Jesus Seeks and Saves

Luke 19 zaccchaeus-the-publican

“Jesus Seeks and Saves”

Luke 19:1-10 – September 1, 2019

Do you know anyone who is really unpopular? I mean, so unpopular that people turn their backs and ignore them when they come around? That is just the sort of person we are going to talk about today: a particularly unpopular, even despised person.

The Gospel of Luke chapter 19 tells us of the tax collector Zacchaeus and the encounter he had with the Rabbi Jesus. Jesus had been in ministry for almost three years, and I suspect that He was a celebrity in the Jewish population. Perhaps even of rock-star-status, given Jesus had healed people, cast demons out of people, and performed all sorts of other miracles for the past three years. It’s no wonder Jesus attracted such a crowd wherever He went!

When you or I read about tax collectors during the first century, we might think they were simply unpleasant people tasked with an unfortunate job. Because, someone had to do it! The Roman Empire occupied a huge territory, including the region of what is now Israel and Palestine. The Roman army was the occupying force that policed the region. The conquered Jewish people were a subjugated people. But, that was not all.

No one likes to pay taxes. And, taxes are even worse when they are being collected by an occupying force, like the Romans. Except—the Romans were fiendishly clever. Some of the native population was used to collect taxes. Here’s what happened. The taxation system the Romans used was ripe for abuse. The Roman government farmed out the collection of taxes and sold off the right to do tax collection to the highest bidder. All that was necessary was that the Romans receive their assessed financial amount at the end of the year. Any money over that amount could be kept by the native-born tax collector. And, boy, did they collect the money! As I said before, this was a scheme sure to be abused. Talk about a shakedown racket!

Was it any wonder that these tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews? These Jewish shakedown artists collaborated with the Roman overlords, besides being seen as extortionists for collecting double, and even triple the amount stipulated by the Roman tax assessment.

Some people think the United States tax code is punishing. They haven’t seen anything, compared to these tax collectors who were backed up by the force of the occupying Romans. In other words, just in case any Jewish person was even thinking of not paying taxes, the Roman army could come knocking at the door and drag them off to prison for tax dereliction. What is more, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, in charge of all the other tax collectors in the region. He must have been simply rolling in dough.

There is more, in terms of social consequences. Even though he was very wealthy, Zacchaeus had lost his place in the local synagogue, was not permitted to attend worship services, and was totally ostracized from all “decent society” in town. I mention all this to let everyone know what a scandal it was.

On top of everything else, Zacchaeus was extremely short, and probably felt even worse because of his little stature. New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that “Zacchaeus wanted to stand out to gain recognition, but the result was that he was isolated and rejected. He felt compelled to set himself above people because, alongside them, he felt too small. So perhaps there was a vicious cycle of insecurity, exploitation of others, loneliness, and rejection at work in Zacchaeus’s relationships in the community, or, more accurately, his lack of relationships.” [1]

But, no matter what, this guy really wanted to see the Rabbi Jesus!

We know what happened. Reading from Luke 19, Zacchaeus “wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So, he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.” Can you just see Zacchaeus, his head and shoulders poking out between the branches of a sycamore tree? What about the Rabbi Jesus? He called Zacchaeus by name! Can you imagine? Calling a hated tax collector by name, and even proclaiming that He would eat dinner at that tax collector’s house that evening?

What a scandal! What a horrible thing for a respectable Jewish Rabbi to do! Can you imagine what all the “decent folk” in Jericho had to say about that?

Yet, isn’t this just like Jesus?

Again and again in the Gospels, especially in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus side with those on the margins, those who are the least of these, those who are disrespected and dismissed. Jesus comes alongside of the down and out and those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world. “While Zacchaeus is rich, he is nevertheless despised by his neighbors, counted as nothing, even as worse than nothing. Yet Jesus singles him out.” [2]

I follow the social media account Invisible People on Twitter. This account regularly posts articles and photos of those people who are invisible to society at large: the homeless. The vignettes and stories are heartbreaking, on a daily basis. The followers who read Invisible People meet person after person who had a job and lost it, or had a spouse and lost them, or had an extended health reversal and lost their apartment, or any one of a dozen other sad scenarios. These people teetering on the poverty line, or even below it, pull at anyone’s heart strings.

