Sometimes it's easy to miss the point. When I was in seminary I noticed a flyer on the wall of our cafeteria that advertised a preaching competition. I was taking a preaching class at the time, and had newly discovered that I had a bit of a talent for it. I was also flat broke, and the competition offered a $300 prize. Needless to say, I was intrigued. I picked up the flyer and looked it over and thought about entering. I thought about how I could probably win it, how it’d be fun to win it, how I could celebrate my win and my winnings with Shannon. Fortunately, I was busy with my other classes and with work and I actually had to think about if entering the competition was worth my time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t. Preaching isn’t about being the greatest. You preach to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, not to win a contest. You preach to a congregation of sisters and brothers not to a panel of judges. Preaching is meant to uplift the people of God, not merely yourself. One might think that humility comes easily to clergy, it does not. We like all other human beings enjoy being good at something. We share that human tendency to make things all about us, to center ourselves and our need for importance. We also need to be reminded that life is not about how great we are.
When we encounter Jesus and the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark, He has already told them once that he is to be betrayed and executed. Jesus tells the disciples on three separate occasions in Mark’s Gospel that he is going to be killed, and yet they are still shocked when it comes to pass. Some biblical scholars have taken the disciple’s surprise at Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion as reason to believe that perhaps he was not as explicit in his predictions of his death as Mark makes him out to be. Yet, that need not be the case. No special reason is needed to explain why the disciples struggled so mightily to understand that Jesus was to die. They believed that they had found the messiah, the one God had chosen to redeem Israel. As far as greatness was concerned, he was tops. He was to restore the kingdom of David, to reign over God’s people, death was simply incompatible with their understanding of his greatness. He was to bring about the glory of God and they expected plenty of greatness for themselves riding on his coatails. So Jesus 2nd prediction of his suffering and death went right over the heads just as the first had done. They did not understand and they were too afraid to ask, so they chose to ignore, to pretend he hadn’t said it at all. They continued thinking that greatness was the destiny of their leader and themselves.
As much as they wanted to ignore his odd predictions of his own humiliating death, the disciples’ must have known that Jesus’ own conception of greatness differed from their own. For when Jesus asked them what they had been discussing amongst themselves on the walk to Capernaum, they were silent. They did not wish to tell him that they had been arguing over which one of them was greatest. So Jesus, seeing that they were still holding to worldly measures of greatness, tries once again to instruct them on how greatness is to be measured in the kingdom of God. He stops walking there on the path. He sits down. He calls all the twelve to sit beside him. He says, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” As if to demonstrate the meaning of his words, Jesus took a child and put him in the midst of them. He took the child in his arms and he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
What does this mean to receive a child in the name of Christ? Certainly it means welcoming children into our communal lives. Certainly it means valuing them as individuals, meeting their needs, extending to them love and grace. But there is more to it than that, more humility to be learned from receiving a child in the name of Christ.
This Monday evening I witnessed the miracle of my son’s birth. This is round two for Shannon and myself and so this time I had some expectations about what was to occur. All seemed to be going well up until we got to the labor and delivery room. One of our nurses noticed that the baby’s heart rate had dropped substantially and she was trying to calmly deal with the situation that clearly disturbed her. She called in another two nurses and they helped Shannon to roll over, gave her oxygen, and soon the baby’s heart rate returned to normal. The nurses assured us that this was perfectly normal and everything was fine. However, about 15 minutes later it happened again. This time the nurse seemed a little more worried, and she called for the doctor. Once the doctor arrived their frenetic movements and curt hushed tones, told me that not everything was fine. The doctor announced that she would check to see how dialated Shannon was, and to her great surprise she had gone from 3 cm to 10 cm in less than an hour. The baby’s heart was down because he was coming out. He was being born right then, before any of us had expected. A great flurry of activity and three pushes later and out came baby Samuel.
In the unexpected rush I had begun to worry that things were not going well. And when Samuel came out he didn’t look like Ruthie had looked. He was all purple, almost blue. And for maybe two seconds he was silent. That moment was a long moment for me. My whole being, my whole life was completely invested in this moment. More than anything in the world I wanted that little baby boy to breathe, to make a noise, to be alive. I would have given my life and anything else that I could give for that breathe without a moments hesitation. In those two seconds it became clear to me how little I mattered. It became clear to me that this tiny, helpless, infant, was infinitely more important than I.
