A Joyous Reversal

Mark 9:30–37, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on September 19, 2021

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Here’s a story that illustrates this proverb for me: Badger’s Bring Something Party, a story by Hiawyn Oram. Mole get invited to Badger’s party, a bring something party. But he doesn’t have anything to bring. “So” the narrator explains, “mole went to the party without anything, just himself. His muddy, unwashed, un-slicked-down self, not at all neat or dressed up.”

All the other guests bring something . . . “Owl had brought streamers. Rat had brought funny hats. Squirrel had brought her fairycakes and Stoat his elderberry juice. Fieldmouse had brought her beautiful young son.”

When all the other guests find out Mole had only brought himself, they are annoyed and offended.

Mole felt about one inch high. How he wished and wished and wished he’d thought of something to bring. Anything at all. Even that half-full bottle of sauce he had in his pantry. . . . He crept into a corner and ate a fairycake and had a glass of elderberry juice, feeling quite, quite awful. In fact, feeling quite certain that everyone at the party was pointing and saying, “Look, there’s the One Who Didn’t Bring Anything to a Bring Something Party Except His Muddy Self.” And he was right. That’s exactly what everyone was saying. “I hope you feel awful,” said Rat, strolling over, “and by the way, I’m not giving you a funny hat because you’re a Bing Something Party Pooper.”

 In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has just finished predicting his own betrayal and death for the second time.The disciples respond to this somber pronouncement by arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Are they simply being insensitive and self-centered? Is this a form of denial, because the truth is too painful to hear? Or maybe the argument arose from insecurity. Right before today’s reading, the disciples had tried and failed, to heal a boy with epilepsy. So perhaps they felt humiliated and frustrated and felt a need to prove themselves to Jesus and each other.

 Contemplative theologian Beatrice Bruteau calls this dynamic of competition the “domination paradigm.”In the domination paradigm, we define ourselves as separate from others. “I am I by virtue of being not-you. So defined,” she explains, “people feel the insufficiency of their being,

which is always vulnerable, always at risk. Consequently, people are insecure and anxious. Strongly pressed to preserve and enhance what being they have, people are easily tempted to believe that helping others may hurt themselves and that hurting others may be the best way to help themselves. (Beatrice Bruteau, The Holy Thursday Revolution, pp. 69–70)

 Mark says that after Jesus told the disciples about how he would suffer “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” In the domination paradigm, asking questions gives others power over us. Questions show vulnerability. Questions are a sign of weakness. In Jesus’ community, however, questions are a gift. They are an opportunity to grow, to deepen relationships and build community, to clarify our values and beliefs, and to continue to evolve as spiritual beings. I wonder what it was that the disciples would have liked to ask Jesus. I wonder what they would have learned if they had been less afraid. I wonder what Jesus would have learned from their questions. I wonder what you would ask.

Valerie Kaur, whose practices of revolutionary love we are exploring this fall, calls wonder the “wellspring for love.” Wonder is a recognition of our inter-connectedness. It is the truth that we are not separate from others, that we cannot define ourselves in opposition to them. Wonder says to others “You are a part of myself I do not yet know.” The disciples, defined and confined by the domination paradigm, suffer from a failure of wonder. Kaur writes:

Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. Once people stop wondering about others, once they no longer see others as a part of them, they disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them. Entire institutions built to preserve the interests of one group of people over another depend on this failure of imagination. (See No Stranger, pp. 11–12)

 This collective failure of wonder leads us all to internalize messages of shame. As Kaur puts it:

We are told that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, straight enough, or good enough to belong. Some of us are also told that we are not white enough, not civilized enough, and therefore not human enough. . . . To be a person of color in America is to live on the precipice—any moment your world can erupt in violence. But this isn’t a problem just for people of color—or Americans. We all live under the cloud of potential shaming and potential violence as long as we live in a society that enforces hierarchies of human value, where violence is often perpetuated by institutions of power. (28–29)

 In the honor/shame society of Jesus’ time, people gained honor by associating with equals or superiors, never those below them in status. Children were the least of the least in those days; they were treated as expendable and denied all rights. So it was not sentimental for Jesus to draw attention to a child and call upon his followers to welcome the little ones into their circle. It was radical. It was personally challenging, and politically charged. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” This is not revenge Jesus describes. It is not a competition with winners and losers. It is a reversal that benefits everyone. It is a revolution that brings joy to our hearts and our world.

The story about the Bring Something party does not end with Mole moping in the corner as his community taunts him. Here’s how it does end.

Badger sidled up [to mole] “Look, old chap,” he said, “I know I said it was all right not to bring anything but yourself, but I didn’t mean your miserable stand-in-a-corner-and-feel-sorry-for-yourself self. I meant your usual self. Your INTERESTING self.”

 And Mole discovers that, indeed, he has brought his interesting self. He steps out of his hiding place in the corner in an interesting way. He invents a whole dance full of interesting steps on the spot. And he entertains everyone with a bunch of really interesting party tricks.

Everyone had so much fun with Mole in the lead that Badger decided to give another party the next week. “I’ll bring a half a bottle of sauce and a whizzbanger,” said Mole. “And yourself, I hope,” said Field Mouse anxiously. “And your dance steps and party tricks,” said everyone anxiously. “Of course,” said Mole . . . thinking how deep-down good it felt to have so much to bring to Badger’s next Bring Something Party.