Yet, to many people across our country, any mention of the homeless or those in shelters or camping in the woods because they do not have any other place to stay is certainly similar to mentioning “tax collectors” in first century Palestine. These “invisible” friends are despised by many “decent folk,” many who have money, education, experience, or moderately good health.

These “invisible people” of today are on the margins of society, similar to the tax collectors of the first century. Reading from Luke 19, we get some indication of what the onlookers said: “Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?” 8 Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

Jesus responds in typical, loving, caring Jesus-fashion: He lets everyone know that Zacchaeus is just as good as any of the “decent folk.” 9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”

Who has a corner on perfect righteousness and standing before God? Which of us is not lost and wandering, at times? Don’t we all need to be found and restored to God’s loving embrace? Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, the wandering, the people on the margins and the outskirts of society, as well as “decent folk.” Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome each of us, no matter what.

Surely it is God who saves me—God has arms open to save all of us. Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/power-persistence-alyce-mckenzie-10-28-2013.html

“The Power of Persistence, Part 3,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2968  October 30, 2016

David Lose

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

For the Least of These

“For the Least of These”

Matt 25-35 for whatever, words

Matthew 25:31-46 (25:40) – November 26, 2017

This Sunday—today—is the last Sunday in the liturgical year. This Sunday is also called Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate and lift up the might of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ today! Dominion, honor, power, authority, glory, majesty! Crown Him with many crowns! Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!

We have many marvelous hymns we can choose from for today. I love many of the words and tunes of the hymns that refer to our Lord Jesus having all power and authority in heaven and on earth, being King and ruler of the universe, and all creation.

I think all of us are familiar with the stories Jesus tells in His ministry, featuring real life situations. The Rabbi Jesus tries to get His listeners to understand some deeper truths through these stories, or parables. Jesus Himself talks about an all-powerful King at the end of the world, in this final parable from Matthew 25. The all-powerful King from this parable is the exalted Lord Jesus, ascended to heaven, as we declare every time we say the Apostle’s Creed.

As we did two weeks ago, let’s pull back from this particular parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is midway through Holy Week in Jerusalem, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

However, something does not fit. Something is very puzzling about this parable.

Here in Matthew 25, we have the exalted Lord Jesus, the almighty King eternal, sitting in judgment over all the peoples of the earth.

At first reading, even at second, third, tenth or twentieth reading, this final parable from Matthew can be really scary. Just like in the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the prophet Ezekiel, all sheep and goats are separated, just as all the people from every nation in the world are separated. All people are divided into two groups: those who the King is pleased with, and those who the King is not pleased with.

The people listening to Jesus in Jerusalem that day were extremely puzzled. Scratching their heads, they might have said, “Rabbi, you just don’t make any sense.” Especially the people who had followed Jesus for months might have been particularly lost. Things just don’t add up!

On one hand, we have Jesus, the caring, nurturing Shepherd. This is what the prophet Ezekiel starts off with in our reading today. In many parables, in many situations throughout His ministry for three years, Jesus has shown Himself to be loving, caring, gentle, and welcoming to everyone—no matter who, no matter what.

But, wait. Let’s go back to this final parable from Matthew, where the King at the end of all time is talking to the vast assembly of people from every nation, tribe and tongue. Let’s remind ourselves of the words of the Son of Man: “Then the King will say to the people on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.  I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.”

I am certain that many people listening to Jesus and His parables were absolutely floored by these words. What on earth are You talking about, Jesus?

Dr. David Lose said, “When we think of God, we typically think in terms of power and might and glory and all the rest. And, indeed, the [final] parable begins by describing the coming of the Son of Man in glory to sit on his throne attended by angels, seemingly only reinforcing our preconceptions.” [1] This word picture is absolutely the picture we associate with Christ the King Sunday, with dominion, honor, power, authority, glory, and majesty!

Yet, we also see a loving, caring, nurturing Shepherd, as expressed by our Lord Jesus Himself any number of times during His ministry. And, there are glimpses of that Shepherd here in the parable, too. We have two different, disparate, even disconcerting pictures of Jesus here. What gives? Which is the real Jesus? What is going on here?

The people in the parable are puzzled, too. Let’s listen to their reaction: “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?  When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you?  When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

As if the two very different pictures of Jesus are not enough, the King in the parable adds a third. I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me!”

Here, Jesus tells us He is right with the chronically hungry and thirsty. He is among the strangers and refugees. He is among the indigent poor and sick, and is right there with the many hundreds of thousands all across the world who are in jail. Jesus, the Son of Man, would rather hang out with the bums on Skid Row rather than with the fancy people in their religious country clubs or with the fine Pharisees in their first-rate houses of worship.

