Sunday, September 20, 2009

What I Preached on September 20, 2009

Sermon for Bible Sunday, September 20, 2009
St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

Gospel: Mark 9:30–37

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

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


Today we celebrate Bible Sunday. In a few minutes, we are going to have our Bibles blessed. And we will recommit ourselves to another year of reading the Bible – in Bible classes, in homes, in worship. And in each of these settings – class, home, worship – we read the Bible together.

Together. It’s more difficult than it sounds. Being together can be hard. We gather with the best of intentions, but before long we’re irritated. Some people talk too much; others are too hesitant – or too proud – to speak at all. Inevitably a pecking order develops.

I don’t mean like Robert’s Rules of Order, I mean the kind where I begin to believe my job, or my experience, or my income, or my education, or any number of other things about me somehow makes me a better person than you.

I confess that I have fallen into that trap, more than once in my life. And I’ll probably do it again. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, I begin to believe that these people are ok, but they’re not like me.

And I begin to crave the status I deserve. And so I push my chair away from the table. And maybe I seek another table, one with people more like me, but that doesn’t work and so I do it again, and again, and again, until I am sitting alone at my own little table.

It’s not far from what happened in our Gospel text for today, where Mark tells us a story of status-craving among Jesus’ own disciples.

Their conflict has been growing for some time, long before the passage we have before us today. The Twelve have been together for months, following this strange teacher who had invited each of them to come along with him. They had a special thing going, this little band of traveling healers. But then things began to break down.

In the chapters that precede today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had handpicked a select few of his disciples to climb a mountain, and to be witness there to a mysterious and highly secretive revelation, the Transfiguration.

Meanwhile, the others, mystified at being left out of this special trip, try to keep the mission going on their own, and they offer to heal a man’s sick daughter.

But they fail, and now the crowd has turned on them. Fortunately Jesus comes back just in time, but the deeper damage has been done.

Before long the disciples are engaged in a back-and-forth dispute over pecking order. Jesus is leading them on, but who is second-in-command? They whisper in hushed voices.

Is it Peter, James, or John? It’s got to be one of those three, Jesus chose them to go up the mountain!

The others scoff. Peter? You can’t be serious. They roll their eyes, but inside their pride is wounded, and they are hurt and confused.

Jesus, seemingly oblivious, keeps on trucking. He pulls his disciples away from the crowds and tries to teach them. But instead of explaining everything that just happened, he begins speaking again about his imminent death.

Some of the disciples, especially those who went up to the mountain with Jesus, nod their heads solemnly, as if they understand all this death and resurrection talk. He chose us for the special trip, he must think we’ll get it. And so they nod their heads as if in agreement, but really they have no idea what’s going on.

The others avert their eyes and shuffle their feet uncomfortably. We already messed up the healing, we don’t want to start messing up the teaching, too. If he learns how clueless we are, maybe he’ll kick us out. Just keep quiet, they tell themselves, and try not to draw too much attention to yourself.

Jesus leads the way back into town, but he walks far ahead of the others, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. As he walks, the murmurs behind him grow louder. It’s the pecking order argument again, and this time it gets heated. Voices raise, and then are shushed again. Nobody wants Jesus to find out about what they are arguing about.

But alas, it is the first thing he asks them when they are settled indoors again. Had he heard everything? Or just enough to know? Either way, everyone begins to prepare for a rebuke. After all, they’d seen what happened to Peter. “Get behind me, Satan”? Ouch.

But Jesus, rather than getting angry, sits down, takes a deep breath, and begins again to teach. They are different words than before, but the message seems somehow the same. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

That is so not what they wanted to hear. And so they don’t hear it.

And then, as Jesus is speaking, a little boy walks in. I imagine him dressed in ragged clothes. He hasn’t bathed in days.

The boy walks up to one of the disciples with his hands out and his head bowed, mumbling something robotically, as if he had his lines rote memorized.

He goes to each of the disciples in turn, pausing only long enough to see if the man will give him a few coins before moving on to the next one. Some hands dig around in their coin purses, other heads shake dismissively.

Jesus stops talking. He is riveted by the scene. He calls the boy over. The boy’s head is still bowed. Jesus gives him a piece of bread and speaks softly to him.

The boy stuffs the bread in his pocket and looks at Jesus, but his eyes are dull. He waits to see if the strange man will give him any more. But all the while, his eyes stare ahead, dull, as if he were numb to the edges of social interaction, his intent focused: Get money. Get food.

The disciples watch, some of them annoyed at this interruption, others waiting for one of Jesus’ aphorisms to explain what is going on. But Jesus keeps talking with the boy, softly and quietly.

And then, all of a sudden, Jesus hugs him. The disciples watch, wide-eyed. Some of them are scandalized. Most men they knew wouldn’t embrace their own child like that in public.

But Jesus just holds this boy tight. As if that explained everything.


Conflicts and disputes: they can make us miss everything. James, in today’s epistle lesson, knows the feeling all too well. He diagnoses the problem like a good nutritionist: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”

Cravings: a shallow word posing as a synonym for hunger. We crave, and we grasp for status. We crave, and when we do not get the recognition we deserve, we make a move for the door.

But Jesus knows that we are more than cravers. We need more than the junk food of a cheap solitary victory, a few minutes in the winner’s circle. We are more than cravers. We do more than crave. We hunger.

And that, finally, is why we turn and re-turn, again and again, to the Bible. Not because it is a tool to gain the upper hand in life. Not because it is a vessel to help us escape from the world – no, this book is not that.

No, this book, our Book of Faith, is more like a table. Like a great big table around which we gather, seeking food. And God feeds us there, in this book, at this table, with the bread of teaching, with the bread of life.

It’s not that we always experience it that way; there is much that can taste bland or even bitter. But somewhere, while lost in the pages of this book, we each taste something we can’t forget.

Maybe we taste it often, maybe rarely; maybe we tasted it yesterday, or maybe a long time ago. No matter – the call of that taste keeps bringing us back, back to the Book, back to the Table.

But here’s the catch. We do not eat alone. We do not even eat only with our friends, or those we agree with, or those we like. There is no greatest table and no least table. Just. One. Big. Table. For all of us.

At God’s table there are many chairs. There are even chairs for people we don’t like very much. And there are especially, especially chairs for the poor. For the lonely. For the desperate. For the hungry. We get in line behind them. Or rather, we serve them.

Those with more serve those with less, until those the world sees as the greatest are serving those the world sees as the least, and the wisdom of the world breaks down, and the very world itself is turned upside down. And is, against all odds, set right.

But where to start? Maybe we could start with this Book of Faith. In a Bible study here at St. John United. At home with our family. On Sunday morning at worship. And then we would hear the words again:

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.’

Come, Lord Jesus. Be our guest.


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