Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Same Song, Second Verse

Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22
Mark 9:30-37

     I thought we might have some fun this morning.  How many of you have sung all the verses of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”?  Find page 57 in your red hymnal and let’s sing the first verse.  It’s easier to sing standing up so if it’s comfortable for you, let’s stand as we sing.  Sing.
     You may be seated, but don’t close your book.  Six verses!  When this hymn fits the day’s readings, I usually choose the four verses that are the best fit.  Now turn to the next page in your hymnal—the one with no printed music, only verses.  These are some of the verses on the first page plus all the others.  Why so many verses?  Each verse is really about the same thing—how God through Christ transforms human beings and the appropriate response to that transformation.  Some verses are about who gets changed, some are about what that change looks like, and all include praising the God of new life.  My favorite verses are the last in the second column.  My friend and colleague, Bruce Smith, introduced these to me.  They originated in the Cornwall district of southern England where John and Charles Wesley took their preaching revival.  Cornwall was the home of the pirate trade—the ships that sailed from Cornwall returned laden with stolen cargo that was distributed and hidden among the households of the district to avoid detection by the law.  When Charles Wesley penned “ye murderer and hellish crew,” he was talking about pirates.  There are many British Methodist churches in the district today that testify to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.  It takes a number of verses to get from “ye murderers and hellish crew” to
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread thro’ all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.
     Mark tells us that the same was true for the followers of Jesus.  It took explanation after explanation, experience upon experience, for them to be transformed into disciples—from students into those who actually followed in Jesus’ footsteps.  Today’s reading is the second cycle of teaching about the way of the cross that leads to life.  Several of Jesus’ disciples have experienced seeing Jesus transfigured.  Jesus was standing on the mountain talking to Moses and Elijah.  His clothing was brighter white that could be described.  His face was shining like light.  And then it was over and Jesus descended from the mountain to find the rest of his disciples discouraged and frustrated because they could not heal a boy with epilepsy.  Jesus accomplished the healing and then sat down with his troubled disciples.  Why couldn’t they bring about the transformation that the child’s father so desperately wanted?  Jesus tells them that it is because they did not believe the implications of his teaching and actions.  Jesus grounds the power of transformation in prayer.  Some of the disciples have just witnessed the connection in a powerful way—Jesus took them with him to pray, he was transfigured, in the presence of Elijah and Moses, and then healed a boy from epileptic seizures.  The power of God’s kingdom is grounded in prayer—the kind of prayer that requires solitude and time and placing oneself within the light of God’s wisdom.
     So Jesus took the disciples away, through Galilee, into a place where there were fewer towns so that he could teach them.  This is the briefest and simplest of Jesus’ predictions about the way of the cross, “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.”  Again, the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask him.  And so Jesus watched for another teachable moment.  He saw the disciples arguing along the road and when they arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been arguing about.  Their silence did not hide them.  Jesus knew they had been arguing over who was the greatest.  Jesus gathered the twelve and found a new way to illustrate kingdom living.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
     Then he took a little child and lifted it up in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
     The theme of Jesus’ song is that the way to the kingdom is through becoming the kind of servant who serves everyone—even children.  The reverse is just as true.  When we welcome the ministry of children, we welcome Jesus and the One who sent him.  When we reject the ministry of children, we reject Jesus and the One who sent him.  You all make me so proud in how you lift up and receive the gifts of your children.  You are preparing them to answer God’s call on their lives.  And you are preparing to serve the children of our community through our new middle school after school activity program.  You are welcoming Christ and the one who sent him.  The first verse of the song of God’s kingdom we heard last week:  
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.
The second verse is also about self emptying.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me
but the one who sent me.
    The kingdom comes when we learn the mystery of self-giving.  It is so counter to the world’s message of success and greatness, of earning privilege.  We have been so steeped in the culture of achievement and status that we are as hard to teach as the disciples.  Michael Raschko writes, “Those caught up in the kingdom of God see the dynamics of life very differently:  how we measure out our lives for the sake of others determines how life in its fullness and greatness will be measured out to us.”  The kingdom comes when we pour out our lives for the sake of others.  It comes in welcoming and serving those that the world overlooks, those who are vulnerable, like children.  At the heart of the mystery is this truth:  when we welcome and serve one of the least, we welcome and serve God.  The message is as old as Abram and Sarai welcoming three travelers who turned out to be angels sent with a promise.  Jesus taught the story of the sheep and the goats—when did we see you naked and clothe you?  It is echoed in two disciples who welcome a fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus and recognize Jesus only in the breaking of the bread.  The author of Hebrews tell us that those who have practiced hospitality have entertained angels unaware.  When we pour out our lives for the least in this world’s kingdoms, the kingdom of God dawns.
     In a few minutes we will gather at the communion table.  While you are waiting to be served there will be images of children on the screen.  Let these images move you to prayer for the healing of this world through the coming of God’s kingdom.  How will you pour out your life?  How will you serve the least of these?  The feast we celebrate in Holy Communion is a foretaste of the great feast in the kingdom where all will be fed, where none will have more and none will go without.  I invite you to prayer now, and again as you watch images of children from around the world and come to the table.  May we sing the song of the kingdom that comes by way of a cross.

Let us pray.

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