Archive for bullying

Greatness and Awkward Silences

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by timtrue

Delivered to St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on September 23, 2018.

Mark 9:30-37


Who’s the greatest among us?

No, seriously, look around our world. What kind of person more often than not comes out ahead? Who fills the top leadership positions? Who wins?

Isn’t it all too often the pushiest, most self-promoting people? People in other contexts we might call bullies?

It happens on school playgrounds all the world over. It also happens in corporate America. In our individualistic and highly independent society, people don’t rise to positions of leadership by being meek and mild. Rather, they get there by fighting their way to the top.

After all, vying for the top job means you’ve got to compete against others; to make yourself look better than the competition.

I’ve said it before; the beatitudes is not a list of attributes anyone would want to include on a résumé. Vying for that top job requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness.

Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to fight his way in order to get there.

Like it or not, it’s how we rise through the ranks. We figure out who the most important people are, we catch their attention, and we make ourselves look good in their eyes.

And it wasn’t much different in Jesus’ day.

A common Roman citizen could become a member of the equites, or even a senator—with enough hard work, networking, catching the attention of important onlookers, and a good dose of shameless self-promotion—to come out looking better than everyone else he was competing against.

Except . . . Jesus was a great man, perhaps the greatest man of all—no argument there—but he didn’t fit this definition! At all! Jesus didn’t compete with those who were in line to be the next synagogue leader. Jesus didn’t vie for social or popular position, hoping to catch the eye of the important persons in his community.

What do we do with Jesus?


Which leads me to think about another way we sometimes argue about greatness. And I think this other way is what we find in today’s Gospel. Here’s what I mean:

So, today’s Gospel is structured around two awkward silences.

The first happens because, the text says, the disciples were afraid to respond to Jesus.

Jesus had been telling them some hard things; and they don’t understand what he was talking about.

But they don’t ask him to clarify. Instead, they remain silent. And it’s awkward; because, the text states, “they were afraid to ask him.”

I wonder if this has anything to do with last week’s Gospel. Last week, remember, Jesus started out by asking the questions, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

And after Peter answered, “You are the Messiah of Israel,” Jesus said then almost exactly the same things he says now:

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.

But last week, when Peter tried to clarify, Jesus called him Satan!

So this week, apparently—I’m guessing—the disciples are afraid to say anything because no one wants to be called Satan again.

And thus: Awkward Silence Number One.

The second occurs some time later, when Jesus and his disciples have arrived at their destination, a house in Capernaum; and Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about along the way?”

Well, no one says anything because they were arguing about who was the greatest. That would be an embarrassing admission.

And thus: Awkward Silence Number Two.

And here’s how we want to interpret it. We hear about this second awkward silence and we, from our modern-day point of view, assume that the disciples must have been bragging, spouting off their credentials to one another, vying for position, competing, justifying why Jesus loves me more than he loves you.


But I don’t think this is the right way to interpret today’s Gospel. Rather, I’m pretty sure this argument about who is the greatest directly relates to the first awkward silence.

The disciples were afraid to ask him to explain himself because no one wanted to be singled out.

Still, they must have been concerned. Jesus would be betrayed, killed, and resurrected? These are disconcerting statements. What in the world did he mean by them?

So, you know how it is when there’s a task that no one wants to do; one person says something like, “I’m not gonna ask him; you ask him!”

And a second disciple retorts, “Why should I ask him? I’m not even a part of his inner circle. That’s Peter, James, Philip, and Andrew. Why doesn’t one of them ask him? Why, all four of them are greater than me.”

And so the first disciple answers, “Good idea! Yeah, they’re greater than us. One of them should ask. I’ll go talk to Philip.”

But when Philip is asked, he feels in no greater position than anyone else—never mind that he was the first disciple ever called—what does that have to do with anything anyway?—and so he protests.

And so on.

Until most if not all of the disciples are in an all-out argument along the way about which of them is the greatest and therefore obligated, as the appointed spokesperson, to approach Jesus.

Which, when it all pans out, is really kind of embarrassing; and awkward silences result.


Arguing about greatness can go both ways.

When it works to our advantage to be greater than the next person—competing for a prestigious position or whatever—we tend to promote ourselves, to tell everyone around us how great we are and why.

Or, when it works to our advantage to step out of the limelight—because there’s a hard task ahead that no one really wants to do or whatever—we tend to shirk it off, to tell everyone around us that we’re nobody special, really, and would therefore rather not be bothered.

Either way, however, after we boil down all the arguments for why we are or are not the greatest, the one substance remaining in the petri dish is ego. At the end of the day, we humans are wired to look out for number one.

And so Jesus calls over a small child.

Small children in Jesus’ day were thought of as sub-human, technically the property of their fathers.

Small children, in Jesus’ day, were insignificant shadows in their world.

In our day, thankfully, we pay a lot more attention to small children—in some ways. In public education, foster care, sports leagues, and many other ways we value our small children.

Still, in our arguments about greatness, have things changed all that much?

The relentless pursuit to become something or somebody greater, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—is a small child concerned with these things? Is a small child impressed by how much money you make, or how socially connected you are, or how beautiful you are? Is a small child the person we call on to do the hard tasks no one else wants to do?

Well, no, no, and no.

And so, sadly, for many people in our day, small children are just insignificant shadows.

But to welcome a small child in Christ’s name—to take the time to say hello to, read to, play with, spend time with; to welcome a small child not for any kind of personal recognition but for the simple joy of sharing Christ’s love—this is true greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In short, to welcome a small child; to put a small child ahead of oneself—there is no ego in that.

The Kingdom of Heaven turns our world upside down.

Today we want to recognize some in our midst: commission the preschool teachers and staff. . . .