Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A few weeks ago there was a big outcry in England over an advertising campaign by the National Health Service. In one ad there was a picture of a video game controller next to a pacifier. It read: “Would you give up this (the video game) for this (a baby)?” In another there was a picture of some high heels and lipstick which said the same thing: “Would you give up this (high heels and lipstick) for this (a baby)?” The latter ad had both pro-life groups and feminist groups in England extremely upset. It is quite a feat to get both of those groups upset at you at the same time!
Whatever the intention of the ads may have been, the message being communicated in these ads is that children are a burden. They are a drag. They are an inconvenience preventing you from enjoying life. The focus in these ads is that you will have to give up something when having a baby. This is absolutely true, but the insinuation is that giving up something is truly awful and not at all worth it. These ads are about making yourself number one. The values at work here are that self-fulfillment is better than sacrifice, that life is about what you can get out of it, not what you might have to give up.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus tells his disciples about what he is going to give up for them, and for the whole world. He is going to give up his life. He tells them again that he will be betrayed into human hands, and be killed, and then rise again.
But the disciples are oblivious to what Jesus is saying. They still don’t understand this talk about giving up something. The Messiah, they thought, was coming to get things – to get power, to get a kingdom, to get the Romans to run out of Israel with their tail between their legs. The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and they were too afraid to ask him about it.
And so instead they start a conversation – an argument, really – about who among them was going to be the greatest once this kingdom was established. The disciples brush off the “giving up” talk and focus on what they can get: power, authority, status. They argue about who is going to get the most of these things, who is going to be greatest.
And so Jesus sits them down. It’s time for another lesson. Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then Jesus takes a little child – maybe a child resting in his mother’s arms or perched on her hip, maybe a child standing there holding her daddy’s hand – Jesus took a little child and placed this child in front of them. For a moment this child was in the spotlight, at the center of everyone’s attention. Then Jesus took this little 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.”
The disciples had big ideas about what they were going to get when the Messiah brought in his kingdom. They had big ideas about the power and authority and status they would have. But instead Jesus calls them to welcome children. He calls them to let that snot get on their sleeve as they hold them. He calls them to take those filthy fingers which have been God-knows-where into their hands. He calls them to take up the lowly task of caring for them. The disciples were imagining thrones for themselves and instead Jesus gave them a changing table!
This was a shocking thing for Jesus to do. You see, children were not particularly valued in the ancient world. Children were barely seen as human until they reached maturity. Sure, children were loved by their parents, and the Jewish people placed a high value on large families boosting the numbers of their tribe, but when it came to actual flesh-and-blood real children, society-at-large thought of them as a burden, as an inconvenience. You see this mindset reflected in the disciples themselves when people were bringing children to Jesus and they were shooing them away. They were seen as unimportant. Caring for children was seen as one of the most menial tasks you could be involved in. Men certainly didn’t do it! Especially not prominent men, the kind of men the disciples had just been daydreaming about becoming!
Jesus takes a child and places it in front of them, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me, but the one who sent me.” Jesus was teaching his disciples that life in his kingdom would not be about what you can get – power, authority, status – it was about what you would give up. Whoever would be first must be last. And to prove his point, he called them to take on what was considered the lowliest job there was – welcoming, loving, caring for little children.
What does this mean for us? If we want to be first in Jesus’ kingdom does that mean we all need to open up day care centers? No. But it does mean that following Jesus isn’t about what we can get out of it. It is about what we can give up. It is about serving. Following Jesus is not about jockeying for power or authority or status, it is about humbling ourselves, taking up the lowliest of tasks in his name.
This might be lived out by caring for an elderly person, bathing them and feeding them or helping them get to church. It might be lived out by serving meals to poor and vulnerable and sometimes unpleasant people at Spin Café. It might mean caring for a spouse who is ill. My friend Father Paul has a ministry of taking in dogs that have been abandoned and sometimes horribly abused. It might mean getting your hands dirty pulling weeds here at church or at the home of someone who can’t do it themselves. It might mean doing the dishes here at church, either the communion dishes after worship or the dishes from fellowship time. In restaurants this is a lowly job for the lowest person on the totem pole, without much respect from the other workers – I know because I washed dishes at a bowling alley when I was in high school – but someone needs to do it! As has been said, “Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.” Boy is that true!
And yes, it does mean caring for children, which can indeed be a burden. It is hard. It is an inconvenience. It is exhausting. And it is not valued by our society today any more than it was in Jesus’ time. I give talks on marriage to the Mothers of Preschools group here in Oak Harbor every year and I always make a point of telling them how important their work at home is. They almost always respond with tears. They just don’t hear that very often.
Not that caring for children is just women’s work – Martin Luther, taking his cues from Jesus, once wrote that when a father changes dirty diapers or performs some other menial task for his child, and everyone else is teasing him as an effeminate fool, God and all his angels are smiling.
Our callings in life might indeed lead us to places of power and authority – perhaps as an admiral in the U.S. Navy, or the CEO of a corporation, or as a high-ranking government official. Those are all noble callings that Christians can indeed embrace. But those who follow Jesus are never to think of ourselves as so important, so powerful, so high-ranking, that we are no longer willing to stoop down and care for a child, or feed a hungry person, or wash the dishes. “Whoever wants to be first,” Jesus says, “must become last and a servant of all.”
When the devil came to Jesus in the wilderness he asked him: “Would you give up this – all the power and glory of all the kingdoms of the earth – for the cross?” And Jesus said that he would. Jesus didn’t come into the world to get, get, get. He came to give himself up – for me, for you, for the whole world. All of our sinful disobedience, all or our pride, all of our rebellion against God was nailed on the cross and died with Jesus, so that we might rise to new life with him.
And as we are raised to new life with Jesus, we come to embrace a way of life that is not just about getting – it is about giving ourselves up for him by giving ourselves up for others.
But there IS something we get in all of this. As we embrace the children God entrusts to us, whether our own, or our Sunday school students, or the children of our congregation, or the children in our community, we get Jesus! As we stoop down to perform acts of service no matter how lowly, we get Jesus! As we welcome and serve and love all who are vulnerable or in need, that’s where we get Jesus. That’s where we find him. That’s where we meet him. Once we find him in the Word and at the Table we are sent out into the world to find him in the people we serve.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church