So I had a chance to chat a bit with an old friend from High School.
I’ve not seen him in more than 20 years.
He’s living on the other side of the country,
and really I only catch him here or there on my Facebook news feed.
But he reached out to me.
Turns out that he sometimes reads my sermons
or watches the sermon videos that I post online.
Not too many, he said.
I think he didn’t want to sound too much like a stalker,
but really, I was humbled that he took the time to do so,
and I told him that.
And after reading here and there for a couple of years,
and after seeing something or other on social media
that piqued his attention
he just wanted to send greetings
and a word of encouragement online.
It was kind of him.
I did notice, however, that there were three or four things
that I found somewhat…odd about your preaching. He said to me.
Only four things? I said back.
You must not have been reading closely enough.
Nah, he said to me.
Its just, I don’t know you very well any more
and I don’t belong to a church of my own,
I don’t even really believe much anymore
but these things just stood out to me, that’s all.
Oh, Ok, I said, What were they? I’m curious.
Well, first of all, I notice that sometimes you talk about yourself a lot
and you talk about what’s going on in the world all the time…
why do you do that?
So I told him about
the role of confession and witness in the preaching life.
I borrowed a line that Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber
uses to describe her preaching style
as explaining how grace has affected her
and through that, hoping that others
can see how grace is all around them too.
Sometimes that means talking about myself, and my experiences,
not because they are special, Lord knows,
but precisely because I hope others connect with them somehow too,
in their own life, in their own way.
And I described how someone once said that preaching worth something
must always be relevant, because the Good News of Jesus
is meant to matter
and because Jesus cared about what was going on in his world.
So the preacher tries to look at the world
with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other,
again, so that, perhaps, those who participate in the sermon
by hearing and pondering
by accepting or rejecting this or that
might consider themselves more prepared
for making THEIR faith matter
as they take on the day
every day of the week.
Oh, I never thought of that. He said.
Is that why you are always talking about the Royals and the Chiefs?
Well, we want to deal with the range of human experience,
and so I want to talk every now and then about misery
and we seem to know a lot about that in this town, I joked.
We often have to put our faith and our prayers into practice around here.
That made him laugh.
Ok, ok. That makes sense.
But the other thing that struck me
was that you are always talking about the Bible.
And not just citing a verse here, or a verse there
you know, to prove your point and move on
like some other people do
but its like you’re trying to dig down
and understand what was going on way back then.
And I told my friend that he was WISE and OBSERVANT,
knowing that Mae West once said Flattery will get you Everywhere.
But seriously: you’re right.
My tradition, the Presbyterians, take the Bible seriously, very seriously.
We call the Bible the Word of God,
because we have found that it shows us who God is
and how God was revealed to us in Jesus, who we call the Living Word.
Words are important, because they open up worlds,
and Christians are all about opening up God’s world in this world
we call that seeking the realm of God.
And so, much of my study to be a pastor, I said, was to learn to read the Bible
not just to take this thing or that thing out of context
as some blind proof for something someone told me to believe
but to get a sense of the movement of God
in the stories, in the motivation of the authors,
and so on
and to listen as I read it for what God is doing in the world
and to proclaim THAT to the world as Good News.
We take it seriously, so seriously that we want to know HOW it was written
and what the people meant when they were writing it
and how it was put together.
We want to know the problems in the text and not to shy away from them.
We don’t want to check our brains at the door when we read it.
We can’t, actually.
We know that human beings, being human,
shaped the bible, and we nevertheless try to hear what God is saying to us
as we come together to read it through the eyes of faith and of love.
He thought about all of that for a few moments.
Ok, last thing, I promise.
All of that sounds great, actually. And more complex than I thought it was.
But why is it, when I read and hear all of your preaching,
that you keep talking about God’s welcome, God’s acceptance, God’s love?
And I said to him: That’s the easy one:
Because that’s exactly the God I see
when I open the Bible and ponder the stories for myself…
And that’s true.
They say that a preacher only really has one or two good sermons
that she tells over and over again.
I hope that’s not really the case,
but we do see these similar themes coming up over and over again, don’t we?
This Summer, as we’ve been taking seriously
these Stories of Jesus that have been outlined in Mark
Jesus’ baptism and call,
his teaching and his healing
his calming of the storms
parables about seeds and bushes
his feeding of the thousands
sending his disciples to go out, two by two
to do the same
through all these stories,
certain themes keep coming up over and over again.
Jesus the Messiah, moved with compassion,
rolling up his sleeves and getting to work
and not only that, finding ways to get his disciples,
those who follow him,
directly involved in this work.
You, find them something to eat
-Jesus says to us when we see the hungry
You, go heal the hurting in my name
-Jesus instructs as he
dispatches the disciples two by two
Its almost as if Mark planned it that way.
We find ourselves this morning looking at a few short verses of Mark’s Gospel
but really, it fits right in to much of the other stories.
Jesus is in the middle of teaching and healing in the Galilean hills.
In the story last week, Jesus asked the disciples what the chatter was on the street
Who do people say that I am?
And the disciples answered that some saw him as John the Baptist
his cousin who preached repentance and the coming of God.
Still others saw him as Elijah
the beloved prophet, whom God whisked away before his death
and who was expected to return, one day
to this day,
an empty chair and a table setting is often set for Elijah
at the Jewish Seder.
And Jesus asked them, his closest friends and companions,
bumbling and stumbling though they were,
fine, but who do you say that I am…
You are the messiah, the anointed one of God,
who has come to bring back the Reign of God….
Very good, but do know that the messiah
is going to suffer
and be rejected…all for you.
And they said: No, never! That’s not what we want!
That’ll never work!
