Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sept 20, 2015 - Mark 9:30-37 - Jesus Welcomes the Least

Let’s get right to it today. Why children? Why does Jesus say that whoever welcomes a child in Jesus’ name welcomes him? In a few weeks, we will hear him say that unless we become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven, but why children?

Well let me put to bed right away any idea that it’s because children are naive and innocent and full of hope. While all of those things may be true, that’s certainly not how children were viewed in Jesus’ time. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Jesus’ time, in the Jewish-Palestinian culture and in the Hellenistic Greek culture and in the Roman culture, children were not precious. In those days, people believed that humans were born with two instincts warring within them - an instinct for good and an instinct for evil. And for the most part, people believed that children had to be trained to choose the good, because otherwise they would naturally choose the evil. Kind of what we believe, actually. And what people saw in children was this tendency to evil, which is, actually, if we are being realistic, what we see in children. They saw that children broke things and lied and stole things. Toddlers would snatch from each other, and hit when they’re angry. If you’ve been a parent, while time may dull the memory, you will remember that children are always not the little cherubs and angels we imagine them to be. Children are noisy, and disruptive, and chaotic, and loud, and often smelly. They are unpredictable, undisciplined, and troublesome.

In Jesus’ time, throughout all of Mediterranean culture, actually, children were also workers. Most people at that time, and particularly in the parts that Jesus travelled, were subsistence farmers. They farmed in order to eat and in order to pay rent, and buy what they needed. And those of you with farm experience will know that on a farm, everybody works. No exceptions. That was even more true in Jesus’ time. Beginning as young as three years of age, children worked. And yes, as we know from the appalling state of child labour that exists even today, three-year olds can work. And I’m not talking about chores, I’m talking about actual work. Children worked menial and back-breaking jobs in order to free up the adults to do the more complex work. In families, children were a means of livelihood, and they served.

And so here’s Jesus, pulling one of these smelly, dirty, undisciplined, misbehaving little servants into his lap, saying “Welcome this child in my name, and you welcome me, and not only me, but God.” Welcome this child. Welcoming, and any form of hospitality, was and still is a serious business in the Middle East. Hospitality is commanded by God - the Old Testament is full of commandments by God to welcome the stranger and full of stories of people going all out to welcome guests. When a guest showed up, you would give the best - the absolute best - of everything you had - you would kill your best goat to eat, you would give your best bed - usually your own - you would even give him your daughters if that’s what he wanted. Hospitality was absolutely everything. 
And here is Jesus, saying give the best of everything you have to this child who is the lowest of the low and almost, although not quite, a slave. Show hospitality to this little kid - a worker who will probably not reach the age of eight - Jewish and Roman childhood mortality rates were so high that children had no legal standing before the age of eight, and didn’t receive a formal name until then. Take this random child, who is truly at the bottom of society, who is a consumer but not a producer - who eats more food than he can grow himself, and wears clothes that he can’t make for himself - children are, even today, a significant economic burden on a family and don’t bring an equivalent return on investment - take this random child and treat it as a king. Make yourself a servant to this child, put this child above yourself, in my name, and then - only then - will you be the greatest.

So who are the children among us? Who in our society is seen as disruptive, and unpredictable, and chaotic? Who in our society do we treat as more trouble than they’re worth, and do we consider to be consumers rather than producers? Who in our society do we think of as never managing to do anything good and just “prone to evil as the sparks fly upward”?

Sadly, there’s a lot people we could think of. I could talk about our attitude towards illegal immigrants and refugees, and how we talk about how they use up our social services and are a burden on the system. I could talk about our attitude towards panhandlers and the homeless on the street. Today is Campus Ministry Sunday, and I could talk about our attitude towards “kids these days.” Those teenagers and young adults in university - who laze around and party all the time and are always spending money on smartphones and clothes and living in our basements and don’t take their future seriously. “Kids these days” are most definitely noisy and disruptive and undisciplined and chaotic and burdensome.

Or, I could talk about us. Us as individuals. You and me. Each one of us. Because this attitude the people had in Jesus’ time towards children? We also have this attitude towards ourselves. We all have days, when deep down inside, we feel like we’re the lowest on the totem pole and wonder whether we’re really worth it. Some days, often when we’re sick and in bed and feeling crummy and miserable, we think that maybe we’re more trouble than we’re worth. That we’re disrupting other people’s lives - particularly the lives of those who care for us. Some days we worry that we will become a burden to others - that we will end up one of those people who consume more than we produce - that we will take up other people’s time and energy and finances and that we won’t be able to offer anything in return. Some days, and sometimes these days can on for weeks, we see in ourselves only our own tendency towards evil - we see our own selfishness, and our own impatience, and our own pettiness - and we beat ourselves up about it, just as parents used to beat their children in Jesus’ time (and still do today), and we if had to make up a list of people who should receive good things in life, we would put ourselves last.

“Then Jesus 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.’”
On those days when you feel yourself to be last, when you feel as if you are one of those worthless, kicked-about rug-rats, remember that Jesus took the children into his arms. And Jesus welcomed them. 

