Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost – September 19, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I was taking my garbage cans out to the street one morning this past week and through the hedge I saw my neighbor, a young mom, trying to herd her kids into the car. She looked harried and rushed. There might have been some of her kids’ breakfast on the sweatshirt she was wearing. Her two-year-old son was wandering towards the sidewalk – the opposite direction she wanted him to go. It looked like he was chasing a bug. Then their dog got out of the house and tried to get into the car. As she was pulling the dog back towards the house her four-year-old started crying because her mom wouldn’t let her bring her dog to school. It was pandemonium! My first thought as I watched this chaos unfold was, “Maybe having my kids go off to college isn’t so bad after all!” But my second thought was, “She is doing the Lord’s work right now, and I hope she knows it.”
Our culture for the most part sees that kind of work as insignificant. I have often been a speaker for a local Mothers of Preschoolers group, speaking on marriage enrichment. Whenever I’ve been there to speak, though, I’ve always made a point of telling them that their work as mothers of preschoolers is important, that it is significant, that it is holy even. Inevitably, I would see these moms wiping away tears. It is obvious that they aren’t hearing this elsewhere. They are used to their work being seen as insignificant, unimportant.
Before I continue, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that this is only women’s work. I spent many years in a rural congregation with a parsonage on the church property when my boys were little, in part so I could be close and help care for them. I changed a lot of diapers myself. My all-time favorite quote of Martin Luther’s is when he encourages fathers to care for their children in a hands-on way that was way ahead of his time. Luther wrote: “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool…God with all his angels is smiling.” That was quite a statement in the sixteenth century! Whether it is men or women doing it, although the world sees it as menial, unimportant, insignificant, it is holy work. The world sneers while God smiles.
In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus teaches his disciples for the second time precisely what he has come to do. He has come to be betrayed into human hands and be killed, and three days later rise again. Jesus again gives them the gospel in a nutshell. He has come to be their crucified and risen Lord. He has come to save them from sin and death.
Though this is the second time they’ve heard this now, they still don’t understand it – and they are afraid to ask Jesus about it. Instead, they start to argue about who would be greatest among them. They failed to see the significance of what Jesus was telling them about what was coming, about the cross and the empty tomb. They expected the Messiah to come and do things that the world would see as significant. They wanted a Messiah who would come and do things they thought were important, things like getting rid of the Romans and restoring Israel. The disciples wanted in on this so-called important work. They wanted to be seen as significant, as important, as the greatest, as the first.
Jesus overheard them arguing, and he turned it into a teaching moment. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus said. And then he took a child – maybe it was a baby resting in his mother’s arms, or a toddler perched on her hip. Maybe it was a child standing there holding her daddy’s hand. Jesus placed this child in front of the disciples. Then Jesus took this child 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.”
In Jesus’ time, children were not considered important. It was the adults doing the adulting that was important! We see this dynamic at work in another Bible passage where people were trying to bring their children to Jesus and the disciples shooed them away. According to the disciples, Jesus had more important adult stuff to be doing. Parents loved their children in the ancient world just as much as they do today, no doubt, but caring for them was regarded as a lowly, insignificant task, often delegated to others. And here is Jesus putting a child in front of the disciples saying, “Oh, you want to be great, do you? You want to be first? Well, then welcome this child. When you welcome a child you welcome both me and the one who sent me.”
The cross and the child are connected here. Both are seen as insignificant, but both are the places where God is seen and served. The cross was insignificant in the eyes of the world, but it was the means by which God saved us. The child was, and often is, seen as insignificant in the eyes of the world, but it is in these supposedly insignificant people that God is welcomed and served.
We have this enormous cross built right into our sanctuary windows to remind us of the gospel in a nutshell, to remind us that Jesus came to be our crucified and risen Lord. And just as we can look through these cross-framed windows out to the world outside, the cross is to be the lens through which we look at the world. And through the lens of the cross, the world starts to look different. We start to see that the Christian life is not about being the greatest or the first, it is about being the last of all and the servant of all. We start to see that the Christian life is not about leaving our mark on the world by doing important things, it is about emptying ourselves for the sake of others – especially those the world deems unimportant. We start to see that the Christian life is not about seeking significance, it is about seeking to serve.
Your serving might look different from that of the young mom next door, but never doubt that Christ is welcomed and served in the midst of the seemingly insignificant tasks and people of daily life. The Lord you follow is the one who was crucified, and so there is no one so small, and no act of service so humble, that it isn’t important and significant and even holy.
The cross that is seen by so many as insignificant is the means of our salvation.
It is also the lens through which we see what truly matters.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church