Sunday, September 30, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
“Adventures in missing the point.” That’s what the subtitle should be for today’s passage from Mark 9. The disciples, God love them, are not picking up what Jesus is trying to lay down. They have just completed their day’s travel and are settling in at Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has been trying to explain to them about how he is about to be betrayed and will be killed and will rise again. But the disciples are distracted and Jesus finally asks them, “What have you been arguing about all day?” Jesus’s friends hang their heads in embarrassment. While he was talking about his impending death, they were arguing about who among them is the greatest.
Jesus picks up a small child and explains that whoever wants to be first has to be last and servant of all. And that one of the most important things we can do is welcome children because, in doing so, we welcome Jesus and God into our lives.
Now you would THINK that the sheepish disciples would nod their heads and say, “Oh, we get it now. Thanks, Jesus!” But no. With not even an awkward transition in the flow of conversation, John pipes up, “Hey, Jesus, we saw someone else who was casting out demons in your name and we tried to tell him to stop because he wasn’t one of us.”
Poor Jesus. Just….poor, poor Jesus. I hope he had a desk to bang his head on at this point. He tries to bring them back around. “Look. Guys. That’s fine. I don’t care. If they’re casting out demons in my name they are on our team. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”
Whoever isn’t against us is for us.
Now….that’s a pretty big tent, isn’t it? How often do we, in this day of social media arguments and the never-ending partisan political games being played out in every conceivable news outlet….how often do we obsess about who’s on our side? Who’s getting it right? Who really has the right to speak on behalf of our chosen group? How much time do we waste subjecting others to litmus tests to see if they’re one of us?
But Jesus says it’s a lot simpler than that. “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”
When we’re doing the work of building God’s Realm of justice and peace here on earth we are going to need a whole lotta people to do the work. And instead of getting hung up arguing about who’s pure enough to be working alongside us, Jesus tells us to just calm down already and stop worrying about who’s in and who’s out. Because when Jesus is in charge: everybody’s in. Whether we like it or not.
Jesus has to be tired of these disciples missing the point. The point isn’t who’s the greatest. The point isn’t who’s in and who’s out. The point is to get back to basics - loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. Jesus tells us time and time again that if we would just focus on these things, the other stuff would take care of itself.
The disciples are having a hard time catching his point, so Jesus uses a compelling visual aid, continuing to hold this toddler in his arms while he’s talking. Children are to be at the absolute center of everything we do, he instructs. We are to welcome children, care for children, listen to children, protect children, learn from children.
Children are to be treasured, not abused. Adults are supposed to be adults - watching out for the little ones in our midst and doing everything in our power to ensure they are safe from those who might do them harm. Children should be cared for by the Church, not abused by clergy. Children should be welcomed when they are fleeing violence, not separated from their parents and put into tents in the hot desert. Children should not have to cower under desks in inadequately-funded classrooms.
The Bible contradicts itself in many places, but Jesus never contradicts himself about children. They are a treasure and the mistreatment of children is a grave sin.
Children have a way of taking us back to basics, just as Jesus is suggesting. If you spend much time with children you’ll know that they have a way of quickly making you remember what really, really matters in life. Being in the presence of a child makes us more aware of God’s presence. Go for a walk with a child and you’ll learn that you’ve been missing out on any number of miracles as you walk from your car to your house - caterpillars crawling slowly across the ground, birds flying high in the sky, acorns just begging to be made into art, dogs who really do need to be petted.
By slowing down and seeing the world at their pace, we experience Christ. By remembering our duty to teach and care for children, we are called to become better people. This is holy work….and it’s also why parents of young children frequently look utterly exhausted.
To welcome children is to welcome Christ himself. The disciples may be missing the point in this story, but it feels pretty clear to me. We are called, again and again, to return to the basics of our faith. Whenever we start to spin out and get distracted by the chaos of the world, Jesus calls us back to the basics: radical hospitality, caring for those who have immediate and pressing needs, advocating for those who have been marginalized, and being always-open to new life and the growth that can occur when we take seriously the work of lifelong Christian learning.
In the coming month, we are going to be hearing from some of our members who, like Jesus, will help us go “back to basics” as we focus on what really, really matters for us a congregation. This is the time of year when we are asked to prayerfully consider our gifts of time, talent, and treasure for 2019. Our stewardship committee has been hard at work preparing materials to help tell the story of who we are and what matters the most to us as the people of First Congregational UCC. We will be hearing and reading about the ways our congregation works diligently to stay focused on those basics of following Jesus in the ministry we do.
Sue Gerth is going to share next week about how we are committed to radical acts of hospitality - and how she has experienced the transformational power of love through the Ministry of the Decorative Scissors. We will also be focusing on the ways our congregation works to meet immediate and pressing needs in our community as we bring items to support Second Helping and bless the Blessing Box.
Later in October you’ll hear from Jonathan Mertz who will speak about the ways our advocacy and social justice work are acts of Christian faith. And Tanya González and Greg Eiselein will share with us about the importance of nurturing and supporting lifelong Christian learning. During the month of October we’ll be welcoming a giant group of children to practice mindfulness and playful yoga, we’ll join with others in the Flint Hills region to celebrate the experience of God through gospel music, we’ll take up an offering for Neighbors in Need to support other UCC congregations who are committed to advocacy and justice work, and we’ll support our CROP walkers who are walking to end hunger here and around the globe.
Throughout it all, we carry with us the image of Jesus holding a small child in his arms. Calling us back to basics. Reminding us to stay focused on what really, really matters. Come, he says. Follow me. Bring your whole self in both word and deed. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Practice radical hospitality. Meet others’ basic needs whenever you are able. Advocate for justice. Never stop growing.
And always take companions with you on the journey.
May it be so.