones who were devalued. There were lots of people on the margins, the “no counts” who didn’t register on the social scale: “people who were old, handicapped, sick, illiterate, cast out as unclean. This group included peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, slaves, the unemployed, aliens, immigrants, prisoners, homeless” (Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).

In her sermon on this passage, “Last of All,” Barbara Brown Taylor calls children in the ancient world “fillers, not main events.” Interestingly, the word for child and the word for servant in Greek comes from the same root. The odds of children in the First Century growing to adulthood were clearly against them. So that is why Jesus’ upending the social order by putting children at the top of the heap is so stunning. In this scripture and others, Jesus the teacher instructs that the last shall be first (Huey). So what we are given in Mark 9 is not only a dramatic role reversal, but we are also given a new way to practice hospitality.

About a dozen years ago I was with a group of Bangor seminary folks who spent a week at the Weston Priory in Weston, Vermont, at the risk of speaking more about the Catholic Church than you had perhaps bargained for, I’ll simply say that the week was fascinating because we lived among the Benedictine Brothers and shared with them in their praying, their singing, their conversing, their eating, their gardening, their working. At the end of that week, I visited the bookstore and brought home two gifts. The first is a plaque with a quotation from St. Benedict that hangs next to my kitchen sink: “All are to be welcomed as Christ.” And I also came home with an addition to my library: Radical Hospitality, Benedict’s Way of Love. I have looked at the plaque thousands of times, and I have returned again and again to the book on hospitality. It was co-written by a man who has been a Benedictine monk for 45 years and his close friend. In the first chapter, this team makes the statement that “When we speak of hospitality we are always addressing issues of inclusion and exclusion.” And that speaks to the heart of the disciples’ quarrel. Who is the greatest? Who is the winner? Who is the loser? That is precisely the reason why Jesus turned conventional thinking on its ear and broached the subject of children. In a moment, then, the least became the most; the loser became the winner.

In their little volume, Father Dan and Lonni remind us that hospitality only requires an open heart, not a grand gesture. They also acknowledge that hospitality can be difficult and painful, but that it is very important to make the attempt to welcome the stranger, the other into our midst.

They included this story told by a friend about his recent illness:

When I was very ill, it was necessary to receive frequent intravenous treatments, injections, blood tests, and many intrusive medical treatments. At first I had the courage for it, but day after day I lost courage, until the day a small Korean woman, the head nurse, walked into my hospital room after several failed attempts to find a vein. I glared at her, pushed her hand away, and said, “I can’t take this anymore.”

She nodded and held my hand, and we sat in the quiet for a minute or so. Then, she said, “I just finished injecting medication into a permanent port in the belly of a twelve-year-old boy who will probably die before the year is over. I could not take what I do if it weren’t for the fact that sometimes what I do saves a life.” I extended my arm and gave her my vein.

Radical Hospitality, Benedict’s Way of Love, Father Daniel Homan, OSB, and Lonni Collins Pratt

Ministering to a pesky woman on a scooter, working at a soup kitchen, holding the hand of a distraught patient, and going against the grain of society is never easy. But when we do, the rewards can be great. When we welcome those on the margins, said Jesus, we welcome him and the one who sent him. Believe it!

Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty