Words from Our Pastor

Monday, September 24, 2018

Pentecost 18, 9/23/18: The One Who Knows


Sermon for Pentecost 18, 9/23/18                   Mark 9: 30-37                     "The One Who Knows"
 Jesus had some hard points to make in this story—he was doing some heavy ‘show and tell’ to make them. He started with telling: the Son of Man will be betrayed, killed, and then rise; and if that isn’t hard enough, take this: the one who wants to be first has to be last of all and servant of all. But the disciples just weren’t getting it. So he added some ‘show’ to his ‘tell.’ He added a little child, set down right in the middle of that tight group.
Now most of us would welcome into any group. But children in that day were not always welcomes. They were largely looked OVER. Until they could work and contribute to the family’s resources, they were more a liability than a joy. Dependent and powerless, they had no place among people of status. For Jesus to take a child in his arms and hold it there, in the midst of the disciples—it would have been distasteful at best, at worst scandalous.
But sometimes God throws jarring moments like that at us. I had one of them this past week, in fact. As I finished a good visit with one of our homebound families, I pulled out of their driveway looking at my watch. I realized I’d need to pick up the pace in order to keep on my schedule.
Just as I was just getting close to the main road, I looked to my right, and stepping from grass to pavement was a very large goose—behind that one were 4 more lined up, ambling along behind goose #1. Now geese move slowly until they’re mad, and I knew it wasn’t smart to make them mad. But I WAS mad. I was no longer in control. I had to sit there and wait for all 5 of those guys to poke across in front of me. And in that moment I felt Jesus saying to me, “Just slow down and wait. It won’t hurt you to take last place here.”
Maybe it sounds silly to you, but while 5 gutsy geese were taking their sweet time to cross the road in front of me, I truly felt the presence of Christ. Maybe you’ve never been held up on your way by a gaggle of geese, but I bet you remember a moment when God stopped you and demanded your attention.  Maybe it was a time when you were angry or confused and not in any mood even to talk to God about it—but God put someone or something in your path that made you see things differently.
That’s what Jesus was doing when he added that child to his teaching huddle with the disciples. When they were forced to look at her—vulnerable, dependent on others, and in that culture never a candidate for first place—Jesus was inviting them to see themselves differently. Not as candidates for first place, but as powerless and vulnerable.
He knew they needed this transformation….because before this moment with the child, while they were on the road with Jesus, they’d gotten completely out of hand. They’d been confused by what he’d said about his own death and were too afraid to ask him to explain. Hard stuff! But instead of admitting their fears, they covered them up, with ‘macho.’ They started grabbing for control, vying for who was the greatest.
Jesus didn’t have to ask them what they’d been arguing about. He knew already. And he knew they needed a turnaround.
That’s when he told them, “Look, if you want to be first you have to first be last. If you want to lead, you have to first be a servant.” Problem was their world didn’t work that way. You didn’t get ahead by going to the back of the line. You didn’t rise to the top by serving everyone else first. You had to show your stuff, and in the process push others down. What Jesus proposed was just the opposite, and it made no sense to them.
Things haven’t changed so much. Last time I was listening, the world was still telling me that being on top is best. It’s so very easy to go after that, to head with all our might right to the top. Don’t you get a rush when you’re moving up the ladder, in control of your life and making things happen?
But God knows what we need. God stops us in our tracks, like I was stopped a few days ago by 5 very slow geese. In the midst of that forced slow-down, God gave me the invitation to turn around, and get focused again on following him instead of pushing my agenda.
Writer and pastor Daniel Erlander tells of a time when God turned him around. When he and his two brothers moved their mother from a hospital to a nursing facility, they were concerned about how much attention she’d get there. So they made a pact that they’d be with her as much as humanly possible, taking turns spending a full week with her.
During his weeks, Daniel sat in her room holding her hand, singing to her, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. Three times a day he pushed her wheelchair to the dining room and sat alongside workers paid to feed people who couldn’t feed themselves. He slowly lifted spoon after spoon to her mouth.
One day, back in his mother’s room, he overheard two workers out in the hall referring to him as ‘one of the sons.’ He felt resentful. I have a college degree and a Master of Divinity, with honors, from a very good seminary. They don’t care that I’m ordained, happily married, a pastor in good standing in the Lutheran Church, a writer and well-known speaker. Here, I am just ‘one of the sons.’
But then he took his mother’s hand and suddenly felt proud. Stripped of all his credentials, he was simply her son, loved because of that alone. He thought of the baptismal waters, where he’d been named a son of the living God. In that moment, holding his mother’s hand, he felt refreshed and free, with no need to be any more than ‘one of the sons.’  
God knew what Daniel Erlander needed. His mother helpless before him was like the child Jesus put in front of the disciples. Welcoming this child, Jesus had said, is welcoming me. The more closely Daniel cared for his mother, the nearer he was to Christ himself. Now that was transformation!
Last Sunday Pastor Brook spoke about the stunning transformation of Saul, persecutor of believers. In that amazing story the worst man any Christian could imagine was offered a new life. No one is beyond hope, Pastor Brook said. Transformation is forever possible.
None of us has committed the atrocities Saul did. But even so, every one of us needs transformation, over and over. It happens as Christ opens up a space for us to be still and know him. The one who knows what you and I need is forever offering us opportunities to wake up to Christ’s presence and catch a glimpse of the life that is really life.  
That life that is really life is not found in titles or credentials or bank accounts. It’s often found in people who don’t count for much, or experienced in the brush of a hand as vulnerable as a child’s. It comes most often in unexpected ways, like the way Jesus came to us at his birth—small and weak and smelling of fresh hay.
I don’t understand why God chooses these ways to come to us, instead of the way of the powerful. Jesus tried to explain it to the disciples. But in the end he had to show it by dying on a cross for the love of them.
And once in a while, when we slow down and let the geese cross the road, or when we feed parent or spouse or friend by our own hand, spoonful after slow spoonful, we can catch onto that love.
What better way to spend our lives than receiving that love in all the mysterious and perplexing ways it comes to us. And each time we do, falling deeper in love with the one who knows us best.
Thanks be to God. Amen.