Not that kind of Messiah.
And Jesus warned them: but you see, that’s the way God works
God turns human ideas of power and strength upside down
those who want to save their life…will lose it.
Those who lose their life for my sake, will gain it….
To hammer the point home, the very next story
is what we call the Transfiguration of Jesus,
we looked at that reading way back in February
a bit out of order.
Jesus finishes that little lesson about who is first and last, and in and out
and takes Peter and James and John
three of the big-wigs among the twelve
up a high mountain, apart, by themselves
and there they saw Jesus, appearing with
of all people
oh, and Moses too
fundamental, important figures of the faith.
which is to say: Jesus both is in their league but ISN’T them
is DIFFERENT than them, is doing a new and different thing.
And after Jesus makes THAT point, back down the mountain they go.
Then there’s another healing story, for good measure, perhaps
and then today’s text.
They’re walking through the hillside
scores of them, following Jesus
talking about God
dreaming about God
even arguing about God
trying to figure out THEIR place in a world
where what they thought about God might be different
like what Jesus was teaching them
Following Jesus was a bit disorienting.
It worried them a little.
Mark says Jesus didn’t want them making a big racket
because he was spending this time talking and teaching is disciples,
his followers, people like us,
those wanting to learn his way so they could live it too.
But maybe they were causing a racket.
They come to a little town, and hunker down in a house for the evening
and Jesus calls out to them:
So, what were you all arguing about on the road?
Whatever it was, Jesus heard them.
They didn’t want to say.
They were perhaps embarrassed, or guilty, maybe
that efforts to jockey for position behind the back of their teacher
was getting a public inquiry…
So they didn’t say. They avoided eye contact,
the way you do in school when you don’t know the answer.
Don’t pick me, Jesus. Please don’t pick me.
But Jesus knew anyway. And Jesus does what Jesus does,
he turns it into a teachable moment.
Gather round, he said.
Do you not know that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all,
and servant of all?”
And “He took a little child
at put it among them;
and taking it in his arms, he said to them,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name
and whoever welcomes me,
welcomes not me,
but the one who sent me.”
And there it is, right there: another word of welcome, another gem of grace.
If you want to know why our theology is so focused on welcome
on inviting people to experience God’s compassion
its because THATs who Jesus is
and because THATs who Jesus
is asking us to be.
First things first, though, the challenge: Whoever wants to be great, really great
in the realm of God
must serve ALL people.
Not just those we think are worthy
Not just those who vote like we do
or dress like we do
or act like we think is all right to act.
All people, Jesus says.
Its not about having all the right answers
or having the deepest faith
or the cleanest record.
its about a posture of love, of welcome, to others.
And that, ultimately, should be GOOD NEWS to us.
Because when we think about it, none of us fully live up to
how God would have us live
None of us are free from guilt, from wondering if we’re good enough.
Even so: God loves us. God chooses us. God saves us. Regardless.
And asks us to love others, all others, in return.
And to illustrate the point, Jesus finds a child,
and Jesus welcomes the child, and smiles at the child,
and Jesus gives the child a hug.
Remember: children in that day weren’t the same
objects of affection we understand them to be today.
At a time when life was often nasty, brutish, and short,
children had few rights and were often socially inferior.
This faith stuff, it was grown-up business.
The kids needed to be far away, out of sight and out of mind
don’t bother us now please.
So for Jesus to turn to one here,
to take a child into his arms,
is an example of just the kind of welcome he is talking about.
Elsewhere, people would scoff about how Jesus welcomes Children to his midst
frankly, the same way they scoffed at his eating with Tax Collectors
or setting free the woman caught in adultery.
And more than that: how we treat the ones we think don’t belong,
that’s how we treat Jesus,
and not just that, its how we treat the God who sent him.
So Jesus asks us to welcome all,
and in particular, to welcome those who are like children.
And we’re trying to do that, here at the Kirk.
One of the reasons we’re focusing, in part, our outreach efforts
on center schools is that we care about the welfare of children in our community.
So too Harvesters, our food bank,
since we know that 18 percent of those who live in Jackson County[i]
are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where
their next meal will come from
and many of those hardest hit are children.
Its just part of who we are. Its in our DNA.
And not just children,
this notion of welcome is hard wired into all that we do.
Thanks be to God.
I was reading up for this week’s sermon
and thinking about examples for this sort of crazy, radical welcome
when someone sent me a link to a video produced by USA Today.
They had heard my story last week
about the baseball team and the young special needs kid
and he thought it resonated.
And its true.
I have to show it to you, even though we had a similar story next week.
In this video, five fifth-grade boys got fed up with seeing a special-needs classmate
being left out, and decided to do something about it….
Lets watch it together.
I want to be like those boys. In part, I think, because I want to be like Jesus.
What does it mean to follow the way of Jesus?
What does it mean to be Christ’s disciple,
to bear his name out into the world,
to be his hands and his feet?
I think it means to welcome as Christ welcomed that child
to help others feel the same sort of love
that we feel when we know Jesus loves us.
I don’t know about you, but I get so excited about being that sort of Christian
one captivated by God’s overflowing, crazy, prodigal love.
And my prayer,
is that we might find new and crazy ways to welcome more and more people
welcome all to be part of our community of welcome and love
welcome all to just experience God’s care and compassion
without ever needing to worship with us
or come into our building
welcome all to know that God loves them
God so very much loves them
that they can be set free to love themselves
and to love others too.
Maybe that way, we can stop worrying about first and last,
and just get down to the business that God has for us.
May it be so.
[i] Statistic from feedingamerica.com, accessed September 20, 2015
Image: Christ with the Children by Emil Nolde, accessed here.