Mark 9:30-37

The Circle of Inclusion

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Mark 9:30-37

The Circle of Inclusion

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Today I would like us to consider what it means to be successful in the way of the world, and what it means to be first in the kingdom of God.

Our culture tells us that the successful person acquires. What does that successful person acquire? It can be money. Or fame. Or power.

What the successful person acquires is always in short supply. Whatever that may be, it is always a slice of something limited. If you get more of the pie, there’s less for me. If I get more, there’s less for you.

Furthermore, what the successful person acquires is always something that may slip out of his or her hands.

Fortunes can be made and lost. Ask an investor whose portfolio is hemorrhaging.

Fame comes and then it goes. Ask an old movie actor who goes unrecognized.

Power passes from one to another. Ask a politician who dreads election day.

What makes a person successful is always in short supply and easily slips away. Yet amazingly, people are desperate for success as the world counts success.

There is an alternative. We may be slow to pick up on this. The disciples certainly are. What matters is that, sooner or later, we all catch on.

As they travel the roads of Galilee, Jesus is teaching his disciples– or at least trying to teach them– that soon he will be betrayed and killed and then will rise from the dead.

What the disciples are discussing, however, is something different. Walking only a few steps from Jesus, they are arguing among themselves about which one of them is the greatest. These disciples are engaged in a contentious contest about who is the one among them most likely to succeed as the world counts success.

Each of them wants the pie of prestige sliced up to suit his advantage. This view of the world is one that enjoys perennial popularity. Somebody ends up on top. Others end up on the bottom. It’s better to be on the top.

The disciples, in company with so many others, see no alternative to this arrangement.

So Jesus provides them with one. He tells them what it means to be great in the eyes of God.

Notice what Jesus does not do. He does not argue against ambition. Ambition is fine, only make certain that your ambition is bold enough. Don’t settle for second best.

“If you want to be first,” he says, “then serve the people who are last.”

“Do this,” Jesus says, “and I will take it personally. I will owe you one.”

There’s only so much money and fame and power to go around. Grab onto these, and eventually you will lose them. But opportunities to serve remain always in abundant supply. Each of us is a person in need in some way or another, no matter how self-reliant we seem. Dependence on each other helps define our human condition.

The ladder of success narrows as it reaches the top. We are tempted to mount upward by climbing on the backs of others. And if we reach the top, we may discover that the ladder leans against the wrong wall.

In place of the ladder of success, Jesus proposes the circle of inclusion, which expands indefinitely as more people join it. There each is enriched by others and enriches them in turn. This is the model Jesus offers us.

The ladder of success insists that few can be important, and none can remain important for ever. The circle of inclusion makes clear how everyone can be important, how each of us can be first in the eyes of God.

The ladder of success announces who is important in the way of the world, and does so with tiresome predictability. Whoever sits on top is important; everyone else is not.

The circle of inclusion is more fun. Look around that circle, and you will be surprised at all the people who are present. And you will be surprised at how people come to be there, the manifold ways they express their faith through love.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross became known throughout the world for promoting new and better attitudes about death and people facing death.

In the course of her work at a hospital, Kubler-Ross noticed that one woman seemed to have a special way with patients who were dying. This woman was not anyone with direct responsibility for patients– her work was to clean rooms and make beds and empty bedpans. Yet dying patients always seemed more peaceful when she was around. Kubler-Ross asked the woman what her secret was. This is what the woman said:

“Well, I’ve been up the mountain and down the mountain. I’ve lived in many valleys. The worst was when I went to a public clinic with my three year-old daughter in my arms, and before we could see a doctor, she died of pneumonia.”

The woman continued:

“I could have become cynical and angry, but instead I decided to use my pain to help others. I’m no stranger to death, and that’s why I’m not afraid to talk  and touch those who are dying. I try to give them hope.”

Taking our place on the circle of inclusion may require a journey through the darkest possible valley.

Jesus did not rise in triumph without experiencing betrayal and death.

A certain hospital maintenance worker became a true friend to the dying because her own heart had been broken by grief.

There are countless ways for our hunger for ordinary success to be shattered like an egg shell so that new ambition emerges.

However frightful this process feels as we pass through it, no better terms are imaginable. For we turn from success we can never keep in order to gain a life we can never lose.

Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.