A Sermon from M

In response to some discussion at Canterbury Trail, I suppose we’re starting to put our money where are mouth is. bls contended that many of the younger generation tend to be more traditional in theology than the previous generation. To support her point Caelius posted some sermon bits specifically underscore the issue of atonement and cross.

Now, I know there are all sorts of anxieties about priests these days–especially the *women* ones. So–here’s a representantive example of such preaching–it’s M’s last sermon before she left her last call.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37

Have you ever heard the expression: “He who dies with the most toys wins?”

I imagine it’s probably familiar to most of us. After all, toys are one of the most obvious ways that we can show people our worth, our value, our status. Believe it or not this isn’t a new concept. People have been jockeying for power ever since there have been people.

“He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Competition is part of the human spirit and our culture has not only elevated it, but exaggerated it.

“He who dies with the most toys wins.”

If you live according to this motto then life is, first of all, about competition—there are winners and losers and you’d better be a winner. Second, it means life is about stuff. Things. The motto doesn’t say “he who dies with the most friends wins”… It also doesn’t say: “He who dies the happiest wins.” No, it’s about things. Owning things, having things, keeping them from others. Today’s gospel today takes a different path.

Today’s gospel has something to say about this topic because it touches on some common themes. That is, it talks about dying—and it also talks about being first. But the conclusions that it comes to are wildly different. What does it mean to be first? What does it take to be number one? We certainly have our own ideas. The human greatness that our modern culture honors so much, envies, and tries to pursue—rank, wealth, power and recognition to name a few—can be attained, but it is bought at a very high price.

I recently read an article about a campus minister with Intervarsity at Stanford who, with the help of others, began a group specifically for faculty on campus. About a dozen or so professors would gather for breakfast every Friday morning for fellowship and conversation. The following year another group was started at the hospital on campus for medical faculty and physicians and several years after that a small group of physics professors began meeting with the same purpose in mind—food, Christian fellowship and conversation. The campus minister did not know whether his idea would flourish or be a complete flop, but over those several years more than 100 faculty members joined in. He wrote of those group meetings, “When we started most people did not know each other, so every Friday a different professor shared his or her Christian story. The very first Friday morning Doug disarmed everyone with a candid account of his disintegrating marriage. The following week Tony related his frustrations with raising teenagers. Another recounted his financial failures. In the succeeding months it became clear that these remarkably gifted people who had reached the pinnacle of professional success were more interested in sharing their lives rather than mere idea. The group took on a distinctly pastoral rather than an academic ethos. How do you balance personal and professional responsibilities? How do spouses negotiate dual careers with heavy demands?……Does God care about my neuroscience research? I still remember the morning that Chuck spoke for many of those exceptionally gifted and gracious professors when he noted with his trademark sardonic wit that ‘behind every great man there often lies a trail of human wreckage’”.

“…behind every great man there often lies a trail of human wreckage”.

These professors, some of the greatest minds in the country, who at a glance appeared to have everything, came together not to share ideas or current research, but to share their lives with each other- to share their brokenness. In their climb up the ladder to success they left many things behind. They neglected family and friends. They ignored co-workers and others doing whatever it took to get ahead and be on top. And when they finally reached their goal—you know what? It was empty and lonely. The type of greatness that the campus minister speaks of has a limited capacity to nourish human fulfillment. It may get us a lot of status. It may even win us a lot of toys. But it doesn’t protect us from human vulnerabilities and instead separates us from the people we love and who love us back. We may love our toys, but our toys won’t love us back.

“If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus shows us a different way. Jesus shows us a way that turns its back on both his culture and ours and their expectations and measures of success.

“If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

Servants then and now don’t have much in the way of status. Or power. Or toys. And yet Jesus points us to the way of service. He points us to a path of fulfillment that can only be achieved, not in isolation from others, but in direct contact with them. Jesus shows us a way of life that doesn’t cut off those who love us or see them as something that gets in the way. Instead the winners in Jesus’ game are the ones who love and go out of their way for those close to them—friends, spouses, and children.

This is the message that undermines what the culture teaches. This is the message that the world doesn’t want to hear. In fact, it would rather kill the messenger—and it did. This is a message that leads to the cross. But even there the world lost because in his dying Jesus demonstrates for those who walk in his steps what true love really looks like, a love that would give itself up for the redemption of the world.

It is interesting that Jesus chose a child as a sign of welcoming. We usually view children and babies as cute beings to be cuddled, rocked, and played with—as long as we have time to spare on that kind of thing. They are innocent and adorable creatures…and also the opposite of greatness. Society in the time of Jesus viewed children as ultimately insignificant because they lacked accomplishments, status, pretension, and power and were not considered wise.

And isn’t ours the same way?

And yet it is the children whom Jesus welcomes. Jesus is inviting each and every one of us to welcome all people regardless of status, or power, or wealth. Inviting the children means that the power, the status, and the toys mean precisely nothing. Jesus cares about none of it. To imitate children as Jesus commands is to see ourselves and others in the same manner, not as people whose significance lies in titles or honors, successes or failures, wealth or toys, but in the knowledge that we are human beings who God loves despite our brokenness and sinful nature.

God loves us just because he does—it’s who he is.

And it’s who Jesus invites us to be too.

3 thoughts on “A Sermon from M

  1. Joe

    Brilliant…absolutely brilliant Derek. And in light of the “money where your mouth is” discussion, it has the added bonus of being transcendent. It communicates the heart of the Gospel in a way that is recognizable to all Christians, regardless of political category or sect. Thanks to M, and to you for sharing it.

    Grace and Peace,

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