Friday, September 21, 2012

The Servant Church: Sermon for this Sunday at Turley United Methodist Church, 10 am, 6050 N. Johnstown Ave.

Sermon: The Servant Church, Sept. 23, 2012, Turley United Methodist Church

Rev. Ron Robinson, The Welcome Table missional community, Turley, OK

Text: Mark 9:30-37…They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


Thanks and it is an honor to be asked to be here again; I have said before that this particular church not only was and is an extension of family for me growing up but I saw here the values in action of civility and compassion that have stayed with me. That famous phrase John Wesley helped to put into practice: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things love” has been a guide for my own theology. It has also been a pleasure and privilege for our community, inhabiting not only the original building of this church but inhabiting and inheriting its spirit too, to partner with this church in making a difference in people’s lives and the life of this community in many ways.  

Today I went to talk about what we do as church when we seek to make a difference in people’s lives, and in the community life of which they are a part. Who is it we serve, and why, as church, and what our challenges are, and how Jesus reminds us of our way becoming not a church that has a mission, but a Mission that has and creates church.

The reading for today begins by saying, “They went on from there and passed through Galilee.” Jesus is always on the move, taking his spirit of life and grace and forgiveness out to others, not waiting for them to come to him. The church in Jesus’s spirit will always be getting outside of itself to be on the lookout for those to serve, those to point toward God’s power of love and not the powers and principalities, as Apostle Paul puts it, that are all around us and that seeks to distract us from that Love. Jesus’s first lesson is that we have to put ourselves alongside others in the places where they live and go. Our way of being like him, of being church, is to be in relationship with people we don’t yet know. Earlier in this gospel, the gospel of Mark, one of the first written stories of Jesus was about his eating with the outcasts, in their own homes. It reminds me of the John Wesley adage, from the early days of the Methodist church in England, that if the coal miners can’t come to church, or won’t, that the church goes to the coal mines, becomes the church there.

In The next part of the scripture Jesus is trying to get the attention of the disciples, of the church, about the crisis of their times, the seriousness of the choices they will be facing. Back in that time when Jesus was moving from village to village around the Sea of Galilee it was a dangerous part of the Roman Empire. The Empire had its forces all over the place occupying Israel. There had been several rebellions against the Empire from the people of Israel up to that time and afterwards to the time of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70. As Jesus and the disciples walked and lived among the people, they walked along roads dotted with the crosses where the Empire crucified all those who were trouble-makers. As Jesus reminded people that the One who Sent him on his mission of love and healing was the One to follow, and not Caeser and his ways, he was one of the main troublemakers. He was honest in facing the reality of his situation; he knew where his journey would take him. He had death all around him, and yet he continued to bring life to people. But the disciples, like so much of us the church, look the other way, are afraid to go where Jesus went, and so they did not ask him about what was coming, they couldn’t trust enough to even talk with him and ask him about what was going to happen. We all have death and change and loss just out of the corners of our eyes and Jesus wants us to face it, walk alongside of it with him, helping us to see our way beyond it, and yet our fear keeps us silent.

Remember what the scripture says: Jesus not only tells them that he is going to be killed, but that he is going to be raised. The crosses they see all around them will not be the final word. God’s good news gets the final word. But they were afraid to even ask him about that, the scripture says. Here it is for the church: are we a Resurrection people or not? Are we going to shape our lives around what we are losing, what is dying inside and all around us, or are we going to live in the Deeper Love that will make us a people not of loss but of legacy. It is okay to die to what has been, in fact it is necessary, in order to be raised into something even greater, into greater service, into not just our mission, our church here and now, but into God’s mission, God’s service.

But the story goes on. Jesus doesn’t give up on the disciples, on the church, on us even when we are afraid to even ask him face to face what he means. Mark says they arrived in Capernaum and are in a house there, and it would have most likely been a house belonging to someone different from them, to a non-Jew. And Jesus tries to get them to open up again; he says what were you arguing about along the way? Chances are he knew but wants to give them a chance to take the initiative. They had been arguing about themselves, who was the greatest, probably about who he loved the most.

