Last = First, Bad Math Made Good

A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 20, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A muscle bound man on a construction crew was bragging that he was the greatest worker and could outdo anyone on the job site in a feat of strength. He taunted one of the older workers as the last in the crew muscle-wise; calling him “Whimp” and “Weakling” and “Worthless.”

After several minutes of taunting the older man looked up from his work, walked over to a wheelbarrow, and said, “I’ll bet a week’s wages I can haul something in this wheelbarrow and set it down by your pick-up and that you won’t be able to be able to lift and wheel barrow it back to this spot.”

“Pffffft! You’re on old man,” the braggart replied. “Haul whatever you choose and I’ll even give you a month’s salary and call you “The Greatest,” if I can’t lift anything and wheel it back here faster than you.”

The old man grabbed the wheelbarrow handles, looked at the young man, and said, “All right . . . get in.”

That story is apt for us this morning as we consider our Lectionary reading where Jesus tells his followers some rather confounding information, somehow if they want to be first they have to be last.

To ordinary ways of thinking this sounds impossible. “Last=First” sounds like bad math. In the joke a man who was called the last among the workers is called the greatest. He does it by doing what’s not expected; thinking in a whole different way. It’s that surprise that makes a fool of the braggart and the joke funny (or it’s supposed to make it funny).

Jesus is about surprises too. In fact a primary focal point of his strange parables, stories and sayings is to get his followers to think in a whole different way – not just outside the box, but in completely new dimensions. In a modern speak we might say that Jesus’ Way is not about just imagining there are alternative universes out there, but to actually see and live and bring about an alternative universe here, now. Jesus Way is not primarily about imagining a better other worldly after life, it’s mostly about imagining a better present worldly life.

Tomorrow is International Day of Peace, a day set aside to try to imagine a better worldly place. Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace. Last week we talked about this peacemonger Jesus being the Messiah even though the Messiah was thought to be a warrior king or leader who’d swoop in and rescue the Hebrew people by violently defeating oppressor kings; bringing exiles back to Judea; reestablishing a sovereign Jewish state; and putting a rightful king on the Judean throne.

That’s what everyone in Jesus’ time expected the Messiah to be, a big strong battle savvy and benevolent savior and protector of God’s people who’d restore the Jewish kingdom and king. It’s quite a surprise when Jesus’ followers discover and then see and live and bring about the heavenly idea that the Messiah was actually a poor, homeless, radical rabbi, criminal, executed for rebellion. That’s scandalous to the world we ordinarily occupy. How could such a low life be someone to laud at all, let alone be recognized as the Messiah and called Christ, the anointed one, after he was a nobody executed as a criminal? It defies common sense. It doesn’t add up. To worldly ways of thinking it’s bad math. Modern scoffers might say, “It’s as if his followers were living in an alternative universe.” And metaphorically and very truthfully we are, or we are trying to.

Indeed one could argue International Day of Peace is a reminder that most everyone desires to live in an alternative way of being, in a peace-full world. Jesus set up a path to that alternative world, a world where it is a given that every day is supposed to be International Peace Day.

And Christians are trying to follow that path, well some of us are. See even to this day there are religious folk who insist on the use of violence to get their way, not Jesus’ Way. Some even argue that Jesus himself is coming back as a warrior king and will swoop in and violently destroy the people they consider unlike them and unworthy of God’s grace. That’s basically the motif of The Left Behind series and other books and movies and ideas about a violent Apocalypse led by a Messiah warrior king kinda Christ. But that’s not at all in line with the Christ of the Gospels and it is certainly not in line with Jesus’ teaching.

In today’s lesson Jesus tells his followers – which includes modern Christians– “Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.” That’s a layered, multi-dimensional assertion. It can be heard to describe Jesus and to describe his follower’s calling, and it can even be heard to describe God.

Jesus was culturally last on so many levels. In the universe of Roman occupied Palestine he was a nobody. He was poor, homeless, single, childless, uneducated, unemployed, non-European and a radical peace oriented revolutionary to boot, an outlier for the silly notion of unconditional love and justice for all. This led him to hang out with the very worse-to-the-culture kind of people, not just low-lifes like the twelve disciples and himself, but the very bottom-of-the rung-last-kind-of-people– the disgustingly ill, insane, loathed and criminals.

If all that was not bad enough Jesus refused to be a law and order citizen. He was a troublemaker. He caused disorder and broke laws. So he went down to very bottom rung. Jesus became an outcast criminal, he challenged the entire system of shame and rejection and class stratification. He stood up to the religious elite, protested Rome and disrupted Temple business. In the dark of the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was lawfully arrested. Then he was lawfully tried, convicted and sentenced to death. And he was lawfully executed for the criminal that he was to the culture.

We have long been taught to think of Jesus as the first among us all, but if we listen we can hear in the cold hard facts of who he was that even in our day and age if we did not know his name we’d think of Jesus as the very last kinda guy in the culture, a non-law and order death row inmate trouble maker who got “criminal justice” under the law of his country.

