Thursday, September 23, 2021

Whoever Welcomes Them, Welcomes God

 Mark 9:30-37 September 19, 2021


The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest.

We don’t know exactly the content of the argument,

maybe it was about who cured the most evil spirits,

who did Jesus like the best, who did he pick first.

We don’t know.


In the Gospel of Mark, mostly

the disciples have nothing to brag about.

They’re not models of courage or wisdom.

Even here it says they didn’t understand what Jesus

was talking about and they were afraid to ask.

Even after Jesus spells it out plainly

and tells them that he’s going to be rejected,

tortured, and killed, and that his followers

should deny themselves and follow,  

the disciples feel the need to compete with one another

about who was the greatest.


And to that Jesus tells his competitive disciples that for God,

if you want to be first, you should be last of all.

Servant of all. The way to win is to lose. To come in last.


It’s a call to humility and humbleness.

Church people have heard this call

and somehow we’ve made humility into a  competition in itself.


There was a story that was told around my home church,

Communion was only once a quarter and people were told they

had to be right with God before they took communion.

So on that one Sunday every three months,

church ladies would go up to the rail and

make a big show about refusing communion.

To show people that they didn’t think they were good enough.

They were competing to see who could be first at being humble.


That is certainly not what Jesus meant. So what does Jesus mean?


Jesus gives a little clarifier when he takes a child

and he says “Whoever welcomes one such
child in my name welcomes me”


It almost seems unrelated in a way.

But that’s because of the way that we understand children now.

We love children, we value children just because they’re children.

Of course some people don’t, but the prevalent view of society today

is that children should be valued just because

they’re vulnerable and innocent and can’t take care of themselves.


But in the first century, children weren’t valued.

They were actually treated with disdain, annoyance, even hatred.

And often by their own parents.


Producing children was, of course, encouraged.

They represented the future—they would carry on the family name,

provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation.


But actually having children and taking care of them was a liability.

Especially small children.

For the first 4 or 5 years,

They couldn’t help out much

and they were another mouth to feed.

And if they got sick, like children tend do, then forget it.


Abandoning children,

giving them away, or even killing them

was a fairly common practice.

This was actually true up until the 1800’s

Think of how fairy tales like Snow White and Hansel and Gretel start out.


In ancient Rome, they estimate that

20-40% of children were abandoned.

More were actually killed by their

parents without many repercussions.

More died as a result of an accident

meaning they weren’t being watched.


Children were seen as a burden and

treating children nicely was seen as a

weakness especially for men.

And if you welcomed a child

you could end up being responsible for them.

 Feeding them, clothing them, caring for them, watching them.


And what they could give back couldn’t be counted.

What a child gave couldn’t be counted as an advancement

to anyone’s status or lot or station in life.

Especially if it wasn’t your child.

Welcoming a child was a burden, a liability.

Welcoming a child, cost the welcomer.


So when Jesus said,

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”

it meant something very different than we would understand it now.


And what Jesus meant was that

following God’s way comes at a cost.

But that cost is a gain in God’s eyes.


So welcoming children does not

have the same stigma that it did then,

But there are plenty of other people

who’s welcome could cost us.

And I guess who or what would cost you

depends on the people that you find yourself around,

your peer group.


Would it cost you to welcome an illegal immigrant

or refugee, or a person of a different color,

or maybe a poor person, or a rich person,

or a democrat, or a republican,

or an atheist, or a fundamentalist Christian,

What would cost you?

 That’s who we should be welcoming.


Basically, if our relationship

with Jesus isn’t bringing us around people who

we’re uncomfortable with,

our who our friends are uncomfortable with,

then we’re not doing it right.


Jesus says, if you want to be great in God’s Kingdom.

don’t worry about your own status,

worry about the status of someone else.

Give your status away to them.


When it comes to God’s kingdom,

Having all the money in the world is no good

unless it can go to help someone else.

Having all the power in the world is of no use

unless it can be used to give someone else power.

