Sermon by Pastor Dan Ruth, Executive Director at LPGM

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

This is the third week in a sermon series here at Bethlehem titled, “This Changes Everything”. Two weeks ago, Pastors Ben and Mary talked about how our faith calls us to be vulnerable, to open up, to allow ourselves to be known. It’s scary to be known, deeply known, intimately known, by God or by other people. But it’s also deeply freeing.

Last week, Ben talked about being challenged. About how Jesus call us to give up our incessant need to be right all the time. To let go of what we think we know to be true and actually listen to others (who may just be speaking the words of God).

If being known and being challenged aren’t scary enough ideas for you, this week we’re talking about being changed.

Yeesh.

In today’s Gospel reading, a couple things happen. In the first few verses, we heard, Jesus and his disciples are kind of secretly passing through Galilee. The writer is a little vague on details, but Jesus has this whole “messianic secret”-thing. He alludes to his future death and resurrection, the disciples don’t understand what he’s talking about, and are too afraid to ask.

There’s silence.

They keep going until they come to the village of Capernaum, in northern Galilee. Jesus asks them what they were talking about (arguing about) on the way, and again, more silence. And when Jesus pries it out of them, they sheepishly admit they were arguing about who among them was the greatest.

Yeah, probably better to just keep your mouths shut on that one, guys.

Finally, in response to their argument, Jesus puts a child in the middle of them and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

That’s all well and good.

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

We’ve heard it many times before. We assume we know what Jesus is saying when he says “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

“Of course,” we tell ourselves, and our Christian churches tell us. “Faithful discipleship is about being a servant. A servant leader, even. We know that.”

A servant leader. Be nicer to people. Treat your employees, your colleagues, your neighbors as if they were part of your own family. Smile! Remember their names. Ask how they’re doing, and really listen to their answer. Smile! Ask for their ideas and opinions, and at least pretend like you’ll consider them! Don’t forget to smile!

Servant leadership we can do.

(As a side note, I looked at data on the term “servant leader” going back hundreds of years. It was virtually nonexistent until around 1975 or so. And then, out of nowhere, it exploded. Literally almost a vertical line through the 80s, 90s, and continuing in the 2000s.)

But I want to stop for a minute because I don’t think Jesus is actually talking about our idea of “servant leadership” at all, where we can basically continue to be ourselves, but maybe just a little bit nicer.

Jesus is saying something much more radical than that.

Jesus put a child in the middle of the disciples, and told them that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” On the surface, that looks to us like a perfect example of servant leadership. Awww, what a cute little child! Of course, we welcome her in your name, Jesus. She’s so sweet!

But that’s not how the disciples – or others around 1st Century Palestine – would have viewed this encounter.

Children in Jesus’ time weren’t innocent blank slates on which adults foisted all their hopes and dreams. They didn’t represent innocence, or purity, or delicate fragility in the way they often do in our culture. In Jesus’ culture, children were considered unformed, invisible non-persons. Frankly, a child shouldn’t have even been hanging around Jesus and his disciples. The children should have been off on the margins, along with the women, the poor, the impure and the unclean.

But that’s exactly why Jesus uses a child to repudiate the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest.

“Greatness” in the ancient Mediterranean world, in Jesus’ culture, primarily came through three things: wealth, purity and humility.

Wealth — which was tied very closely to land ownership — was maybe something the disciples didn’t have much of. But purity and humility, on the other hand…

Purity was a big deal for Jewish people in Jesus’ time. Categories of “clean” and “unclean” were defined in detail in the Hebrew Torah and the interpretations and legal codes that surrounded them. They defined who could partake in various religious ceremonies, who could associate with whom, and who was honorable.

And that honor tied right into the third aspect of “greatness”: humility. Humility was about knowing your place and staying there. Don’t try to rise above your station. Be content with what you’ve got.

The disciples’ argument about who was the greatest assumed a social structure that Jesus rejects altogether. If you look at story after story in the gospels — particularly Mark’s gospel — to see a strong pattern. The people who should understand Jesus the most, the disciples, the religious leaders, the well-educated… those people should understand Jesus the most, but they consistently miss the point. They fail to understand Jesus message because they’re caught up in the “greatness” of their own lives.

And it’s the people who should understand the least — the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the immigrants — who consistently get Jesus’ message.

There’s a video on YouTube that I love. It’s of a French-Canadian prophet named Jean Vanier, who started a community for people with developmental disabilities. In this video, he says:

We’re in a culture where power and beauty and capacity have value. A culture of force, of individual success. Each one going up, going up the ladder as high as they can go and promotion and money and all this sort of stuff.

There’s a culture which is saying that I have to be more powerful than my neighbor. And being more powerful than my neighbor, I don’t learn to share it with people. I learn to be above them.

How could this change? The question will always be how to lose power.

So spirituality then is about getting close to people who’ve been rejected. It’s breaking down the wall that separates the rich and the poor.

But there’s something else: it’s a meeting. And the meeting implies that I’m not better than you… you’re not better than me. We’re just children of God.

Jesus puts a child in the middle of the disciples in order to shock his disciples, so they see differently. So they see that the kingdom of God is not about greatness, or power, or prestige, but that the kingdom of God is about truly seeing people — meeting people — who are on the margins.

Outside the sanctuary in the narthex, there is information about sponsoring students — either in India through Lutheran Partners (my organization), or in Ethiopia through HMCHA – the Holistic Ministry for the Children of the Horn of Africa.

In India, most of these students are Dalit, a designation that puts them outside the traditional caste system. Dalits used to be called “Untouchables” and technically, they don’t even have a caste. For centuries they were given the worst, lowest-paying jobs, weren’t allowed to own land, and even had to live outside the village, lest a higher caste person be defiled by touching or seeing them.

And while the Indian Constitution now provides some protections and representation for Dalit people, there is a long path ahead of them toward equality.

Education of the kind that sponsorship provides can make a huge difference. A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live past the age of five, and more than twice as likely to send her children to school. And each extra year of school for a child can increase his income later in life up to 10%, or her income up to 25%. For each extra year of school.

Sponsoring a student is one way of meeting them.

But beware. It might change you, too.

Stepping off the ladder of success, as Jean Vanier puts it, and truly seeing the people Jesus would see changes you. It changes how you see the world, how you act, how you interact, how you pray, and how you pay.

Now, this sermon isn’t about the virtues of sponsorship or trying to get you to pay Lutheran Partners in order to clear your conscience (a sort of 21st Century indulgence for the white man’s burden).

This sermon is about being willing – no, it’s not about will, it’s about acknowledging the need to be changed, by seeing, knowing, listening to those people whom the world has disregarded. It’s about spending time looking around, not up. It’s about working to change the systems, the practices, the laws that keep people on the margins and welcoming them as if they were Jesus himself.

Quoting Jean Vanier again, he says:

There’s only one thing that really matters: relationship. Do you love me? Do you love me as I am? And so that is a place of revelation.

A moment of communion. A moment of joy. And that’s where, fundamentally, joy is. When we meet people, not above them, not below them, but as children of God.

Amen.