23 Words

(sermon 9/23/18)

dirty-faced boy

Mark 9:30-37

[Jesus and his disciples] went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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It was an uncomfortable moment for the disciples. Jesus had told them while they were in Caesarea Philippi that he was going to be killed. The first time he’d said it, they didn’t believe him, and Peter even scolded him for it, as we heard last week. But then he’d done it a second time, and after that, the disciples seem to have taken his words to heart. So as they were walking from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum, which probably took them two, maybe even three days, they talked about it. If it’s really true, and Jesus was going to be killed, they thought, we need to start making some plans in order to keep this movement going. We need to have some kind of a plan for succession. One of us is going to have to become the new leader. So as they walked, they debated who that new leader would be, based on who was the greatest, who was the most important among them; all the while trying to keep their conversation quiet, without Jesus hearing them, because that would have been a bit awkward.

But the awkwardness came anyway, when they got to Capernaum and Jesus asked them what they’d been talking about on the road. Maybe it was Jesus’ divine knowledge, or maybe the disciples just hadn’t been as discreet as they’d thought, but one way or another Jesus knew what they’d been talking about, and he asked them about it. And at first, when asked, the disciples just stood there, looking a bit sheepish, and feeling ashamed, and not knowing what to say.

A lot of people who have written about this story have said that Jesus’ response to them was to criticize them and to say that their discussion about who was the greatest among them was inappropriate. That might be true, but honestly, I don’t think that’s right. The passage doesn’t really say that Jesus was criticizing them; I think that’s us reading something into that probably isn’t there. I picture this scene, and hear Jesus’ words, as they’re written, and I think it’s Jesus actually *validating* their conversation. At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has shifted gears from trying to gain followers, and he’s been trying to teach these disciples about deepening their discipleship and preparing for when he wouldn’t be with them – so what the disciples were discussing would have been completely appropriate. I believe that in this story, we’re seeing Jesus trying to help them along, telling them how they should think about what discipleship really is, and how greatness is really measured.

In order to help make his point, Jesus showed them a little child. Now, the people of Jesus’ time loved their children every bit as much as we love our own, but in that culture, children were completely at the bottom of the pile. They were powerless. They were voiceless. They had no real rights; they supposed to serve, not to be served. They were supposed to stay with the women. They were to be seen and not heard, and truth be told, not even seen by the men when they were doing supposedly important “men things;” especially things like discussing deep subjects of God, and religion, and determining how to lead and continue a new movement.

So it was odd when Jesus stood this dirty-faced little kid in front of them in the middle of this important conversation and told them – serious adult men, now part of the great teacher’s inner circle – and told them “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me, but the one who sent me.”

Just like that. Twenty-three simple and totally unexpected words that encapsulated for the disciples how to order their lives of following Jesus, and how to measure true greatness in God’s eyes. Whether a literal child or otherwise, humble yourself and welcome the powerless. The weak. The friendless. The one most in need. In my name, he said, serve those who are the least, and that will make you great.

It was 1963, in Warsaw, Poland, and memories of the horrors of World War II were still raw, and fresh in the minds of many people. The old man was one of those people. He was a doctor, running a clinic in his neighborhood, highly respected by the community as a man of learning and status. Life had definitely thrown him a twist, though, when his daughter had married a young German man. A German! One of those people who had nearly wiped his beloved city off the map; one of those people who had been responsible for untold human carnage, including the deaths of many in his own family. Granted, the young man himself seemed to be nice enough, and he was only a toddler during the war; he hadn’t hurt anyone – but still, his father had served in the army during the war, and had taken part in only God knows what.

The man had been terribly upset about the wedding, which was bad enough. Then, shortly after that, the couple had had a child. But now, barely a year after the child had been born, the young man had been killed in an automobile accident, leaving an uncertain future for the old man’s daughter and her child. At this same time, she had been accepted for advanced study in the United States. It would open up a world of opportunities for her and her child, but it would have been all but impossible for her to complete her studies while also caring for the child all by herself, and in a completely foreign environment. So she asked her father, the old man, could the child stay with him and her mother, there, until her studies were complete; then she’d send for him?

