Sunday, March 18, 2018

Inside Job—a sermon for Lent 5B

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s 
Inside Job
Jeremiah 31.31-34, Mark 9.33-41
18 March 2018, Lent 5, first Sunday

Jeremiah 31.31-34 (NRSV)
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it (CEB: engrave it) on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

Mark 9.33-41 (NRSV)
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘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.’
John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’


Can’t you just picture the moment when Jesus ushers the disciples into the house, closes the door of the house, turns around to face them and asks “so...what were you arguing about?” I can see it in my mind, the bashful faces, the downcast eyes, the scuffling of feet. I spent many years working with teenagers, after all—I’m familiar with this particular moment of silence.

I would like to know how this conversation on the road went, though. What criteria did the disciples use when trying to determine which of them was best? Was there a checklist? Did they compare the number of miracles they witnessed, or which parables they could explain, or how many times they got to walk at the head of the line as they trudged through the roads of Galilee? Or perhaps try to rate their level of fear during the storm before Jesus calmed it, or rank themselves in order of number of loaves they handed out at the feeding fo the five thousand? Clearly understanding Jesus’ core teachings was not a part of the calculations, so there must have been something...

It sounds ridiculous, because it is. And yet how often do we still do this very thing? We compare churches—how many people came to this event, how much money was given for that project, who has the prettier building or the most correct doctrine. We compare faithfulness—who follows the rules best, who has the most visible “blessings”, who uses the right buzzwords? 

I would like to think that if Jesus had a bunch of 21st century Christians in a room together, he would shut the door and ask “what were you arguing about?” and we would all look at the floor, shuffling our feet, embarrassed to answer. 

And in response, Jesus brings a child into the midst of the community. A child: dependent, a consumer of resources without producing anything of use, taking up time and energy, a distraction, the lowest on the social ladder. A child, whom we assume needs to be filled with our knowledge but doesn’t have much to offer to those of us who already know how the world works. A child, a symbol of the future but rarely considered important to the community in the present. 

Whoever welcomes one in my name welcomes me, Jesus says. Notice he doesn’t say “whoever teaches one child to worship me.” On the contrary, just a chapter later he will say we must all come before God like children do. He doesn’t say “whoever speaks pious words about the future of the church” or “whoever admires their adorable outfit and chubby cheeks while also insisting they keep their noises and their wiggles outside.” He places this child in the center of the community and says that when we welcome those who are of no practical use in this moment, when we make an effort to include those who have different needs than we do, when we accept people where they are on their journey rather than waiting for them to change into what we want them to be...that is when we welcome him. When we remember that we can only be great by serving, by including, by opening the circle until there’s room for everyone, then we will find ourselves being most Christ-like. 

This should not have been news to the disciples. The prophet Jeremiah had said, five hundred years earlier, that the day was coming when the new covenant would be written on our hearts. Not chiseled on stone, not rolled up in a scroll, not thundered from heaven, but inscribed on our hearts—such a part of us, so central to who we are, that we wouldn’t even need to teach each other anymore, because we would all know God’s love and promise within us. 

All of us. Jeremiah doesn’t mention anything about age, or education level, or job, or economic status. He says everyone—from the least to the greatest—will understand God’s care and God’s call. All of us, from the least to the greatest, will know God—not just know information about God, but know God.

Which means all of us—from the least to the greatest, the youngest to the oldest, the newest to the most experienced—have something to contribute to the community of God’s people and to the worship of the Body of Christ. And when someone is missing, whether that’s because they were not welcomed, or locked out, or weren’t able to participate because it wasn’t clear what to do, then we, the Body of Christ, are incomplete. And when we assume that young people, or older people, or new members, or people with disabilities, don’t have something to teach us, then we are cutting off the wisdom God has placed in their hearts, and we are incomplete.

So one of the things you will find as we grow and learn and worship and work and play and grieve and celebrate together is that I will be working hard to ensure that we are as inclusive as possible, as welcoming as possible, and as accessible as possible. Sometimes it might be things that make you a little bit crazy, like I will say “please stand as you are able” or “please be seated”—because for those who are new to our worshipping community, it’s not obvious when to stand or sit. I will be doing my best to include people of all ages and abilities throughout worship, because that is how we learn to be the Body of Christ together—by being together in the same place, hearing and responding to the Word of God together. I will encourage us to use all our senses and our different ways of learning, so that everyone has something they can connect to as we worship God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I will choose hymns and prayers and ways of encountering God that will hopefully illuminate the scriptures, and while we won’t all love everything, I hope we will remember that worship isn’t about us, it’s about God—and that hymn that I hated may be a favourite of someone else, or that prayer or activity that didn’t make sense to me really helped someone else know God’s love better. 

That’s what it means to be in community: to use our voices, our hands, our bodies, and our lives to build each other up, to carry one another along, and to help each other know God more. To serve, not to try to prove our greatness. To allow other people to be on their faith journeys, and to accompany one another whenever we can. To remember that every single person has the word of God written on their heart—and so do we. Some of us may be at different stages of life and faith, but we all have something to offer, and something to learn...and we are all capable of offering ourselves to God in worship and service. 

The Common English Bible, which is the most recent scholarly translation of scripture, finished just a few years ago, uses the word “engraved” in Jeremiah 31, instead of simply “written”—God will engrave God’s word on our hearts. I like to picture the words of promise and hope and love and care sinking in to my heart of stone, until they are embedded, absorbed, completely a part of me. It’s an inside job—but it doesn’t stay there. This journey of faith and life is meant to be transformative—we will become ever more like Christ. The word dwells in us, and so we live a particular way, letting that love and promise and hope and care show in our words and actions, in the character of our community, in the way we include and welcome and accept all God’s people. Whether in a cup of water, or a smile, or a new way of praying, or a joyful noise, or an open door, the greatness of God’s love can and will be known in and through us.

May it be so. Amen.

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