First Congregational Church
September 23, 2018
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A duck, a skunk, and a deer went out for dinner at a restaurant one night. When it came time to pay, the skunk didn’t have a scent and the deer didn’t have a buck, so instead, they put the meal on the duck’s bill!
A young boy enters a barber shop and the barber whispers to his customer, "This kid just isn’t very bright. Watch while I prove it to you.” The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, "Which do you want, son?" The boy takes the quarters and leaves. "What did I tell you?" said the barber. "That kid never learns!"
Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming out of the ice cream parlor. "Hey, kid! Can I ask you a question? Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?” The boy licked his cone and replied, "Because the day I take the dollar the game is over!"
This morning’s scripture passage is not really even connected to last week’s passage, except that it comes from the same gospel of Mark. The lectionarians skipped the passages between last week and this week - Jesus’ big transfiguration on a mountaintop and healing a demon possessed boy. Instead, the lectionarians went right past the passages where Jesus said that - what happened on the mountain stayed on the mountain and the insinuation that the disciples didn’t know how to pray.
Somehow, this word “instead” got into my brain this week, and it just begged to have some play-time. To make the point, instead of doing the Gloria Patri, like we’ve done for the past 20 years, I wanted to bring in a different light - based on a slip of paper someone left in those blue pew notebooks - just in case anyone wonders about them.
And instead of the old, traditional lyrics, the words, particularly of the last phrase, were tweaked to not only mirror those that are sung in so many other churches across this country, but carry a little modernization with them. Instead of doing the same-old, same-old, glazed eye response to what should be an uplifting song, today we moved a little out of some comfort zones to widen the circle of inclusion. Not that I don’t try to stretch all of you on other Sundays, but this one seemed to beg for the effort.
Mark 9:30-37 (NIV)
Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Thank you, Donna. If anyone was looking for the title of the sermon in the passage, don’t feel bad that you didn’t find it, because it wasn’t there. It came from the commentary of Elisabeth Johnson, a professor at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Meiganga, Cameroon. It might not have been a “super, big deal sentence” to her, but the first word almost popped off the page. “Instead of asking questions of Jesus, the disciples turn to arguing with each other.”
This passage truly begs the story of the disciples’ conversation after Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Then, Peter said, "Do we have to write this down?” And, Andrew said, "Are we supposed to know this?” And, James said, "Will this be on the test?” And, Phillip said, "I don't have any paper.” And, Bartholomew said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this.” And, John said, "Do we have to turn this in?” And, Matthew said, "Can I go to the bathroom?” And, Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"
Then, one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan and inquired of Jesus: "Where is your anticipatory set of objectives in the cognitive domain?” And Jesus wept.
I wonder if, to be fair, we should cut the disciples a little slack. Jesus talks about what will happen to the “Son of Man,” who Jesus refers to as “he,” not “I.” Terrible things will happen to the Son of Man. Jesus speaks in the third person, and that’s not always easy to follow.
Jesus carries some of the fault of misunderstanding, too. Instead of using vague, third person references, Jesus could have said it more plainly. But then, maybe his humanity was his own stumbling block, too. Who among us wants to talk about our own deaths - especially plainly?
Maybe the disciples subconsciously didn’t hear what Jesus was saying, because they didn’t want to hear about their friend suffering and dying. Maybe we do that sometimes, not really listening to people, because we don’t want to deal with the difficult truth they are trying to tell us, even most especially when they are struggling to deal with it themselves.
And who likes to reveal their ignorance in front of a group of people? ( ) Maybe they were thinking back to the uncomfortable discussion that happened when Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Even when we can muster enough courage to ask a question, being shot down with silence, evasiveness or a sideways comment is enough to prohibit future questioning.
And who knows? Maybe the disciples were distracted, thinking about what the weather was going to be like for fishing the next day, or what they wanted to eat for dinner that night, or who was going to be on Bible Jeopardy that evening. They maybe looked liked they were listening to Jesus, but maybe not so much. It’s interesting the things we do instead of doing what we ought to be doing.
And then, Jesus did the crazy thing. Imagine being invited to dinner at Buckingham Palace, and at the end of the meal the Queen stands up, takes off her crown and says, “would you mind passing down your plates”, then goes and does the washing up? Yet what Jesus does in today’s gospel was just as ridiculous in the eyes of the disciples.
He sits down - the rabbi signal that they were about to teach something important. He uses the tried and true method of teaching: pronouncement and demonstration. He offers a pithy saying and picks up a nearby kid to underscore that pithy saying about first and last and servant.
I don’t know if Jesus was aware of it, but taking a child for his children’s message was quite the stroke of genius. As children grow older, their questions tend to get smaller. They learn to be careful in their questions because they don’t want to look “dumb” or “stupid” or any other big stick term you want to use.
There’s a delightful quote by theologian Frederick Buechner that says that honest doubt is essential for growth in faith, not the enemy or the opposite of faith. “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith—they keep faith alive and moving,” said Buechner.
Jesus deals with all the doubted, the last and the least: a Gentile woman, bleeding women, lepers, raging demoniacs, tax collectors and children. Instead of lobbing rotten tomatoes and other fruit at me for going over an hour, I ask each of you, later today or tomorrow, to create your list of vulnerables in our world today. Once you have your list, then add three more, since we’re in the stretching mode today.
Regardless of our age, we are not like the children Jesus was using in his illustration. We are not considered nobodies - regardless of what we might think at times. Our worth is not merely tied to our adulthood, but to our childhood, also. At times, we may be vulnerable like children, dependent on others like children, but even those things are not bad things; they’re just very human things and they just are.
What Jesus said - about being being servants and last and first is still not always considered a high priority life quest, but too often, a milquetoast aspiration of weakness and lacking in zeal. And like so often, our culture doesn’t carry the best expressions of what it means to be a servant; being last rather than first.
Instead of a last resort consequence, servanthood is the mark of a person who knows who he or she is. Instead of being ignorant of one’s worth, a servant knows their true worth - coming from the heart of a person who knows he or she is loved and valued.
Leonard Hander Zee, from Calvin Theological Seminary, had a great statement about this servanthood state. He said, “The more we become identified with Christ and sure of God’s love, the more we will be able to drop the pretense of greatness and assume the role of servanthood.”
It’s interesting that there is a vein within the corporate world that understands this underlying foundation of a servant heart. Business leaders have figured out that putting others, most especially their staff and employees, ahead of themselves doesn’t reduce a leader’s own position, but raises everyone up within a sense of safety and well being.
Jesus’ lesson that day was and is not about adopting a corporate world view or even wise leadership style. Instead, it is a way of life, given by the One who called himself, “the way, the truth and the life” - the One sent from God to show us how to live - instead of die in this life we live. Instead of dying, let us live as we pray.
Holy God, we thank you for not leaving us to figure out life alone and without direction. Help us to take on the mantle of servanthood with desire and purity of heart that changes the world - and us - into the vision you have for the goodness and righteousness of a life lived within your love and mercy and grace. Thank you for those who have given us examples of servant hearts, and forgive us for those moments when we turned away from those opportunities to serve your people and this world. Help each of us stay focused on our quest to be your people, with all the wisdom you have ordained. In humility and renewed commitment to you and your will, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.