Does anyone else feel challenged when they hear these serious words of Jesus?

As Dr. Lose tells us, “No one expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.” [2]

Jesus gives us a judgment scene in this final parable. This is a cautionary scene described here, at the end of all time. Here, in this parable from Matthew, we have three separate pictures of Jesus. Yes, He is the King! All honor, power, majesty and glory be given to Him! Amen! Yes, Jesus is the Gentle Shepherd, the loving, caring, nurturing one who gathers the lost lambs into the fold. And, third, our Lord Jesus is seen in the faces of those who are difficult to love, and a challenge to care for.

Jesus shows up in those unexpected places, in the concrete and real needs of our neighbors next door, and around the world. But, you and I are not at the end times, yet. We can take action, and see the face of Jesus in others around us. The disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and in need.

Jesus calls us to serve others. By serving others, we will be serving—loving—caring for Jesus. How can we serve Jesus, today? How can we help others? How can we extend our hands and hearts to be loving, caring and giving, today? The best part? God will be right by our sides as we extend our hands to serve and care for others. And, God promises to change us from the inside out as we extend our hands—our hearts—ourselves—to others.

Here, in this final parable, Jesus the King tells us He is right with the vulnerable, the unlovely, the indigent, those difficult to love and those who are such a challenge to care for.

Next week, we will begin the liturgical year with the season of Advent, those weeks when we await the coming of the Baby in Bethlehem at Christmas. We await the mystery of the Incarnation, of the Eternal Almighty God the Son emptying Himself and becoming a baby. Becoming vulnerable, becoming human. Just like us.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/ “The Unexpected God,” David Lose, …In The Meantime, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Cup of Cold Water

(I preached this sermon last September at St. Luke’s Christian Community Church. I delivered it again yesterday, as part of the Big Soul series on Jesus in the Gospels at Epiphany UCC.)

“Cup of Cold Water”

mark-9-41-cup-of-cold-water-word-cloud

Mark 9:39-41 – (from a sermon of September 27, 2015) September 25, 2016, preached to Epiphany UCC, Chicago

This weekend is the first weekend of autumn, here in the Northern Hemisphere. The baseball playoffs are around the corner. Football season is with us again. And who isn’t interested in team rankings? The Chicago Cubs have made it to the playoffs! And whether you enjoy college football or pro ball, rankings are certainly something much discussed, in news columns, on television, and in personal conversation.

What if you do not care for sports? Have you or one of your relatives looked at Yelp lately, to check out that new restaurant down the street, and see how many stars the restaurant gets? What about U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the top colleges in the country?

Face it, this mentality has transferred to the church, too. Who’s the top ranked preacher in the country? Does the church down the road make it on to the list of best churches in Illinois? Or what about the top ten children’s ministries in the Chicago area?

In our Gospel reading today, we see that the disciples were not immune to this kind of thinking. Even though they didn’t have the Internet, or Yelp, football, or even the printing press, we can still tell that the disciples were jockeying for position. Arguing and trying to figure out which one of them was the “best.” Who was the “greatest,” anyway?

I think Jesus made them sad, even ashamed of themselves. We can see they got very quiet when He asked them what they were arguing about on the road, just before they reached their destination for the evening. They didn’t want to admit they were arguing over superficial or unimportant things like rankings! Who was the “best,” or the “greatest.” Striving for superficial, unimportant things.  I suspect they already knew what Jesus would say about that kind of thinking and striving.

To make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. And then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.”

Wow! Pretty pointed remarks, let me tell you! In other words, Jesus said that being kind to the least of society (for that was what children were, in the first century) was far better than seeking status or striving to be the “best” or the “greatest.” The disciples were right to quiet down in embarrassment when Jesus asked them why they were arguing on the road.

But, all of that is preamble. Setting the stage for what I really wanted to talk about today. And yet, this sermon topic is a continuation of Jesus speaking about being kind, thinking about, and being of service to the least of society.

The disciples just didn’t get it. Jesus makes His point clearly, repeatedly. Being kind to those who are overlooked or ignored? Helping out those who have little or nothing, with no thought for a “return on your investment?” The disciples misunderstand or get confused, over and over and over again. Like right here.

