September 24, 2000
"Walk on the Mild Side"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
I remember once in my younger days, I had a friend who wanted to have a date in the worst way. He had all kinds of lines that he used when he approached women that he thought were eligible, that he hoped might be eligible. I'm sure you've heard some of those lines in your day, so I won't go into detail. But he had one line that makes me smile every time I think of him saying it, "Hey, Baby, want to take to walk on the wild side?" I smile because I don't think my friend had too much of a wild side. I always wondered what would happen if someone took him up on the offer.
I thought of that line again as I studied our scripture for this morning from the gospel according to Mark. Jesus, in his declaration of what would happen to him was, in a sense. walking on the wild side. He told his disciples that he was prepared to be betrayed, to be killed, and that he would rise again. It was too wild for their imaginations to take in. They had questions, but they were afraid to ask him.
By his love and acceptance of them Jesus invited his disciples to come along with him on this wild and dangerous journey toward Jerusalem. He said it in the powerful commandment, "Follow me." However, his direction to his followers was not to walk on the wild side. Instead, he urged them to take a walk on the "mild side". "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35b)
As Jesus and his disciples passed through the region of the Galilee, as they rested in Capernaum, Jesus taught them a lesson in humility through his own example and through his words of wisdom. That humility, that mildness of spirit, has been and is reflected in the lives of faithful Christian. The challenge this morning is: Do we understand and are we willing to take a walk on the "mild" side?
The first thing we should clear up is the definition of Christian humility. We might be tempted to think that being humble is a simple act of which we are all easily capable. If humility is accomplished by comparing ourselves to others and finding ourselves wanting, then all we need to do to be humble is to find other people whom we perceive are richer, more educated, smarter, or more spiritual than we are. No matter our state in life, we can feel humble. I'm 41. People my age make the news as leaders in our society in economics, politics and entertainment. Sometimes I can't help but ask myself, what happened in my 41 years? Consider times that you have felt humbled by another person, not so much because of who they are or what they've done, but because of who they are or what they've done in comparison to you.
We can also, by comparison to others, create for ourselves a nice comfortable humility. "I never brag about my grandchildren or children the way she does!" "I don't need to list my accomplishments or display my wealth!" Obviously if we're not as proud as someone else, then we must be humble.
But this is not the humility of which Jesus teaches. Jesus, the very Son of God, empowered with all the strength and resources of heaven, with knowledge of what would happen to him, humbled himself to betrayal, to arrest and torture, and to the cross. His humility in his dying hours was not humility created by comparison with others. His humility was in his conscious choice to act as God willed.
We might also be tempted to think that being humble is an impossible quest. It's like breathing. We're all breathing right now, but we're not really conscious of it. Now that I've brought it up, we'll be conscious of it and that might change the rhythm of our breathing. (I'll give you a moment to think about your breathing!) True humility is like one of those unconscious states. Once you realize you have it, you don't have it anymore. After all, you can pray for humility, but when you think you have it and start thanking God for your humility, you're in trouble. We'd be like the Pharisees who fasted, prayed and gave their money to the temple in a public display of piety. Their awareness of their humility made it false.
Some would say that humility is remaining silent. People might know that a word should be spoken or a deed done, but they remain silent and inactive. They might tell themselves, "No one wants to hear my opinion." It astounds me again and again that people are more willing to talk about anything they possess, a new coat, new furniture, the new boat, than they are to talk about their faith in Jesus Christ. Chances are that they refrain more from fear than from humility. Fortunately, Holy Spirit fills us with courage, not a false humility that keeps us silent before those needing a witness.
So humility is not found in comparing one's self to others. And humility is not an attribute that we can consciously pursue and then publicly celebrate when we think we have it. Humility is not in doubting one's power or in hesitating to speak one's opinion or act on convictions. As demonstrated and taught by Jesus, Christian humility is connected to the will of God. Truly great and humble Christians, have a sense that greatness is not in them, but through them, and that they could not do or be anything else other than what God has made them.