At the end of the two seconds, Samuel cried. A great relief, followed by immense joy washed over me. My son was alive and I could let go of that worry. I hope, however, that I will not as easily let go of that moment of clarity, that moment when it was so stark and obvious to me that I was not what mattered, that there was nothing more important than life and well being of this child. That I believe is the deeper meaning of recieving a child in the name of Christ; accepting so fully that how we treat the vulnerable is the measure of our greatness that we are willing to give our very lives for that of a tiny, helpless, infant.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, as a way of judging the justice of our society, often asks the question, “How are the children?” This is the gospel standard for the greatness of any society: How are the children? The children are those who are most vulnerable, those with the greatest need, those with the least to offer us. “If any would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” If we are to be great people, a great church, or a great nation, by the standard of the gospel we must be willing to accept that children are more important than any of us, and we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for our children.
How are we doing with this standard, with this measurement of greatness? In the United States, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, over 21% of all children live in poverty. Nearly one in four. When children come to this country with their parents seeking asylum and an escape from violence and poverty, do we receive them in Christ’s name? Is our greatest concern how we can sacrifice for their well being? When children have their homes and their families destroyed by wars in which our nation fights do we welcome them as refugees, granting them safe haven and new opportunities? By any Christian calculation the answers to these questions are far more important data points than our GDP or our military budget.
Unfortunately, the question of How are the children in our churches is a difficult and painful one to ask at present. The very instituition which preserved and passed along the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its unique standard for greatness has been guilty of living by human standards of greatness with horrific results. The sinsickness and evil that leads one to abuse a child are beyond the scope of this sermon. But the impulse to cover it up, to protect the reputation of men and the reputation of the institution, before the well being of countless children, this is the perverse desire to care more for one’s worldly greatness than life of a child of God. This is a whole hearted abandonment of the gospel and its standard for greatness. Although it has been systemic within the Catholic Church, we must not be so arrogant and naive to assume such atrocities are not committed throughout all denominations. Any clergy and any church which practices ministry in the name of Jesus Christ must be willing to constantly and honestly ask themselves, “How are the Children?”
We have chosen to make ministry to children the focus of our work here at St. Paul’s UCC. Its an honorable commitment and one that, should would adhere to it, can keep us focused on doing the will of God. Let us always remember that our care for children is not merely a feature, or a strategy for church growth, but is rather the purpose for our being in the world, and the standard of greatness which our loving God has given us. Let us seek to welcome all children in the name of Christ and let us live our lives together as though there were nothing in the world more important than so doing. Amen.
During college I had the unbelievable good fortune to take a trip to Israel. I went with the Classics department of my college to work on an archaeological dig at the foot of the Golan Heights. It was an incredible, life changing trip for me, and if you ask me about sometime I tell you some of the more important things I did, and some of the incredible things I learned. But not now. Now I want to talk to you about Ketchup in Israel. One of our group leaders was an Israeli man by the name of Gabe. One of our first days I got to talking to Gabe at the work site and we began discussing the cuisine of our respective homelands. Gabe said the one American food that baffled him the most was Ketchup. I found this difficult to believe, that someone could feel strongly about not liking ketchup, among the most bland of all the condiments. But that afternoon as we ate our lunches in the Kibbutz where we were staying, I got a big helping of fries and took several packets of ketchup with me. When I opened the packets and squeezed out their contents, I was appalled. I don’t know what that stuff was, but sure as heck wasn’t ketchup. It was like a salty, runny, tomato jelly. It was gross. When I asked Gabe if this was what he meant by ketchup, he said, “Yes. Ketchup is awful.” I lost touch with Gabe many years ago, but I wonder if he ever got to taste real ketchup, heinz 57 ketchup. I wonder if tasting the real thing could have change his mind.