Having all the food in the world can’t fill you

as long as someone else is hungry.

No use getting to the top of the ladder

unless everyone is up the ladder before you.


Gandhi, who often understood Christianity

better than Christians, said,

"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."


In this world, serving God comes at a loss.

Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.


Serving and caring for others costs.

It costs us our money and our time and our hearts.

Welcoming those that are unwelcome by the rest of the world

can cost us too: our status, our friends,

and it can even challenge our own values.

When we think of other people before ourselves

even our own stubborn ideologies can be lost.


When our compassion overwhelms our sense of

competition and our need for status,

that is a win for God.


In this world, serving God comes at a loss.

But there are also great gains that can’t be easily counted.


I’m going to tell you a story.

And if you like sports references in your sermons,

please relish this because I rarely do it.


There was high school softball game

in Indianapolis  several years ago.

Roncalli Catholic School played Marshall Community.

Roncalli was a private, upper-class Catholic School.

Marshall Community was a very poor inner city school.


Roncalli was a great team. They had a perfect record.

They had won every game for two and half years.

Their goal was a three-year perfect record.


Marshall Community didn’t have any sports for girls,

so they started a softball team.

This was Marshall’s first game.

They had never played a game of softball before together.

They showed up to the game with little equipment,

and no players who’d ever played together before

and a coach who had never coached a team before.


After an inning and a half, Roncalli was destroying Marshall.

Marshall pitchers had already walked nine batters.

It was obvious they didn’t know what they were doing.

Roncalli could've won that game with no problem

gone home with a victory had a pizza party,

put another game under their belts

and kept their perfect record.


That's when Roncalli did something crazy.

It offered to forfeit the game.

They counted this game as a loss for themselves.

And then they spent the  hours they would have played

teaching the Marshall girls how to play softball.

They showed them how to put their gear on,

how to hit, how to catch, how to run the bases,

and the coach taught the coach about coaching.

And the Marshall girls ate it up.


The Roncalli team lost their perfect three year record.

But those girls got something else in return.

Roncalli's coach helps Marshall Players
try on catching gear.
What it was is hard to put a value on,

it’s hard to count as a benefit to their status.

It’s even hard to put into words.

But their loss was a gain for Marshall, for God,

and for them.


It’s like a high school softball team touched

this mystery of God.

To be first, be last.


The paradox is: We get more when we give away more.

And I’m not talking about how the prosperity preachers tell

you it will happen, that if you give some of your money

to the church, more money will suddenly come to you.

It doesn’t work that way I’m sorry to say,

and nothing in the bible says that it does.


But when we trust God,

when our compassion overcomes our need to win,

then we get something that’s more valuable

and priceless than all the riches of the world.

The last will be first.


May all of us here know that experience.

May all of us get to touch that

mystery of God’s kingdom in our lifetimes.

May the people of Christ Lutheran

know the joy of being last.


May we welcome people that come at a cost to us,

but who return to us priceless treasures.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Let's All Be Losers

 Mark 8:31-38   9-12-21


Everybody likes a winner.

Everyone likes to be around the one who wins,

to be seen with the one who is at the top.

We give medals, prizes, recording contracts, trophies.

The winners have the most money, fame, glory.


We want to see the Gold Medalist, the Oscar winner,

The one with the Super Bowl trophy, The sliver cup.

Everyone wants a long interview with the winner

how did you do it? what was your strategy?

What was your inspiration?

All we want to know from the losers is

where do you think you went wrong?

How does it feel to lose?


Everyone says it’s an honor just to be nominated,

or to play in the finals,

that they’re just honored that they got as far as they did.

But we know that’s not true.

They wanted to be the winner too.


Our culture values winning, victory, being number one.

For a lot of people, doing well is not enough.

We have to win.


We might not be involved in all this competition stuff.

But this need to win still ekes into our personal lives.

Everything becomes a bit of a competition

and even if we don’t need to be the best,

we want to be on the winning side of the picture.

