Sermon by Mary Beenken, Luther Seminary Graduate

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace from our Lord and savior Jesus who is the Christ.

Good morning! My name is Mary Beenken, and it’s a joy to be here worshipping with you today. If you don’t know me, I’m a recent graduate of Luther Seminary and soon-to-be pastor. I grew up attending the Minneapolis campus of Bethlehem every time we visited my grandparents in the Twin Cities, and I was a member myself during my time in seminary—so I was delighted when the team here at Bethlehem asked if I would be willing to preach today.

This is the third week of a sermon series called “This Changes Everything.” As you’ve been walking together through the Gospel of Mark, you’ve been considering the claim that a relationship with Jesus changes, well, everything for the people of God. You’ve heard that in this relationship you’ll be known by God—but also that you’ll be challenged. Today, I’d like to invite you to also imagine how you will be changed.

Last week, Jesus’ disciples learned for the first time that he is the Messiah and that he will have to suffer and die. And the disciples were perplexed—because you see, for almost 500 years, the people of Israel have been waiting for a prophesied Messiah who would deliver them from their oppressors…and now Jesus tells them this Messiah has come, only to die? How could that possibly save Israel?

Well, the same thing happens in the passage that we heard just a few minutes ago: Jesus tells his disciples once again that he will be betrayed, that he will die, and that he will rise on the third day. And once again, his disciples don’t know what to do with this alarming new information—so instead of asking Jesus clarifying questions like “why?” or “what do you mean?”, they do what people so often do when they’re confused: They start arguing. And when Jesus asks what they are arguing about, they all hang their heads and shuffle their feet and sheepishly say…nothing. Because it turns out that what they were arguing about was which one of them was the greatest.

But Jesus doesn’t rebuke them—instead, he sits them down and offers another new teaching: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Whoever wants to be first…must be last.

Now, I have to think that the disciples didn’t understand that either. It’s a pretty typical human urge to seek greatness—to seek the admiration of our peers or power over our inferiors. We’re hard-wired for it. Because greatness, after all, is more than just power and admiration. It’s survival. We seek greatness because we think it means that we will be safe, that we will have enough, that we will matter. On the other hand, to be “least of all” is to be vulnerable. It means that others can pick on you and ignore you.

And yet, here comes Jesus, telling the disciples that the way to be “first” is not to ascend to the top—rather, it is to humble yourself all the way to last place and to serve the others who find themselves at the bottom.

And then he does something else unexpected: he takes a child, embraces her, and puts her in the midst of the disciples. And he says, “Whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In the ancient world, children were seen as undeveloped, unable to contribute to society, not yet fully-formed people. Children were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, so in very real ways, a child in Jesus’ time could have been considered “last of all.” Sadly, that is often still the case today. All over the world, including here in the Twin Cities, children are vulnerable. When Jesus calls us to welcome children, he means it literally.

For the last four years, I have had the privilege of serving on the board of directors of one of Bethlehem Twin Cities’ mission partners. It’s an organization called Lutheran Partners in Global Ministries, or LPGM. Some of you may be familiar with LPGM: Perhaps you sponsor the education of a child through LPGM, or perhaps you attended last year’s annual fundraiser right here at the Minnetonka campus of Bethlehem. If you aren’t familiar, that’s ok too. LPGM works with partners around the world to improve the quality of life by providing access to quality education. There are many ways we do this, but I’ll give you just three examples:

  • In Guatemala, we partner with a conservation organization that educates women in agroecology so that they can, in turn, bring new farming techniques and crops back to their communities.
  • In Tanzania, we support a safehouse and safe school program for girls who have had to flee their homes to avoid early marriage or domestic abuse.
  • And in India, in perhaps our best-known program, we facilitate student sponsorships for over 1000 students a year in six different boarding homes.

I promise I’m not just telling you about LPGM to plug my favorite organization (even though I believe very, very deeply in it!) Actually, LPGM and Bethlehem have a lot of shared history—LPGM was started by members of Bethlehem over twenty years ago, and this congregation has worked with LPGM on many different projects across the years to make real and concrete changes in the lives of people around the world. But the reason I’m telling you this is because you here at Bethlehem are in the midst of an exciting moment. This summer, your pastors at Bethlehem Twin Cities hosted a series of “What’s Next” meetings to discuss some of the threads that are critical to Bethlehem’s shared work. One of those threads is that Bethlehem is working to focus its outreach conversations with its partners, including LPGM, around bigger issues—one of which is education. And you’re having those conversations because you are taking seriously Jesus’ command to serve those around you.