After spending months with his disciples publicly teaching, healing, feeding and forgiving, Jesus takes them to the city Caesara Phillipi where he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” Apparently, Jesus had been causing quite a stir because all different kinds of people, had all kinds of different ideas about who he was. Some said he was John the Baptist, back from the dead. Others said he was Elijah, the prophet swept up in God’s chariot and due to return one day. Others simply thought he was another in the long line of Hebrew prophets. There was widespread disagreement about who Jesus was during his life.
Today widespread disagreement about who Jesus was, and who Jesus is remains. To some Jesus is wise old sage whose ethical teaching is extraordinary and worth following. There are those who believe that Jesus is a social and political revolutionary, subverting the power of Rome and of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. To others Jesus is the Son of God and True God, the incarnation of God’s love in the world. There are other questions as well, questions about what Jesus does. Does Jesus exclude people from salvation? Is Jesus particularly fond of America, does he put America first? Is Jesus Lord only over our religious lives, with no place in our social, economic and political lives?
Though not ultimately significant, what other people say about Jesus is important to all of us. For the way that we all begin to learn about Jesus, is by hearing others talk about him. We learn from Sunday School teachers, from songs like Jesus Loves Me, from books, from sermons, from our parents. One way or another we are always introduced to Jesus by the words, actions, and thoughts of others. For some of us, what we first learned from others about Jesus was helpful and healing. For others of us, what we first learned about Jesus from others was to fear His judgment, to hide from him our shame, to attempt to attain moral perfection in our following of him. These early lessons about who Jesus is have a way of sticking around, of becoming concrete in our minds. We may hold onto to the belief that Jesus is a demanding judge eager to punish as if that were all that Jesus could be. As though our teachers, our parents, had a monopoly on the understanding of Jesus. This is who Jesus is they say, and we accept it because we don’t yet know Jesus for ourselves. We have yet to taste Heinz 57 and yet we are already claiming that we hate ketchup.
Jesus is not satisfied to hear only what others have said about him. He asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Now is not the time fall back on blandly repeating ancient creeds, now is not the time to say what “those Christians say.” Now is the time for you, yourself, to decide what you think about Jesus. Who do you say he is?
The answers to this question have been as diverse as the people who have attempted to answer it. We each bring our own experiences to the question. We bring along lessons we have learned in childhood and life, our gifts and talents, our traumas and our baggage, and maybe even our hope, as we approach this question. As we are all different, so too will are understandings of Jesus be different. That is ok. In fact it is better than ok, it is good. It is good because Jesus is not a formula, he is not math problem, there isn’t just one right answer. Jesus appears differently to different people in different contexts. By hearing these other perspectives we can a greater, more profound understanding of what Jesus means for us. For ourselves.
However, being that I am a preacher of the gospel, I will suggest a broad understanding, a framework for our thinking about Jesus. Over centuries of debate, councils, conflicts, reformations, and even all out war over the question of who Jesus is, there is one answer broad enough to be inclusive of nearly every view of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. That is to say that for Christians Jesus is what God is like. We learn about God, about God’s love and grace, from the stories of Jesus. How we understand God, and how we understand Jesus to be like God, are ongoing questions, they evolve just as we do. What we believed about God and Jesus as children is likely different from what we believe today. That doesn’t mean we were wrong then, or that we are wrong now, it means only that we continue to wrestle with our faith, with our answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
We are starting our confirmation class this afternoon. Over the next year our youth will learn about the Bible, about Theology, about Church History. They will get to read and hear what other people, both dead and alive, have said about who Jesus is. But we won’t stop with them reciting other people’s opinions. We will ask them to state what they believe right now. How do they understand God and the world? Who do they say that Jesus is? We ask this question knowing full well that over the course of their lives these beliefs may change. They may find a new of thinking about Jesus during the course of their lives, they may discover that what they thought was ketchup was really just runny tomato jelly. They may stumble onto a new understanding that feels like Heinz 57 to them, like the real deal.