A year ago, the people of the United States had a rare opportunity to see the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, in the flesh. For real. Pope Francis was here, in this country. He arrived in Washington D.C. The President, Vice President, their families, and many other members of Congress and other people in Washington were among those who had the opportunity to hear his Holiness speak to a joint session of Congress. Oh, and the Pope ate lunch with the homeless, instead of with the bigwigs at the White House.

Pope Francis then went to New York City, celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden, drove along Central Park, and visited a Catholic grammar school in a poor, Latino and Black area of the Bronx. Then, he flew to Philadelphia. And, he celebrated a huge open-air Mass in the middle of downtown Philly. Plus, he visited a prison, as well.

I don’t know how much anyone here follows news of Pope Francis, but he is a very unusual man for someone holding one of the highest religious positions in the world. A man of humility, who does not care for the spotlight. Who loves and engages with children and goes out of his way to take “selfies” with young people. He makes a special effort to visit disabled people wherever he goes. Pope Francis is fervent about being pro-life—that’s for all life, including ending abortion as well as capital punishment. He is fervent about protecting the environment—worldwide. He does not wish to be elevated or made much of. So, of course people recognize his humility, good humor, engaging behavior, and respond to him all the more!

(I am not advocating for or against his deeply felt convictions. I’m trying to give a snapshot of Pope Francis, so that we might see how real, genuine and compassionate he is.)

I think Pope Francis would understand immediately what Jesus was saying here. Jesus wanted His disciples to think about others, first and foremost. Not jockey for position, seek high status, or try to be the “best” or “greatest.” Not to go out of our way for standing or high rank.

Jesus goes on to say, “41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” Wait a minute. What’s this? First he’s talking about considering those on the bottom rung in society as fully human, too. Not second-class citizens! Children certainly qualify for that, as do women, the elderly, the disabled, and handicapped. As do immigrants, migrants and refugees.

Let me tell you about a college student bible fellowship in Europe, to give an example of what Jesus was telling His disciples. This comes from the prayer email sent out last September from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications.
            “Students with SXEF Greece are mobilising to help throughout the country. Grigoris, a staff worker in Thessaloniki, writes: ‘Greece has been one of the places on the global map where a lot of quite painful changes have taken place. Little did we realize that, in our own “neighborhood”, there was place for more suffering, until we saw the caravans of refugees and migrants crossing the borders holding their babies in their arms.

We saw this situation as an opportunity to show that the Christianity we preach is practical. So we went to the northern borders where migrants are gathering, to help in any way we can.’

Sophia, a student, helping there, agreed with Grigoris. ‘Our daily missions gave us the opportunity not to just speak for God but to do something for him. Many times I felt that our actions had the biggest impact, whether with the migrants, the local authorities or humanitarian organizations.’

‘Just with a smile, a bottle of water or some food, I realized better why God wants to serve him with our actions. I think it is because that is also [God’s] own heart for us, to take away our fears and minister to our needs.’
Quite literally, we are sometimes called to give a cup of cold water to people in need. Like these college students did, in northern Greece. Giving a smile, and an encouraging touch. A handshake. Holding a cranky baby or a fretful toddler, so a tired mother can have a short break.

Are these big actions, or expensive things? Often times, no. But, they are human things. We can each do the small things we are able to do. And with a little help from everyone, we can do a whole lot!

I think of what Pope Francis said to the joint session of Congress last September: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. . . . On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Isn’t this exactly the same thing that Jesus said to His disciples, in our Gospel reading today? Isn’t this what the college student bible fellowship found when they ministered to the hungry, thirsty and tired refugees crossing through their country? Giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name has a huge impact. The action is not a huge deed. But the smile and handshake that accompany the water, or the food, or the supplies? Priceless. And welcoming.

Showing the least of these that someone cares. Someone is concerned. They are not all alone. Each of them is made in the image of God. Just like me. Just like you.

Remember, for God so loved the world. That is, the whole world. Not just part of it. Not two thirds of it. Not just people in the Northern Hemisphere, or people who are right handed. Not just people born to married parents, or the people who are sighted and can hear. But, everyone.