My husband Nathan and I had an amazing opportunity to travel to India this summer to meet some of LPGM’s partners and those we are working together to serve. I’d like to tell you about a particularly special afternoon, but before I can do that, I have to explain a bit about traditional Indian culture.

Indian society is divided into an extremely hierarchical system of social classes called castes. One is born into a certain caste and remains there for life, and many privileges and opportunities are dependent upon which caste a person belongs to. At the bottom of this social pyramid are the Dalits—or, as they are sometimes called, the Untouchables. Traditionally, Dalits are barred from all but the most menial jobs, like cleaning up sewage, and in former times they were required to wear brooms around their waists to sweep their “unclean” footprints away as they walked. Even today, many Dalits are so poor that they are unable to attend school, find work, or get representation in government. In very real ways, Dalits are “the least of all” that Jesus is referring to.

One afternoon this past August, Nathan and I visited the boarding home where a girl who is sponsored by my grandmother lives, and the staff arranged for us to meet her family. Her name was Nanthini. She is fourteen years old, and like the vast majority of the students who are sponsored through LPGM, she is a Dalit. We drove out to a nearby village where Nanthini’s uncle lived—her parents did not own their own home, so they had agreed to meet at the uncle’s house. They themselves traveled seven hours by train because they were migrant workers in another part of India. As we arrived, the uncle ran out into a nearby field to fetch Nanthini’s grandfather so that he could meet us too. The grandfather returned, wearing only a piece of cloth around his waist and wiping sweat from his forehead. With the help of a staff person, Nanthini translated a letter that we had brought from my grandma. Nanthini’s grandfather listened closely, tears running down his dusty cheeks. His voice cracked as he told us how grateful he was that Nanthini would have a better life than he or his children had—a better life than they themselves could have ever provided for her.

And it’s true that education radically changes lives. Statistically speaking, Nanthini’s life expectancy and that of any children she may choose to have is extended simply because she can read, and she’ll be able to meaningfully support herself and her family for years to come. And Nanthini’s life is changed in ways that statistics can’t show: She has self-worth, she knows that her ideas matter, she has a community to help her grow. Rather than being a laborer, at the age of fourteen, she gets to be a kid.

But the thing is, Nanthini’s life isn’t the only one that was changed by that encounter. I was changed. Because it’s one thing to sit in a board meeting and hear statistics, and quite another to meet another child of God face-to-face and see the impact that the love of Christ has left. Jesus knows this—and that is why he tells his disciples to become “last of all and servant of all.” It is not to satisfy some requirement to get into heaven, and it is not to chastise the rich or the comfortable. No, Jesus calls us to humble ourselves because when we become “servant of all,” we can’t help but consider who we socialize with, how we vote, what we buy, who our habits affect. If we leave out the vulnerable in our churches, in our policies, or in our culture, we leave out God—but when we uphold the innate value of all God’s children, we welcome the greatest one of all. Jesus calls us to be servant of all because finally, whether we’re powerful or lowly, we are all bound together in the Kingdom of God.

I know that this is a lot—change is hard. To leave behind all notions of “greatness” and become “least of all” is to live counter to the ways of the world. But the good news is that we don’t have to do this by ourselves. By becoming human, God shows us how to humble ourselves. On the cross, Jesus provides the ultimate example of becoming “last of all and servant to all.” That’s what he was trying to tell the disciples. God recognizes that there is something in all of us that feels small and vulnerable, like a child. God knows our suffering, knows that we all have deep pain and longing. In saying that to be first is to be last, Jesus is calling us to recognize that same reality in each other—to know that we are all caught in the sadness and brokenness of this world, and to work with God to alleviate this reality by loving our neighbors as freely and as fiercely as God loves us.

When that happens, the lines between the “greatest” and the “least” or between “first” and “last” are erased. And when those lines are gone, we are left with the beautiful, salvific knowledge that we are all equally children of God.