We have to earn enough, sell enough,

get good grades, get the good seal of approval.

Whatever the measure of success is

in our chosen field, we want to be on the winning side.

And our Christians churches

have this same drive whether or not we admit it.

We want to be the biggest or the best

or the truest, have the purest theology.
Or at least be on the winning side of things.

Europe in the middle ages seemed to have a competition

for who could build the biggest most ostentatious

church buildings, even though I understand

attendance in church, even at that time,

did not warrant the size of the buildings.


And they’ve been gilding churches in gold for centuries,

not because it’s the most efficient.

But because it’s the most prized. It looks awesome.


And today, mega churches are valued,

The bigger the better. Their pastors are lauded

and respected and interviewed on the news

as if they have some special insight.

Their church is big. They must be doing something right.


Churches even try and sell the theology of winning

Joel Osteen who has one of the largest churches

in the United States, has written a lot of books

and his first and most popular is called

“Seven steps to your best life now.”

Basically a Christian way to win at life.

Christianity is another way to achieve and win.


Peter wanted this from the church,

Peter wanted to follow a winner, the best.

He thought that Jesus would be a success

and recognized by everyone as such.

When Jesus asked who people said he was,

Peter says, “You are the Messiah!”

He was very happy to be following the Messiah.


But Jesus follows this up with a twist:

“Then he began to teach them that he

must undergo great suffering,

and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,

and the scribes, and be killed.”


Ooh. That doesn’t sound like winning.

That’s not even on the winning side of things.

I don’t think the “seven steps to living

your best life now” includes suffering, rejection

by the powerful and being killed.

That sounds lot like losing.


So Peter told Jesus no, he must be wrong about this part.

Because, of course, God only backs winners.

But Jesus rebuked Peter at this

He told him, not only that he was wrong,

but all this winning stuff was Satan’s handiwork.

It was Satan’s temptation of us, another way to divide us.

And God doesn’t just back winners.

God backs losers too.


And to stress the point Jesus told them

that those who followed him should be losers too.


At the time of Jesus,

Greco Roman society was even more obsessed

with winning than we are now.

They actually worshipped victory.

Victoria, and the Greek equivalent Nike

(that the shoe is named after)

was the goddess of victory.

There were many temples in Rome

that were built and used in honor of Victoria.

She was worshipped regularly.


She represented Victory over death

and the way to have victory over death

was to be victorious in life.

To win battles and wars.

To achieve and win at life.

To be the best at everything.

That was to be blessed by the gods.

That was how you lived eternally.


Which was super-cool for the rich,

and the healthy, and those born into privilege

or those who had attained a status of privilege

in Greco-Roman society.


But for the rest of the people.

For the poor, or the disabled or the infirm,

or the ones who had fallen on string of bad luck,

it was not just sad and a struggle.

 The gods had cursed them.

They had no victory over death.

Life was awful and death would be awful too.

They were shameful and ignored or shunned

by those on the winning side of things.


In the early years of the Christian church,

Christians were scorned by others

because their actions ran contrary

to the values of Greek and Roman society.

Christians spent their time with the losers.

Christians helped the sick, they visited prisoners,

they welcomed and fed the poor,

they valued the life of slaves.

Winners and losers did not spend quality

time together in those days,

losers were only there to serve the winners.


The Christians, then purposely welcomed in the losers.

They became part of their communities.

They all shared what they had and gave away what they had.

So that when you went to a Christian temple

you couldn’t tell the difference between

the winners and the losers.

So how were you supposed to judge others?

How were you supposed to know who it was

fashionable to hang out with?

How were you supposed to know who their

God had blessed and who God had cursed?

It’s like Jesus wanted to re-order all of society or something!


This was a controversial horror to some.

But it was also what made Christianity hugely

attractive to others in the first century of the church.


Of course, we quickly lost that part of our identity

and we started gilding our churches and

writing Christian books about winning in life.


But slowly we have been rediscovering

Jesus vision for his disciples.


