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They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Adam is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in 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.’
Some of you have asked this morning why there is a picture of Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story on the cover of the bulletin. Thanks for asking! The movie is about the theme of competition: who is the best, the favorite, the greatest, the most advanced, the most valued happens to be the theme of the scripture passage today. The movie Toy Story is fundamentally about this question for the little boy Andy: “Who is your favorite toy?” Andy’s favorite has always been Sherriff Woody, who chortles when is string is pulled “Who’s my favorite deputy?” But when Andy gets a new toy, the flashy Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger, Woody’s position as Favorite Toy is in jeopardy. Even though Woody insists that it is not about them, the toys, but about how they are supposed to be there for Andy, Woody still gets threatened by this Buzz who has taken his place as Top Toy. The movie tells the tale of how Woody gets carried away by his need to be the favorite, to the peril of both Woody and Buzz. Ultimately Woody repents of his need to be the favorite and he and Buzz become friends and all ends well in the toy universe. If we’re honest, perhaps we see something of ourselves, even just a fleeting glance, in that story about longing to be the favorite, the most important. How you even found yourself being competitive with someone? I didn’t think so. Since you’ve never had that experience, I’ll give you a story of my own.
A few years ago I took up piano lessons again. I hadn’t taken a piano lesson since I was in college, and was anxious about my playing abilities. Much to my surprise, after only a few lessons, my teacher, Marie, told me that I was her Most Advanced Student. Now, to put this in context, I must confess that most of her students were 3rd and 4th graders. But she would greet me by saying (in her South African Accent) “Here’s my most advanced student!” I was secretly thrilled.
The backstory here is that I took piano lessons from the 4th grade into college and try as I might I was never the Most Advanced Student. Mrs. Bustard, my piano teacher, had a piano recital every year and in the line up of students, the best was always last. I was always third to the last. Next to last was Beverly Fentress. And the last, the best, was Jane Carr, the Most Advanced Student. Beverly and Jane were two of the sweetest girls in the world, but they both made my teeth itch. They gave flawless performances every time. Oh, maybe once every other year Beverly Fentress might play one wrong note, but Jane Carr, never. Their fingers would flow up and down the keys as smooth as silk and they were as cool as cucumbers. The only indication that Jane Carr was the least bit taxed by the recital was if you looked really close you could see a red spot appear on her neck at the beginning of her performance. As she progressed through her piece, the spot would grow and expand, traveling down her arm. I could always tell when she was halfway through her performance because the red blotch would stop expanding and begin to recede. At the end of her piece, Jane would once again have a tiny red spot on her neck. I was always so nervous my hands would shake and when my hands stopped shaking my knees would take over so the red blotch on the neck of the most advanced student was a small comfort to me. I remember all of these details because it was burned into my memory. Is this not the most pathetic story you have ever heard? I was totally into the competitive spirit, engulfed by it. I couldn’t help myself.
God only knows the origin of my tendency to get hooked by the spirit of competition. Perhaps it is because I was a youngest and always had to compete to try and keep up with my older sister. You’ll have to explore the origins of your own issues with competition. Now, I’m sure I’m the exception here, and that none of you are ever competitive. Right? No? I suspect if we are all honest, we could identify at least one moment in our lives when we got hooked into being competitive. Whether we like to admit it or not, there are moments when we want to be the best, the greatest, the favorite, the most advanced.
Which is why the gospel lesson today is so compelling. It holds up a mirror for us to examine our own issues with competition. The disciples are at it again, giving us a chance to see something of ourselves in their human behavior. While traveling to Capernaum, Jesus noticed that the disciples were in a heated discussion with one another. Jesus knew what it was about, it was the same argument he had heard them engage in before. When Peter’s face got red and he started shouting at John, it was always the same debate. Who among them was the greatest? Who among their group was the Most Advanced Disciple? Who had the most power? Who would get their way when it came to making decisions? This power struggle exists to one degree or another in every family, every organization, every religion on the face of the planet.