What’s more, Jesus is calling for each of us, all of us, to look at each other and see God’s image in each person’s heart. For God so loved you. For God so loved me. For God so loved . . . each person. In Chicago. In Illinois. In the United States. Yes, even the whole world.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

A Blessing from Jesus

“A Blessing from Jesus”

Mark 10 Jesus blesses the children

Mark 10:13-16 – October 4, 2015

Who doesn’t love babies and small children? A small minority of people do not care for them, but by and large, babies and toddlers bring a smile to many people’s faces. Take social media, for example. Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter. Do you want a lot of “likes” or “retweets?” Put up a photo or a picture of a darling baby or toddler, and watch how many people share or retweet your post.

We see, today, pictures of Jesus welcoming small children, even babies. Wonderful scenes! Darling, adorable, even touching pictures. However, I caution you—modern ideas of the innocence of children and the freedom we in 21st century America associate with young ones is not consistent with the first century understanding of children. But I’ll get back to that, later on.

This week’s sermon is a continuation of last week’s sermon. Last week—I’m reminded of my summer sermon series, which I compared to a radio serial. “When last we left Jesus, our intrepid hero—!” As I was saying, last week we talked about how much the disciples just didn’t understand the point Jesus was talking about.

In last week’s sermon, to make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. Then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.” Here, again, same story. The disciples are really dense. Very similar situation in this case, and they just don’t seem to understand what Jesus is saying.

Let me set the scene for today’s reading The Rabbi Jesus is teaching, as He so often does. He does not discriminate! He doesn’t only teach to men, but also to women. And the women, often being moms, grandmothers, aunts or older sisters, sometimes bring their children with them to the open-air teaching sessions.

I suspect that Jesus was one of those people who loved and cared about children. Was good with little ones. Can’t you imagine Jesus as being welcoming towards babies, toddlers, children, adolescents? All the kids! Just from His brief interactions with children in the Gospels, I get that feeling. And, I bet moms and grandmas could tell that about the Rabbi Jesus, too.

So, when women try to bring their children to the Rabbi Jesus for a blessing, what happens? Our reading from the Gospel of Mark says that the disciples rebuke those who are bringing the children to Jesus. As I looked at alternate translations, one had the disciples censuring the adults for trying to pester their Rabbi! That’s a strong expression of disapproval!

Hadn’t these guys learned anything from their recent discussion with Jesus? When Jesus brings a small child into the middle of the circle, lifts the child in His arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me.” Are these men that dense? I guess they are, because in today’s reading Jesus gets really upset with them when He finds out that the disciples are turning parents and children away.

Now, I want everyone to think of our 21st century kind of warm, fuzzy, frolicking idea of childhood, the concept where every child is lifted up as an individual, special, unique and loved. Is everyone thinking of that idea? That idea is absolutely true. However, I have news for you: the first century had no such idea.

I’ll give you a snapshot of two competing but similar ideas from the first century. One, the Roman view. The father—and by that I mean the oldest brother in a family—was the top dog. He ruled the roost. He was the head of the whole extended family. That means younger brothers, and their wives, sisters, and any other dependents. Like elderly relatives, or babies, children, or young adolescents. He was the head of the family, or in Latin, the pater familias.

Children were on the very bottom of the ladder, socially and in terms of that culture. The pater familias could decide whether a baby or small child would be accepted into the family group! So, a baby, a child, did not have any standing in society. At all.

But Jesus and the disciples lived in Palestine. On top of the Greco-Roman culture, they also had Jewish culture to deal with. The Jewish concept of the patriarch was somewhat similar, but not exactly the same. Children were seen as a blessing from the Lord. But, again—the position of children was vulnerable. In both cases—the Greco-Roman culture as well as the Jewish culture, children were dependent, even disregarded. Children were very much counted among “the least of these,” that expression Jesus used in Matthew 25. The ignored of society, overlooked, left out, less than.

All very interesting, you might be thinking. But what has that to do with you and me, in the here and now?

What about these children? These little ones, the downtrodden of society, the overlooked? Jesus rebukes His disciples for their poor treatment of children! In essence, He tells them off! And then, Jesus welcomes the children to Him. I bet He even took them into His lap. Mark tells us He held them in His arms, certainly. And blessed them.

What about last week, when Pope Francis was here in the United States? What do you think parents and grandparents thought when the Pope—personally—blessed their children? I understand that Pope Francis has a special place in his heart for children and young people. I think Jesus did, too!

I have a further question. Does Jesus love only Jewish children? That’s who He was blessing, here in Mark. Do you think Jesus also loved Samaritan children? What about Greek children? Roman children? What about children from all over Africa? Or, from India? Or China or Mongolia? Or children from Gaul (now parts of France and Germany)? Or, across the ocean, indigenous American children? Or indigenous Australian children?

