Sunday, September 24, 2006

September 24 Sermon--Who's the Greatest?

Sermon Texts: By the way, if you click on the sermon texts, it will take you to the scripture online.
James 3:13 - 4:8
Mark 9: 30-37

First and last, last and first. It’s never really mattered to me. You see—my name is Michael Nathan Mattox. Yes—I have always been in the middle of the line. I’m sure you’ve all experienced the line I speak of—the line to recess or lunch. Teachers would always line us up in alphabetical order by our last name. Just so the Zimmermans and the Watsons and the Yandells wouldn’t be completely scarred by a childhood of always being last though, sometimes the teachers would get us into line for recess or lunch from the end of the alphabet to the front. That put all the Adamses and Barkers in their place, didn’t it! It was if the words of Jesus came alive on those rare occasions when we’d line up in reverse order. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” I used to see it as my job as preacher’s kid to remind the kids in line of that bit of wisdom. But the teachers never thought of the big chunk of us in the middle. Never did we line up from the middle to the first and last. I suppose some of the time they’d try to mix us up by making us line up by our given name—but it didn’t make any difference to me. What does it mean to be a servant? What does it mean to be great? How can the last be first and the first last? What does it mean to welcome the children in our midst? How does one gain wisdom? These are some of the questions put forth by today’s scriptures. I can just see the scenario play out in my head. Jesus has just tried to explain the nature of his mission here on earth. The Son of Man must be betrayed and crucified. The 12 are thick headed about it—they don’t understand—they don’t WANT to understand. Instead, they are caught up in the glory of being one of the chosen few. Jesus is walking with them through Galilee, familiar turf where the disciples probably feel safe and glad to be back home. Their excitement about their time roaming around the countryside as Jesus’ posse spills over into gloating. Jesus overhears something. He rolls his eyes, impervious to their shallowness and ignorance. “What is it that you’re arguing about?” The look on his face says he knows but he wants them to admit it. They hang their heads--silent. I see the bald spot on top of Peter’s curly head as he carefully studies the dirt on the floor. They don’t want to admit the fact that they were arguing about who was the greatest. Arguing about the greatest and perhaps who it is that will take over as the leader after Jesus is betrayed and crucified just like he said he would be. They don’t really get what Jesus is saying, anyway. Jesus sits them down and gives them a little lesson. A child, a little girl, has been pestering the group for a few minutes now, trying to find some company. He takes her and sits her in his lap. “You welcome her and you welcome me. You welcome me and you welcome God.” There it is, as simple as that. “You think you’re great because you were hand-picked by me? Well, I am manifest in everything that you would call lowly. I’m that little girl you wouldn’t give two thoughts, I’m a housefly buzzing around your face. What I have to say isn’t for this world and its idea of greatness—I’ve come to turn this world upside down. I’m here to proclaim God’s favor for the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed. I’m here to take my throne in Jerusalem on a donkey. My throne will be the executioner’s cross.” The question of “Who’s the greatest” occupies a lot of our time here on earth unfortunately. The simple way that Mark explains the disciple’s argument makes the discussion sound petty and beneath us, but we probably know deep down that the argument involves all of us. James says in his letter, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”Envy and selfish ambition—in some circles, these traits are considered admirable. “It’s a dog eat dog world!” “Look out for #1!” “IF you don’t get ahead, you’ll be left behind!” We call it “competitiveness.” Envy and Selfish ambition are glamorized on television and in our culture. Those who put others first are fools, or saints. We hold up people like Mother Theresa when asked to think of someone who lived their life putting others first. We fail to recognize that putting others first is and can be a daily activity carried out by regular old disciples like you and me. It doesn’t have to be left to the saints and the na├»ve dreamers and patron saints of lost causes. Jesus has a strange idea of greatness doesn’t he? He believes it involves welcoming—welcoming those we typically ignore. He uses children as an example. Children may seem immature to many of us, but they score high points in Jesus’ book. The culture of the time regarded children as fairly worthless in comparison to Rabbis. Rabbis liked to converse with other Rabbis—to hammer out the finer points of the Law with those educated enough to follow the conversation enough without a lot of extra explanation. Jesus was a strange kind of Rabbi. He preferred the company of children to other Rabbis. He hammered