This may sound bad, but, it is “Way” good, that we already think of Jesus outside the box the culture put him in. We think of him in an alternative universe kinda way. He is Christ and we long to follow his Way and to even try and be like him. We picture Jesus in our mind’s eye in a God’s realm-on-earth kind of way–and when we do that, Jesus is unquestionably first. The last, Jesus, becomes the first, Christ. Christianity done Jesus’ Way, God’s Way is bad math made good.

And here’s a part of Jesus’ teaching and his existence that we don’t think too much on, Jesus says whoever wants to be first must be last AND servant of all. We tend to forget that Jesus was not just a cultural outcast, but that his outcasting came in good part because he was servant to all. Even his first followers had trouble getting this. Jesus doesn’t just hang out with the outcasts and you know . . . sort of become like a leader of a merry band of misfits.

Jesus tends to, cares for, welcomes, touches and otherwise lifts up all those misfits . . . Actually any and all the misfits he encounters. Right? The Messiah, God’s anointed representative on earth, hangs out and serves not just religious elite and do gooders and those who get everything right religiously, he hangs out with and serves everyone.

Those with oozing wounds and on enemy lists and in shackles and possessed by demons and convicted as criminals and holding loathsome positions in society. Jesus is serving them– not just chewing the fat with them, not just saying “Hey” to them as he passes by, but being their servant healing them and helping them and washing their feet–and most of all caring about their need for love and health and daily bread and forgiveness of debts and doing what he can about it!

We can imagine how alternative universe that sounds in a culture where positions of power typically expect to get served and by-and-large don’t usually personally serve others. And they certainly don’t serve lowlifes, that’s for the last on the rungs to do.

Jesus’ point in the lesson is that we need to get on that last rung, put everyone above us and be a servant to them. If we do that, then in the topsy turvy alternative universe of God’s realm we are not on the last rung at all, but on the first rung.
And actually literally on ladder rungs we can see how that shift in perspective is true; the top can be seen as first or last, and so can the bottom rung. It just depends on our perspective and whether we are going down or going up. Going up to Christ’s heavenly Way is the perspective we need to get, to understand, to see, that last as first.

Jesus asks his followers to make and see a shift in perspective so that the last are always seen as the first and always served.

We cannot hear it without some contextual help but when Jesus picks a child up in story he is drastically shaking up his culture’s perspective. It was crazy talk in Jesus’ day to take up a child and claim:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Children were considered in Jesus’ time and place–in the real universe– as non-persons or not-yet persons. They were considered a piece of household property. 1 Metaphorically they are so low they are not even on the last rung, but at best crawling toward it. And what does Jesus do? He stoops so low as to pick up a literal non-person and honor that child’s presence and claim his very own self and God are represented in that being.

This is shameful stuff in the real universe. What powerful person in their right mind would claim that serving a welcome to a nobody acted as a welcome a powerful person?

Who would claim serving a welcome to a nobody would welcome God Almighty? That’s not done in the universe of Rome’s culture, or even our culture . . . even in many churches today. The lowly are cast out, ridiculed, belittled, and oppressed. They are not welcomed. But in the alternative universe of God’s realm it the very thing to do to become the greatest is to welcome and love and protect the ridiculed, belittled, oppressed and outcast.

And Jesus did it. And does it. And calls us to do it too. And if we all do that, there’s be peace on earth because there’d be only one rung on the hierarchal ladder of life. The last rung.

And that last rung would, of course, also be the first rung from any perspective all the time. Each person would be given the place of honor that the very image of God each life represents deserves. And peace would reign.

And here’s another perspective shift, God – the one we call Almighty– is last and serves the least too. Every single thing in creation was created by God and is a part of God. All that is, is soaked with God. Atoms, molecules, mud, mosquitoes, maggots, magnolias, mice, moose, meadows, mountains, me and you and everything else from low to high, small to large, have God’s creative work and particles in it. It’s all made of God’s star dust. It’s all God drenched and grand. If we take the time we can find awe – God– in any and all of it.

In a very real cosmic sense it’s already a level playing field. From the very least to the very greatest all is equally made by our Creator from star dust. Everything is a creation, a representation and spark of God. This is true, not an alternative universe . . . but the one we exist in. It all needs to be treated and served well.

This must especially be applied to all human beings. We need to get that. When we become the least in the world, when we serve the least in the world what happens is we get closer to the source of all that is, we near the sparks of God that surround and soak creation.

And in that nearing there we get close to what the Bible calls the “Glory” of God. And unconditional Love lets us to see all as the stardust from heaven. Love makes us, and all the universe, it’s very best. Love leads us to what is in the heart of the Glory of God . . . peace. Jesus’ Way, Jesus’ vision, Jesus’ dream is for peace. It’s God’s dream.

It needs to be our dream too.


1. Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year B, p. 96