They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

What Matters Most?   It’s a question some of your preachers may bring into our sermons this fall–as the scriptures and the Spirit lead us.

In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches that what matters most in leadership is humble servanthood.   Revolutionary in that day and well into the twentieth century, the idea has been the hallmark of some of the best work done by Christians for two millennia.     Now servant-leadership has become a model in the secular, corporate world, too.

But there’s another important lesson imbedded here that I want to ponder today. It’s facet of self-knowledge: facing our fears and laying them down–with God’s tender, loving help.

The gospel tells us that the disciples were too afraid to ask Jesus about his death.

What were they afraid of?   These twelve men were strong, self-sufficient people.   We’re half way through the gospel of Mark.   They have been with Jesus for weeks–probably months.   They have traveled throughout the Galilee, crossed the Sea of Galilee into foreign territories and to the northern boundary of Palestine. They have shared astonishing adventures.

The twelve have braved it all.   Why, suddenly, are they afraid to ask Jesus about the prediction of his death?   Well, Peter had stuck his neck out and challenged Jesus’ first such prediction.   Peter did that in private, only to have Jesus rebuke him before the whole group–shaming him publicly.   Who would risk that again?

More deeply though, beneath it all, they are afraid of the future.   What will become of them after Jesus dies?   Which of them will lead? That’s why they are arguing about who’s the greatest.

Fear may be life saving, of course.   It’s primal, powerful. Fear can lead us to fight, to flee, or to freeze.   There’s a downside, too. Fear unbridled can override every mature response, including reason, faith, compassion, love.   It’s no coincidence that the most oft-repeated phrase in scripture is “Do not be afraid.”

Many of our present fears are rooted in the past–in childhood. That’s what gives them such power.

“Do not be afraid.”   In the last couple of months I’ve done some of this work myself with God’s help, and with a God’s blessed mixture of courage, curiosity and compassion.

As you know the root for courage is “cor”, the Latin for heart. I love what Brene Brown wrote about courage’s original meaning, ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’

That kind of courage is the first step in facing our fears–telling “all one’s heart”–to God (from whom no secrets are hid), to oneself, to a trusted mentor, or confidant.

Curiosity is a great tool because it engages the mind. It gives us the detachment that helps to discover and defuse our most deep-seated fears.

I learned that this summer. In a heartfelt conversation, a dear friend saw me dance away from grief over my sister Polly’s death. Candidly, he asked “What are you afraid of?”

The question caught me by surprise.

The obvious answer was that I didn’t want to revisit the pain of that loss.   But I recognized there was something else, something deeper.   That engaged my curiosity. So I let it rattle around for a while in my spirit.   Apparently, the time was ripe to face this.   The next morning in my meditation, the answer came: “I’m afraid of upsetting Mama.”

Upsetting Mama“?   Mind you, my mother died ten years ago.   She wasn’t given to being upset.   And she had always praised me lovingly.   I realized that one of my abiding fears had no basis in my adult life–even less in present-day reality.   It sprang, instead, from the experience of a young child who wanted to please a parent whom she adored. An emotion from an event that I cannot recall was shaping my behavior decades later.

That recognition led me to compassion for myself, for the vulnerable child within myself–and within everyone.

It’s the compassion that Jesus exemplifies in our gospel.

Jesus knew that the disciples were afraid to be shamed in front of one another.   He had important lessons to teach, so he let it go. Wisely, he bided his time until they had returned safely to Capernaum, which was their home.

Do you recall the relief you felt coming home from a great adventure? As I recall my first solo trip to Europe at nineteen, or think about our Camino Pilgrims’ home-coming from Spain this summer, I imagine the disciples’ return to Capernaum.   After weeks of excitement and challenge, they were home at last: in the security and comfort of familiar surroundings, the company of loved ones.

The time was ripe for Jesus to teach them again: vital lessons about leadership and about God’s tender care.

The houses in Capernaum were small, simple. In the intimacy of a house, Jesus gathered the disciples around him, placed a child in their midst and took it in his arms.

As you know, children were among the least in that society. Infant mortality rates were high and only half of those born survived beyond childhood.     Children had no status. Honoring the child, Jesus turned the social order upside down before their eyes.   It was startling, unforgettable.   He not only held the child tenderly, he identified that insignificant being with himself and with God.   He embodied the compassion, inclusion and servanthood that his vision of leadership requires.

The disciples probably didn’t realize it at the time, but gathering them in that circle he was also showing them that they had nothing to fear when he was gone. No need to worry about who was “the greatest”. They would lead together as a Body of Christ.   Following Jesus meant laying down all kinds of fears to join together to welcome and serve the very least in society as they would welcome Jesus himself.

[Dragon grew small story]

What are your deepest fears?   Might you be unaware of them as I was of that one?   How could facing those fears change your life?

What matters most?   Know thyself. Do not be afraid of the fears that arise in you.   When the time is ripe to face one of them, take heart.   If you need the help of a companion, seek it.   Approach your fear with the eyes of curiosity and heart of compassion–knowing that you are held tenderly, safely in God’s loving arms.   Know that God loves you now and always– no matter who you are, no matter what you have or haven’t done, no matter what happens.