As for us adults, we too must continue to answer this question about who Jesus is for us. We are many different people, with very different backgrounds, and very different understandings of Jesus. I have no desire to create and enforce a singular uniform understanding of God and Jesus here at St. Paul’s. However, I do want us to create a safe space in this church and in our hearts to explore the question of who Jesus is for us. To do that we have to be willing to open ourselves again to the question. We have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. We have to brave enough to throw out ideas of Jesus that no longer serve us, ideas of God that have caused us trauma. We have to be willing to take up what heals us, and to always be trying to grow in spirit and in understanding. My prayer is that we not be content with what others have told us about Christ, but rather that we will find the courage to leave behind understandings that have become problematic, and to dare to answer for ourselves what Jesus really means for us. My prayer is that we grow together in our diverse understandings of God and Christ, so that we can get ever closer to experiencing the truth of Christ, ever closer to finding that real stuff, that Heinz 57 Jesus that is out there for all of us. Amen.
The other day, I was trying to get a little work done while I was hanging out with Ruthie. The two of us were in the living room, her playing with her toys and me reading and using the computer occassionally. During a moment when I was particularly engrossed in what I was reading, Ruthie knocked over her sippy cup of milk on the coffee table, the top popped off, and milk begin to stretch over the table, slowly approaching my laptop. The spill jerked me out of my book and back to reality and without thinking I reacted. “No Ruthie!,” I yelled. “No, no, no!” I repeated as I frantically removed my computer and books and everything else from the milk soaked table.
And then, I caught myself. After my initial reaction faded, I was able to see myself in the situation. I could see what I was doing, and what I was teaching my daughter to do. I was crying over spilled milk. Worse, I was scolding her for having spilled the milk. As though spilling your drink as a twenty month old is somehow beyond the pale of expected behavior. I was teaching Ruthie that her mistakes were not acceptable. I was teaching her that small accidents could provoke outsized reactions. I was teaching her that the proper response to spilled milk is to cry.
There is difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is quick, instantaneous, instinctual. Reactions don’t involve thought and analysis, they simply let slip whatever is on the mind or heart with no concern for the consequences. A response on the other hand is slower, it allows for thought and consideration. A response involves choice, we choose how to respond, but not how to react. When Ruthie spilled the milk, I reacted. Without a moments pause I shouted my first thought, “No!” I might have acted differently. I might have paused after the spill, thought about how I wanted to respond, and then chosen the response I felt was best for the situation. I could have chosen to respond in a more gracious and kind manner.
There are days when I do I precious little responding, days when I can feel myself moving from one reaction to the next. These are days when I’m especially irritable, when it feels like everything is out of my control, that nothing is going my way, that I am fighting 100 different battles on a thousand different fronts, and losing them all. My first reaction on these days is to search for someone to blame: its the cable company, or the stupid computer, it’s the dog that’s driving me crazy, or its Ruthie and her reckless milk spilling. However, along my exceedingly slow journey to some semblance of spiritual maturity, I have learned that when everybody and everything is driving me nuts, the cause is usually to be found in me rather than anywhere else.
We recently welcomed a group of Alcoholics Anonymous to begin meeting each Tuesday evening in our sanctuary. There is phrase commonly used in AA circles, a question of whether you are spiritually fit. Spiritual fitness is meant to refer to the state of your spirit, how are you feeling inside? Are you bouncing from one reaction to the next, increasingly angry and frustrated and edging towards despair? If so, you are not especially spiritually fit. To become spiritually fit, is to make room for a pause, to allow ourselves to remember that we have entrusted our lives to a loving God, to invite the spirit of that God into us, and to attempt to respond with that same loving spirit. How one becomes spiritually fit will of course depend a great deal on the individual, but in general the idea is to do whatever it is that helps bring you into a closer relationship with God. Pray. Come to church. Go to an AA meeting. Call a friend. See a therapist. Exercise. Write a list of all you are grateful for. We all must find what works for us, what helps us to connect to a power greater than ourselves, what helps us to escape our anger and reaction and helps us to find serenity.