Jesus isn’t looking for winners.

Jesus is looking for losers.

Those who give up their own time

and their own money and sacrifice it to serve others.


Jesus wants people who give up their own

victories in order to see victories in other people.

Jesus wants people who are willing to

lose our own status and dare to be seen

around the poor, the oppressed, the cast aside,

the homeless, the mentally challenged,

the immigrant, the prisoner, those that society rejects.


Jesus wants people who don’t just give away things to others,

and serve people at a distance,

but dare to welcome other people into

our hearts and our lives as equals.


If any want to become Jesus followers,

let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him.

For those who want to save their life will lose it,

and those who lose their life for Christ’s sake,

and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Let’s all be losers

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Our Hands are Dirty

 Mark 7: 1-8

August 29, 2021


One year, when I was about 20, my aunt

put a whole lot of effort into making

Thanksgiving perfect.

She worked with my grandmother

to make the whole dinner just like it used to be.

We had the usual Turkey and the trimmings,

and in our Italian tradition,

she made a huge lasagna and a pot of sausages.


She took her wedding china out and

my grandmother crocheted beaded napkin

holders for the cloth napkins,

There was some kind of turkey flowered centerpiece on the table.

It looked like a Norman Rockwell picture

except with a lasagna.

Everything was perfect.


That is until my family actually

showed up to eat.


You see, the reason that my aunt was going

through so much effort was

that there were multitudes of family problems.

My uncle had stopped talking to my grandmother,

even though they lived in the same house.


My parents and my other Grandmother

had just moved from Texas to California.

My parents were staying with my Aunt and Uncle,

my Grandmother and two cousins


 My other grandmother and I were staying

at my sister and brother in law,

my grandmother had the bed and I was sleeping on the floor.

And the rents were so high in California,

it was looking like we might be there for a while.

Everyone was pretty cranky with everyone else.


But, the biggest stressor:

My aunt and uncle were getting a divorce.

My uncle had told my father –

my aunt’s brother – but my aunt didn’t know

that my father knew and since my father knew,

my mother knew, and since my mother knew

I knew, but they didn’t want to tell the kids

or either of my grandmothers about it.

We all seemed to know,

but no one was talking about it.

The place was tense.


So my aunt determined if we had a

wonderful family dinner like we did

in the good old days, that would

make everything better.

SO she made everything just perfect

and invited other relatives and friends over.

Whatever was going on we were going to have a

“traditional” Thanksgiving.


It didn’t work.

Because at one point

there was an argument, my uncle ended up leaving the house

and my aunt ended up hyperventilating into a paper bag.

We didn’t even get to the dessert.


Now I’m sure everyone else here

has only had wonderful, picturesque, holiday experiences.

I’m sure none of your holidays

has ever been tense or unpleasant.

But maybe you can imagine what mine

was like, or at least what my aunt was up to.


What my aunt was trying to do was

to cover up the hurt and the pain,

the tension and the distrust

and the bad behavior in my family

with some “traditions”

and a good looking table.


She reasoned that if we did

all the right things as far as

appearance was concerned,

if we performed the traditions

that would make up for everything.


In hindsight you could tell that this

was not going to work, but

the reasoning is not too ridiculous


This has been exactly the reasoning for those

who have worshipped God throughout the ages.


Since before the Israelites got the

Ten Commandments, we all have reasoned that if we

go through the right motions,

if we comply with the task of tradition,

if we do what our ancestors did,

that will fix anything that is wrong.

Somehow, that will make everything clean again.


It’s better to look good than to actually be good.


The Pharisees did this with the rules of the Torah.

The hand washing, the processes with

food and with cleanliness and all the rest.


Now washing before eating is obviously a good idea hygienically,

but that wasn’t why they wanted Jesus to do it.

It was a ritual.

And in itself, it was a good ritual.

It was an imitation of the priest who would wash his  

hands and feet before going into the temple.


It meant to signify our uncleanliness,

it stressed our humility and our humanity

before the awesome otherness of God.


