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 When Last is First

Sermon - 9/23/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 9:30-37

We have been reading from the gospel of Mark, and continuing this morning in the ninth chapter, verses 30-37. This is the second time in Mark's gospel that Jesus predicts his passion:

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.’

So has it ever occurred to you that there's something incongruous with proclaiming the word of our Lord "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" and then calling ourselves "First" Christian Church? :) Does anyone give you a bad time about that? I get that sometimes. Maybe we should be called "Last" Christian Church -- would that do it? Probably not.

We of course were not always known as First Christian Church, if you read our history you'll see that when we were founded in 1866 it was simply the Christian Church. It was not until a second Christian church somewhere in the area was established that they had to distinguish the two, so you knew which one they were talking about. So we, as in most communities where there is a First Christian Church, became that, in reference then to another church.

In the early days of our movement, or The Brotherhood as it was known back then, even using the name "Christian" would raise eyebrows, as if we thought that Methodists or Presbyterians or Baptists, you see, were not Christian. And so one of the slogans adopted by our founders in the 19th century was "Christians only, not the only Christians". That was a slogan that conveyed a sense of humility, even as we also claimed at the same time to be restoring New Testament Christianity. And hence became known as the "Restoration Movement", which of course is not the most humble of claims, as if we alone knew what New Testament Christianity looked like and knew how to get there and how to make it happen. In that, we thought we could unite all Christians around these ideas, of just returning to the practice of the New Testament. Not only did we fail to do that, but in the process we succeeded in dividing into three separate denominations over our disagreement as to what a New Testament church actually did look like. Whether or not it included instruments, for instance, or missionary societies and the like. And so the lesson of humility continues to this day.

Well, here that lesson begins with the original disciples of Jesus, who also seem to have a little misunderstanding and disagreement. Mark portrays the disciples as being exceptionally dim-witted. Now, there's great comfort in knowing that there's hardly anything we can do to make ourselves look any dumber than the original twelve.

Or so I thought until that group came out and produced this anti-Islamic film that they have posted on YouTube that has created a disturbance all around the Arabic world. Probably one of the dumbest things done in the name of Jesus since the Crusades. And much to the embarrassment of Coptic Christians, because one of the producers of that film is a Coptic Christian, and the Coptic church (in particular in Egypt) wants nothing to do with the guy.

And to be clear, I'm not apologizing for our tradition of free speech which protests expressions of stupidity under the Bill of Rights. I am apologizing on behalf of Google, who's censors do not have the common sense to apply their own standards of hate speech, as noted by the speaker Friday morning at the Interface Breakfast (Anita Wyse from the University of Oregon) that this film is obviously hate speech. But yet Google chose to leave it up on YouTube. But that's another sermon.

Back to our story, Mark portrays the disciples about as quick as armadillos on a Texas highway -- not a pretty sight. And every time Jesus says something about his fate, they don't get it. Makes you wonder what kind of criteria Jesus used for selecting these guys :)

Well, it helps to know that Mark is not simply reporting on events of the life of Jesus. Mark is making a point -- he is using the story of the disciples to teach us about the meaning of discipleship. You want to follow Jesus? Well, here are some things that you need to know. Now, that gives us a couple possibilities of how to read a text like this. We can read it and say 'Well, OK, we're supposed to be disciples, we should be like the disciples, right? They're our role models, makes sense'. Not as smart as a fifth-grader -- is that what we're supposed to be?

Sometimes I think that's exactly what Christians believe -- taking over school boards and then decreeing that beliefs gained through the revelation of Scripture are no different than knowledge gained true scientific inquiry. And when we make prayer in schools more important than science in classrooms we dumb-down both faith and education. So I don't think that's the the idea here.

The second possibility, hopefully the obvious one, is that Mark makes the disciples look dumb precisely to illustrate what being a disciple is not. It's a way of saying, this is what you were like before you became enlightened. Before you understood what discipleship was about.