The letter of James in the New Testament treats just this topic of spiritual fitness. James writes that all good things come from God. He further counsels us, “Let everyone be quick to listen, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Be slow to anger. There may be situations of intolerable injustice, systems that degrade the dignity of the image of God in our sisters and brothers, and at such systems and situations anger may be a proper response, anger like that shown by Jesus when he threw out the money changers from the temple. But this is a slow rising anger, it is anger as an appropriate response, and not as a first reaction. “Be slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” If we want good to be in our lives it does not come from our anger, rather it comes only from God. It is God and God alone who produces God’s righteousness. Our angry reactions are futile attempts to control our surroundings, to change what has already happened, to reject our lot in life, and they keep us from welcoming a more gracious and loving spirit into our hearts. These are all a result of our lack of spiritual fitness. If we wish for good, for God’s righteousness to take the place of our anger, we must learn to pause, to ask for God’s presence, to welcome God into our lives, to allow the Holy Spirit a more firm grip upon our souls. As James says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” This is what is to be spiritually fit, to have rid yourself as much as possible of your self-centered wickedness, and to be able to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
When James refers to the implanted word, he is referring to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The content of this Gospel, this good news, is both so simple it can be understood by any and all human beings, and it is so infinitely complex that it has inspired and will continue to inspire countless minds to explicate it and investigate its implications. The simplicity of the Gospel is this: God has chosen to love us now in the present moment just as we are, despite all of our sin, our faults, and our shortcomings. The Gospel is the good news of the unmerited grace of God. James wants us to welcome this word into our hearts. James wants us to truly believe that we are loved and loved unconditionally. He wants us to be constantly reminded of the depth and breadth of this unconditional love. He wants us to allow that unconditional love to transform us, to lead us from reaction to response, he wants it to save our souls.
How might our lives be different if we took James’ advice, if we welcomed the unconditional love of God into our hearts and let it guide our responses? If I want my response to Ruthie to teach her of the unconditional love of God, I do not want to give her the impression that her mistakes are unforgivable breaches of ettiqutte, I don’t want to shout No Ruthie at her, I want to respond with grace. I want Ruthie to know that accidents happen, that we make mistakes, and that no mistake she could make would ever stop me from loving her. I want her to feel and know that she is loved without condition. This is what James means when he says that we must not only be hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. It is not enough for me to know that through God’s grace I am loved unconditionally, if that knowledge does not somehow transform my behavior towards others. The grace of God has transformative power, to truly hear it and accept it, is to have you life transformed. It is to live not from a place of reaction and insecurity, but rather from a place of abundant love and generosity. It is to live with a desire to love as freely as we have been loved.
Finally, I want to speak a word on James’ measure of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. At the very end of today’s reading, James claims that true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Certainly James believes that we ought to care for all people and not only widows and orphans, right? So why does he single them out? What is special about widows and orphans? The times in our lives when we most need love are not the times when we are doing the best. The times when we most need loving care and support are when we are in distress, when they’re is no one to care for us, when we have been abandoned, when we are in need, that is when we need love the most and that is precisely when the world makes it most difficult for us to receive love. Who needs love more than the abandoned child and yet who is less likely to receive it? It is always easier to love the people closest to us, it is always more materially beneficial to support those who are doing well. The world will always give us reasons to support those in power, those dripping with success. The world will also give us countless excuses not to care for those in distress. We can blame their distress on them, they are lazy, they should have stayed in their own country, they should have followed the rules and waited their turn. We can believe that to help those in distress will only ruin their personal responsibility and teach them to look for a handout. We can even decide that they are not the same kind of people as us, they are not Christians, not Americans, not law abiding citizens, and therefore not as deserving of our love and care. Yet what all these excuses not to love and care for those in distress have in common is that they place conditions upon the giving of our love. Though God loves us without condition, the world will always demand conditions for our love and care. If we are to welcome the implanted word that will save our souls, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the unconditional love of God into our lives, we must cut through every excuse the world gives to not freely love and care for others. We must seek not to react to people’s distress by finding fault in them, but rather respond to their distress with the unmerited grace and unconditional love that we were fortunate enough to experience ourselves. To love God is to love what God loves. God loves all of us, but God most especially loves those of us who are most in need of loving support and care. God most especially loves those that world has cast out and found excuses not love and care for. If God’s love is truly unconditional and truly for all, it must be lavished upon the widow and the orphan and all others the world has deemed unworthy. The test of our true religion is the unconditional love of God, a love that can never leave any out, a love that seeks out the lost, a love that especially embraces the widow and the orphan. Let us welcome this unconditional love into our hearts and let us share it as wildly and freely as it has been shared with us. Amen.