“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.

“Find your Greatness”; Ephesians 4:1-16; August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Find your Greatness”
Ephesians 4:1-16
August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

Who has been watching the Olympics? I love watching the competition, seeing those moments where one second can make such a difference; one misstep can change a future. But mostly, I love watching those human-interest stories that are shown alongside the coverage. I’ve never been too into athletics, but I am very much into stories. Seeing how a person’s life is oriented towards an Olympic goal, how they’ve flourished with family support or thrived in the face of adversity. Each story makes me watch a little closer to what will happen for that person in these games. Those stories make us care about what happens. Those teams become more than just a country represented on uniforms, rather they become a multi-dimensional, breathing force of will and intention. When we recognize the individual, we can see the function of the team all the better.

This multi-dimensional functioning team is similar to the example of the church that Paul gives us in our passage today. Ephesians 4:8 says that Christ gave gifts to his people… In verse 11-12 it continues saying: “11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In verse 16, “16from Christ the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

When we each are “working properly,” we are able to go forward, to grow as a community, to grow the Church universal. Notice, each working properly, does not mean each working the same. We each have different gifts and take different roles. When we use these gifts to work together towards a communal vision of service to God, we become “the body” of the church.

This passage’s example of the church as the body is echoed in another, perhaps more familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

The last couple of verses of this passage are particularly important, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Now if you look around at the Christian political climate right now, can we really say that we are consistently giving greater honor to those who need it most?

And do we even need to question whether or not there is dissension within the body and if all are having the same care for one another?

Hebrews 12:1 provides an example of how we may go forward as the universal Church. It is often quoted in an athletic context, as it says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” This verse can at first have the appearance of a competition. People running against each other to make sure that they are more faithful than others, or that they are a greater witness than others. But when we look at it in the Greek the word “race” is there, but it can also be translated as “gathering.” Though images of race bring about ideas of competition, bringing in the element of gathering shows this as more of a journey that we’re all taking together. We are not racing by ourselves.

When we take the time to listen to one another, to pay attention to what is important to each other, we are better equipped to run this race together. Like the Olympic coverage, we are more motivated to care when we know those human-interest stories. The reality is, every human is interesting in his or her own way, each has value, and each has a role they have been called to fill. When we open our lives and our hearts to taking in the worth of others, we are also better equipped to understand our own worth. We too have been called to serve God in our own unique and particular ways. We are not called to be all things to all people, but we are called to be faithful to the gifts that God has placed in our passions.

Admittedly another thing that I love about the Olympics is the commercials. Actually, we’re going to watch one here together. As we do so, I’d like you to think of the first verse of our passage today. In Ephesians 4:1 we read Paul’s encouragement to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Let’s keep that in mind as we watch this commercial together.

So what is your greatness? Are you a great listener? Are you a great talker? Are you a great musician or vocalist? Are you great at cooking or baking? Are you great at being present in times of need?

In your passions God has placed a purpose for your life, a greatness to which you are called.

Our passage tells us we are to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [you] have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

With this in mind, what is your greatness and how can you use it to point to the greatness of God?

[Walked around with microphone to receive responses from congregants.]

This Wednesday an online devotional called, “The Daily Word,” gave this great message,

“[The] Spirit within is always calling me toward the desires of my heart. I needn’t worry that I’m not ready or worthy to pursue them. When I am willing to be more, do more, and share more, [the] Spirit provides everything I need for success. My joy, excitement and passion tell me I am moving in the right direction.

“I am willing to share my gifts and talents, knowing the world needs every one of us to open to our greatest potential. Even if I do not feel fully prepared, [the] Spirit works within me and others, to synchronize timing and provide resources for the highest good of all. Fueled by my passion, I step into a flow of positive energy that carries me forward and expands my life.”[1]

2 Corinthians 8:12 says, “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has- not according to what one does not have.”

It is my prayer that we may go forth together in eagerness to serve with the greatness we have been given. Amen.