Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 25B/Proper 20B] - September 20, 2015 (Mark 9:30-37)

If you asked them, most pastors would probably confess to hearing more positive comments about their children’s sermons than their pulpit sermons. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (never in this congregation, of course!) something along the lines of “the children’s sermon always makes so much more sense to me.”

And, truth be told, I get it. I really do. Sermons from the pulpit end up being a little too in-depth and complicated, often biting off more than they can chew, at least in my case. Children’s sermons are typically more focused on one particular object or point. I do not like using the term “dumbed down” in this sense. A better way to say it, perhaps, is that they are just more distilled, made appropriate for a certain audience’s attention-span, which, I suppose, is just another way of saying that pulpit sermons are often too long.

But, let’s be honest: children’s sermons are also often comical. It is quite renegade to put a bunch of young children essentially on stage each Sunday for an impromptu lesson. And in a liturgical, traditional worship format, it is the only part that really feels out of our control, unleashed. An extemporaneous dialogue between a nervous adult and fifteen or twenty talkative, restless, curious children in front of a whole congregation? What could go wrong?!  In fact, do you know what music I hear playing in the back of my head each time I invite the children to come forward to the children’s sermon? The theme from Jaws. I think to myself: I’m gonna need a bigger boat.

In all seriousness, there is great truth and blessing to the children’s sermon and how we all receive them. There is a lot to be said for the spontaneous gospel interaction that happens here on the chancel each week. One of my colleagues says that if people really are getting more out of sermons we direct towards children, then maybe our pulpit sermons should start to look like them. Maybe things like props and guided dialogue help in getting a point across.

All this is to say, Jesus was in the same boat, too. Even he had to resort to a children’s sermon every once in a while. At least, that’s what seems to be happening on the road through Galilee in the gospel lesson this morning. Jesus has been traveling with his disciples for some time now, giving plenty of quality pulpit material, but they are still not comprehending it. He’s taught, for example, using parables to illustrate his kingdom—parables that use imagery familiar and accessible to them—and it’s still going over their heads. On several occasions he’s even explicitly laid out the parables’ meaning, carefully explaining the symbolism and allegory.

Most recently, of course, he has openly talked about the suffering and death that will stand at the fulcrum of his reign. For the second time in probably in probably the same number of days, he has mentioned in straightforward fashion that his power will be marked not by domination but by service, but it is clearly not sinking in. They are still caught up in old, earthly definitions of power and glory. Even after all of Jesus’ lessons about mustard seeds and five loaves being enough, they are thinking about Jesus’ kingdom in grand, worldly terms. And so Jesus distills it. He goes for the children’s sermon.

Interestingly enough, his children’s sermon involves a child. That’s because the disciples are debating their greatness, and Jesus needs to find the littlest, weakest thing he can to get his point across. The disciples are very likely arguing over who will be at Jesus’ right arm and left arm when he comes into his kingdom—symbols of power and authority—and Jesus grabs a child and literally puts those arms around it.

"Jesus and the Children" (Carl Bloch)
The rebuke of their pretentiousness would have been profound. Did you know that children are the only things we are told that Jesus takes into his arms in the gospels? On the one hand, a small child might be the only thing small enough to be held in a grown man’s arms, but in another way it is very significant. For if Jesus needs an object to illustrate weakness and lack of power, he could find nothing better than a child. In ancient times, children were considered to be little disease factories. Vulnerable and unvaccinated, children were susceptible to many sicknesses, and adults were often wary of them. They were also a drain on the family resources. Although their lives were in some sense valued, it was mainly it was thought that one day, if they made it to adulthood (and often 30%-40% of them did not), they would be able to contribute to the family well-being and income.

So here, in the middle of his most serious part of his most serious lesson to date, Jesus reaches and grabs a little contagious, annoying, likely snotty-nosed little child and pulls it to his bosom. It’s like he looks at this child, hears (as does everyone else) the Jaws music playing in the back of his head, and welcomes the child without fear. He leaves himself vulnerable to this most vulnerable of beings. He embraces the very kind of person that most would push far away.

If you are looking for a distilled message about Jesus’ kingdom, it would be difficult to find a better one. If you are looking for a nugget-like episode of what God’s kingdom is like, this is one to hone in on. Where can we expect the loving arms of God’s kingdom to show up but in the hospitality extended to those who are viewed as “less than”? When can we expect Jesus to find us at our most embraceable than when we’re cranky, sickly, feeling vulnerable and useless? Jesus’ welcome of this child is the perfect illustration for the cross. Because there Jesus opens himself up to true pain and mortal danger. There Jesus humbles himself, moves past all the theological teaching about service to others, and gathers all broken, hurting people to God’s bosom. God’s kingdom fully arrives when we, the children, so proud that we can think and act like grown-ups most of the time realize that our intellect or our ability to be quiet and respectful will never get us into God’s grace. It just comes.