The famous inventor Samuel Morse was once asked if he ever encountered situations where he didn't know what to do. Morse responded, "More than once, and whenever I could not see my way clearly, I knelt down and prayed to God for light and understanding." Morse received many honors from his invention of the telegraph but said this of himself: "I have made a valuable application of electricity not because I was superior to other men but solely because God, who meant it for mankind, must reveal it to someone and He was pleased to reveal it to me." (Hansel)
The famous writer, Alex Haley, had a picture of a turtle sitting on a fence post hanging in his office. He said that the picture reminded him of a valuable lesson. If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he had some help. Haley said that anytime he started to think, "Wow! This is marvelous what I've done," he looked at the picture and remembered that like the turtle he had help getting there.
Jesus arrived with his disciples in Capernaum. There had been some arguing among them along the road. Jesus knew what it was about, and perhaps even sensed the irony of the discussion. At the very time he was explaining to them what he would go through for God's people, the way of humility and servanthood, they were discussing which of them was the greatest.
Jesus sat down, the traditional position for teaching, and called the twelve to him. He did not scold, but his words revealed his knowledge of their desire to best one another, to be on top. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
The humble and mild do not feel jealousy or envy. Nor is it their intention to be the envy of all around them. They praise God when others receive blessings. They can bear to hear others praised, while their work goes unnoticed. They do this because they have received the Spirit of Jesus, who did not minister here on earth to please himself nor to gain his own honor. The servants of Christ put on the heart of compassion, kindness, meekness, long suffering and humility.
Jesus must have been looking for a way to graphically demonstrate his point. He looked around and saw a child. He beckoned the child forward and took the child up. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." What an amazing lesson. Children were to be taught respect for elders. If anyone was defer and welcome, it should have been the child toward these men. And yet, Jesus was teaching a different and astounding way, a walk in humility, a walk on the "mild side."
Think about what people will do to get noticed. What happens in sports stadiums when the fans sees the camera is on them? They wave their arms. They may even push other people back, so that they can stand in front, arms flailing, yelling "Our team is number one" and "Hi, mom." Here at the home games the cheerleaders throw little footballs after touchdowns and everyone raises their arms. "Look over here. Throw it to me!" Then there are those professional bouquet catchers at wedding receptions. You know them, tall, unmarried women, who raise their arms high in the air just before they leap and dive for the flowers. It seems that we use our arms to be noticed, and get what we want in this world. But in Jesus' lesson, he simply opened his arms and welcomed a child.
The prophet Micah put it plainly to the people of Israel. What does God require of us? It is not that we find ways to rise above the riff raff, that we find our pride and our false humility in comparison with one another, or that we compete with one another to see who is the best, even the best in the eyes of God. God wants us to act justly.
What does God require of us? Jesus told his disciples that we are to be last of all and servant of all. We are called to heal the wounded, comfort the afflicted, be the servant even when that is a surprising and difficult place to be. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus would wash the feet of his followers. He would teach them about being servants. We are to love mercy.
What does God require of us? What does Jesus Christ want of his disciples? That we walk humbly. Can our prestige among our colleagues and neighbors be used as thanks to our Creator? No. There is no time to praise God if we are busy pursuing praise ourselves. Can our accomplishments in this life buy the love of our Savior? No. Christ knew us and loved us before we knew ourselves. In the new covenant by his blood, he promised an abundant, ever flowing love. Are we shown Christ's mercy through forgiveness based on how important we are? No. Our worth is in the central fact that we are created by God, the redeeming fact that Jesus took away the sin our sin at Calvary. What does the Lord require of us? That we act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God. Be the greatest you can be, be last, be servant of all. Take a walk on the "mild side".
Hansel, Tim. Eating Problems for Breakfast. Word Publishing, 1988. Hare, Douglas. Westminster Bible Companion: Mark. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. Perkins, Pheme. Commentary on Mark. The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.