Sermon for 18th Sunday after Pentecost 2018
Proverbs 31:10-31 Psalms 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Mark 9:30-37
While phoning a friend, the elderly woman dialed the wrong number. She apologized and tried again, but she got the same number. Once more she hung up and redialed – same result. Now she was frustrated. She said to the person on the other end, “Look, I’m going to call my friend again. This time, please don’t answer the phone.” Sometimes, we must understand our community – its strengths and weaknesses, and we must understand ourselves.
Jesus knew that a strong community enhances the lives of its members. The community is a place of identity, where people have a sense of belonging because they are known and recognized. The community provides protection and support. It shapes values and norms. But there are risks in a strong community. The expectations and demands of society may impact the freedom and creativity of a person. The past ways may not be suitable for the challenges of the future. Jesus saw it developing in his disciples - a strong community may become so focused on itself, may turn within, that it loses the capacity to relate to those outside.
There is a constant tension between being inclusive and being exclusive, with serious questions to be faced. How far should a community go in relating to other people who are different, and how far should it go in excluding those who have different standards and values and customs? How does a community keep its identity if it recognizes the validity of differing ways and structures of other communities? How do people in a community fellowship with others without losing their distinctiveness?
This concern about inclusiveness and exclusiveness is particularly intense for the church. For the church community is bound together not just by common interest or mutual enjoyment, but by convictions about the fundamental issues of human existence: what we believe in most deeply, what gives value and meaning to our lives, under what obligations we live, how we define and live the good life, and ultimately who we are.
I got a call a couple of months ago that John Turner had died. John was a frequent visitor with me asking for help. He had no idea how to budget his disability money. He was a man seeking the help and love of God as he battled his physical difficulties. He often talked on and on about movies, but little about his life struggles. He had no family to care for him. Donald and I went to the morgue to give him last rites. We got the county to cremate him and we buried him in our plot in Oakland Cemetery.
He was not like most of us, but we welcomed him, we fed him, we prayed with him and we loved him. He came to help with making sandwiches several times early on. I will admit, that sometimes John’s timing was not the best for me. But the last call I got from him, he asked for prayer, so in the middle of getting the Sunday bulletin together, I prayed for him and he seemed grateful. He was to enter treatment the next day and was happy to get some help. Three of us gathered around his grave and told John stories during the homily. He was a seeker, yes a troubled man, but a seeker of God’s grace and wisdom and love. My prayer is that the peace of God he sought on earth, will be his in the arms of God. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We remember that this text follows Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s lack of understanding who the true messiah is and what he is called to do. The disciples are talking on the road about who is the greatest. Jesus is aware of their conversation and brings it into the light. The real surprise comes when Jesus takes a small child and tells the disciples that in receiving the child they receive him – and through him they receive “the one who sent me.” When we consider our domestication of Jesus – our attempts to tame Jesus and make him like us – this seems to be a cute story about Jesus and the little children. Jesus is telling them and us that if we want to live in the way of the one who gives his life for others, we will identify with the children and welcome them, for they are in need of love and protection.
When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus exposes their argument and their misunderstanding by asking them what they were discussing on the way. There is only embarrassed silence in their response. The disciples’ competitive spirit even impacts their last supper with Jesus as Peter boasts that he will remain more faithful than any of the other disciples. In this reading, they are jockeying for position to be honored alongside their powerful liberator Messiah. Jesus walks ahead of them in silence on his way to his sacramental death while his struggling disciples push and shove, trying to establish the order of procession after him.
This dispute opens the door for Jesus’ teaching on selfless service. Mark signifies its importance as Jesus calls the Twelve to sit and listen. When he first spoke of suffering, he told them that the one who tries to save his or her life, will lose it, but the one who loses his or her life for his sake will save it. Now, he presents them with another paradox: The one who wants to be first must become last of all and servant of all. The disciples still have serious visions of grandeur and do even think about becoming servants, who are at everybody’s beck and call. They suffer from puffed-up ambition that will never be ready to take up a cross and follow a suffering servant Messiah. Charles Stanley calls it “followship.”
To reinforce the lesson, Jesus places a little child in front of them and announces: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcome me.” Jesus doesn’t set up the child as a model to be imitated, for his culture had no romanticized ideas about children. They were not regarded as especially obedient, trusting, simple, innocent, pure, unself-conscious, or humble. The point of comparison is the insignificance of the child on the honor scale. The child had no power, no status, and few rights. A child was dependent, vulnerable, entirely subject to the authority of the father; yet Jesus chooses this child to represent those who are poor and lowly. If one wants to be great, one should shower attention on those who are regarded as insignificant, as Jesus himself has done. Jesus requires his “great” disciples to show humble service for the humble – to be a servant.
Jesus follows this up with another paradox: When his followers serve those without any status, they receive Jesus and the One who sent him. The greatest thing they can do is serve those who are forgotten and regarded as insignificant – those who have no influence, no titles, no priority, and no importance except to God. Mark pictures a community where no one is to be treated either as a kingpin or as a nonentity. Realizing that one is as small and slight as a child before God brings repentance to our hearts.
In understanding who we are and whose we are, it always seems to come down to who is in and who is out. How do we keep following Jesus and protect the integrity of our community without isolating ourselves from others? How can a community keep its own identity and still be open to those outside? There is no simple answer to that question, but every community needs to be aware of where to draw the line between insider and outsider, and of the impact of that decision – on those within and those without. The words of Jesus to his disciples reminds us to be sensitive to the issues involved, and his words push us to run some risk in relating to those who are not part of our community – to welcome the stranger. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
So the disciples were distracted by all that had happened up to this point and who had done the most to help the cause. Don’t we get that way sometimes? We have helped with the Hands and Feet Project and are tired and just want to sit out working on the Bazaar or the New to You Sale. Someone else can do it. It is in our human nature to want recognition in all that we do. I realize I am not as good at that as I would like to be. I guess I count on people getting blessed by their efforts. Rick has done a great job in recent months in thanking people for their efforts. We all want to hear that we are valued, that we count, and that people are aware of us. But in the eyes of God, we are not measured by our efforts but by our hearts. We are valued because of the intentions of our hearts – hearts filled with love to serve others.
Preserving the power of his own group was not a priority for Jesus. If good were being done by others, and for others, their actions needed to be affirmed. Jesus went on to say to the disciples that as they ministered to outsiders, they would be blessed as well as blessing those they helped: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The risks are real for us if our failures of love, our distortions of the way of Christ, our too narrow understandings of the truth, our quickness to pronounce judgment cause others to move off the path to God. To follow Jesus, we are to humble ourselves, so there is less of us and more of God within us. We are to welcome the stranger, give cold water to those we meet, listen to the hearts of others. We have been knit together into the family of God. We, as the disciples, are called to live into the ministry of hospitality – we are to sign up, show up, speak up and eat up as we gather as the family of God. Amen.