You remember the song “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It does not matter what a person’s culture is, or social standing, or any other ranking system. Jesus still wants to embrace them, bless them, and welcome them. That goes for children as well as for adults. Multi-ethnic? Jesus welcomes you! Multi-cultural? Jesus welcomes you, too! No matter what, no matter where, no matter who.

A minister, who used to post to a sermon discussion group I sometimes look at, put up this entry a few years ago. “One of the greatest joys of my ministry is that I serve a church which welcomes children of all ages to the Table. It is so meaningful to serve children as their parents help them break off the bread and dip it in the cup. True communion, true welcoming. … As I invited people to come to the Table, I realized that no one had told me they would be helping me serve, so asked, “Who will help me serve today.” An 8 year old boy who was already up and ready to receive to communion, said, “I will” “Oh dear,” I thought, “what will people think if I have him serve?” I was sure most would be okay, but I thought some may take exception. But I realized there was no way I could refuse such an eager heartfelt offer. So he stood beside me and offered the bread. … I’m certain it was a meaningful experience for him— it certainly was for me. I realize that the “legalities” of some would have said no to his serving, but I know that our Lord said, “Let the little children come to me…”

Here’s a final thought. Jesus transforms children from their lowly, insignificant, disregarded state into wonderful examples for the disciples to follow. Jesus here tells us we all ought to approach Him in the same way as little children do. Wonderful examples for us adults to follow today, too.

When we come to worship, and when we come to communion, we are to come as little children. Trusting, dependent, vulnerable. We do not give ourselves grace and mercy. Instead, Jesus freely offers grace and mercy to all who come to Him. We can praise God for the boundless love and the radical grace extended to each of us, each day.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Cup of Cold Water

“Cup of Cold Water”

Mark 9-41 cup of cold water, photo

Mark 9:33-41 – September 27, 2015

This weekend is the first weekend of autumn, here in the Northern Hemisphere. The baseball playoffs are around the corner. Football season is with us again. And who isn’t interested in team rankings? The Chicago Cubs—fingers crossed!—are in the playoffs, in a wildcard spot! And whether you enjoy college football or pro ball, rankings are certainly something much discussed, in news columns, on television, and in personal conversation.

What if you do not care for sports? Have you or one of your relatives looked at Yelp lately, to check out that new restaurant down the street, and see how many stars the restaurant gets? What about U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of the top colleges in the country?

Face it, this mentality has transferred to the church, too. Who’s the top ranked preacher in the country? Does the church down the road make it on to the list of best churches in Illinois? Or what about the top ten children’s ministries in the Chicago area?

In our Gospel reading today, we see that the disciples were not immune to this kind of thinking. Even though they didn’t have the Internet, or Yelp, football, or even the printing press, we can still tell that the disciples were jockeying for position. Arguing and trying to figure out which one of them was the “best.” Who was the “greatest,” anyway?

I think Jesus made them ashamed of themselves, since they got very quiet when He asked them what they were arguing about on the road, just before they reached their destination for the evening. They didn’t want to admit they were arguing over superficial or unimportant things like rankings! Who was the “best,” or the “greatest.” Striving for superficial, unimportant things. I suspect they already knew what Jesus would say about that kind of thinking and striving.

To make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. And then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.”

Wow! Pretty pointed remarks, let me tell you! In other words, Jesus said that being kind to the least of society (for that was what children were, in the first century) was far better than seeking status or striving to be the “best” or the “greatest.” The disciples were right to quiet down in embarrassment when Jesus asked them why they were arguing on the road.

But, all of that is preamble. Setting the stage for what I really wanted to talk about today. And yet, this sermon topic is a continuation of Jesus speaking about being kind, thinking about, and being of service to the least of society.

The disciples just didn’t get it. Jesus makes His point clearly, repeatedly. Being kind to those who are overlooked or ignored? Helping out those who have little or nothing, with no thought for a “return on your investment?” The disciples misunderstand or get confused, over and over and over again. Like right here.

This past week, the people of the United States had a rare opportunity to see the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, in the flesh. For real. Pope Francis is here now, in this country. He arrived earlier in the week, in Washington D.C. The President, Vice President, their families, and many other members of Congress and other people in Washington were among those who had the opportunity to hear his Holiness speak to a joint session of Congress. Oh, and the Pope ate lunch with the homeless, instead of with the bigwigs at the White House.