It's a story that Luke tells about Paul. Remember, Paul is a persecutor of the Church -- before he received that light. Before he had his eyes opened on the road to Damascus.

Now, Peter, you may remember, had his one shining moment, in the text we looked at last week, when he said "You are the Christ, you're the Messiah, you're the one we've been waiting for". But then immediately after that, remember, he loses it. He tries to talk Jesus out of his passion, out of his suffering. And that reveals how little he understood about what it meant to be the Messiah.

In this text, immediately after Jesus talks about his impending death (pretty serious thing, right?), the disciples get into an argument about their status in the coming reign of God. I mean, really, can you possibly be any more insensitive than that? Sometimes I wonder, have we done any better than that? I mean, what if Jesus dropped in on our conversations, on our little disputes? Remember all that dialogue, all that time we spent talking about what to do with our worship schedule on Sunday morning? Whether or not to move the service 15 minutes. As if that would usher in the reign of God here on earth :) You know, what would we say when Jesus drops in and says "I came here to give my life for you -- what were you talking about?".

If he shows up in your home after some fierce argument, and says "I laid my life down for you -- so what's the problem here?" Are you going to admit to him "Well, we we're talking about who is going to take out the garbage". Or if there's a meeting of textual scholars, and there's this debate, say, over, oh, I don't know, some obscure fragment that claims that Jesus had a wife. And Jesus shows up there in the midst of that debate -- would those scholars want to know, 'Jesus, tell us, really, what was the nature of your relationship with Mary?' Would that be the important thing? Would they even notice the scars on his hands and his feet? And we think the disciples look stupid.

By the way, if you read just the headlines from that fourth-century fragment that generated all the excitement, published by Karen King in her scholarly paper (and Karen King is a very fine scholar, highly respected), you might miss the fact that she's not claiming Jesus was married, she's just saying here was an early Christian community who believed that. Which has more to say about their beliefs about marriage in reference to their leaders than it has to say about the historic Jesus. And that, of course, has huge implications for the practice of celibacy in the priesthood. So it's going to be interesting to see how that debate plays itself out in the scholarly world. I'm just thankful I'm a Protestant and don't have to worry about those things :)

So, regardless of the outcome, it does not change the message of the Gospel or the mission of Jesus. We are still left with the question, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What it does not mean is clear from this text -- that because we are disciples of Jesus we get some special privilege, we get to go to the head of the line.

Judy and I were in Delaware over Memorial Day weekend to visit her family, her sister. Her brother-in-law, is in his upper 70s, a little bit crippled, so he walks with a cane. We went to see the memorial at the World Trade Center. Being Memorial Day weekend, a huge crowd. You know how they have these lines that snake back & forth, just forever -- big crowd of people, thousands of people waiting to get in. And so we're standing there in the back of the line, and this woman with a sign, a badge on, some official vest or something, comes up and sees Roy (Judy's brother-in-law) with his cane and she removes the rope there and says "Sir, would you like to come with me?". And begins to take him to the head of the line. We said "We're with him!" :) I decided, you know, I kind of like his entitlement thing. Being part of the 47% is not so bad after all :) Don't know what that would be a reference to :)

Mark's gospel is not written for the benefit of the twelve, it's written for the benefit of every would-be disciple who comes after them. So the problem addressed by Mark really isn't the arrogance of these twelve fighting over who's going to be the greatest, it's the lack of humility among all those who follow, who think that because they have Jesus, they're entitled. They get some special privilege.

So Jesus sets the record straight -- whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Now, what would happen if we took that to heart? Does it have more implication than who goes to the head of the line at the potluck dinner? How far can you take such a notion?

