Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Sunday Worship:
8:30am & 10:45am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Children Are Great!

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."

My task as a preacher is to take the good news, which often comes to us as an abstract theological idea, and flesh it out in terms that we can relate to. Luckily, today’s gospel texts include both an abstract theological idea and an object lesson provided by Jesus himself. By simply reading the gospel I’ve done just about all I can hope to accomplish in a sermon. So, allow me simply to remind you of what you’ve just heard in the gospel text.

Today’s theological idea is the concept of greatness. Who or what is great? What makes someone great?

I hope the irony is not lost on you that the disciples are the ones arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, the disciples have been busy doubting Jesus’ teaching and doubting their ability to heal and cast out demons in Jesus’ name. They really do come across as the bumbling Keystone Cops in Mark’s gospel.

And what were they doing in today’s story as they walked to the next town? They were arguing about who among them was the greatest. This is like players on a winless team arguing about who on the team is the best. It’s a discussion that misses the mark. The disciples wanted to be greatest. They wanted to be first. So they sped off to the next town, leaving Jesus behind on the road, and argued while they were on their way.

Jesus entered the room where all the disciples have gathered after their roadside argument. Notice, this means Jesus walked in last; which makes his words all the more demonstrative and incisive: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus is literally talking the talk and walking the walk. He literally walks in the room last and calls the disciples’ attention to the fact that when they get too far ahead of him they lose focus and direction. I imagine Jesus saying, “Quit running ahead in ignorance and arrogance. Instead, walk with me, or ••gasp•• even behind me once in a while so you can see what it is I’m actually doing in the world.”

But he doesn’t stop there. The gospel continues, “Then [Jesus] 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.’”

These disciples who run off ahead of Jesus…

These disciples who can’t manage to do what Jesus promises they can do…

These disciples who misunderstand what he says…

These disciples who argue among themselves about who is the greatest…

…do you think these disciples are the type of people who would make any time for children?

I doubt it. After all, children were invisible in that culture. Children had no inherent worth until they reached the age where they could produce income for the family. Males would work and females would marry. In that culture, children were nothing more than potential adults.

Showing attention, care, or affection to a child would have been a significant waste of time in that day and age. But along comes Jesus insisting that whomever wishes to be great must be last, a servant, and a friend to valueless and overlooked people such as children.

Here, too, Jesus talks the talk and walks the walk. Jesus heals and casts out spirits from children, such as daughter of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark chapter 7 and the boy from the passage immediately preceding today’s account from chapter 9.

In another account, in Matthew 10, Jesus raises a girl from the dead! Imagine that…not just any child, but a female child (a double whammy of cultural valuelessness at the time) – a female child benefiting from what we could call Jesus’ most amazing miracle.

Jesus insists that children have intrinsic worth and they should be welcomed.

And so, we, like the disciples, are called to be welcoming

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any churchy word that has come to mean as little as the word “welcoming.” Every single church today would claim to be welcoming. Even if they don’t allow you to take communion due to not being the right denomination, or if they don’t allow you to serve in any leadership capacity because you’re a woman or not straight, I guarantee you their signs will say “All are welcome.”

Welcoming does not mean merely tolerating. Instead, to be welcoming means to actively draw people into full inclusion, participation, and relationship.

Children are a great gift…not because of their potential, but because of who they are right now. Children are open to possibilities, full of enthusiasm, truly humble, and living as through no one can keep them at arm’s length from God’s love.

By welcoming children, by actively drawing children into full inclusion, participation and relationship, children change us. Their openness, enthusiasm, humility, innocence, and love rubs off on us. It’s frankly a selfish commandment for us to follow, because we stand to gain so much from being in relationship with children.

So, permit me to extend an invitation for you to reflect on the degree to which you heed Jesus’ words about children, particularly as it relates to our ministry in our church and community. Are you someone who tolerates the presence of children, or are you someone who actively celebrates their full inclusion, participation, and relationship?

Trust me when I say there is a need for more inter-generational relationships in this congregation. Would you consider spending an hour a month helping other adults teach a Sunday school class? Would you stand to gain anything from learning the name of the child who is sitting near your seat in worship? Would you go to cheer on one of youth as they demonstrate their talents in extracurricular events? Would you help staff the nursery once in a while so that parents who are completely submerged in the art of parenting little ones can have an hour of the week to focus and worship?

I nearly talked myself out of making this sermon an appeal for you to get involved in the life of our youth. I thought maybe it would come across as heavy-handed. I thought you’d probably say “no” to the invitation; or tell me that’s my job, not yours; or tell me it’s a woman’s job, not yours (which must be a thought some of you have because we only have one male Sunday school teacher right now). But then I remembered that this isn’t an appeal for help, it’s an invitation to follow Christ by having fun with awesome little people. I would be doing you a disservice by withholding the invitation.

Regardless of where you individually go from here. Here’s what we as a congregation are going to do to honor our youth this morning. Before the music plays, I am going to ask the children’s church leaders to bring the kids back to the sanctuary. As they walk in I want you all to turn to face them and applaud them as they enter. These kids deserve a standing ovation.