Impossible. Unthinkable. It would never work. But then, he looked into his grandchild’s eyes, so full of wonder, and love, and curiosity, and no small amount of fear. Yes, his other grandfather may very well have even killed some of this grandfather’s own brothers and sisters. But this child – this utterly helpless child with the troubling bloodlines, and whose future looked bleak otherwise – this child hadn’t hurt anyone. He needed someone. So the old man said yes.

From the very beginning, and contrary to all social expectations, the old man formed a very strong bond with the child. In that time and place, taking care of a child was totally women’s work, not a man’s, and for a man of his stature, a distinguished highly respected doctor, it was completely inappropriate, degrading, even scandalous. But for some reason, despite all of that, the old man did it. He cared for him. He dressed him, and changed him, and bathed him, and laughed and played with him, in a completely undignified manner. As the child grew, the old man let him help with the gardening, and visit with him at the clinic. For the next few years, the two spent countless hours together like this, and whenever people told the old man he was being undignified, he disregarded it – he just didn’t care. He’d found very deep meaning, and great love, by humbling himself and not caring what society said, in order to care for this little one. If he didn’t help him, who would?

Decades later, the little child, now a man who had grown up and lived in the United States for most of his life, stood on the street corner in Warsaw where his grandparents’ house had once been, long since replaced by an apartment building. Standing there on the same sidewalk where years before his own much smaller feet had stood alongside his grandfather’s as they tended to the flowers in front of a house that was now just a memory, he recognized that his grandfather – who wasn’t a religious man at all; his faith had been a casualty of the war – had actually personified those all-important 23 words of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes such a child as this in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sends me.”

When we think about our own lives of faith, it’s good for us to go back to the source, to always reflect on just what Jesus himself taught, and what he said was important for us to keep in mind – and how we could show gratitude and love for the God who has shown us such great love and mercy. If we want to be seen as great in God’s eyes, we need to be ready to humble ourselves and to welcome and help the helpless and the powerless, even if it means raising a few eyebrows in the process. And we don’t do it out of a sense of duty or obligation or burden; we do it out of gratitude – because long before we could ever offer that kind of welcome and acceptance to others, the helpless, dirty-faced child who stood in front of God, and who received that kind of welcome, was us.

Thanks be to God.

Fear Factor (sermon 9/20/15)

ahmed mohamed

Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgm-y2NOG0I&feature=youtu.be

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”   – Mark 9:30-27

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I’m sure you’ve all seen the story about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old Muslim-American high school student from Irving, Texas, who used his expertise and passion for electronics to make a digital clock, and took it to school to show his teacher – who completely freaked out and turned him into the school administration saying the clock looked like a bomb. Then the police were called and they handcuffed and arrested him for supposedly making a “hoax bomb.” And even though the police eventually dropped the charges due to the huge public outcry, never once in this whole ridiculous story has the school or the police ever apologized for their overreaction – causing thinking people all around the world to just scratch their heads and wonder if Irving, or Texas, or America, is full of crazy people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – which, ironically enough, Ahmed may actually become – to understand that this crazy overreaction was the result of irrational fear, arising out of Ahmed’s name, religion, and the color of his skin. Fear is one of our most basic, reptilian-brain reactions. It’s at the root of virtually every negative thing we do, and every good thing we leave undone. And it’s got a lot to do with what’s going on in today’s gospel text.

We’ve all heard this story many times. We’ve heard the “last shall be first” and “welcome the little children” messages in any number of sermons. But while they can stand on their own as independent thoughts, Jesus is using them here with a very specific purpose. As we heard last week, Jesus had been predicting his arrest and execution, and it wasn’t sitting well with the disciples. It meant that this whole movement they were part of was about to change dramatically. Jesus, the founder and leader of this movement, was soon to be out of the picture, and that caused uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in their hearts. At first, the fear paralyzed them into inaction – they couldn’t bring themselves to ask Jesus for details of what he was talking about. But then that same fear led them to get into a power struggle, arguing about who was the greatest among them – who was the heir-apparent in the movement, who’d take over when Jesus was gone and who’d have power and authority not just in the by-and-by, and also the here-and-now. Their fear, their anxiety, over this looming power vacuum was causing them to think they could resolve things by being the position of power and control, so they could call the shots.