Jesus takes you into his arms. As worthless as you might feel, as disappointed as you might be in yourself, as much as you don’t live up to your own expectations, Jesus takes you, and Jesus welcomes you. Jesus gives you the best he has - his own life, on the cross, and his own Holy Spirit, in baptism and communion - and Jesus serves you. Jesus doesn’t do this because you deserve it, or because you’ve earned it or worked for it. Jesus welcomes you because Jesus is God’s own Son, and God loves you. Just like we love children who are nevertheless troublesome and burdensome. God welcomes you and loves you, and gives you the best that God has - God’s own self in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may feel that you have nothing to offer in return, and indeed what can we offer God in return? But, all the same, Jesus takes you in his arms and welcomes you to the best of everything he has to offer. You are, after all, God’s child. In your eyes you may be the least, but in Jesus' arms you are great. Thanks be to God. Amen.

September 13, 2015 - Lose Your Life for the Sake of the Gospel

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Well, here we are. One of these famous Bible passages that we’ve all heard so often, and yet one that we hide away in the back of the closet underneath the winter clothes because we don’t want to look at it. This is the passage that causes us to look down into our laps and pretend that our fingernails have all of a sudden become very interesting and hope that nobody notices us. Imagine sitting in a room with a bunch of people and someone from Revenue Canada comes in and asks, “Who wants to be the first to have their taxes audited?” or a nurse comes in and asks, “Who wants to be the first to get their flu shot?” Nobody puts their hand up. Jesus comes along and says, “Who wants to deny themselves and take up their cross and lose their life?” We all sort of close in on ourselves and hope that he doesn’t pick us.

And yet, this is what Jesus is asking. Or rather, not even asking. Telling. Jesus is telling us, flat out, that if we want to be Christians - and that is, after all, what we say we are - if we want to follow Christ, then we have to deny ourselves and lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel. And there is no way to get out from under the seriousness of this command. There is no way to interpret this passage so that we can wiggle out from the extremes that it puts before us. I talked last time about how historical backgrounds and contexts shape our interpretation of the Bible, but I’m sorry to say - the historical background and context of this text don’t change what Jesus is saying. Jesus is very clearly telling us that our job as Christians is to lose ourselves in following Jesus. 

And Jesus calls us to follow him in serving others - healing the sick, feeding the hungry, standing up for the oppressed. Jesus’ life was a life of service, and that is how we are to follow him. We are to serve Jesus by serving others, even if it means dying. We are to serve, not survive. Jesus is telling us that we’re to stop asking, “How can I keep living? How can we keep living?” Instead, Jesus is telling us to ask ourselves, “How can I die for others? How can we die for others?” For those who want to keep living, those who want to survive, those who want to save their lives, will lose them. And those who want to die for others, those who want to serve, those who want to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel - the message that God loves the world - will save them.

But this isn’t easy. This is, in fact, probably the most difficult thing that Jesus tells us to do. Because it’s simply not in our nature to think this way. Biologically, we are geared to survival, and every structure in our society, from family set-up, to social mores, to financial systems, to the business world - they all operate on the belief that we’re supposed to live, and that we’re supposed to grow. And so we spend all of our time and energy, encouraged by those around us, on figuring out how we can keep going. How can we prolong our lives? How can we stay in our homes as long as possible? What medical care will keep us breathing? What will keep us in our church? How can we keep the congregation running?

And we make choices that ensure that we are the ones who survive. It is a very utilitarian, and a very self-centred, and as Luther points out, a very sinful and selfish, way of living in the world. Just think about your own lives, and the choices you have made about what jobs you will take and which you will refuse, and about whom you will marry, and about how many kids you will have, and where you will live. I’m not trying to get down on the choices that everybody makes in life. This is what we do. This is certainly what I have done. We make choices that put ourselves and our survival first, and we call these choices practical, and realistic, and pragmatic. We make choices that give us good careers, and successful families, and prospering churches.

And we are rewarded - at least in this world - for these choices. We get accolades, we get thanks, we get praise. This is also what Jesus received. When he performed all the miracles leading up to this point in our story in Mark, he was praised and lauded and even glorified. He healed the sick, he fed thousands, and the disciples called him the Messiah - the anointed one of the Lord. He was on a path to glory, and his disciples were happy to follow him. It’s a good path - healing the sick and feeding the hungry and receiving the gratefulness of the crowds. Peter, like us, was perfectly happy to follow Jesus along it. Peter, like us, was not at all keen to give that path up. And when Jesus said that it was time to follow him along the next section of that path - a section that would involve shame, and suffering, and death, Peter stopped. Peter did not want to die - he wanted to keep living, just as we do. Peter, and I have great compassion for Peter, did not want shame - he wanted glory. Peter, just like us, did not want to serve - he wanted to survive.

But ultimately, Peter did follow Jesus. Peter did actually give up his life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. He focused on serving, instead of surviving, and on dying for others instead of living for himself. He brought the gospel to thousands of people and was one of the founders of the Christian church. And yes, he died, as Jesus did, crucified by Emperor Nero. He took Jesus’ challenge and he became a follower of Jesus, and he gave up his life for the sake of the Gospel, and he saved it.

