Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Greatest in the Kingdom (J. Barry Vaughn)

Today’s gospel reading is one of the most touching stories in all of scripture. Jesus says,”’Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”


And we all say a collective, “Awwww… isn’t that sweet?”


I have a small confession to make: One of the highlights of my week comes when Brian and Stephanie bring Brooke to the altar and Kevin and Krystal bring Sydney to the altar and I get to bless them. They are adorable. When I make the sign of the cross on them and tell them that God’s blessing is upon them and they look at me with those sweet and innocent eyes, I go a little bit gooey inside.


But we need to remember the context for this story about Jesus and the little child. It begins in a very different key. “"The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”


Betrayal… violence… murder… fear…


The catalyst for this story about the little child is a quarrel among the disciples. “What were you arguing about?” Jesus asked them. And then there was that embarrassed silence.


You know what an embarrassed silence is like. You’re telling a joke. It might be a little off color or it might be a joke that stereotypes people of a different race or religion or gender. We all know jokes such as that, and if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve told jokes such as that. So you’re telling this inappropriate joke and your boss walks in or your wife or husband or maybe even your priest.


So the disciples are quarrelling about who’s the greatest, the best, and all of a sudden, Jesus pulls the car over to the side of the road and turns around and looks into the back seat and says, “OK! Stop it! What’s all the fuss about?” And there’s complete silence for a very long, embarrassing minute.


Then one of them speaks up. I’ll bet it was Peter. “We were talking about… uh… well, I mean it was really John… and he said you liked him best… and I said, ‘Nuh uh!’ He likes me best…”


So then Jesus sees a school about a hundred yards up the road on the right. And they drive up there. And there a bunch of kindergarten kids in the playground. And he scoops one up in his big, calloused carpenter’s hands and puts the little girl on his shoulders and says, “Do you see her? She’s the greatest. If you want to be great, then be like her.”


And the disciples look at the little girl’s face. She’s been playing kick ball and there’s some chocolate on the side of her mouth, so she needs to wash her face. But she’s completely adorable.


But remember what the disciples were arguing about. And remember what Jesus was saying about his own death before the argument.


Jesus wasn’t saying that children are great because they are innocent. He was saying that the disciples were arguing about the wrong thing. They thought that Jesus’ kingdom was just like every other kingdom in the world. They thought that Jesus’ kingdom would be about power and glory.


But Jesus and his kingdom are not about power. They are about loving and serving others. He picked up the child because the child was completely powerless. The greatest in the kingdom is not the most powerful but the least powerful. The kingdom is about the powerful serving the powerless. It is about the strong serving the weak.


Jesus picked up a child because his day and our day are a lot alike. Both in his time and in our time, children are powerless and vulnerable.


NYTimes’ columnist Nicholas Kristof has a particular interest in the plight of women and children in the developing world. In June he wrote a column about Katum, a 28 year old mother in Sudan who had just lost a 2 year old daughter to starvation and who feared that her 4 other children would starve, too.


Children are vulnerable in Sudan because a civil war is going on and the government is bombing its own people. Children are vulnerable in China because in traditional Chinese culture, there is a bias against girls and because China’s one child policy means that parents sometimes practice selective abortion to eliminate female fetuses or even abandon girl babies.


And children are even vulnerable right here in America. Last year Sesame Street ran a one hour special about a little girl named Lily who sometimes went to bed hungry. The Dept of Agriculture estimates that 1 in 5 American children is at risk of under-nourishment.


One of the things that upsets me is the popular image of religion. People seem to have the idea that religion is other worldly, out of touch with reality, and unconcerned about the real world. Well, maybe sometimes that’s true. Sometimes we do close our eyes to the real world and sometimes the music of our hymns drowns out the cries of hungry children.


But the Bible is realistic. If we read the Bible and really hear what it is saying, then we will get a big dose of reality.


Listen to Psalm 54:


Save me, O God, by your Name; *
in your might, defend my cause.


Hear my prayer, O God; *
give ear to the words of my mouth.


For the arrogant have risen up against me,
and the ruthless have sought my life, *
those who have no regard for God.


Behold, God is my helper; *
it is the Lord who sustains my life.


Render evil to those who spy on me; *
in your faithfulness, destroy them.


Save me… defend me… hear my prayer… give ear to the words of my mouth…


These are the words of someone who is desperate. This is what that 28 year old mother in Sudan would say to God.


“For the arrogant have risen up against me… the ruthless … those who have no regard for God… have sought my life…”


I’m glad that we read from the Psalms every week. And I’m especially glad that the congregation gets to say the words of the psalm. The psalms are the prayers and praises of Israel.


But there are different kinds of psalms. Last week we read Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.”


Psalm 19 is a magnificent psalm of praise. It has the cadence, the rhythm, the vocabulary of the Book of Common Prayer.


But not all the psalms are so stately. Some of the psalms are pleas for help from people who are in desperate situations.


Think of Psalm 22: “My God, my God… why have you forsaken me and are so far from the cries of my mouth?”


Psalm 54 was not composed by a monk in a cell or a seminary professor who spent all her time in a library. Psalm 54 comes from the heart; it comes from the gut. Psalm 54 is fortissimo, not pianissimo. It is composed in dark E flat minor, not sunny C major.


But perhaps the most difficult verses in Psalm 54 are these:


“Render evil to those who spy on me; *
in your faithfulness, destroy them.”


“Render EVIL to those who spy on me… destroy them…”


How can we say these things, much less pray them in church?


Remember that the Bible is profoundly realistic. Jesus did NOT say that we would have no enemies. He told us to love our enemies. He did not say that it would always be sunny and mild with the temperature between 75 and 80 and with no humidity.


Jesus told us that we would have enemies. He said that he would suffer and die and invited us to follow him and take up our cross and that what happened to him would happen to those who followed him.


When the disciples were acting like a bunch of high school boys in a locker room, he picked up a child and said, “Look at this little girl. If you want to be great, then be like her.”


To make sense of the psalms, we have to remember that before they were printed on on gold edged paper and bound between leather covers, they were the prayers of people who sometimes faced hunger and violence and were in desperate circumstances.


The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this: “The words of men to God have become the Word of God to us.” In the Psalms, we are allowed to listen in as Israel prayed, and we find that they were just like us.


They were astounded by the beauty of nature: “like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and there is nothing hid from its heat.


They overflowed with the praise of God: “God is in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his exceeding greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!”


And they even longed for God to kill their enemies: “Render evil to those who spy on me… destroy them…”


The Reformer John Calvin said, “The Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated."


So let’s be honest: sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, we want God to destroy people. There are one or two people… well, maybe even more than one or two… maybe a whole lot of people whom we think really deserve God’s wrath. We think God should really let ‘em have it.


But remember the disciples? Remember what they were quarrelling about? Remember the little child?


You and I are not powerless. No one here is going to be hungry tonight. And if you are, then there’s something you can do about it. This is a congregation full of genuinely caring people.


The psalms give us permission to tell God what we really think. The psalms give us permission to tell God that we’d like him to hurl a thunderbolt at our boss or at the neighbors who don’t cut their grass often enough.


But when we do that, we need to remember the little child. The terrible verses of the psalms really belong to her, to the truly vulnerable and powerless. And when we call down the wrath of God on our boss or the mayor or the guy who cut us off in traffic, then we should stop and think about who really deserves the wrath of God and who really deserves the mercy of God. Then we should pray about what we can do for the mother in Sudan with four hungry children … and maybe even for the family down the street.