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The Heart of a Servant

Sermon - 9/24/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 9: 30-37

The sermon text for the sermon this morning comes from the gospel of Mark, the 9th chapter, verses 30-37:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for 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.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Due to the needs of these times and the reality of being a downtown church, about two decades ago we setup an alarm system for the church, where the doors of the church are monitored by Sonitrol.  And the way that works is you have to 'key out' when you leave and lock-up for the night, to activate the alarm.  And when someone doesn't do that by a certain time, our helpful folks at Sonitrol call the appropriate staff member to advise us that the church has not been properly put to bed for the evening.  And I can assure you that you Senior Minister does not appreciate getting calls to wake him up and get him out of bed in order to come down to church and put it to bed, so all of our staff know (and others have keys and Sonitrol numbers) to be sure and do that when they lock-up and leave for the evening.  And if they are working late, to notify Sonitrol of that, so we don't get those calls.

Well, I was working late one night, and did my duty, and called and notified them.  Unbeknownst to me, Sonitrol has been bought out by a nationwide company evidently.  Now they have a call center instead of a local person.  It used to be you called them up, said 'First Christian Church', and they'd say "which one?", and you'd say 'the one on Oak' (because there's one in Springfield and another in Junction City).  So I called up and said it's the First Christian Church on Oak St, and the operator said "Do you have your account number?"  Account number?  What on earth -- it's late at night, and I'm supposed to come up with an account number?  I said "No, I don't have my account number, it's the one on Oak in Eugene".  I could tell that he's looking at a computer screen and scrolling through a nationwide database.  He said "Sir, I cannot believe how many First Christian's there are in our system" J.  We eventually got it straightened out.  

Indeed, there are a lot.  So just out of curiosity, I'm going to Google "First Christian Church" (through the wonders of the Internet, we're now connected live here in the sanctuary).  So here we go, here's the results:

There are 45 million hits for First Christian Church.  And what I love about this is that the second hit on Google, no matter where you Google from, is in the heart of Eugene [applause from the congregation!].  Every now and then we get inquiries from other Christian churches, and they say "How did you do that?".  And we say:  "We have no idea!".  Who understands the web?  We had an employee from Symantec, Chris Bernard, who set it up for us, so that helped.

Maybe we should be the 2nd First Christian Church.  I have a Jewish friend of mine who asked me just this week:  "I've always wanted to ask you this", and was very timid the way he was asking it, "how is it that you get to be First Christian Church?"  Seems kind of presumptuous, right?  And so I explained to him the history of our name, that it used to be the Christian Church of Eugene.  If you go back into our archives, you see documents to that effect.  And it was not until a second Christian Church was established in the area that we became known as First Christian Church.  And that's the way it's been in communities across the country.

That's not very exciting to explain.  It would be much more interesting to say, you know, we believe we are direct descendents of the disciples.  Or we're direct descendents of the Apostle Paul (except for the fact that the Apostle Paul was never married, so that would be kind of a problem to explain).  Or if we were Dan Brown (of DaVinci Code fame) we could say we're direct descendents of Mary and Jesus -- but I don't think we want to go there J.

So there's nothing behind the name First Christian other than the chronology of church establishment.  One little humorous aside:  when I lived in Indianapolis years ago I discovered there are 25 Christian Churches, just in the city of Indianapolis.  We're big back in the Midwest.  More Christian churches than they have Starbucks.  Near where I lived, there were two congregations that merged.  When they established Christian Churches there, they did the usual thing -- the second one was 2nd Christian Church, the third one was 3rd Christian Church, and so on.  Well, these two that merged were 7th Christian Church and 8th Christian Church.  Us Disciples are so creative J.  And so when they merged, what did they call themselves?  "7th/8th Christian Church".  I kid you not, it's there in the yearbook, you can look it up.

Here's my question:  with all of these chronologically-correct Christians, how come there is no "Last Christian Church".  Would that be more presumptuous or less?  

What if we took Jesus seriously?  What if we emphasized, instead of being the first Christians, being the last Christians?

We take a lot of pride in our church.  We have been in this community for a hundred and forty years.  Did you know that?  This is our 140th year this year.  And I think that's something.  And we have stayed in the downtown area when other churches have left.  Depending on how you count St. Mary's Episcopal over here on the other side of 13th, whether they're in the downtown area or not, or whether or not they're Protestant or not, we can make the claim that we are the last Protestant church here in downtown Eugene.  We have this beautiful building, often cited as one of the most significant historical buildings in Eugene.  It's features on the mural in the council chambers at City Hall.  And what I love, if you fly on United Airlines from San Francisco to Eugene, the icon used for a United Airlines flight to Eugene from San Francisco is First Christian Church:

Don't you love that?

We have an outstanding reputation in our community.  We are known for our openness and service to the community through our ministries like the Helping Hand ministry, the Good Samaritan ministry, the Interfaith service here on the 11th of every month, the various concerts and community events.  The NAACP now has their office in the basement of our church, and so on and so forth.  So we need not shrink from living up to our name as First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.  

We're proud, I think, and we can be of that.  But what do we do when Jesus says "The first shall be last".  And if you want to be first, you must be last of all.  Are you sure Jesus?  Not second?  I mean, if you're second, you tried harder.  Third?  If you're third you still get to be on the podium, receive a medal.  No one wants to be last.  Only losers are last.

