Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Called to Serve: Mark 9: 30-37, 2 Cor. 8:13-15
Over the past couple weeks, I've told you a few things to expect as we read through the book of Mark. First, we should expect short stories without a lot of explanation for why things happened. Jesus' baptism story was only a few lines. So were the call stories of his first disciples and the healing story of Simon's mother and the demon-possessed man. The author of Mark does not waste words. Also, as we read more of the healing stories, we'll also see that Jesus often tells the people he heals not to tell anyone else. And, he seems to rush around everywhere. He is often described as "immediately" traveling somewhere or "immediately" healing someone. There is one more thing we should remember as we read through Mark together. It's about the disciples. They almost never really know what is going on.
We heard about their confusion two weeks ago when Jesus taught them about the Son of Man, and seemed to make it clear that he would die, Peter got so scared that he yelled at Jesus and tried to make him stop telling the truth. It also comes up in Mark's version of the story of Jesus feeding hundreds of people from just a few fish and loaves of bread. The disciples didn't understand how Jesus could have done it, why he did it, or what it told them about his identity. Throughout the rest of the book, they rarely understood his parables, and he often had to take them aside and explain his teachings to them. As one scholar notes, even though these are the people who knew Jesus best, they never really seemed to understand exactly what Jesus was trying to do. Today's reading is part of that pattern of misunderstanding among the disciples.
Similar to the story we heard two weeks ago, he told them that the Son of Man will be betrayed and killed. On this occasion, rather than ask him what he means, they simply continue to walk with him. I wonder why they were so afraid? And, why that fear prevented them from talking to him about it. In order to distract themselves from their fear, they decided to argue. They were trying to figure out who was the greatest among them. I kind of wonder what the argument sounded like. Did they compare numbers of healings, tallying up miracles as though they were points in a basketball game? Did they argue about whether or not the first ones called were the most important ones or if Jesus saved the best for last? Did they jockey for position by claiming superior navigation, fishing, or demon-chasing skills? The content of their argument is not clear. What is clear is that they realized that they were being foolish.
The only clue we get that the disciples aren't completely clueless about Jesus' mission is that they have enough sense to be embarrassed when Jesus asks what they have been talking about. In response to their foolishness, he sat down and told them what it really means to be great. Back when we read about Jesus' baptism, we talked about how the story is powerful because it demonstrated his willingness to up-end the conventional wisdom regarding what makes a good leader. In that case, Jesus' baptism showed that he understood that leadership and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. In today's story, Jesus up-ends the conventional wisdom on what makes a person great.
In Jesus' time, as in ours, the people who were "first" were often people who had more of something: more money, more talent, more influential friends, more education, more charm. Being first was often a sign of power and often a sign that you had dominated someone else in order to get where you were. Being first was also often accompanied with no small about of smugness and hubris. What is different about Jesus' teaching is that he said you don't need any of those things in order to be first in God's kingdom. In fact, in order to be first, you must be willing to be last... to be a servant. Jesus said in order to be first, you don't need the greatest education or the most money or the fanciest friends. What you do need is to be willing to see the needs of the people around you and work to make their lives better. You do need to be willing to put other's needs before your own. Being first isn't most important. Being of service is.
It is important that Jesus brings up a child to illustrate his point. In Jesus' time, children were the people of least status in any household. Often, their social status was just barely above that of a slave. And, slaves were pretty dispensable. When Jesus told his disciples to welcome the children, he told them to find the people with as little status as possible and make sure that they are cared for. He told his followers that even people of low status were beloved of God and needed compassion and justice. He also said that welcoming the lowest of the low is not simply a nice thing to do. It is developing a relationship with Jesus himself, and through Jesus, with God who created us all. When we welcome the least of these, we are welcoming the presence of Christ that is found in each person we meet. And, we are being in relationship with God.
