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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 23, 2012

In the world of social networking, which includes things like Facebook and instant messaging and texting on cell phones, one of the familiar abbreviations for getting a meaning across without having to type too many characters is TMI. TMI stands for “too much information.” It means that the recipient does not want to know any more about what the sender is talking about. In fact, they’ve already heard more than they want to. If the disciples could text, no doubt they would have texted this message to Jesus. They have already heard Jesus talk about his passion – his betrayal, rejection, suffering and death at the hands of the political and religious power structure – and they have been stunned beyond belief. They do not want to hear about this ever again. It is just TMI.
 
But Jesus is intent on teaching them about his chief job as Messiah, which is not to gain power and glory from miracles and authoritative teaching, but to give up his life to save the world.1 So once again he tells them that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him and three days after being killed, he will rise again. TMI, TMI, the disciples shout inside themselves. We do not want to hear this. We do not want to think about the implications for us as his followers if Jesus is bent on challenging the power structure of his day. We do not want to think about our suffering and rejection. 
 
The gospel tells us that the disciples do not understand him. Their idea of a Messiah for Israel is a victorious conqueror, one who does what Jesus does by challenging the power structure, but one who wins in the doing. One who will bring Israel back to its former glory and be the true successor of David. Jesus has not contradicted Peter; he is the Messiah, even though he does not say “Yes I am”, but that seems to be the bad news instead of the good news. The disciples just cannot see it that way. Jesus is careful to mention his resurrection in his prediction, but the disciples’ brains have already passed the TMI stage. After the first passion prediction, it is hard to believe that the disciples do not get just a little bit of what Jesus is saying, but human beings can be very successful at putting themselves in cocoons of misunderstanding so that they do not have to hear what is being said, nor contemplate what it might mean for them. 
 
Not only did the disciples not understand, but they were afraid to ask him about what he had said. Maybe they had heard the “rise again in three days” this time and wanted to know what it meant. Maybe they wanted to ask some questions about times and places and dates to see if they could prevent this tragedy from happening. And maybe they just did not want to know anything more about it. They did not want Jesus’ passion all over their Facebook pages again. Nobody was going to press “Like” when they read about this post, and the more they heard it, the less they could ignore it and pretend it might not happen after all. In addition, Jesus has berated them severely in the previous text after they fail to heal a demon-possessed boy. He wonders in frustration how long he will have to put up with them. I don’t know about you but that would put me off asking any questions if I did indeed have some. 
 
On the walk to Capernaum, the disciples were back to being their old selves. Not understanding the kingdom, not accepting Jesus’ fate, they were arguing about who was the greatest in worldly terms. Who was going to represent Jesus the best? Who was going to have the most power, the most status, the most fame? Though I have never seen an episode of “American Idol”, it sounds like the worst contestants arguing about who is the best singer. Sometimes I think they put them on air just for laughs, but the contestants really believe in who they are and what they are doing. In the same way, the disciples believe that they are still good followers of Jesus, even though they frequently did not get what he was saying and doing. But fortunately for them, Jesus is not Simon Cowell. None of the 12 gets thrown out of the bunch for being way behind the learning curve. Jesus is still invested in his disciples, even though he knows they have been talking about who is the greatest in human terms, in direct opposition to kingdom of heaven thinking. And to their credit, the disciples seem to know it too. They are embarrassed to tell him what they have been talking about along the way, but he knows anyway. 
 
So he gives them another hard lesson in discipleship, hoping once again to reach through their fog, some of it self-imposed and some of it there because they were human beings trying to deal with divine reality. This week, the lesson is another reversal of the way the world works. Just like last week’s lesson about denying oneself to follow Jesus and losing one’s life to save it, this one is a paradox for the disciples. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
 
“What are you talking about Jesus? We do not want to be the servants. They get treated badly. They are at the beck and call of others. They have no power."
 
“But that is the way kingdom life is”, Jesus responds. He takes a little child and puts it among them. Children were of little value in Jesus’ day. They were helpless and powerless. They were absolutely incapable of returning any service you might render them or of conferring status on anyone. Yet Jesus said children, not great and powerful disciples, were stand-ins for him. Anyone who welcomes a child welcomes Jesus. In our society, where children are much more valued, we can translate child into the homeless, the poverty stricken, the prisoner, the seriously mentally ill. Not only do we welcome Jesus when we welcome one of these, we welcome God who sent him. 
 
It is hard for the disciples to swallow – this servant leadership. The giving away of themselves to others is just not in their game plan. But if they thought long enough and hard enough, they would see that Jesus came to earth to give of himself. He never took, but always gave, sometimes even beyond his stamina, and the Holy Spirit came to his aid. He gave them the perfect example to follow. They just had to be as he was to be the greatest. 
 
What holds true for the disciples holds true for us. Discipleship is about being least of all and servant of all. How do we do that? We give ourselves to God and let God serve others through us. We pray for the ability to become other-focused instead of self-focused as the disciples were along the road. We meet other people, whoever they are, as beloved children of God, even the most evil beings on the planet, because God loves them too. But do we really want to be the greatest disciple, to be servant to all? Does any of us really want to be a Mother Teresa, to be a candidate for sainthood? It seems to me what we want to know is how to be a faithful disciple. And that depends on where we are in the world. What do we make of Warren Buffett or Bill and Melinda Gates? If they are Christians, is the millions of dollars they give away to alleviate poverty in Africa enough to make them faithful, even though they are the richest of the rich. They are certainly servants to many grateful people and treat the poor and marginalized as children of God.
 
Most of us here are middle class disciples. We do not have the money the Buffets or the Gates have. We do not have the call to complete poverty as Mother Teresa did. We all need to keep a roof over our heads and feed and clothe ourselves. We have college expenses, medical costs and retirement savings, among other things. How can we serve as faithful disciples in our everyday lives? 
 
We can look for ways to help others. Our families, our friends, our colleagues, strangers. Every morning I pray St. Francis’ prayer about seeking to console and understand and love, rather than be consoled and be understood and be loved as my primary purpose. Of course we receive blessings from this, and are loved, consoled and understood by those who care for us, but we want our hearts to be other-focused. That is how we are faithful disciples. That is how we are servants of all. That is how we love as Jesus loved. AMEN
 
      - Rev. Ann Barker
 
Work Cited:
1. Sharon Ringe, Feasting on the Word Year B, volume 4, p. 93