So I'm pretty sure this is hyperbole.  An exaggeration to make a point.  No one can be a servant of all, all the time -- not even Jesus.  Remember that story of Mary and Martha?  Who is in there washing the dishes?  It isn't Jesus!  And the woman who brings that expensive perfume and anoints his head -- Jesus is served too.  You can't be a servant all the time.

Some even question if this emphasis on being last is really what we should be saying and doing.  The World Council of Churches meets every 7 years with a big assembly, thousands of delegates from all around the world.  In 1990, they were meeting in Melbourne, Australia.  A young Korean feminist theologian created quite a stir in her address to the assembly when she spoke, sung, and danced her sermon using a mixture of Christian, Buddhist, and traditional Korean sources.  I did not see the sermon, but when I read about it in the Christian Century I immediately knew it.  Because I had seen an earlier version of it when Chung Hyun Kyung gave an earlier version of that sermon in Joey Jeters preaching class at the School of Theology at Claremont, where she, and I, and my wife, were all students.  And Hyun Kyung had entered seminary the same time we did and we graduated together.  Now she's gone on to be this big name feminist theologian, addressing the World Council of Churches.

Dr. Kyung teaches at Union Theological Seminary now, in New York.  She stood out back then as a student.  A very petite woman, very outspoken, from a culture where women generally are valued for their servitude, not their leadership.  Her Korean classmates, mostly men, did not know what to do with her.  Beautiful, intelligent, fiercely independent, she was better accepted among her North American classmates than she was among her Korean classmates.

I had the privilege of attending with Hyun Kyung her first assembly of the World Council of Churches, held in Vancouver in 1983.  There was a course offered there at Claremont, a couple of professors from the school took 20 of us students up to Vancouver.  We attended the assembly during the day and in the evening we gathered for theological and philosophical reflection and discussion.  It was a very heady time.  

I'll never forget the evening when little Hyun Kyung -- must be all of 4'11" -- stood up on a coffee table so she could be heard and seen by everyone, and said to us that all of her life she had been taught to take the small piece of cake.  First as a woman.  Then as a Christian.  Now as someone preparing for the ministry.  She was taught -- you're a servant, you take a small piece of cake.  But Hyun Kyung was very observant.  She said she watched and she noticed men never took the small piece of cake.  She came to the United States and she said that North Americans never take the small piece of cake.  One day it hit her -- by always taking the small piece, she had simply accepted her place in an oppressive system which those at the top depended on her and thousands like her at the bottom going along with.  So she declared in a very firm and strong voice that shook our bones even as it trembled in her throat:  "I will take the small piece of cake no more".

That, she said, was not just her speaking, it was the voice of the 3rd-world Christians gathered there at that assembly.  Dr. Kyung has written a book on that entire topic now, entitled Struggle to be the Sun Again.

On the surface, it appears that Dr. Kyung is challenging this idea that to be a faithful follower of Jesus we must be a servant to all.  But as a woman from the 3rd-world, in a very traditional society, she simply may be opening us to see the very concept of servant-hood from a different perspective.  Those on the bottom, you see, see it differently than those at the top.

And if there is one thing I have learned from all the recent research on the historical Jesus, it is that Jesus wants us to look at the world from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down.  And that is especially true in this story from Mark.  Jesus has just told the twelve that he is going to be killed and they don't get it.  He is laying his life on the line for them and they are arguing about who gets to be first, who gets to sit next to him.

To be first, Jesus says, you have to be last.  And then to illustrate what he means, he brings a small child into their midst, and picking the child up says 'whoever welcomes one such as that child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me'.

The point for us is to recognize this is not a photo op.  This is not the opportunity to smile and see Jesus with the children and think warm and fuzzy thoughts that make us tingle all over.  This not a photo op -- Jesus is very intentionally trying to show the disciples in a concrete way how they have misunderstood him.  

We could spend much time discussing the role of children in ancient societies that is quite different than ours today, but the bottom line is this:  this child is young, vulnerable, and powerless.  With no status in that society.  Whoever welcomes one like this child, welcomes me.  In other words, the powerless.  The vulnerable.

To be a disciple of Jesus does not mean you must always be last in line, take the small piece of cake.  It means to have that kind of open, welcoming heart so that we are there for the person who is last in line.  The servant of all.

By embracing this child, Jesus wants the disciples -- that is, us -- to see what really is important is not power and wealth and status and glory and fame and all of that, but having a heart for the weak and the vulnerable.  To be strong for them.

When you're flying on that airplane from San Francisco to Eugene and the oxygen mask drops from the ceiling, if you don't pass out from fright, what do you do?  You take one for yourself before you assist the small child or your neighbor.  To be strong for the other person.

Too often we are so concerned with our own standing we neglect those who have none.  The welfare Mom, demeaned and degraded by a system that offers plenty of shame and little respect.  The undocumented immigrant, desperately trying to feed his family back home who merely wants a place to live and to work in peace.  The prisoner who has lost his rights and freedom for his crime but still seeks love, forgiveness, and a new life as a human being.

These are the powerless without status in our world.  The 'throw-aways' of society we drive by every day who seem beyond any help.  The ones we dismiss every time we say "you can't help those people until they learn to help themselves".  

We will always have the poor with us.  Once a drunk, always a drunk.  Nothing but a welfare cheat.

When he came to the house, he asked them:  "What were you discussing on the way?"  And they grew silent, for they were discussing the mission of the church. 


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