Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bethany Sermon I

Scripture: Mark 9.30-37

Title: On RADICAL Greatness

NOTE: the first part of this sermon was extemporaneous, so below I just give a brief description of the gist of what I said.

*I brought in a Superman figurine. I asked who it was. I declared Superman to be the greatest of all superheroes, because he has so many awesome powers such as flight, superhuman speed and strength, laser vision, x-ray vision, etc. I then said that superman has one weakness--kryptonite. It doesn't matter how great he is, this little rock of kryptonite can take away all his powers until he is just an ordinary person like you or me. *
*I then pulled out a nickle and dime from my pocket. I said to someone who doesn't know much about the U.S. monetary system, he or she would probably think the nickle is worth more than the dime--it's bigger and heavier. But for some strange reason, the dime is worth more! Five whole cents more! *
*I then recapped the Gospel lesson, basically talking about how the disciples were arguing amongst themselves who was the greatest, and Jesus asked them what they were arguing about and they were embarrassed and didn't say anything. But then Jesus took a child... then my sermon continued as follows:*

Jesus says whoever welcomes a child welcomes me, whoever welcomes me welcomes Father Now children in the ancient Greco-Roman world were hardly considered great at all. They had no power, no wealth. Have you ever heard the expression children were to be seen and not heard? Exactly the case here. And yet, Jesus takes this child and says that to welcome this child is to welcome Jesus.

This makes no sense—the disciples—who gave up their jobs and homes to follow Jesus should be the greatest. I mean they followed Jesus, they listened to all his teachings even if they didn’t always understand, they shared meals and journeys and all the ups and downs of Jesus’ ministry, and witnessed miracles beyond wonder and amazement. Yet Jesus doesn’t declare one of them to be the greatest—Jesus instead finds a random child, the lowliest of the low, and shows that by welcoming the least among us, we welcome Jesus, and by welcoming Jesus, we welcome God.

I’m sure it stunned the disciples, because it certainly shocks me. Like the nickel and dime, it doesn’t make sense for a child to be greater than a disciple. And yet in this radical kingdom of God, a child is greater than the disciple. To welcome a child is to welcome God! It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

This reminds me of a joke, actually. You may have heard it before. In a synagogue, congregants are gathered around, praying to God. A Rabbi shouts out in prayer “Oh Lord, I am nobody!” Another Rabbi is inspired and shouts out, too, “Oh Lord, I am nobody!” A visitor to the synagogue is inspired by the Rabbis and adds her own prayer, “Oh Lord, I am nobody!” The one Rabbi says to the other “Who is this person to think she’s nobody?”

We laugh, but how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing! I’m sure if we reflect, we can probably think of a time when we were like the disciples, are arguing amongst ourselves as to who is the greatest! Who here is the greatest? Who here is the cream of the crop? Perhaps the hostess with the mostest? The master maestro? The head hancho? The best as sports? The best at art? The best theologian? And yet, what does that mean? The prophet Isaiah writes “All flesh is grass, and the glory of the flower is grass. The grass withers, and the flower fades” (Isaiah 40.6). Greatness can be taken away. Just like kryptonite does to Superman, sometimes what we work hard for can vanish. The grass withers. And then what greatness are we left with?

Jesus is showing us here that what the world considers great, what we consider great, is not that great after all. It comes and goes. And, even worse, to be greatest inevitably means to have preference over others. One can only be great because someone else is not. That’s not a happy thought, is it? Instead, Jesus is showing the disciples here a new, radical form of greatness—the greatness that is found in hospitality for the least of these. Of helping those who need help, loving those who need loved, and comforting those who need consoled.

That is where the hope is. Because, sometimes we are like the child, aren’t we? Sometimes, we work hard, put our hearts and souls into something, and yet it falls through. Perhaps you worked your whole life in a company only for them to fire you in favor of someone younger? Or, maybe we find an illness keeping us from reaching our full potential. Or sometimes, other people are keeping us from reaching our full potential! How many times is it where we feel the exact opposite of great? Where we are discouraged, meek, or even afraid? We might be forgotten or sad or lonely.
We might feel hopeless in those times. But! Ah! This is where the hope comes in this gospel message today. Because Jesus promises us that he will be with us in those times. Jesus took the child in his arms—a child who was by no means great by the standards of the world—and told the disciples that whoever welcomes that child welcomes Jesus! That Jesus is with that child. Jesus is with us, too, when we are by no means feeling great. Jesus foretold his death and resurrection to the disciples, reminding them and us that by his death on the cross, a death as a criminal, the farthest thing from greatness you can imagine, that by his death and resurrection we have the promise that Jesus will be with us always. When we’re at our lowest, Jesus promised to hold us in his arms as he did to that child, and to provide us with comfort.