Jesus knew what they were arguing about. He recognized right away the competitive spirit, the need to be on top. One could argue that the whole Mediterranean culture around them was shaped by that spirit, a patriarchy where some had power and others did not. Jesus tried to explain that in his worldview, in his realm, one did not need to be at the top. It was a concept the disciples found hard to comprehend. To be non-competitive simply did not fit into their world view.
Now, of course, a little competition can be a good thing. It can push you to do your best, to go beyond your perceived limits to achieve an even greater level of competency. But too much competition can become destructive. It can lead to the diminishment of the “other” in order to feel superior, a false sense of self worth can be constructed by putting others down. Too much competition can destroy.
Perhaps you’ve heard the chilling Jewish folk tale of two merchants who were in competition with each other. They owned shops across the street from each other, and they judged the success of their business not by how much they had sold, but by whether they sold more than the merchant across the street. God wanted to put an end to their rivalry and sent an angel to visit one of the merchants. The angel said to the merchant, “You can have anything in the world, riches, wisdom, long life, many children. Just remember, whatever you ask, your competitor will get twice as much. If you ask for $1,000 your competitor will get $2,000. What do you wish?” The merchant thought for a while and said “Make me blind in one eye.”
Unexamined competition can become destructive. Sibling rivalry can be passed from one generation to another until the original conflict has long been forgotten but the rivalry remains, the tensions escalating with each passing generation. We have seen religious violence pass from one generation to another between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some of this might be traced back to a question of sibling rivalry “Which child does Father Abraham love the most. Who among us is the greatest?”
“Who among us is the greatest,” the disciples wonder. Jesus tells them that those who want to be first must be willing to be the last. I imagine Jesus and the disciples leaving the room and wandering out into the town square with a large well in the center. Groups of old men sat talking under shade trees, and young children ran behind their mothers who came to fill their jars at the well. Jesus sat down near the well and one of the children tottered up to him, holding out a sticky hand and laughing as Jesus jumped to his feet and swung her up into the air. “You must become like this child,” he said, as he watched her shriek with delight.
In asking them to become like children, Jesus is confronting the hierarchical structure that everyone bought into. In a paper entitled “Feeling Like a Fraud” that grew out of the work of the Wellesley Centers for Woman, Peggy McIntosh argues that many people, especially women, feel like a fraud when heralded for their accomplishments as being “the best” at something. McIntosh suggests that though those fraudulent feelings might be personally devaluing of self in an unhelpful way, they might also be a valuable critique of hierarchical structures that rank people’s value as better or worse than another. Jesus is offering a similar critique of the structures of importance that everyone bought into without thinking about them.
“You must be willing to become as a little child,” Jesus said. In his culture children had little value: children were a burden, a dependent, they were vulnerable. “You must become like this child,” he said, as he put the little girl down and watched her toddle back to her mother. He turns their structure of importance, their ranking system, on its head.
It is no accident that the disciples got into an argument about power and position right after Jesus told them that he must die on his mission. Instead of exploring or expressing the fear that rose up in them, they changed the subject and started talking about who was the greatest. Jesus wasn’t fooled. He understood that it is fear that underlies our desire for power and position. Fear fuels our competitive spirit and our need to be the greatest, the Most Advanced. For what lies underneath spiritual competition is the fear that we won’t be loved simply for who we are, that we aren’t enough. It is fear that sends us scrambling up the corporate ladder in a frenzy or sets us to competing with one another or using our power in a relationship in a way that hurts another.
Jesus asks us to face our fears. To become vulnerable, just as children are vulnerable. Because only then can we know that we are truly loved by God, just as we are. We don’t need to be better than another, we only need to be ourselves, with all of our strengths and weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. In Christ we are free to be vulnerable enough to know that we need no accomplishments to prove we are worthy. The trick is believing that God already loves us, plain and simple. We live out of this truth in a way that makes us free in Christ. Though it may not make sense to the world, we are, each and every one of us, everyone in this room and everyone in the whole world, already the Most Advanced Child of God. Amen.