And, as it happens, Jesus’ children’s sermon with the child gets me thinking about several things. For one, it gets me thinking about Epiphany’s long witness of receiving children, especially the reception of children through adoption and foster care. It is impossible for me to think of this congregation or understand its character without those examples of grace, those families who have opened themselves up to some of the most vulnerable children of the world. And gift of such life those children have nurtured among us!

It also makes me think about our own hospitality of children in worship, how as a congregation we don’t just love the children’s sermon, but also don’t get too bothered by the presence of children in worship. It makes me think about the possible connection between something we are so proud of—the way our youth share their faith—to the fact that many of these children and youth have been brought into worship for their whole lives. It makes me think about how each Sunday, while a preacher is up here yammering away about God’s kingdom on some high-falutin’ adult level, real-life instances of God’s kingdom are happening in the pews out there whenever a child gets restless or fussy and a parent or grandparent graciously takes that child into her arms.

There is absolutely nothing wrong about a parent’s choice to use the nursery on a Sunday morning. My wife often did, and I know she had to scramble to rush one of our two out of the pew and into the hall when things got past the point of no return. However, the presence of a child, even when it cries or fusses, can be a good reminder to me that no one really deserves to be in here, after all. And it is also a good reminder that worship is not entertainment where people need to hush up and be quiet so we can enjoy the show, but a work that we all are participating in, together. Just when we begin to think that worship is really only for those who can digest the food of the pulpit sermon, for those who are on our supposedly high level, then perhaps we need to have a child scream out and remind us that we’re embraceable, too. When Jesus sends us out into the world to behold and take part in a kingdom that happens in the reception of difficult and outcast, it helps when we’ve already started experiencing it and practicing it here in our worship.

Two or so years ago when we began asking people of the congregation to provide the bulletin artwork, children jumped at the chance. It’s still difficult to get adults to draw something, which probably says something about our uncomfortableness with our own vulnerability, but we have people—mostly small kids—lined up all the way through half of 2016. Last year, one child drew a picture of a cross and a crown for the front of the bulletin. It was not ornate or complicated. It was done free-hand. Things were a little lop-sided and the lines were crooked. It was probably not a piece of artwork that particular child’s parent would take note of, and I know I’ve certainly seen more elaborate crosses in clip art.

However, when that family showed up the next Sunday for worship, an retired gentleman who carves wood as a hobby presented that little child with a real 3-D replica of her drawing, complete with a small crown cut out of metal and glued to it, just like in the drawing. You should have seen the child’s face. Because once again, the kingdom had arrived. And the humble embrace of the cross had been right in the middle of it.

When Jesus sends us into the world to behold and take part in this kingdom, to put ourselves last, to humble ourselves in service to the least, it helps when we’ve already started practicing it here in our worship. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 22B/Proper 19B] - September 13, 2015 (Mark 8:27-38)

