Anyway, today's sermon seems like a pretty good overview of where my head is at these days. You could have heard a pin drop during parts of it.
As I was preparing this sermon, I happened to look around at what else goes on in the ninth chapter of the gospel of Mark. I think it's worth going through it with you. You may disagree, if you wish.
The chapter starts with the Transfiguration, the mountaintop episode in which Peter, James and John see a preview of Jesus in his resurrection form, along with Elijah and Moses. They come down from the mountain and talk about when Elijah will return, with Jesus making a prediction about his own suffering and death. When they get back to town, the other disciples are arguing with the Pharisees about why they can't heal a boy possessed by a spirit. Jesus is a bit irritable about this for some reason, but he tells the boy's father that if he believes, his son can be healed. "I believe, help my unbelief!" the father blurts out. That's apparently enough to satisfy Jesus, who casts the demon out, and explains to his disciples why they couldn't get the job done.
He tells them again that he will suffer, die, and be resurrected, but they're too obtuse to understand what he's telling them. Instead, they fall to arguing about who is the greatest among them. That's when he takes a child and puts it in the middle of them and says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me," as a way of illustrating the point "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
They still have not learned the lesson, apparently, because John tells Jesus about someone outside the band of disciples who was casting out demons in Jesus' name. Jesus has to tell him that the name or the authority isn't the main thing. It's that people are being healed.
So he brings them all together again and says,
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
From there, he goes on to warn them of the various temptations that might lead them astray. The point should now be abundantly clear: you have one job, and one job alone, which is to serve the "little ones," in other words, the children of God, whether young or old. You should let nothing — in particular not your pride, or need to be held in high esteem — but nothing, really, hold you back from doing your job.
There are a number of Mark's themes throughout this chapter. The disciples just don't get who Jesus is, no matter how clearly he spells it out for them. They also fail to understand who they are, and what they're supposed to be about. There are warnings and healings, and perhaps most important, there is the identification of Jesus in his glory as being identical to Jesus in his humility. It is the same thing in him that makes him able to welcome little children to his company that makes him able to hang out on a mountaintop with Moses and Elijah.
Likewise, it's when the disciples welcome children (who represent the poor and the powerless) that they are able to welcome Jesus and his father. It helps to understand here that then, as now, your social standing depended a bit on who you were associated with. If I invited Pres. Obama to come and have dinner with me, and he flew out from Washington to do so, you all might think that I had something on the ball, right?
Fine. If I invited Paul Ryan to come and have dinner, you'd think I was something special, yes?
Whatever. Whoever. The point is that Jesus stands all of that on its head. He doesn't care so much about impressing the rich and powerful. Nor does he care very much about being seen with the rich and powerful so that he has some kind of social standing. No, when it really gets down to it, he'd rather hang around with a bunch of little kids, and be known for that.
To put all of this a little differently, suppose you wanted to give a big dinner party to show off to your neighbors just how much money you had, and just how many friends you had. But you send out all the invitations, and you mow the lawn, and you make the house look beautiful, and you put out a big spread and put on your nicest clothes — and the only people who showed up were the neighborhood kids? Many, if not most of us, would die of embarrassment. Jesus is the kind of guy who would say "Cooool!"
When I have preached this lesson in the past, my tendency has been to take the idea of children literally, to ask how we could welcome children into our midst in the church. I still think one of the best funeral sermons I ever gave was for a former schoolteacher, commending her faith as it was expressed in the love of children.
Other times, it has been important to talk about this as a more general lesson in humility. My first congregation, God bless them, could have used a sermon like that. They didn't really know what they wanted in a pastor, other than getting their old pastor back. But to the extent that they did have an idea, what they wanted was a pastor who would bring them prestige. In the horrible little society they had grown up in, they were in competition with the other Reformed churches in town to see who had the highest status. Their own church was the daughter congregation of another church that always liked to remind them that they — the first church — had more money and better social connections than did the church I served. So when their beloved former pastor showed up as a young up-and-comer in 1970 or so, this was a huge point of pride for them. He was on boards all over town, very influential in the community and the church world, looked to be moving up to the national offices of the UCC, and so on and so forth. That's what they wanted. They wanted someone they could brag about to their friends and essentially say "Nyeah, nyeah, we've got a better pastor than you do." They had no understanding of, or tolerance for, a pastor who wasn't quite so interested in being a status symbol. The last thing they wanted to hear was, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
Who does, really? Not many people have what they call a "servant's heart," to take care of people who can't give anything back in the way of fame or fortune or even friendship. I used to dream about becoming a world-famous writer and professor, sought out for wisdom and stirring words alike. Oh, who am I kidding? I still dream about it. Instead, I've served a few churches, each one less prestigious than the last. If I'm lucky, I'll go on for a second career in the college world, maybe write another book or two. I seriously doubt that any president will give a damn what I think, much less accept my dinner invitation. It's not what I wanted, honestly.
But at least I will have had the privilege of living in a way that is consistent with my values. I was taught from very young that "whoever wants to be first must be last," and danged if I'm not going to come pretty close to it by the time it's all done.
And what a joy it has been so far! Don't get me wrong: being a servant is a pain in the neck, particularly when the people you serve decide to take their c-r-a-p out on you. But everywhere I've gone, I've found a few people it's been a honor to meet. What is it I'm always saying? The very young and the very old teach you something about what's important in life. In everything I've done, whether it's been as a secretary or a pastor or working in a funeral home, I've found one or two things it's been a privilege to do. It's a privilege to hold the door open for someone, or to help them on with their coat, and make their day that much better.
And no matter where I've gone or what I've done, I have always met a kid or two it's been worth knowing. Sometimes, they haven't really been kids. I knew a man in Pennsylvania who was developmentally disabled. But he used to draw me pictures of cuckoo clocks to put up on my office wall, and every time he saw me, his face broke out in a smile. Money's nice, but that's the kind of thing that makes living worthwhile.
My wife asked me the other day if I would be sad on our last day here. I said, "I think I will be very sad to say goodbye to the children." It's true, I will be. I always am when I leave a church.
But here's the thing. You should be, too. I don't mean that you should be sad that I have to say goodbye to the kids, though I guess you should be, at least a little. But what I really mean is that Jesus invites us into a world where this kind of thing is our greatest concern. Not what anyone thinks of us, not what our title is, not how much money we make, but whether we will have the opportunity to be the last of all and servant of all again.
It wouldn't be honest of me to say that I don't have worries as we prepare to leave. I'm worried about moving into a much smaller apartment, about finding a job and being able to pay my bills. Those kinds of worries and headaches don't just go away. But at the same time, I know that leaving opens up new possibilities, new opportunities for me and my family. I have already started to get to know some "kids" — college students — and feel blessed to be serving them. There will be many others along the way, I'm sure.
As for you all, my heartfelt advice would be to see my departure along the same lines. You'll be worried about finding another pastor, about paying your bills and filling the pews. Your worries and headaches won't just go away, either. But if you take this as an opportunity to hash out who's right and who's wrong, who's greater and who's lesser, well, you're missing the boat. At a time like this, you're not being summoned up to the mountaintop to be transfigured into glory. You're being given the opportunity to meet some new little ones and welcome them into the life of your community, which means to welcome Jesus and the one who sent him. You are being given the opportunity to meet some new little ones and to serve them as the humblest of all. If you all are so focused on being first that you miss that opportunity to be last, well then, yeah. You might as well tie a millstone — or a tombstone — around this church and toss it in the deepest part of Lake Winnebago. Amen.