See, they were silent on the most important issues, on the life and death matters right beyond their noses, on the cross and the resurrection; instead they fought over the least little things; and not over how best to serve the least of these either, as we will see, but over the insignificant things. Oh how we are drawn to do that. Our culture tries to get us to quarrel among ourselves and to put our focus on ourselves and our insecurities and our sense that we don’t have enough but need to get more and more and more. They were following not the God of Israel but the God of Empire who believed that power was in how much you had and how much power you had and used over other people; in how many people were serving you. Jesus tries to get them to understand that the One who Sent him is about sending, not gathering, about how many and who you serve, not who serve you.

They are still silent (which in Mark is probably a good things for them, for when they do open their mouths they invariably say the most un-Jesus things, as if the more they are around him, and closer to him, the more they don’t get him and his way; that in itself is a lesson for us church leaders). So Jesus lays it out for them: just as he will do when he says those who want to follow him must be willing to take up the cross and go where the troublemakers go, here he says those who want to be first in God’s realm must bring up the rear, must help others get there ahead of them, must serve all those who Caeser says are the lowest of the servants.

To illustrate, he brings in a child to the circle to get their attention. Now children, and women, and the ill, and the criminals, and the outcasts of all stripes and ethnicities are the ones who are not supposed to be in the circle, getting the attention of the rabbi; they are the lowest of the low and are to be out of sight out of mind; servants use the rear entrance. But Jesus says, if you really want to be great you will set a welcome table and invite to it this child, these outcasts who have no where else to go; this is where church happens, when God shows up. The temple will soon be no more as a visible physical sign of power and God, both Jesus as a temporary temple nor the Temple of Herod, but each time you welcome one of the least of these, and serve them, make them the focus of your resources and not just on how they can serve you, us, make us look good, then that is where the Temple will be.

Now here in our zipcode, where we have the lowest life expectancy in the region with a 14 year difference, where we have struggles of many kinds that create that statistic, where our food pantry gives out tons of food each month and runs out week by week, now here we have the outcasts among us; and what I want to say to those of us is that Jesus is saying also that the last shall be first, along with the first shall be last; and so if you have been told all your life that you are last, that you don’t count, that it is you always last to be picked, last in line, Jesus is inviting you, requiring you if you want to follow him, to step up, to see yourself as God sees you, not as the Caesers of our world see you; the story doesn’t say the child Jesus invited fought back, or shied away, and tried to stay put in the out of sight out of mind world. But the child responded to Jesus’ call and the child became the teacher along with Jesus. So you may be feeling outcast but you are in with God and a part of God’s calling, if you choose to respond too and become a part of the new community. It is not easy for either those used to being on the inside or used to being on the outside to both be changed.

Jesus is also saying that our religion should not be in what we can think about with our minds, and argue about with our mouths, but that it should be in simple acts of justice done with Great love, as he showed with that in the moment random act of kindness and justice reaching out to the child and saying here, this is what and who is important, this hungry, vulnerable, fearful, castaway young human being few in power care about, few try to educate, or protect, this is what religion, what church, what God, what I am all about. This child who no one will remember her name, this child who won’t get a gospel named after him, this child who very well may die of the illnesses and the violence that swept through the region frequently, just as Jesus may die soon he had tried to convince them, this child is the greatest of his disciples, followers of his way, this child is his mega-church.

Want to have a powerful everlasting church? Make it the church of and for this child. Go to this place of least power, Be sent yourself into the places of most fear and despair, within you and among you and right around you, and set out a welcome of love and grace and forgiveness and you will welcome not only Jesus himself but you will welcome and be in the presence of the One who sent Him.
And when you are in that presence, of the Good News God that bring Good News to the ones whom the world says are Bad News, then all your losses become everlasting legacies of love, all your fears become testaments of faithfulness, all  your disappointments become transformed into God’s dreams. Your life, your church,  returns then to its original shape and spirit, its original blessing, its true and rightful owner, as God’s life and God’s church and God’s mission to serve

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