Truly Great

+ A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 19, 2021 +

Text: Mark 9:30-37


The disciples have had an interesting few days.
Last Sunday, we heard Peter become the first person to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah.
But Jesus quickly shushed him and told them not to tell anyone.
Then Jesus told them that he would undergo great suffering, that he would die at the hands of the state, and somehow, that he would then rise again from the dead.
And as we heard, the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus is saying—especially Peter.
But Jesus not only sharply rebukes Peter, he even called him Satan.
He told his friends that they must take up their crosses and follow him to truly be his disciples.

Then, our lectionary skips over the part that happens a few days later in the story, a story we hear each year on the last Sunday before Lent, when Jesus took three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—to a mountain top.
And there, maybe with Jesus’ rebuke still ringing in their ears, the disciples experienced a glorious vision.
They saw their friend and teacher transfigured in dazzling light.
They watched him converse with the two greatest figures of their faith, Moses and Elijah.
They heard a voice come from heaven and declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
They wanted to stay on that mountain top forever.

But as soon as they came down to earth, the realities of ministry, the realities of discipleship, returned.
They were met by a large crowd who were clamoring for Jesus to help them—to heal a little boy.
It was loud.
It was chaotic.
It was a far cry from the glories they had just seen.

Then, after Jesus heals the child, the band continued on their way, which is where we pick up today.
They go back toward their hometown and once again, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be handed over to human authorities, that he will be killed, and that he will rise again.
And once again, the disciples just don’t understand what he is saying.
And this time they’re too afraid to ask.

Now, I guess I can give the disciples a pass in not asking the tough questions here.
I mean, last time, Peter questioned what Jesus said, he got called Satan.
Who would want to risk that?
But I really wonder why they couldn’t hear what Jesus was teaching them.
This is the second time Jesus taught them what would happen, after all, and they are no closer to comprehending its implications.
I mean, on one hand I get it, these aren’t easy things to understand.
We’ve spent two thousand years grappling with Jesus’ teachings.
Pastors, theologians, people in the pews have all wondered what these words really mean.
But come on, Jesus is right there!
God incarnate.
Wisdom made flesh.
Their teacher and their friend, telling them what is going to happen.
And not only do they not get it, they’re too afraid to ask.

But I wonder if they don’t understand because their heads were still up in the clouds.
I wonder if they don’t hear what Jesus is saying because their mind is still set on that glorious vision they saw on the mountain top.
They’re still reveling in what happened up there because, all this work on the ground?
It’s a little…messy.
What with the crowds crushing in, the overwhelming need, and that nagging feeling you’re never doing enough?
Maybe they’d just rather stay up on that mountain top with Jesus, hang out with the greats, hold on to that glorious day.
And maybe, just maybe, if they were great enough, they’d get to go back and experience it again.

Now, again, it would be easy to sit back and criticize the disciples for all this.
I mean, they seem to be the prime example of doing listening to Jesus’ teachings and doing the exact wrong thing.
But I have to wonder…am I all that different?
Are we all that different?
If we really look at ourselves, I think we’d find that we all tend to focus on the glory.
We look back on those good old days of yesteryear and long for their return.
We cling to our human understandings of greatness and try to measure it through numbers, through influence, through power.
We debate who is the greatest—the greatest leader, the greatest authority, even the greatest athlete of all time.
We compare ourselves with each other through our salaries, through our accolades, through our accumulation of stuff.
We judge ourselves on how many followers we have rather than the lives we influence, the number of programs we put on rather than fostering discipleship, the size of our congregations rather than our impact in the community.
And in our relentless quest for greatness, we lose sight of Jesus’ call to take up our cross.
We misunderstand his teaching of death and resurrection.
We ignore his example to love and serve our neighbors.
Because when we do, it can be messy.
It clutters our church with mats and tables and…stuff.
It asks us to risk something for the life of our community.
It pushes us out of our comfortable worship and into the world to encounter the overwhelming need that surrounds us.

So maybe we aren’t all that different than those original disciples two thousand years ago.
Maybe we do spend too much time focusing on our human understandings of greatness rather than grappling with God’s teaching of what it means to be truly great.
And maybe we’re too afraid to ask ourselves, ask Jesus, what he really means here.

“Whoever wants to be first,” Jesus says, whoever wants to be truly great “must be last and servant of all.”
Ok, maybe that’s not any clearer than a messiah dying and rising from the dead.
How Jesus going to teach these people?
How is he going to show them, show us, what he’s really talking about?