That fear at the root of their actions was what Jesus was speaking to when he said what he did to his disciples. Fear had paralyzed them from doing good, and was goading them to do wrong. Jesus pointed out to them that the solution to their fears didn’t lie in power or position or control. He was telling them that their fear was causing them to miss what God wanted them to focus on. They were missing out on living the abundant, loving, just, compassionate life that God had designed them for and called them to. Instead of focusing on fear, Jesus called on them to focus on faith.

A lot of times, we think that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don’t think that’s really true. Doubt is actually a necessary component of faith; otherwise it wouldn’t be faith at all, it would be certainty. The opposite of faith actually seems to be fear. And faith isn’t just intellectual assent of something. It isn’t just belief. As the preacher David Lose once pointed out, faith is actually movement. Faith is taking a step, even a small step forward to living more like Christ, in the face of doubt and fear. Dr. King meant the same thing when he famously said “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Faith is movement in the face of feelings that would keep you from moving. Faith is deepened and fear is overcome, in the doing.

Pretty much whatever sin or shortcoming you can think of, fear, in some way or another, is at the root of it. Fear within each of us keeps us imprisoned in a mentality of anxiety and scarcity. It keeps us from living that abundant life that Christ opens the door to for us. So today, when we think about the fear of those disciples and Jesus’ words that spoke to those fears – What are your fears? Are they related to health, family, work, finances?

I fear what the future might bring for me. I fear insecurity and instability in my life, and I fear whether I’ll ever be able to set roots down again and restart a normal life. I fear for the future of my parents as they’re getting older, and I fear for my own health as I age. I fear for my daughters, that they might have to endure some of the terrible things I’ve had to go through in my own life. I fear that some day when I least expect it, someone’s going to come up behind me in a restaurant and sucker-punch me, or worse, just because I happened to be holding George’s hand. I fear over whether I’ll be able to have some financial security in my retirement. Those are some of my fears. Some of the things that make me wake up in a cold sweat and feeling like a steel band is tightening across my chest. That keep me from experiencing and living and enjoying that life that God wants for me.

I share those fears with you because here, in this is the place if nowhere else, we need to be open and honest with each other as God’s people. We need to speak the truth, and hear in truth. And I share those fears with you because it wouldn’t be fair of me to ask you to name your fears, even if only to yourselves, in your own minds, if I didn’t do the same thing. So now I ask you to think about exactly that: What, exactly, are the fears in your life? What’s holding you back? What’s leading you down the wrong path? What is it that wakes you up in the middle of the night?

Seriously think about that, and actually put those fears into words, to yourself, because one of the odd things about fear is that just giving it a name, and putting it in concrete words and acknowledging it, automatically takes a lot of its power away. Here’s another little exercise that I stole from David Lose. I’ve done this same sort of thing in other settings, too, and now I guess it’s your turn. When you came in today, you got a 3×5 index card. Take that card, and maybe right now, or maybe some time later today, write down on one side a fear in your life. And then, on the other side, write down some small step of faith that you can make this week – it might be something very small, and it doesn’t even have to be directly related to the particular fear you wrote down. Then carry that card with you, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse. Commit to doing that one step of faith this week. If you get it done, great! Then think of another one and write it down, and keep carrying the card until you get it done, too. The point behind the exercise is that by starting small, taking small steps, we can strengthen our faith to the point where our faith can overcome our fears. It doesn’t mean that the fear disappears, but we’ll have faithful ways to deal with it, to respond to it, to overcome its negative power and control over our lives. Eventually, by repeating that same process of facing our fears, naming them, and taking more and more steps of faith, we’ll be able to overcome even the really big fears and anxieties in our lives. We’ll be able to deal with times of uncertainty or anxiety. We’ll discover that that abundant, peaceful, joyful life that we want, and that God wants for us, is really right here in front of us. And with God’s help, each of us will be able to step out in faith, even if it’s just a little one at first, and grow and strengthen over time as we take more and more steps up the staircase.

We can do that. We can do it! It really isn’t rocket science. Really, we have to do it. Because if we don’t – if we allow our fear and anxiety to overpower us, to take control over our thoughts and actions, then we’ll all just be a problem waiting to happen. We’ll always be just one moment of anxiety away from doing something wrong or hurtful or stupid, taking us further away from the direction God is leading us. In our own lives, in our churches, in our society in general, that’s the ticking time bomb we should really be worried about.

Thanks be to God.