First Congregational United Church of Christ
September 20, 2015
“Differing Agendas” Mark 9:30-37
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
For anyone who has walked with a loved one through a terminal illness, one becomes aware that not all of one’s family, friends and colleagues are able to make the whole journey. And, I have also witnessed and lamented the reality that sometimes those in the medical field, whether consciously or unconsciously, begin to distant themselves from their terminally ill patients. The one who is dying often evokes fear in others who find themselves struggling with unresolved issues around past losses in their lives.
In our text, Jesus is in the process of making it clear to his disciples that he is in the final days of his life. He is also explaining the concept of resurrection, which they, like every generation since, had a difficult time grasping. The disciples responded by moving into the first stage of grief: denial. They, like many of us who find ourselves facing loss, simply changed the subject. I suspect that at the very least they were concerned about their own safety if not terrified about what they would face in the near future as followers of Jesus.
In their denial, they began visioning a new structure on earth…something defined and controllable. In their design for their perceived new kingdom, they visualized themselves as having enormous power. They ended up in a rather heated conversation about their concept of Jesus as Messiah and they debated over who had the most clout and talent to move into their newly defined and imagined positions of power, honor and authority. Isn’t this what a lot of us do when things get tough–we dream about what we could be doing? We dream about how it could be so much easier.
When the disciples arrived at the home in Capernaum where hospitality was being offered to them, Jesus asked them to tell him about their argument. I picture them with rather sheepish expressions on their faces as they grow quiet, hoping beyond hope that someone else will take the lead. And, rather than berate them for not hearing and absorbing his teachings, Jesus did what he always did best, which was to take the conflict and create a teaching moment. And, once again, in the process, Jesus turned the societal norms of his day upside down. He talked about leadership in terms of serving the bottom of society. He moved over to some little child who might have been stacking some bits of scrap wood in the corner of the room and brought the child into the center of those gathered. Holding the child securely…this little one who had the least amount of power in his society…Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” This calls for us to leave behind our notion of sweet Jesus with the child, and claim this scene for the radical teaching that it is. Children were socially invisible. His words would have stunned those within hearing distance. The essence of his teaching was to turn the power structure on its head. Being a servant to others meant intentionally putting on new lenses that allowed the invisible to be seen, welcomed, named and appreciated. Every faith community has had to wrestle with what it means to make the invisible visible. And every faith community has had to struggle with taking this teaching to heart and implementing it in our churches and wider world.
In their arguing, the disciples were following the values of their generation. Those with power had power over. Those with power lived the seemingly easy, or at least easier, life. It’s understandable as to why the disciples would not have grasped Jesus teaching on authentic power since it stood counter to their societal view. It still is a puzzle…it’s been a struggle for every generation who has sought to follow the way of Jesus.
The truth is that each generation is challenged to discern who that little child represents in their community. Is it a street person, a mentally ill individual, an immigrant child, a member of another race or country? Who is it that is invisible? Who is it that we are called to struggle to even see, let alone work towards empowering? And, perhaps as members of a state where 23% of our children live in poverty, we need to take a new look at how WE value our children. It’s the empowering that offers transformation and resurrection for disempowered lives. It enables them to be what God has called them to be. Isn’t this some of the most important work of the church?
My son’s used to accuse me of getting involved in neighboring table conversations when we ate in restaurants. As I sat Friday morning at Brothers Restaurant eating breakfast, I found myself intrigued with a table of a 20s-30s age group who appeared to be gathering as part of a wedding weekend event. As each couple came up the stairs, they would know a couple of folks at the table, and then there would be introductions to the rest of the growing gathering. I wondered how they all knew each other—what was the common thread of their backgrounds?
