23 Words

(sermon 9/23/18)


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.”


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.

Service, Please (sermon 10/18/15)


James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”   – Mark 10:35-45


The Gospel according to Mark might just as easily be titled “Apostles Behaving Badly.” It seems like all through this gospel, the Apostles are doing something wrong, or stupid, or they’re missing the point of what Jesus is talking about, and through it all, you can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes or giving them a face palm, ad getting really frustrated with them. Sometimes in Jesus’ words, you get the feeling that he’d like to clunk the Apostles’ heads together like something out of an old Three Stooges comedy.

Today’s gospel text is another example of this. Here are the Apostles James and John, brothers, asking Jesus if they can be at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom of God, making them the most powerful people in the whole Kingdom, short of Jesus himself.

Of course, Jesus tells them no, that he isn’t in charge of the seating arrangements in the Kingdom, and of course, the other Apostles get upset at the cheekiness of the brothers’ request. But Jesus calms them all down, he calls them together, and he starts to teach them. Maybe telling them not to be too upset with James and John, maybe reminding them of another time when they were all arguing about who was the greatest in the Kingdom, he tells them very simply and directly who God is going to consider the greatest. In God’s eyes, serving others is what makes a person great. It’s what shows that the person truly gets God’s whole message, the message that Christ teaches us. Greatness in God’s eyes doesn’t come from getting a big promotion, or a book deal, or wining an election. It doesn’t come from being a celebrity, or from having everyone seeing your name in print or plastered on a building. Maybe all those things are nice, but more often than not, those kinds of things are actually distractions, obstacles to real greatness as God defines it.

Our prime objective as God’s people is to care for others, to look out for others, to serve others humbly, because of God’s love for us. Helping with the Salvation Army Miracle Kitchen is a part of this. So is providing the chapel for lunchtime visitors, and organizing a reception for a family after a funeral service. But it isn’t just caring for other people – it’s caring for all of God’s creation.  The blessing of the animals? Donating a day’s worth of work at the Permaculture Park? That’s all a part of it, too.

If we want to be considered great in the Kingdom of God, we need to find ways to serve God’s creatures and creation all around us.

That’s very true. But there’s another angle that should be mentioned here, too. There have been a lot of times where Jesus’ message here has been used exploitatively, by people in power to keep people with less power in their place, serving the more powerful. To keep them in a place of powerlessness or victimhood, who are told by the powerful that it’s just their lot in life – in fact, it’s even their sacred responsibility and their Christian duty to serve their supposed superiors, enduring all kinds of personal deprivation. They’re told to accept this situation gladly, without complaining, even that it’s through their serving and suffering that God will redeem them.

You can find this argument being made, directly or indirectly, on a large scale, in socioeconomic arguments in any number of countries. And you can also see it on a micro level, at a family level, in asymmetrical or even abusive personal relationships.

This is clearly not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is not telling someone who’s so consumed by serving other people that they’ve lost their own self-identity and sense of self-worth, that what they really need is to just double down and serve others in an even more self-destructive way.

Remember that Jesus is speaking in this passage to a group of people who have been involved in a fight over who among them is the greatest – people who needed a big serving of humble pie, who need to be more servantlike.

I imagine that at various times, we all need to hear that lesson Jesus was offering to the Apostles. But I also suspect that some of us also need to be reminded of the flip side of this argument, too. Maybe we’re in some unhealthy, unbalanced, codependent or even abusive personal relationship that’s gradually destroying us, inside and out, and we feel guilty if we try to stand up for ourselves. If you’re in a situation like that, you need to know that Jesus isn’t telling us that we need to stay in that kind of harmful situation. That is not today’s message.

I think Jesus’ message here really just boils down to this: realize that in all the things we do, God wants us to uphold and honor and serve all those around us, and all of creation as well. God wants us to do that humbly and out of love for God and the ones we’re serving, and without expecting a pat on the back or a plaque on our wall. And to do that without losing ourselves in the process. If we do that, then we aren’t likely to get any eye rolls or face palms from Jesus.

Thanks be to God.