So, Jesus does something strange, something that would have been completely unexpected.
He picks up a child, puts her on his lap, and proclaims, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
If Peter, James, and John really did still have their heads up on that mountaintop, they knew very well who had sent Jesus—they heard that voice from heaven.
And they knew that Jesus was the son of the one who sent him.
But when they looked down at Jesus, he was holding this child on his lap.

Now, we may see this as a cute, even pastoral picture of Jesus welcoming the children to him.
But to those disciples, this was unheard of.
We may think of children as pure, perfect, pictures of innocence.
But in Jesus’ day, children were at the very bottom of the social ladder.
They were nobodies—maybe even less than nobodies.
They didn’t contribute to society.
They were strains on family lives.
They were often sick and drained the resources of the family or they died young.
I mean, throughout Mark’s gospel, almost all the children we hear about are sick or disabled or dying.
Jairus’ daughter is near death.
The Syrophoenician woman’s sick daughter is called a dog.
And remember that boy who needed healing just before this.
Children in Mark’s gospel, children in Jesus’ time, are not symbols of innocence and purity, they’re more likely to be victims of oppression and poverty, examples of a society plagued by hunger and disease.
They are the very essence of the marginalized in society.
And this little child Jesus lifts onto his lap (I mean where did she even come from?), is so easily overlooked, unappreciated, unvalued.
This child is the one who, for Jesus, embodies welcoming Jesus, welcoming God.

Now, if Jesus wanted us, his modern disciples, to pay attention to those living on the margins, he could have surely chosen a better example than children, right?
I mean, we love kids!
We celebrate new children and grandchildren.
We cry when we baptize little babies.
We long for the cries and boundless energy to be in our worship spaces again.
But again, is Jesus really that far off?

The Rev. Dr. Barbra Lundblad writes, “If we listen to many Christian voices, it’s clear that the worst thing that can happen to children is being born. Before birth, they are cherished, but after birth, they’re on their own.”[1]
And it doesn’t take long for this to be demonstrated throughout our society, does it?
Whether it’s children who are separated from their families at our boarders and deported into the unknown.
Or it’s children ‘accidentally’ murdered by drone strikes in distant lands.
Or it’s children stuck in our foster systems.
Or it’s the one in six children who still live in poverty in this country—a number that skyrockets when you focus on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children.[2]
Or it’s the entire population of children in this country whom we claim to care about, but disregard when we want to return to our normal lives as we shove them back onto the front lines of a global pandemic from which they cannot yet be protected.
Or it’s the children around the world whose cries we ignore as we continue to destroy the climate that is meant to sustain them long after we’ve gone.

“See this child?” Jesus asks his disciples, both ancient and modern. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We may nod in agreement.
Our hearts may warm at the image of Jesus loving the children.
But in the very next chapter of the gospel, when children come to Jesus for a blessing, seeking the full abundance of what Jesus heralds, the disciples fall into their old way of thinking and try to stop them, speaking sternly that those children should be kept away.
They still don’t get what Jesus is saying to them.
And maybe we don’t either.

But there is Jesus, holding that child in his lap.
Holding this little, beautiful human whom the world has overlooked, whom the world has disregarded as worthless.
But Jesus doesn’t see someone who’s worthless.
Jesus sees this child for who she is.
Jesus sees in her the divine dignity that is in each of us, a representation of God on earth, a human made in God’s image.
And I can almost hear him speak in that child’s ears the words Jesus heard spoken to him in his baptism, bestowing the identity pronounced on that mountaintop, “You are God’s beloved child, and we need to listen to you, to hear you, to see you.”

And then Jesus looks back at his disciples on that day in Capernaum; he looks at his disciples today here in Bellevue.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
It’s a call that echoes through the ages.
It’s a call that is for each of us, ourselves beloved children of God.
It’s a call for us to share the same love that we have experienced.
To go out and find not only the children, but anyone who has been shoved to the margins, who has been forgotten and overlooked and undervalued by society and do all that we can to ensure they experience the full, abundant life that God intends for each and every beloved child of God.
I mean, I know that this work, this reality of discipleship, may not seem like much compared to the glories of the mountaintop vision, it may not bring in hordes of new members to our pews or buckets of money to our coffers.
But this is how we find Jesus among us.
This is how we welcome God into this place.
This is how we find what it means to be truly great.

[1] Lundblad, Barbra. Currents in Theology and Mission 48:3, July 2021. Preaching Helps, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 19, 2021.

[2] Children’s’ Defense Fund. “An Urgent and Preventable Crisis.”

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