Because I was wrestling with this sermon, I began reflecting on my high school years when I was living in Bakersfield, where no one has ever intentionally spent any vacation time. I began thinking about my youth group leaders. Fred and Lily Leasch who were the church’s high school advisors. I have no idea what business Fred was in. Whenever I think of them, I have an enormous sense of gratitude for their gift of time—time given to our youth group made up of students from at least four different high schools. It was the retreats that we went on to Fred and Lily’s mountain cabin that became the glue that cemented us together as a group. Having just moved to Bakersfield, that youth group provided me with a place of belonging. We were the ones that were in charge of our Sunday worship service at the cabin. We learned a lot about one another on those fairly sleepless weekend trips. Our youth group offered a safe refuge for those of us who endured challenges at home that would never be resolved in our adolescent years.
When I reflect on those who made a difference in my growing up…I always want to know what memories our own children and youth will reflect on when they are adults. What will they long for? What will they desire for their own children? What will they say that they learned in this church community? This year Paula has been seeking mentors for a new confirmation program. Will our youth remember their Confirmation Class and the adult mentor that they had? Will they talk about their church camp memories playing capture the flag or the swimming pool games? Will they remember about sharing Sunday morning worship at camp and the role they played in acting out the fishing story by using an old laundry basket for a boat? Will they remember the annual Christmas Plays and what role they acted? Will E.J. remember how proud this community was when he played on Sunday morning? Will Josephine remember how touched we were by her Earth Day sermon? How do we rank ourselves as a community concerned about raising up our children? Are we satisfied?
Next Sunday, SOU students will be filing down Siskiyou Blvd. headed for businesses carrying their “passports” to be signed…We are ready to be one of their stops. The Parish Life Committee said “yes” to setting up a welcome table and offering our church stamp. How might we offer some hospitality as they seek to have our stamp placed on their passport? This is a “being” opportunity for us. Who knows what might come out of a welcoming student table. It gives us an opportunity to connect and perhaps a chance to crack open the possibility of someone daring to walk through our doors.
I’ve been so touched by the thousands of refugees being welcomed into Germany. The gift is that invisible children who have been on the road for weeks are being welcomed into a new country. At the same time, Pope Francis is asking Catholic Parishes all over Europe to welcome and shelter families—families who have nothing, who are beginning their lives again in a new land with a new language—families who have sometimes been walking for weeks seeking to find safety and permission to begin a new life.
Friday night, as I sat in our sanctuary listening to Daniel Sperry’s concert, I thought about one of my first events in the life of this church. It was July 13th of last year. Daniel had asked if I would offer a blessing on him in the park because he felt called to the challenge of weaving William Safford’s poetry into music. Just as Jesus held the invisible child for all to see in a new empowered way, so we are called to hold each other up and to call forth the gifts that are built into our very beings. The greatest gift of transformation and resurrection that we offer one another is utilizing God’s Spirit in helping each other name, claim and bring forth our gifts. Our mandate as a community is to not let each other’s gifts be hidden, or to die. New life happens for each of us when we have the support to be able to step out in faith and dare to claim the parts of ourselves that often have been denied us as children because we did not have, for whatever reason, folks around us who helped us name, define and claim our gifts.
I’m thrilled that on October 18th, we will be celebrating Artist Sunday. Part of our role is to support one another in creating. We will be united in our honoring the gifts of creativity that reside within so many within this community. Part of the support of our church is to honor the artistic gifts that are so life giving…but unfortunately, they are often not the gifts that enable us to make a living in our society. We need to be witnesses to the gifts that offer delight, energy and joy to one another.
If each of us thinks back to those who made a difference in our lives as children, it is often those who worked with children and youth without any thought of position or reward. The passionate longing for our children comes out of a deep desire that they too experience people in their lives who dare to share their faith with them in such a way that it makes a difference. We long for this church to be a place of belonging for all, where no one is deemed invisible, and where all voices are heard and held with love and respect. And, what I have cherished is the stories of those who have come into this house of prayer and have found a safe place to heal and to dare to step out and try out new ways of living. This is the kin-dom work of God.
Hear these words from scripture: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” May it be so. Amen.
“What we do with our lives individually is not what determines whether we are a success or not. What determines whether we are a success is how we have affected the lives of others.”