Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Last"

Sermon 9/20/09, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Be Last

I have to confess to you – it may not seem like it to you at first – but I’m actually a very competitive person. I like to win, and not so much even just to win, but to be the best. Now, I don’t mean that I will get upset and be a bad sport if I lose a game of Scrabble against you. But you might catch a glimpse of what I mean as we approach the CROP Walk next month – I will really want us to raise more money than any other church. Yes, because it will help hungry people, of course. But also, because I want us to be in first place! Throughout school Todd, my youngest brother, and I would always compete over grades and other academic achievements – Todd had a higher rank in high school than I did, but I had the higher SAT score, and we still argue about which is more important, even though now we are both well out of any situations where it matters!

So I have a competitive spirit. Most of the time, I can use this for the good. But sometimes, I have to be careful, and aware of when that competitive nature might be distracting me from what is important or right, or what God is calling me to do. Some of you might know that when I was serving in New Jersey, part of my plan was to return to Drew, where I went to seminary, to pursue a PhD. A PhD is on of the highest academic achievements you can achieve in any given field – it’s the “best,” in a sense, and I wanted it. And it had been my plan since high school to eventually seek my doctoral degree, part of the mental schedule I had mapped out for myself.

Now, I’m a big fan of learning, and higher education, and continuing education, and generally using our minds, the precious gifts that God has given us, to learn more and experience more of this world God has created. But suddenly, as I was going through the application process for the PhD program, I couldn’t figure out why I was doing it – why I wanted to go back to school. I didn’t want to teach in seminary, or work at an agency that might require the degree. I was missing Central New York, and my family. And I didn’t have the drive, right then, for the course load that I would have to take and try to balance with my church work. Finally, I realized that I just wanted the title because it was available – and I wanted the best degree available – the highest, top level thing I could get. But nowhere in my reasoning did I feel like going to school was necessarily what God was calling me to do, or what I felt like was going to really enhance my ministry as a pastor. And I try, always, to make my important decisions by listening for God’s leading voice. I still might go back to school some day. But if I do, it will be in God’s time, and for a purpose, and not in my time, and for a title.

Why were the disciples following Jesus? What was their purpose? As we look at our text today, our motivations are brought into sharp focus. We skip ahead a little in Mark this week from where we left off last week. But the conversation is a bit the same as it was in our text last week at the start – Jesus is sharing with the disciples, as they are passing through Galilee, that the will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again. We read that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, but wisely, this time, Peter does not rebuke Jesus for his words. Unwisely, however, when they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about along the way. Rather than trying to figure out what Jesus means about this betrayal, killing, and rising, they’ve been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

In response, Jesus sits down with the twelve and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then, by way of example, Jesus takes a little child and put the child in the midst of the group. He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

At first it strikes me as funny that the disciples are actually arguing about which one of them is the best – how could they get caught up in something so silly – they, who were following Jesus, who couldn’t be more obvious in his lack of caring about matters like status and power and titles and places of honor. But on the other hand, if I can let myself really imagine the scene, I can see how it might unfold: These disciples are a group of twelve people, probably never chosen for anything before, and now, just twelve out of so many, they are called, by name, to follow Jesus. And Jesus is something of a celebrity, this man who teaches with authority, goes toe to toe with the Pharisees, and feeds people, and heals the sick wherever he goes. To be a disciple is like being in a pretty small inner-circle. I can see how over the course of three years with him, the disciples might start arguing, pointing out who was called first, or who Jesus confided in most, or who Jesus sent out most frequently, or who Jesus corrected most often. Which disciple was the best? The greatest? I can see how it would happen, as it happens to us in so many situations today. We get caught up in our own importance, and want to know where we stand in relation to everyone else.

Jesus clears this up really quickly: if we are to be his followers, where we stand in relation to everyone else is last, at the end of the line, serving others. That is some concise and clear perspective. And to illustrate, Jesus brings a child to the center of the circle, and talks about welcoming them. The child is at the center, and the disciples are moved to the edges of the circle. Now, today we come upon the first of three weeks of texts where Jesus talks about children, a rare topic of conversation in the Bible. And I think most people like these little passages, because children today are so treasured. We value children, love children, dote on children. And so, when we read these texts, we get these heart-warming pictures in our heads. Indeed, images, paintings, sketches of this text, and the ones that follow today’s selection usually depict a happy friendly Jesus bouncing some cute and rosy-cheeked baby on his lap. Sweet, touching pictures of Jesus with children that make us smile.

But such images don’t tell the whole story, let us know how significant these mentions of children in the Bible are, or help us to understand what an important point Jesus is trying to make here. Every time we hear the size of a crowd quoted in the gospels, the number given would be the number of the men only in the crowd. As the texts sometimes explicitly note, women and children were not counted in these numbers, because they weren’t considered important enough, or significant enough to count. What mattered in Jesus’ day was how many adult males were present. Women were considered less important, and children were even less so. Children were certainly loved, and they were important in terms of being able to carry on a family line. But children, in Jesus’ day, were not what they are today.

Why was this? Were people just less loving in Jesus’ day? No – they loved their families like we do, I’m sure. But children were vulnerable. Perhaps as many as half of all children simply wouldn’t survive until adulthood. And children didn’t have any social or legal standing or status in society. They had no power. They were simply not-yet-adults who were being trained to be adults, and they would count for something when they became adults. So when Jesus talks about children, he’s bringing to the center of attention a group of people that no one else is particularly interested in. Jesus is talking about people who weren’t even really considered worth counting, thinking about. He’s making them the focus of his example, the object of his teaching, the important center of attention.

The disciples, for all Jesus had taught them, were still interested in power and status. But, Jesus says, the way to be first where it matters is to welcome those that are not just lower in status – but to serve those who had no status at all, who weren’t even high enough to be counted or given a status. Jesus wants us to take those who don’t even count, and put them at the center. In doing so, we take ourselves out of the center, to the edges, placed as servants. In doing so, we welcome Jesus, and welcome God. And the one who welcomes God to their table – surely this person would feel themselves to be the greatest in a way that actually matters.

The only question left for us then is this: who is it who is like the unseen, uncounted child for us today? Who are we not counting? Not seeing? Not including? We can ask ourselves that question in many settings. Who don’t we see right within the walls of this church? Whose opinion do we count as less than our own? Sometimes we look at someone who has been here less years than someone else, and we don’t really see them. Sometime we look at someone who has been here their entire life, and we don’t really count them. Sometimes we overlook someone because they are too young to take seriously. And sometimes we count someone out because they are too old. I don’t believe we do things so intentionally or overtly – but whenever we become very focused on making sure thing are how we want them, we’re probably putting ourselves at the center of the circle, and not leaving room for someone else. Who don’t you see in your community? This week I encourage you to think about who we don’t count in society – who don’t we even notice? Maybe it’s a waiter bring your food to the table, or a bus boy cleaning up your dirty dishes. Maybe it’s the person collecting your trash, or checking you out of the grocery store. Maybe it’s the immigrant we overlook, or the teen dressed in something we can’t understand why they’d wear, or the person trying to discreetly buy food with food stamps. Jesus wants us to welcome them, welcome them, by putting them at the center of our attention. And the only way we can do that, is if we get out of the middle of the circle, and take a spot on the edge, so that there’s room, a place, for the ones who don’t get counted. And then, we serve.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Amen.

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