out the finest point of the law by putting things in terms that children could understand. Instead of behaving as though the children couldn’t understand the law, Jesus complained that it was the Rabbis who couldn’t understand. A key ingredient to “getting it” in the mind of Jesus is the act of welcoming. Have you ever been truly welcomed? What does it feel like to be welcomed? I believe there is a connection between welcoming and serving. Have you ever been truly served? I think the root of serving another and welcoming another is in the approach we have to the person we are welcoming and serving. If you approach another person, even a child, as possessing sacred worth, you see that the Sacred is in that person. This is why Jesus says, “IF you welcome a little child, you welcome me and God through me.” True service and welcome does not amount to how much sweat pours out of skin as we diligently work to make things better for someone else. True welcoming does not amount to how clean our home is and ready for others to come and stay with us. These kinds of behaviors, though they can be genuine, can also be a by-product of our quest to prove “Who’s the greatest.” Instead, true welcoming and true service grows out of a condition of the heart. It’s a condition that holds all of God’s creation as being valued by the Creator. It is “drawing near to God” in the words of James. Welcoming and serving become conduits of God’s grace if we draw near to God in our heart. When I think of this scripture, I think of one of my childhood Sunday school teachers at Sequoia United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, Mrs. Dorothy Lindquist. Mrs. Lindquist was a school teacher in Minnesota before retiring in Fayetteville. She died a couple of years ago in her mid-90’s. When I was a pupil of hers (she always called us her pupils) she was in her 80s and recently widowed. Mrs. Lindquist was a traveler—in fact she traveled on every continent, and when she did she always thought of her Sunday school class. I remember how we always used to gather around the Sunday school table and gawk at the coins she brought from far away places. Then, to our astonishment, she would invite us to choose a coin to take with us—our very own. Mrs. Lindquist didn’t just buy our affection with foreign coins and bills—she cared for us. She taught us the stories of the Bible, and we knew that we were always welcome in her presence. Children would sit close to her in the worship service, and she’d put her bony arm around us. She valued us because she knew that God valued us, and because she believed that about us, we kids learned to understand that about ourselves. She enabled God’s love by welcoming and serving. Her wisdom and experience might have been highly valued by some of the other adults in the church—but she chose to share her wisdom and her experience with the little children first. Jesus was a lot like Dorothy Lindquist. Jerry Goebel writes, “Jesus didn’t have to set up a “photo-op,” like some politician, chasing down a child and wresting it from some passer-by, nor was there any struggle to hold the child in his lap once he reached for him or her. A child was a touch away from Jesus; a child came gleefully onto his lap and there felt as warm and protected as a kitten balled in her mother’s fur. Who is this God of ours that his very son would be found among children who felt so close to Jesus that his touch would be familial?” When you leave today, take a look at that picture that hangs on the wall opposite the sanctuary. I love that this church has the picture of Christ blessing the children in our fellowship hall. It says so much about the God we worship. Goebel writes, “Our God passionately loves his creation. God’s love pours out like a waterfall plunging unquestionably over the abyss. At the core of that love is not the fittest, not the greatest, but the weakest, the most vulnerable. The fact that God’s son, the Prince of the Universe, makes this statement with an anonymous child in his lap is evidence for where our Lord’s heart resides. The child is anonymous to history but not to Jesus. The symbolism of this act will always stand as one of the greatest indications of God’s true character. Nestled in the lap of salvation, wrapped in the arms of infinite love, how can we ever doubt God’s intent to love his people back to wholeness?”When we are motivated to love others because God loves and values them, we are living and loving as God intends. What kind of a person do children love? That is the kind of person that Jesus was and that is the kind of person he called “the greatest.” That is the kind of person who resembles our God.At the end of his article, Goebel asks, “What kind of character must one foster to be loved by the littlest ones? What kind of traits are we to engender to become like Jesus? Should we strive to become smarter, richer, tougher, and more practical? Or should we instead strive to be ever more compassionate, available, vulnerable and extravagant in love? To become the greatest, we must become the one in whom the least little child would find comfort and love.”

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