But how? How did Peter manage to change from the man who stood in Jesus’ way to the disciple who truly followed him to the cross? More to the point, how can we change from being people who make the most practical decision, and who focus on survival, to being people who follow Jesus and make decisions to serve those in need and to die so that others may live?

Well, to be honest, it did take Peter some time. He didn’t experience a miraculous epiphany. Even after Jesus’ moving speech, Peter still tried to kill the centurion who came to arrest Jesus, and Peter still denied him in the courtyard of Pontius Pilate’s house. Peter, at that point, was still trying to survive, not to serve. But what Peter came to realize later, what he realized only after Jesus had died and was raised again, was that Jesus’ words were actually true. They were impractical, and radical, and totally unrealistic, and true. You see, Jesus Christ gave his life for us. For Peter, too. He chose to serve, instead of survive. He chose to give his life for the sake of the Gospel, so that we might live. He chose death so that we might have life. And what Peter realized, and what we as Christians come to realize, is that we have this new life now. We live, because Jesus has already served us. We have the life of the risen Christ, given to us in baptism and Holy Communion, a life that frees us from worrying about survival because it has nothing to do with survival. We have already been given a new life that is not threatened by death, a new life that is not threatened by service. We have been given the life of Christ, a life that enables us to serve, and to die, and to put others before ourselves. As individuals, and as a congregation, and in our families at home, and in our church family, we have been given this new life that proves to us that the life truly worth living, the life that brings actual life, is the one that serves instead of survives. That chooses to die instead of live. The new, resurrected, God-given life of Jesus Christ. God is already walking with us as we follow Christ along this path.

Of course, we are easily distracted. And it is very very easy to fall back into the old way of living, where we opt for self-preservation instead of selflessness. Every day we are faced with decisions about which path to follow - every day we are confronted with the choice between serving those in need or ensuring our own survival, whether it’s in our own lives or in the church’s life. For example, as a congregation, we are currently facing the question of this church’s future. And we ask ourselves frequently, “Are we going to survive? How can we keep going? What can we do to keep this church alive?” But, because we are Christians, Jesus’ words remind us to ask ourselves different questions. To ask, “Is this decision about surviving or about serving?” “Are we focused on living for ourselves, or are we focused on dying for others?” For example, as we consider finances and survival, I want to offer you an alternative vision of life, and I want to frame it in the context of the current refugee crisis we are witnessing in the world right now, because if there is anyone who is in desperate need right, now, it’s these women and children. So. If we look at the life of this congregation, the yearly cost for physically maintaining this building is equivalent to the cost of sponsoring four or five refugees a year. The yearly cost of my salary and benefits is equivalent to sponsoring seven or eight refugees - or three families - every year. The total yearly cost for this congregation to survive - building costs and salaries - equals sponsoring fifteen refugees. The amount of money that it takes for this congregation to survive every year would bring in six families a year. Over the next five years, the money spent on this congregation’s survival would sponsor thirty refugee families, or seventy-five individuals. Over the next ten years, the money spent on survival would sponsor 150 refugees, or 60 families. And not to focus on St John alone, but if every Lutheran congregation in Calgary closed except for one - if we all amalgamated into one Lutheran congregation in the city of Calgary, we could sponsor over 1500 individual refugees over the next ten years. Instead of surviving as eleven separate congregations, we could serve over 600 refugee families. Instead of saving the lives of eleven Lutheran congregations, we could lose those lives, and in doing so give life to more than 2,000 women and children who would otherwise starve, or drown, or be bombed, or shot, or suffer the trauma of war. Experiences that many of the first members of this church were themselves escaping when they came to Canada seeking new life. And I know that what I’m saying is impractical, and unrealistic, and that you may want to take me aside and rebuke me. (And if you do, I promise I won’t call you Satan.) But, nevertheless, Jesus calls me to say it. Do with it what you will.

And if even entertaining the suggestion that God might be calling us to lose our life so that others may life is making you anxious, remember - God has already given you new life - and does so constantly, in every moment. God, through Christ, gives you the life that comes with service, not survival. This life brings joy, and happiness, and love to others, and to you. It is a life that God has already given you, in bits and pieces, here and there. I know you’ve felt it, because you’re here today. You’ve received this new life of God when others have served you, and prayed for you, and offered their time and energy to you. Some of you experienced this new life when you yourselves came over to this country as refugees, as my father and my grandparents did. Others of you have experienced this new life in other ways. But these moments have filled you up in ways that the struggle for survival has not. So you know that the path Christ calls us to follow is real, and can be done, and does bring new life. And you know that as hard as it is to follow Jesus along this path, that ultimately, this is the new life that God has already given us and invites us to share with others; and that we can, like Jesus, like Peter, like the Christians who have gone before us, follow Christ and lose our lives for his sake, and gain new life in return. Thanks be to God. Amen.