But not everyone who did the human tradition

of washing hands remembered their own

humility and uncleanliness.

Like humans tend to do, they started to do it mindlessly

it started to lose its real meaning,

and they started to believe that

they were better than others just for performing the ritual.


These rules were not bad in themselves.

They brought the worship of God into

the Jewish people’s everyday life.

They reminded the people that God

was involved in all they did.

These actions would keep the people

mindful to follow God’s will in their lives.


But eventually, these rules and traditions

overshadowed God’s will.

And to the people, they became God’s will.

Eventually, the religious leaders only took account of

whether these rules and traditions were being followed correctly.


Instead of asking

·         Were the widows and the orphans being cared for?

·         Were the hungry being fed?

·         Were the people being treated fairly with justice?

·         Was God’s will being done in their community.


They only looked to see:

·         Were people washing their hands at the right time?

·         were all the sacrifices being done properly?

·         Was the Sabbath being kept perfectly?


Jesus was not amused.

He told them that this kind of thinking was dumb.

It’s not what goes in it’s what comes out of us.


So then, you think that would all change with Christianity.

But the Christian church in the early and

Middle ages almost instantly repeated this same cycle.

They focused on

·         doing worship exactly the right way,

·         wearing the right liturgical clothes

·         on praying the right prayers the right amount of times


Again, this stuff was supposed to remind them

of God’s will and God’s desire for the world.

But again, the religious leaders only looked to see

if the new rules were being done properly,

And if someone had the time to do it,

they were deemed them worthy,

and if not they were bound for hell.

Again, the rules took the place of God’s will.


 Then came Martin Luther. And Martin Luther was not amused.

He told everyone that their works wouldn’t save them,

only God’s grace.


So you think that as Lutherans, we would have this problem solved.

Think again.


We still do the same things today.

Now we have individually made up our own traditions and rules.

For Lutherans, we want to make sure things were just the same

as when grandpa was worshipping here,

and we always resort to everyone having proper doctrine and theology

we have elevated that to God’s will for us.


And there are plenty of other new rules

and traditions for us and for other modern Christians.

·         Do we worship the right way?

·         Do we sing the right hymns?

·         Do we have the perfect doctrine and understanding of theology?


When we use these things to remind us

about God’s will, they are great things.

But yet again as in history, we have

made these traditions into the will of God.

The church is like my aunt at that Thanksgiving dinner.

We think that if we get the table right and the candles

right and the lasagna tastes right,

then we can fool everyone in to believing

that everything is really okay.


In today’s gospel story,

Jesus comes to tell the Pharisees, and us that the jig is up.

God has not been fooled for one minute

by the table settings, and the smiling faces, and the hand washings.


And those of us who have been doing

the traditions well and hiding behind them

should not think that we are any

better than the ones who have not.


God doesn’t just want to see the

glitz and the glamour and the show,

The beaded napkin holders and the good china.

God wants to reach us,

right down in the pit of our souls,

God wants to love us, and heal us and transform us.


God wants us to be asking:

·         Are the poor and rejected being cared for?

·         Are the hungry being fed?

·         Are the people being treated fairly with justice?

·         Is God’s will being done in our community.

Not whether our religious traditions are being followed

to the tea, not whether we perform the rituals correctly.


If we think that we can be made

well by our own ability to follow the rituals

and  re-inact the traditions,

then why did we need Jesus?


 Jesus tells us that God knows about the evil that

roams around in our hearts.

Adultery, theft, avarice, envy, slander, pride, folly.

Jesus knows that we are broken and sinful

Jesus knows what the fancy table setting

and the Thanksgiving food is actually hiding.

Jesus is not fooled by it.

But Jesus still comes to eat with us anyway.


Jesus knows that our hands are dirty.

All the rituals in the world will not make them any cleaner.

But it doesn’t matter.

We always come to God with dirty hands

our own washing does nothing.

It is only the love of God that makes them clean.