I had the honor of sharing lunch this week with one of our youth who graduated high school this past June and who is enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. In fact, he’ll be getting on the bus for boot camp today, right after worship! I think he knows the congregation is rightfully proud of him, and I wanted to snag a chance to let him know that before he went, and to assure him of our support. As we talked about his goals and his future, he shared with me his excitement about what lies ahead. He seems to be very realistic about his future, and at one point he made a comment that stuck with me. He said that what has drawn him to this particular decision for the time-being is the opportunity to have “discipline redefined.”
For whatever reason, this appeals to him—a chance to reprogram some concepts of self-control, perhaps, or a reorientation of values where honor and service to country are instilled afresh. In any case, I suspect within the next 24 hours discipline will begin to be redefined in all kinds of ways for him.
For all of us—that young man, included—Jesus redefined discipline during the gospel reading just a few minutes ago. Discipleship will go, for example, from being about tasks that gain one fame and popularity to a way of life that involves suffering and humiliation. Life as one of his disciples will go from asserting yourself, gaining more and more attention and higher and higher status, from working your way farther up the ladder, to being about humbling yourself and getting rid of your self-importance. Enlisting with Jesus will go from looking for ways to dominate to looking for ways to serve:
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.’”
It’s difficult to tell sometimes because of the chopped-up way we read the Bible in worship, but we have reached a critical point in Mark’s story about Jesus. Up until this point, Jesus has been gaining more and more followers primarily through the amazing miracles of healing and feeding he has performed. Especially at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus shows his power over the forces of darkness and evil by rebuking demons and physical illnesses. He shows his power over the often chaotic forces of nature by walking on water and feeding thousands of people at one time. He’s a rock star. People demand more. He can’t go anywhere without folks showing up and asking him questions.
But now, suddenly, we find ourselves in that part of the movie where the music has started to change in the background. Suddenly the disciples get the sneaking suspicion that they might have signed up for something a little different than they thought. Before, you see, Jesus was all about rebuking the dark forces and storms. Now he’s rebuking Peter. It’s all a part of Jesus’ plan to redefine exactly what following him entails.
Get Thee Behind Me, Satan!   (James Tissot)
And in order to do that, of course, he needs to redefine himself and how he will be a Savior. This is why he’s brought them to Caesarea Philippi, a gleaming new city built to glorify Caesar’s empire. It’s almost like he’s taken them away for discipleship boot camp, bringing them out of their comfort zone in the heart of Galilee to this distant outpost of the region. As it happens, there’s a lot of symbolism there that he can use to set himself against.
Caesarea Philippi, you see, was set upon the ruins of another ancient city near a huge rock face that was a temple to Pan, the ancient god of victory in war. The local ruler, Philip II, who was a puppet for the emperor in Rome, had recently made vast improvements to the city, erecting all kinds of statues bearing his likeness and constructing new buildings with his name emblazoned on them. Philip’s image had been placed on a coin that had been minted right about the time Jesus would have been there. The point, therefore, at Caesarea Philippi was that Caesar was lord, the empire was unshakable, and that greatness came if not by military victory, then certainly by asserting yourself and stamping your pompous style and fingerprint on everything around you.
part of the modern-day site of Caesarea Philippi
With that as a backdrop, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And when Peter finally answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the people, Jesus quickly sets the record straight about what that will mean: Undergoing great suffering, being rejected by the popular people in power, getting killed, and then, at long last, having his life put back together again. He says all of this quite openly, which is a line in this story that might seem kind of pointless to us but it’s actually a big deal. He’s clearly redefining Messiah-ship, because up until this point whenever Jesus does something big he tries to either do it in secret or he tells people to hush up about it.
And here, so openly, in a city with so many bold and imposing monuments to Caesar and Philipp, Jesus begins to point to the monument his life will end with. “Monument” is probably not even the right word for it, because it is an instrument for execution, and it’s not like he designs it for himself. But in his effort to re-define life for us, he must confront death. In his mission to re-define what it means to be the one who provides God’s victory, he must hand himself over in humility.
So every time we look at this monument of his we will remember that sacrifice of self stands in the middle of our salvation. Every time it is lifted in our midst, we will realize, once again, we must die to ourselves to gain any kind of real life. The core of our Savior’s identity is not in some flashy way he preserves those who love him, but in the way he chooses to suffer, die, and rise even for those who turn his back on him. It is such a powerful re-defining of everything that giving up our life results in finally gaining it—setting aside our pet agendas, our sacred cows, our enlightened opinions is often where we find God’s grace will pick us up and make us new.              
In her recent article called, “Why I Go to Church Even When I Don’t Feel Like It,” blogger Trudy Smith shares a brief sketch of her own life story of falling in and out and eventually back in belief in God and her back and forth relationship with the community of Christ’s disciples. At some point in her journey she discovered that church “was not a place to go because everyone had their act together. It was more like a refuge where all sorts of people could gather to remind each other of the story we were all in…It was more like a school for conversation where we were all stumbling through basic lessons on how to love.”[1]
Indeed, Jesus has assembled a school for conversation: “Who do you say that I am?” God gathers a refuge for remembering this core story of the cross that stands at the middle of our faith. And through this school, this refuge, this re-defined Savior re-defines us. At the font, at the table, in our repentance and forgiveness, and God is constantly re-defining us with his grace. God receives our brokenness, our shortcomings, our idolatries of self so that he can hand us himself. And bearing his cross does not always occur in grand, epic occasions for faith-sharing, but more often in the small, quiet daily opportunities to suffer for the cause of righteousness, to lift a gesture of self-denial for the sake of someone else.
There’s a lot of disappointment in and with the community of Christ’s followers these days. But—news flash!—there always has been.  Look at Peter on his first step! Jesus is always going to have to work to shove our delusions of perfection into the background. Even on this Rally Day, we know many of our grand new objectives for the year, personally or corporately, won’t exactly pan out like we hope. Nevertheless, my friends, a re-defined Savior will still be here re-defining us with his love. A re-defined, suffering Savior will still be here, reminding us it’s not about us, it’s not ever about us. It’s always about him…the one who goes to the cross.
So, from these Sunday School classrooms…from these discussions in youth group about being disciples in middle and high school…from these relationships forged over handbells, canned food donations and confirmation conversations Jesus will be forming a new type of followers. And to that point, I’d like to add another re-definition of the church to Ms. Smith’s school and refuge. The church is also a boot camp. A boot camp for losers. A bunch of losers who eventually, because of Jesus, gain it all!

Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.