So, how have Christians followed these teachings of Christ throughout the ages? Honestly, we don't always. We get distracted by other things. But, if we return to scripture, we can find some good examples. Our reading from 2 Corinthians is one good example. At several points in his letters, the Apostle Paul indicated that service to the poor was an important part of his ministry. He spoke of it in his letter to the Galatian church and the Roman church. Here, in his letter to the Corinthian church, he is encouraging them in their efforts to take up a collection people back in Jerusalem who have been affected by famine. He made it very clear that he understood this collection to be an extension of their faith in the Gospel. He spoke of generosity as a privilege of having faith, not simply a something we are required to do as people of faith. He spoke of the Gospel, and noted that Jesus could have had all the power and wealth in the world, but he chose, instead, to be among the poor and afflicted. Paul reminded the people in Corinth that they were able to make a similar choice, and help the hungry people in Jerusalem. He said, "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need." He compared their present situation to a situation in Exodus, where God provided for the people and, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."
Like the Corinthians, we have the choice to be a servant as Christ calls us. You all regularly choose to serve. Like the ancient Christians in Paul's letters, you took up a generous collection for Christians in need, this time, not in Jerusalem, but in Roatan, Honduras. Most Sundays, as I make my way up the stairs to enter the sanctuary, I see a grocery bag with donations for the local food pantry. In the early part of the last Advent season, you collected two carloads of donations for the domestic violence shelter. At my installation, you gave more than $300 to be split between Keep Winthrop Warm and our local food pantry. You regularly give to the Deacon's Fund, a fund that helps people in desperate need of heat, groceries, and help paying bills. You choose to give so that your abundance becomes your neighbor's need and their need becomes your abundance. In being willing to serve all, to sacrifice some of your financial needs to serve others, you are choosing to see Christ in our neighbors. And, that is a great gift.
Today, alongside your regular generous offering to the church, you are invited to also give a special offering to One Great Hour of Sharing. Here is one example of what your offering to One Great Hour of Sharing can do: Matee Kakoo is from eastern Kenya. She has lived in her village for 40 years, and during that time, they had not had regular access to clean water. When she speak of life in her village, she explains how not having enough water affected every part of their daily lives. She said that people could not bathe, and were often mocked because of their appearance. Sometimes people went hungry because they did not have water to cook with. The children even missed school because they were busy hauling water for their families. They would have to travel between four and seven miles just to have enough to drink. They would have to walk the distance, wait in line four to five hours, and then carry it back home by foot or donkey. Women were also at risk for being sexually assaulted on their long journey to get water. They had so little water that they couldn't even make the bricks they needed to build an addition to their primary school.
One Great Hour of Sharing was able to help. Combining the donations from churches all over the world with the hard work of the people in the village, the villagers were able to build a sand dam and shallow well within a month of receiving the donations. Children no longer have to miss school to cart water, and the school has been expanded to fit the community's needs. Local people have built brick kilns, which, in turn, allow people to build sturdy, permanent homes. People are able to grow healthy gardens and have enough water to cook with. And, since the women are spending so much less time gathering water, several have been able to start small businesses. Ms. Kakoo reports that one group has accumulated the equivalent of over $800 USD in their account. When asked what this project meant for her community, she said, , “It will be remembered by generations to come.”
It would be easy to ignore Ms. Kakoo and her village. As one who lives in deep poverty, she has little power to make her needs known beyond her small community. We will likely never see her need face-to-face. But, the people of Corinth were probably never going to meet the people in Jerusalem and they helped them anyway. Besides, Jesus didn't say only help the people you see everyday. He said in order to be first, you must be willing to be last. He said that in making room for people with no status, we are making room for God. One Great Hour of Sharing is one organization that can help us make more room. I'm sure the people in this room can think of other ways, too. Regardless of how we give, let's make sure to give. We're not just serving our neighbors. We are entertaining God.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted in writing this sermon
Carla Works' commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1319
Amy Oden's commentary on Mark 9: 30-37: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Matee Kakoo's story: http://onegreathourofsharing.org/story/matee/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.