You see, in the radical world of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus empowers those without power, strengthens those without strength, comforts those who are comfortless, and gives greatness to those without greatness. And in this radical world we are called to welcome the least of these, we are the ones God calls to empower, to give strength to, and to comfort. There is no earthly greatness in the kingdom of heaven, only those who are last and servants of all. That is a greatness that no one can take from us, no kryptonite is strong enough to weaken the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So, I invite you this week to reflect. First, in what ways are we like the disciples in this passage? But also, reflect on this. Who is like the child in this passage? Who do we know that feels the absolute opposite of great right now? And, how can we welcome them? How can we remind them of the promise Jesus said, that by welcoming the weak and lowly, we welcome Jesus himself?

Let us pray***: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all bad thoughts and deeds, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

***The prayer was adapted from the prayer of the day found in the ELW for the pericope.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bethany Devotion III

A reading from 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

If you have been watching television at all this past month, then you have probably seen a commercial that has a familiar road as a fabulous foursome walks across the street, soon followed by a large crowd of people, coming together over music. The street is the famous Abbey Road in England, and the four young men, of course, are the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. The commercial is advertizing the release of a video game called the Beatles Rockband, where people can use a special videogame controller to play alongside the famous rock group.
It is amazing that thirty-nine years after the band broke up their music still has the ability to speak to new generations, as people come together over such famous songs as “Let it Be,” “All you Need is Love,” and “Hey Jude.” You know, for all the controversy and ups and downs in this famous band’s career, the music still speaks true to us all these years later. John Lennon’s song, “All You Need is Love,” perhaps speaks the most true to me. The repeated refrain “All You Need is Love” echoes the words of Saint Paul from the scripture today. “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,” John Lennon sings, and it is true. Saint Paul writes that even if I could speak with the tongues of angels! Angels! I would sound like a clanging gong—this loud, banging noise that rattles the brain almost—if I did not have love. Without love, nothing I can do would matter, it could not be done. It is love that drives forward all our heart’s desires, and enflames our speech with passion and truth. Love gives weight to our lives, meaning and power to our lives.
It is important to remember that this love is a gift from God. It is because God loved us first that we are able to love one another. In all we do, we must remember to love one another. God made us all in God’s own image. So when we have differences or disagreements, we have to remember to look past that and to see the image of God in the other person. And then, to reach out to that person with love.
And when times get tough for us, and when it seems all the color has drained out of the world and we are left with nothing, it is God’s love for us that will carry us through. Perhaps it is the love of a neighbor or friend or family member that will remind us of God’s love, or a favorite passage in scripture that can give us hope for better and brighter days.
So, as the Beatles music hits the charts again, bringing a whole new generation of fans, let us remember that no matter what happens in life, there is hope, faith, and love. And as Saint Paul—and Paul McCartney and John Lennon put to song—out of those three, “All you need is love! All you need is love! All you need is love, love, love is all you need!”

Let us pray: O God, King of the Universe, you gave us the gift of love so that we may share it with one another. Help us to see your love for us in our lives, open our eyes and our hearts to the work and movement of the Holy Spirit in this place. Through your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen.

And now, let us pray the prayer your Son taught us. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

And may the Lord bless you all on this day.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Devotion 2

My second morning devotion at Bethany Village Retirement Home.

A reading from Lamentations, chapter 3, verses 22-23(a).

22The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,

His mercies never come to an end;

23they are new every morning

This past summer I traveled to Cape Cod and the surrounding areas for the first time with my family. There we visited many historical sites, things and places that amaze and cause me wonder. But nothing shines so clearly in my mind as one morning—one of the last days of the vacation—when I went out to watch the sunrise over the ocean. Here I was—the vast ocean before me, alone on the beach except for the sound of waves making towards the sandy shore, the smell of salt in the air. The beach was empty. There were no footprints, not a single one was left over from the many people who had been here the day before. The sky was empty, just a slow grey in the horizon that slowly began to melt to a blue before, in an instant! The sun appeared over the horizon. In that moment the sea sparkled and shone with such brilliance. The sky burst into colors I had never knew even existed, as if it were painted by the hand of God.

In that moment, I felt like I was the very first person to set foot on the beach, that I was some unknown traveler discovering a new ground—this is what the pilgrims must have felt when they first touched foot onto these same sand beaches.

Soon, the afternoon would come and the beach would become crowded with summer tourists and sunbathers and children building sand castles. But then! The night will come, people will go home. The high tide will wash away any sign that people had ever been there before, leaving an undiscovered land for sojourners the next morning.

In that sunrise was revealed to me the never ending mercies and grace of God. I was on a beach that was completely empty, spotless—not a single footprint in the sand. Yet just twelve or so hours before it had been bustling and busy. The grace of God I think is like that. Every morning, every sunrise brings new grace and mercy. A chance to get up, a new person in Christ Jesus, free of the worries of yesterday.

Each day brings new faces, each day new challenges, each day a chance to do good, however small that chance is. Every day is an opportunity. A slate wiped clean, a beach washed clean from the tide, every day brings hope, and the steadfast love of our God. So, I ask of you, what will you do today? Where will God speak to you? Where will your chance to do good come? And even if today is a bad day, remember that this sun will set, and a new one will rise. For it was grace that brought us safe this far, and grace that will lead us home.

Let us pray together the words our savior taught us: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.

O God, you have called us your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.