Field Trips for Faith

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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It's a strange thing to read this familiar bit of Mark’s Gospel on the heels of another trip to Haiti. As many of you know, in addition to Nick Hopkins, Linda and Emily Michaelis, and Laura Haeberle … Lily Haeberle, as well as the whole Havel clan made the trip, which meant Jackson and Max were along, too. It’s hard to believe we’ve been back for a week already.

And I’ve heard and had lots of conversation about Jackson and Lily and Max making the trip, because they’re younger than your average mission tripper; because Haiti is Haiti; and because they had to miss a week of school – along with baseball and tennis, basketball and band and all kinds of other of commitments – to make it happen. To a person, though, including their teachers, principals, administrators and coaches, as far as I know, it was understood that this would be worth their time; that they would learn something just as valuable during a week in Fondwa, Haiti, as they would in their classes during over the course of a week. And I think that’s true.

So I’ve been reflecting on our week in Fondwa this time around, as a field trip of sorts – not just for the students in our group – but for the rest of us, too. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Because Brian McLaren, in his book, We Make the Road by Walking, describes what Jesus is up to in this morning’s Gospel as a field trip of sorts, as well. See, it’s no mistake that Jesus and his disciples were milling around Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them that first question, “Who do people say that I am?”

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This is a cliff that looms over the villages of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus was travelling with his disciples this morning, when he asked that question. I took this picture on a field trip of my own back in the day, where I learned that Caesarea Philippi was a city that existed very literally in the shadow of a huge pagan temple, which you can see up there in the side of this cliff.

Caesarea Philippi is about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee, and this neck of the woods had huge political and religious implications for the disciples and for Jesus, partly because it was named after a Roman Caesar (“Caesarea”) and King Herod’s son, Philip. (“Philippi”) And into the façade of this stone mountain, was carved a cave/temple, where, in the headwaters of the Jordan River there, ritual cleansings and practices were carried out in the names of pagan gods.

So, with all of that very literally in the background, Jesus starts this conversation about his own name, his own status, his own identity and his own ministry as the Son of God. And he brings his disciples along for the teaching moment of it all.

“So, what are people saying about me?” “What have you heard?” “What’s the word on the street?” “Who do people say that I am?,” he asks. And the answers come, I imagine, quickly, at first. Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah. Still others say, you’re one of the prophets. It’s easy, after all, to report what others are saying isn’t it – especially when they’re probably wrong?

But then Jesus gets serious; pointed; more personal. “But who do you say that I am?”

And I imagine some silence. Some shuffling of feet. Some elbows to the ribs from one disciple to another. Some avoiding of eye-contact. Some hoping and praying that the teacher please not call on me.

Until Peter finally gets up the nerve to, frankly, give the perfect answer. “You are the Messiah.” Ding! Ding! Ding! In the face of all of those wrong answers, Peter gets it right. In the shadow of all those pagan alternatives, Peter names Jesus the One. In a city named for earthly kings, Peter proclaims Jesus to be ruler over all of it – the anointed, the liberator, the redeemer, the savior.

We need a field trip sometimes, don’t we? We need to get out of ourselves every once in a while, don’t you think? We need to get away from what we believe we know, away from what we’re used to, apart from the everyday, ordinary ways of our lives, sometimes, to see and learn and do a new thing; to ask some hard questions; to find some faithful answers; to set our hearts and our minds on heavenly things, in spite of the earthly things that compete for our attention and allegiance so much of the time.

Now I’m not saying we always have to go as far away as Haiti, but the questions I find myself wrestling with in and around the mountains of Fondwa, are very much like the questions Jesus was asking Peter and the disciples that day in Caesarea Philippi. “Who do people say that I am?” And, more specifically, “Who do you say that I am?”

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In Fondwa, I’m reminded that Jesus is the Messiah for the least of these; that the last will be first and the first will be last and that I spend a lot of time – too much time – working and worrying about being first.

In Fondwa, I’m reminded that Jesus is Messiah of my money and my things and my stuff – and that it doesn’t always look that way. Just ask my cable provider. Just look in my closet. Just rummage through my refrigerator. But please don’t tell the children at the St. Antoine School and orphanage what you find.

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In Fondwa, I’m reminded that Jesus is Messiah for the whole of creation – for all colors and cultures and countries and creeds, even – and that our politics, our policies, our politicians – the Caesars and the Phillips, if you will – should reflect that.

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In Fondwa, I’m reminded that “divine things” aren’t always pretty – they look like feet that haven’t worn shoes for who knows how long – if ever – and that walk paths and climb hills you can’t imagine. I’m reminded that “divine things” look like volunteer doctors and nurses who care for 14 year-olds with HIV and syphilis. “divine things” are grandmothers, aunts and sisters raising generations of extended family, and feeding the neighbors, too – on less than a shoe-string; with no pot to pee in; and going hungry, themselves, to make it happen.

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Heavenly things look like sacrifice and struggle, generosity and goodness, hope in the face of despair and new life in the face of dying. And that’s who Jesus is. That’s how Jesus shows up, still. That’s the answer to the question of the day: “Who do you say that I am?” “Who do you say Jesus is?”

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Jesus is Messiah – anointed, liberator, redeemer, savior. Messiah, of sacrifice. Messiah, of struggle. Messiah, of humility, generosity, goodness and grace. Messiah of death, even. And Messiah of love and new life, too … for each of us and for the sake of the whole wide world.


All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.