Pentecost 17, 2015 Mark 9:30-37 Bunker Hill
When our granddaughter Amelia was in first grade, our son volunteered an afternoon in her classroom. He spent the afternoon cutting out numbers and putting them in bags. “I wanted to tell the teacher that I have a doctor’s degree,” he said. “Maybe she could have put me to better use.” I replied, “You have just given me an illustration for my sermon.” Aaron said, “Oh, you mean about being last. Well, I certainly was least and last this afternoon.”
Jesus came to turn an upside down world right side up. Today, Jesus teaches us that to stand tall in his world means that we learn how to stoop low. Jesus stooped all the way down to death before he stood tall before his heavenly Father.
Today, we encounter Jesus and his disciples on the way through Galilee to their home base in Capernaum. However, in the long term Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem where he will suffer the final rejection in arrest, condemnation to death as a criminal and his death. He adds, “After three days he will rise.” Jesus had already done plenty of stooping. He made himself nothing, took the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of men.
Jesus is the heavenly Son of Man whom God handed over into the hands of men who would do with him whatever they pleased. As it turned out it pleased them, or should I say us, to unleash their wishes upon him until he was stooped under the weight of His cross which he carried to the skull shaped execution hill.
Through the cross, Jesus brought the good news of our salvation into the world. Through the cross, Jesus proved to be the beloved Son, who accomplished the mission of the Father for us and for our salvation. Last Monday was Holy Cross Day. In the epistle lesson for that day, Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
But the disciples didn’t get it. God had instructed them to listen to His beloved Son, but they didn’t want to hear about the beloved Son being killed. It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t fit into what they had long been taught about the Messiah. Jesus was their friend and teacher, why would he want to do such a thing as go to Jerusalem, if people were waiting to kill him? Jesus had spoken of those events to take place in Jerusalem as his glorification. What sort of glory is that? The disciples had a good thing going with Jesus. Wouldn’t you think in similar terms if your closest friend decided to themselves in harm’s way? Well what about us? What are we going to do, without you? The disciples were afraid to ask him because they didn’t want to hear the answer. He had already included them as members of that “faithless generation” who had not learned to commit their way to the Lord, trust him and wait for him to act. They had failed to cast out a spirit that made a boy unable to speak. Now they were left deaf to hear and speechless to confess their faith in what Jesus was about to do.
We read in the Introit: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” But the disciples stillness was not one in which they were patiently waiting for the Lord to act through his death and resurrection. Rather it was the stillness of embarrassment and fear. They didn’t get it and were afraid to ask.
Since they won’t question Jesus, Jesus questions them. “What were you arguing about on the way? Silence. They had been arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest among themselves. How to get ahead in an upside down world. Jesus is talking about stooping down to the point of death and they are shining up their resumes. Who belonged at the top, who gets the disciple of the month award; which is the best church. How often we would be silent if Jesus were to confront us and ask us what we were discussing, after the meeting, in the coffee gathering, what we had just posted on facebook or twitter.
If we look around the church, we find all sorts of things, both serious and frivolous, that are out of sync with Jesus way. Alyce Mckenzie remembers sitting in church one time during the Christmas season while the preacher preached on “The Reason for the Season.” Suddenly the novelty tie worn by a man in the pew behind her, started playing loudly, “Here comes Santa Claus.” And for some reason the switch resisted his best efforts to turn it off. She also recalled a somber Good Friday service when she was surrounded by multitaskers. A woman with her compact was touching up her lipstick. Another woman was checking her Iphone. A man was sending a text. A couple of teenagers were flirting. Several people were snoozing. Then she adds, “Self-righteous little me was busy watching them and feeling superior.”
Nevertheless, Jesus continues to be both our Savior and our Teacher. He called the disciples to gather around him. Like any good teacher he employed a variety of means to teach how to live right side up in an upside down world. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” The way to get to the top is to make your way to the bottom. The way to be first in line is to take your place at the end of the line. In other words be the one who serves everyone else. If you want to be first in God’s kingdom, be last in status. Lowliness and service are the hallmarks of life for those who are baptized into Christ.
Jesus then uses an object lesson. From somewhere he finds a child. Maybe the kid was eavesdropping on Jesus’ adult Bible class. Or maybe the kid had gotten away from his mother and was just running by when Jesus caught hold of him. Children were not be seen, much less heard. He put the child in their midst saying, “whoever, receives one such child in my name receives (welcomes) me, and whoever receives me, welcomes not me but him who sent me. Who is it that you would regard as having no importance, the one to whom you would be reluctant to stoop and help?
Jeremiah in our Old Testament lesson was regarded as such a one. He was such an irritating misfit that people plotted to kill him before he could marry and have children who would perpetuate his name. Yet, the Lord had chosen him to proclaim his word. He exclaims, “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes.” Guess what? We remember Jeremiah, know his name and read his words. Nothing remains of those who planned his murder.
As I think of congregations past and present, I reflect on all the people who did the little things that keep things going. Without them the pews would be undusted, light bulbs unchanged, water faucets would leak and Sunday offerings go uncounted. In the early years as a pastor I would often call on elderly women, now homebound, who had given up much of their lives in order to care for their parents. Their brothers and sisters had married, raised families and pursued careers. Now this daughter, who had spent her years caring for her parents, was in need of care herself.
I think of the member of a congregation who personally planned and brought to fruition a Thanksgiving meal that the congregation served for anyone in the community who wished to come.
Recently in the State by State section of the USA Today Robert Vincoli shared a personal recollection of Jimmy Carter. He sat with the former president and his mother at a football game years ago: “Ms. Lillian gave me a bag of peanuts when I came in. Very nice family.”
James writes of such people in the epistle lesson, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” The lesson concludes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.”
These are the selfless ones, the servants, the lowly ones Jesus places before us as teachers that you and I might learn how to stoop. Do you want to be in first place? Learn to stoop.