Sermon: 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Welcoming and Serving

Mark 9:30-37

When I read about Jesus’ disciples arguing about which one of them is the greatest, I want just to roll my eyes. Is there ever a time these guys don’t completely misunderstand what Jesus said or did? The Bible even says that they had questions, but they were afraid to ask Jesus. But then I think maybe I should give them a little more credit. After all, these were Jesus’ hand-selected students. Maybe this argument about who was the greatest was an effort to make sense of Jesus’ mysterious words. Maybe they were speculating about how one could be the greatest disciple of this unusual Messiah. Maybe the quarrel was over interpretation of Jesus’ words and which one of them really understood him. Maybe they were trying to figure out how to be the greatest witnesses to his teachings. We don’t know. But it certainly is possible. 

After all, aren’t these the kinds of things that Jesus’ followers of every time and place seem to squabble about? Isn’t it why we have different congregations? Even denominations? Who really has a handle on what it means to be a follower of Jesus? One group of people believe that Jesus is only rightly worshipped if the community gathers on Saturdays. One group teaches that real believers must be baptized only when they are old enough to choose the sacrament. One group is sure that faithfulness requires them to abstain from drinking or eating certain types of food. And we may not come right out and say that the Lutheran brand of Christianity is the greatest, but haven’t we, on our worst days, been known to tout our Lutheranism or even our Christianity by belittling the convictions and practices of others? We still argue about who is the greatest, don’t we?

And it isn’t always a religious conversation. We live in a culture that encourages us not only to keep up with the Joneses but to surpass them. To have a better car or a bigger house or a more stylish outfit than everyone else. We spend unbelievable amounts of time and money on magazines that feature the rich and successful. Successful, of course, being code for rich. We watch TV shows in which the strongest, smartest, gutsiest, and most beautiful ruthlessly fight their way to the top of the heap. God bless America. Is it a prayer or a demand?

But how does Jesus describe successful? Who does he say is the greatest? When Jesus’ disciples got all twisted up inside about how to gauge their status, he sits down in the middle of them and, instead of trying to explain it all again, he offers a visual aide. The greatest disciples are not the ones with the best theological arguments. They are not the ones with the biggest congregations or the most worship services in a weekend. They are not necessarily beautiful, rich, or powerful. Jesus gathers the disciples around him, and then invites a little child into the center of the group. He says success could be measured by how well they welcomed such a child.

That’s it. That’s the secret to discipleship. Of course, this was a radical gesture. In the ancient world, children went largely unnoticed. They were not considered little people—they were simply the property of their fathers, just like their mothers. They were not significant factors in social structures. So why welcome a child at all? What good will it do? How does it benefit the bottom line?

Welcoming children with dignity and respect is still a radical idea, isn’t it? Children may not be considered sub-human, but they still have no power in our society. Teachers, parents, guardians, coaches, government agencies and officials–all these people make decisions that impact and affect children’s lives. Some of those decisions are good ones; some are not. The important thing, Jesus says to the adults who follow him, is to notice children. Really see them. Be cognizant of how your behavior or attitude causes a child to feel or to perceive the world. The goal is that each child would feel the protection and affection of Jesus’ arms around him.

And yet, over 35,000 children under the age of five around the globe die every day, mostly from poverty-related issues–malnutrition, lack of immunizations, and neglect. 35,000 children A DAY! Besides that, women and children bear the primary brunt of war in every land around the world. The official designation for children killed in war is not even human—they are “collateral damage.”

And we, what do we do? Do we participate in this horror by ignoring it? Or do we vocally support initiatives in healthcare, human services, and international politics that would be beneficial to children? Do we use our citizenship to support the most vulnerable members of our society? Do we vote with kids on our minds? That is not a political question; it’s a religious one.

But Jesus doesn’t stop the lesson there. He stretches it out. It’s not just the children who should be honored and dignified by our conduct, who should feel Jesus’ arms around them, but all people. We will know we’re succeeding as disciples, that we’ve truly achieved greatness, when we are servants of all. The Greek verb for servant here is one who serves food—equivalent to our word for waiter or waitress. How’s that for career coaching? Our highest goal will be attained if we all grow up to wait tables.

Although I’ve had a varied work life, I have never been a waitress. I can imagine, but do not know from personal experience, the sore feet, the aching back, the frustration of keeping straight who wanted salad dressing on the side and who wanted the decaf coffee instead of regular. Which makes me consider: do I always see the people who are serving me? Do I even remember which of the busy wait-staff took my order? Do I ask myself, “Are they being paid a living wage?” Even with tips, does this person who is bringing me an extra napkin go to sleep at night wondering if they can make the rent or buy medicine this month? How do we treat minimum wage employees? Not just waiters but busboys, valets, custodians, grocery checkers, and all the other people who do the hard work we rely on. This is also a spiritual question.

To be great followers of Jesus, to be the Church, we need to notice the children and anyone who has limited power in our society. The Church, especially, is called to pay attention to those the rest of society is apt to ignore. Who are those people? Who will you encounter this week who needs to be honored? Is it an illegal immigrant? Someone with a mental or physical disability? Is it a prisoner or someone out on parole? Is it a minimum wage worker? Everywhere we turn there are precious, vulnerable, children of God. This week I pray we keep our eyes open for the invisible people. Let’s make a point to make sure they see us noticing them and smile, for in that moment we will have seen God.

It seems overwhelming doesn’t it? I mean, how can this little room full of people combat poverty and illness and economic injustice around the world? How can we even begin to address all the apathy–not to mention outright assault on human dignity–just outside these doors? It’s so much that it’s almost paralyzing. We can’t do it all alone. There’s too much suffering. There’s too little energy, clout, or time to change the system. It’s more of a challenge than we feel we can meet. We have to admit: God, we can’t be great disciples. We are too weak.

But know this: you do have power—maybe more than you even know. Each one of us was created in the image and likeness of God. And in the baptismal promises we all share, we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are heirs of the kingdom, and that is a powerful place to be.

In a few moments we’ll be sharing the family meal at the table. Jesus is our host—and our waiter. Jesus knows how broken this world is. And Jesus knows how we long to serve others, and also how inadequate we feel we are in meeting that goal. And yet, there are his arms around us, holding us. No matter how insignificant we think we are, we are welcome at the table. We are part of the family of God. And at this meal, Jesus offers not just forgiveness, but also courage and connection. Here at the table we are joined at the table by our sisters and brothers–those who are gathered in this sanctuary today, but also those saints of every time and every place. Martin Luther is kneeling next to you. Mother Theresa is beside you. John the Baptist is in line behind you. And there is your grandmother. And that Sunday school teacher you loved so much when you were growing up. We’re all here together. And everyone—rich, poor, strong, weak, child, or adult, gets a taste of the same feast—the body and blood of Christ. We are in this struggle toward servanthood together, my friends, and Jesus is holding us in his arms even now. Thanks be to God.

~Pastor Sue

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