Pope Francis then went to New York City, celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden, drove along Central Park where thousands greeted him, and visited a Catholic grammar school in a poor, Latino and Black area of the Bronx.

Then, he flew to Philadelphia. Yes, he is celebrating a huge open-air Mass in the middle of town today, but he also visited a prison, as well.

I don’t know how much anyone here follows news of Pope Francis, but he is a very unusual man for someone holding one of the highest religious positions in the world. A man of humility, who does not care for the spotlight. Who loves and engages with children and goes out of his way to take “selfies” with young people. He makes a special effort to visit disabled people wherever he goes. Pope Francis is fervent about being pro-life—that’s for all life, including ending abortion as well as capital punishment. He is fervent about protecting the environment—worldwide. He does not wish to be elevated or made much of. So, of course people recognize his humility, good humor, engaging behavior, and respond to him all the more!

(I am not advocating for or against his deeply felt convictions. I’m trying to give a snapshot of Pope Francis, so that we might see how real, genuine and compassionate he is.)

I think Pope Francis would understand immediately what Jesus was saying here. Jesus wanted His disciples to think about others, first and foremost. Not jockey for position, seek high status, or try to be the “best” or “greatest.” Not to go out of our way for standing or high rank.

Jesus goes on to say, “41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” Wait a minute. What’s this? First he’s talking about considering those on the bottom rung in society as fully human, too. Not second-class citizens! Children certainly qualify for that, as do women, the elderly, the disabled, and handicapped. As do immigrants, migrants and refugees.

Let me tell you about a college student bible fellowship in Europe, to give an example of what Jesus was telling His disciples. This comes from the prayer email sent out just a few days ago from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications.
            “Students with SXEF Greece are mobilising to help throughout the country. G., a staff worker in Thessaloniki, writes: ‘Greece has been one of the places on the global map where a lot of quite painful changes have taken place. Little did we realize that, in our own “neighborhood”, there was place for more suffering, until we saw the caravans of refugees and migrants crossing the borders holding their babies in their arms.

We saw this situation as an opportunity to show that the Christianity we preach is practical. So we went to the northern borders where migrants are gathering, to help in any way we can.’

S., a student, helping there, agrees with G. ‘Our daily missions gave us the opportunity not to just speak for God but to do something for him. Many times I felt that our actions had the biggest impact, whether with the migrants, the local authorities or humanitarian organizations.’

‘Just with a smile, a bottle of water or some food, I realized better why God wants to serve him with our actions. I think it is because that is also [God’s] own heart for us, to take away our fears and minister to our needs.’
Quite literally, we are sometimes called to give a cup of cold water to people in need. Like these college students did, in northern Greece. Giving a smile, and an encouraging touch. A handshake. Holding a cranky baby or a fretful toddler, so a tired mother can have a short break.

Are these big actions, or expensive things? Sometimes, no. But, they are human things. We can do what we are able to do. And with a little help from everyone, we can do a lot!

I think of what Pope Francis said to the joint session of Congress several days ago: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. . . . On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Isn’t this exactly the same thing that Jesus said to His disciples, in our Gospel reading today? Isn’t this what the college student bible fellowship found when they ministered to the hungry, thirsty and tired refugees crossing through their country? Giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name has a huge impact. The action is not a huge deed. But the smile and handshake that accompany the water, or the food, or the supplies? Priceless. And welcoming.

Showing the least of these that someone cares. Someone is concerned. They are not all alone. Each of them is made in the image of God. Just like me. Just like you.

Remember, for God so loved the world. That is, the whole world. Not just part of it. Not two thirds of it. Not just people in the Northern Hemisphere or people with four good limbs. Not just people born to married parents, or the people who are sighted and can hear. But, everyone.

What’s more, Jesus is calling for each of us, all of us, to look at each other and see God’s image in each person’s heart. For God so loved you. For God so loved me. For God so loved . . . each person. In Morton Grove. In Illinois. In the United States. Yes, even the whole world.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

[I appreciate the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, IFES Global Communications, for the quote from their prayer email from last week. And thanks to Paul Nyquist and TODAY IN THE WORD (Daily Devotions) for inspiration for a starting point for the sermon on this Scripture passage.]