I actually asked that question of the congregation shortly after we came here 21 years ago. At the time, we had been already operating the Helping Hand room for over 30 years, providing free clothing to people in need. We had started the Mission to Mexico, took a group of youth the year before I got here, really showing them what it means to be a servant for Jesus, working for others and building homes in Mexico. We had started just a year before the Interfaith Shelter, where we took one week of the year, providing housing for 10 to 12 families in the basement of our church. We had a food barrel, collecting food for a food pantry. I think that year we took an offering for Week of Compassion that was $5,000 or so. I thought we are doing a lot for a congregation our size.

Looking back now, I realize, to quote the Carpenters, we had only just begun.

On top of all those things, we added two more weeks to our schedule for the Interface Shelter (now three weeks that we provide that housing). We have provided emergency housing for over a hundred individuals through our trailer ministry in our parking lot. We have provided over a thousand bed-nights through the Egan Warming Center for the last three years (on those nights when it's below 30°). We serve now over 200 people almost every Sunday morning (with the help of a couple other churches and the Synagogue). Our Good Samaritan Ministry responds to requests of 30 to 50 people every week that just walk in the door unannounced. Our Children's Ministry team has adopted a child from India. And on and on it goes, and I'm sure I've left out several things.

Something tells me God is not finished with us yet. But I shudder to think "What else can we do?". Jesus wanted to demonstrate what he meant by the "The first shall be last", so he took a child, brings that child into the midst of them, and then picks that child up and says "Whoever welcomes a child such as this welcomes me". And we think that's such a warmhearted, tender moment. Wasn't Jesus wonderful in the way he worked with children. Isn't that nice, right?

I was going to point to the window, and say "Like in that window". And I looked up and realized someone took the window! It's gone -- our window restoration project is on-going, they brought two windows back, and they took out the window with Jesus and the children. I got to thinking, that hole there where that window used to be is actually a wonderful metaphor for us this morning. Because, typically, we totally miss the point of what that story is about. You see, it's not this heartwarming, tender moment, this is not a photo-op designed to make you feel good about Jesus, like some candidate vying for your vote. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the crucifixion. And the disciples think they're on their way to fame and glory. So Jesus uses this child is an illustration, to get the point across.

Now, it's important to understand that in that first-century world, children were not seen so much as symbols of innocence and virtue like we might see them today, but rather, much like women, children were the property of the head of the household. They had no status of their own. They had no individual rights. A child, then, is a symbol of that kind of powerlessness.

Isaiah 53 has a wonderful illustration of this. In Isaiah 53, what we call the Suffering Servant passages, it says of the suffering servant that he had no form or majesty, that we should look at him. But the Greek translation of that passage, done right around the time of Jesus, the Greek translation says "We beheld him as a child". As someone of no importance. Powerless.

By embracing this child in their midst, Jesus embraces powerlessness and says 'look at this child and see the connection'. What's really important is not about power and might and status and fame and glory. You've become so concerned with your own standing that you neglect those that have none, like this child.

Like the homeless, demeaned and degraded by a system that offers plenty of shame but little hope.

Like the undocumented immigrant, desperately searching for a place to live and work in peace so that they can support their own family.

Like the ex-con, who is rarely given as second chance to recover his or her dignity and worth.

These are the people without status in our society, people not worth two cents as far as most are concerned. The throwaways of our world, told to get a job when no one will hire them. Told to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps when they don't even have boots. Told to go back where they came from when they have lived in this country since the age of two. You can't help those people, unless they help themselves, they say. Criminals will always be criminals, they say. They're nothing but welfare cheats, they say.

And when he came into the house, he asked "What were you discussing on the way?" And they were silent, for they were discussing the mission of the Church.

But not here. Not in this place. Not at First Christian Church. Because here is a place where the hungry are fed.

Here is the place where homeless do find shelter.

Here is a place where the poor and the mentally ill are welcomed.

Here is a place that offers a hand instead of judgment.

Here is a place that gives hope instead of scorn.

Here is a place that spreads love instead of hate.

Here is the place where the powerless child is embraced by disciples of Jesus.

God bless you wonderful disciples of our Lord.


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