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One More Time

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 9/23/18 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel test was Mark 9:30-37. 

This is the second of Jesus’ three predictions in Mark of his death and resurrection. Between the first instructions and the second passion prediction, there are: The transfiguration where Peter doesn’t know what to say and the three disciples are terrified. There is a discussion coming down the mountain and the disciples don’t understand Jesus’ comment about “rising from the dead.” And they had just come down the mountain where the dead were alive! Finally, the other disciples fail to cast out a demon and Jesus is appalled at their faithlessness. 

On the way to Capernaum, Jesus taught his disciples for the second time that he would be crucified and would rise from the dead. The dense disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching and they were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant.

Why would they be afraid? Were they maybe thinking back to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter as Satan telling him to get behind and follow Jesus? Maybe they were afraid they would look dumb if they asked, admitting that they didn’t understand. I can’t help but think of the old adage, “It is better to remain silent and appear like a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." Maybe that was their tack. 

At some point, along the way to Capernaum, the disciples were discussing which of them was the greatest. That certainly seems insensitive. Their Lord had been telling them again about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. What are they concerned about? Who will be greatest or first? They were seemingly oblivious to Jesus’ teaching. 

The disciples apparently thought their conversation was private, but once they’d arrived at the house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they were talking about on the way there. They were busted and they remained silent. Mark doesn’t tell us if they ever told Jesus about their conversation, but I doubt it. After all, he already knew what they’d been talking about. 

As a parent, I can’t help but think back to my children’s teenage years. You know they have done something by the way they’re acting so quietly. They insist they haven’t done anything, then you find out about what really happened about 10 years later. Here the disciples remind me of my kids.

Don’t the disciples seem dense? They just don’t get what Jesus is saying, so it’s no wonder he wants uninterrupted time alone with them to straighten them out and boy do they need it.

The disciples appear to believe that greatness involves being set apart from their peers in power and adulation. Maybe they’d been captivated by images of power they’d seen in the rule of Augustus and Herod. That kind of power controls, separating the leader from subjects. Looks like it’s time for a lesson in relational theology. 

So, the disciples want to know who the greatest is, do they? Jesus gives them two answers.

After Jesus had taught the disciples, he gives them a demonstration. He takes a small child to illustrate what he is trying to teach them. Our response is, “Oh, how sweet!” Our ideas of children and childhood are far different from those of first century Palestine. 

Parents loved their children, but in general, small children were considered non-persons. The Greek word used by Mark indicates a young child. There was no reason to interest oneself in serving a small child. There was nothing they could do for you. Children represented “the least.” By embracing a child, Jesus is demonstrating his love of the unlovable. 

Now the answers to who is the greatest. The first answer Jesus gives the disciples is “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” It is servant leadership that is the path to greatness. In contrast to the disciples’ ideas of greatness, Jesus identifies greatness with service and empathy. It involves humility and the willingness to serve rather than be served. Spiritual greatness is revealed in God’s willing participation in the mess of human suffering. 

Jesus’ second answer was, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” As usual, Jesus turns everything upside down. In the kingdom of God, everything is backward from the Roman system of patronage. 

The path to God’s power is to open your arms to the powerless. Professor Micah Kiel of St. Ambrose University, Davenport, IA says, “Saying that the way to gain honor is to receive those who are without honor goes against the logic of the ancient society. The Kingdom of God assesses and assigns value differently than the human realm. God will receive those who receive the child. This will give access to true power, the power of the one who sent Jesus.”

In what ways does this apply to us today? For one thing, American public policy neglects millions of children at home and abroad. Howard Thurman observed that one of the most tragic effects of poverty is the loss of imagination among children. There are national leaders who seem content with children of undocumented immigrants being separated from their families. Programs that promote children’s health and welfare are deemed optional. Tax cuts for the wealthy trump care for vulnerable children. 

We middle-class American parents are concerned for our children, which is demonstrated in the rise of child-rearing books, after-school sports and wall-to-wall activities to help them get ahead in the world. But what about their deepest needs? 

How many times have you been in a restaurant and seen a family waiting for their food to arrive? What are they doing? Are the parents engaging their children in conversation? Are they looking at each other as they talk? Or, are they all looking down at their phones? Sometimes you will see people texting to each other rather than talking to each other. Our children need us to engage them in conversation and tell them how much we care about them and how much Jesus loves them. 

When our children were baptized, we promised to:
      live with them among God's faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture themin faith and prayer, so that[our] children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. (ELW, Holy Baptism)

As a congregation, we do our best ministry with children when we make sure that the children of our church and of the community know that God loves them, that we love them and that their lives are full of possibilities. By doing so, we are awakened to the spiritual encounters we may have with them.

What weight do Jesus’ words have to us as we look at the refugee crisis in Syria, the families at the border, or children who are hungry in the local school? We do well at taking care of our children in our local school, but can our concern and love extend beyond the borders of our county? Can we look at these other children through the eyes of Christ, through compassion and love of the other? 

In the coming months, we will have a Refugee Sunday, so that we may be better educated about the situation of refugees and learn more about what we can do to help.

In the meantime, how shall we work to alleviate the grief and despair of those ignored by so many? We can cry out for justice for the little ones to our elected representatives. We can support various agencies that care for the least of these. In our own area, we can help at St. Susan's, UCAN, or other ministries whose mission is to work with those on the margins of society. 

The child Jesus hugged as an object lesson was representative of the lowest, least-esteemed in society, yet Jesus showed his love. Who are the least esteemed of society? All we have to do is open our eyes to our neighbors around us. We can help feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless in Jesus’ name. In fact, if we are to be followers of Christ, we must do so. 



Bruce G. Epperly,

Micah Kiel,

Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler,


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