Sheepscott Community Church September 20, 2009
Jeremiah 11: 18-20
James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37
“Who Do You Say That I Am?”
I had thought to “save” the subject of this message for our first Sunday down at the Valley Church, which will be October 4. But then I thought, saving the subject would be exactly what I was preaching against last Sunday. It is not to save and hoard, but to spend and risk life and everything else for God and be in the moment with the idea when it happens. So, I throw caution to the winds and offer these thoughts, connecting them where I can to today’s scripture.
Several of us were talking at the back of the church last Sunday after service, and someone noted that of all the residents in the houses in the development where they live, only one other person went to church. The objection they had heard raised to that seemingly increasingly outdated tradition of going to church on Sunday was primarily that what happens at church is the result of a design by a group of men at some point in history, a religious exercise rendered meaningless in this more enlightened time. Spirituality is a more acceptable term than religiousness or religiosity and doesn’t require that one make any great efforts in the worship department. One can set one’s own agenda about how and when to worship.
I have wanted to talk again, about why we come to church––but I thought it would be like preaching to the choir because those who are in attendance don’t need to hear it. But someone else in the small group at the back of the church said that it would be good to be reminded why we come.
Fair enough. Let’s start there, borrowing the sentiment of the choir’s usual Introit once again: “Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in This Place.” All of us could testify individually how that happens for us, and I expect that for some it would be the music; for others it would be the prayer together; for others it could be the reading of scripture out loud or the message for the day. Still others are blessed simply by being in this building where generations before them, before all of us, have worshipped together. Being caught up in that holy history that praises God in whom there is no time as we know it is almost unspeakably glorious. For me I experience the presence of the Lord in this place through all of those manifestations, but more than any other way, it’s in you-all, the people who come together. I do see Christ in you and that gives me hope for myself.
What about you? Why do you come? Are you affirmed in your faith when you come? Are you challenged in your faith? Do you want more or do you want not to be bothered, to be challenged less?
Let’s turn to today’s gospel and see if we an ferret out some answers or at least a sense of direction in our thinking about why we should bother with this exercise of worship at all. Jesus and his disciples have left the safety of the North around Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus has been spending a protracted period of time with his followers before heading toward Jerusalem and what awaited him there. We most recently heard Peter confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah. Shortly after that he remonstrated with Jesus when Jesus said what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, viz., he would suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed and raised up on the third day. “God forbid that should happen to you,” Peter said.
In today’s gospel Jesus is predicting his passion again. The difference this time is that he added one phrase: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men,” which was a reference to the traitor in the little band––Judas. Jesus was not only announcing a fact, he was giving a warning and making a last appeal to the man in whose heart the purpose of betrayal was taking shape.
The disciples did not understand it because they didn’t want to understand the what and wherefore of what was going to happen to Jesus. He was speaking plainly, but they were left scratching their heads, and when Jesus went on ahead of them, they returned to a regular topic of conversation: who would be the greatest among them when Jesus came into his power? Who would make up his kitchen cabinet? We human beings have a great ability and capacity for self-deception when we need to employ it. Often it’s because we just can’t face some awful truth––like the death of Jesus––while we can make plans on the temporal plane about what we will do to establish our importance.
When they all arrived home in Capernaum, Jesus had them sit down, and he himself sat down, which is the position a Rabbi will take when he is going to teach his disciples, his followers. His question to them no doubt had the most sensitive among them turning red in the face with shame and embarrassment, and none of them meeting his eye, which could see right through them. “What were you talking about on the road?” he asked. He knew very well what they had been talking about and recognized this as a teachable moment. Their red faces were indicative of a repentance in shame that would make them more receptive to what he had to say. If these twelve didn’t get it, didn’t have at least a glimmer of who he was and why he had come––and actually, there were only eleven who were fully open to what Jesus had to say––what would he do? So he had to seize this moment to try to get across a major point.
And he made that point by picking up a child who was nearby and setting the child in their midst. Jesus took the child in his arms and said to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” In a parallel passage that follows shortly after in Mark 10, Jesus is indignant when the disciples try to prevent the children from coming to him and says to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who does not receive the kingdom like a little child will never enter it.” Then he picked up the children in his arms and blessed them.
We need to recognize that this kingdom of God to which Jesus was inviting his listeners was apparently a kingdom of nobodies, emphasized by his use of children as embodiments of who and what we need to be in order to enter the kingdom. Children are nobodies in most societies, and most certainly at that time in history that was true. They have no power and are almost totally dependent on others to care for them. The lifting up of the children was a rebuke of the pretensions of the disciples, who wanted to assume first places and thereby regulate access to the Kingdom of God.
That makes me think of the years of Christianity just after Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, shortly before he died. Those who had assumed power in the church that was forming in the fourth century were all atwitter about the great unwashed who were then flooding through the gates into the Kingdom of God. They wanted to bar the gate and only let in those who could prove that they knew the right answers to the right questions. But the scale of influx made this impossible. When a whole empire goes Christian, or any other religion for that matter, it gets a little hard to keep track of who has a stamp on the hand and can get into the dance. Can’t you just hear the power brokers: “Oh, that makes me so mad.”
Of course, God was keeping track, and they need not have gotten all fussed about it. The disciples were all wanting to be gatekeepers, having not accepted, as I earlier pointed out, that their leader was heading down a road of no return, and the exercise of their idea of power was not on his mind. On the contrary, he was trying to teach the disciples about powerlessness, as embodied in children, to give them an idea of what was down that road for them, of what they had to embrace if they expected to be part of the Kingdom of God.
Do you remember the story of the Brothers of Thunder, James and John, whose mother buttonholed Jesus to ask if her sons would sit at his right and left hands? We human beings being what we are, like James and John, and like the other disciples on the road, are reluctant to let go of the perks, the bennies that come with being associated with celebrity. I have to interject this piece of wisdom here that I got from a dean I was working with when I was at Bates; I may have shared this with you before, but it bears repeating. Early on she said, if you don’t care who gets the credit, you can get a lot done. Truer words, etcetera.
The disciples had to learn how to be like children, to be nobodies as far as the world’s estimation is concerned, and thereby, somebodies in God’s eyes. They had to learn to be humble, as children are humble, just by virtue of being children. It was the total receptivity of children that Jesus was praising, and for his disciples too, the implication was that they must be equally receptive in their wholehearted devotion to the only aim finally worth pursuing––admission to the Kingdom of God. Our self-love, our self-regard has to be replaced by love for all who are our companions in this work, in our aim, in our struggles, which brings me back to where I began: This community, struggling toward its identity as a house of God, where all can come to worship together in peace and joy and sorrow, caring for one another and celebrating the life we share in God. We have fallen short. We do fall short, but we have an intercessor––I’m talking about Jesus––who can shore us up and encourage us in our best selves in the way we want to go.
I repeat the question I began with: Why do we come together here on a Sunday morning? Why don’t we stay in bed or finish the Times crossword by noon or communicate with all our friends on Facebook who are not at church either? Why are you here? What do you have to bring? What do you hope to take away?
Over the next two weeks, think about your status vis-à-vis God. Would you be ashamed if Jesus were to ask you what you were thinking about at any given time? How far have you come in your hope to live a better life, to give, not counting the cost to yourself but the benefit to the Body of Christ? Many of us are still far from accepting the radical demands of Jesus’s message, to become like children, transparent to the Spirit of God, ready to be taught.
If we do indeed find ourselves falling far short of not only what we want of ourselves before God, but also what God makes clear when we are willing to listen, what God wants of us, if we do find ourselves thus falling short in a given area, repent. Tell God you’re sorry and that you will try harder with the help of the Spirit of Jesus to become the person, the child who can enter the kingdom with the sweet trust that characterizes a child.
When we have our own kids, there’s so much worry and broken bones and trouble at school, and all that that goes with it, that sometimes we lose sight of their preciousness, and especially when they’re younger, their innocence. Our grandkids can pick up a lot of that slack. For me, when I’ve had the opportunity to talk with the kids up here, to look at their sweet faces and indeed to sense their receptivity, as I mentioned earlier, I have no doubt of what preciousness in God’s eyes is, and the desirability for us of that same state of mind and heart, of being before God They are our models..
Would that we could be like those children. God expects us to be. But how can we? We are no longer children, and we are jaded, somewhat cynical, and not easily led. I am reminded of Nicodemus saying to Jesus, who has said he must be born again of water and of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God, how can that happen? Can I crawl back up into my mother’s womb? Well, no. But we can be born again of the Spirit; we can be new, recover our innocence in ways we won’t discover until we trust God more and our self-seeking selves less.
Let us ask ourselves the question why we come here. Let us consider where we have fallen short in our own movement forward in grace and repent where we have need of repentance––and here I would mention that we are in the holiest part of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah which began Friday, and ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on September 28. Rosh Hashanah, which translates literally as “head of the year,” is an opportunity through prayer and reflection for self-repair. The Jewish people remember their past year and ask for forgiveness through repentance. And they always say, “we” in the prayers, not just “I.” They repent communally. We will be doing that in our prayer of confession and pardon before communion on our first Sunday at the Valley Church. Let us reflect in preparation over these next two weeks about ourselves as church––where we have fallen short, why we come together, where we want to go. If we genuinely seek God in these matters, God’s Spirit will guide us like children in the most beautiful and subtle ways.
That can happen in community, the community of this worshipping body whose members are coming more and more fully into relationship with each other, which is to say with Christ through each other. If we continue to choose to grow as a community in Christ, our individual gifts will be released like balloons at a political convention and we can build up this community on the foundation that is already in place. Amen.