Mark 9: 30-37
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Often times, we would like to be first. I remember wanting to be first when a cake was cut, because I loved the corners with all the extra frosting. And if I wasn’t first, I would figure out how many pieces were left before the next corner and try to get in line just right, so I could get the next one. This last Spring, the Colorado Rockies installed swanky new security systems that allow them to “see into” what people bring and what is on their body, much like some of the security systems at larger airports. Fans realized these new systems would likely cause longer lines on their first day of use, so many people wanted to be first, so they would not have to wait in line. And sometimes, when we are chosen to be first, like a line leader in school, it makes us feel special.
I had to think about it, but not for too long on the ways I would like to be last. Some of you have recently experienced large animals in your yard. I would want to be last in that line. Perhaps, if I am last, they will run out of time to visit me, or simply forget I exist.
I can look back and place value statements on all of my examples, but I think that misses the point. Our loving God would want us to enjoy life as we can, because life is short and comes with inevitable pain.
I think instead that this gospel message speaks to atonement. Here’s our theological glossary word of the week. I used to listen to preachers talk about atonement, but it never really made sense until this last year.
During my chaplain residency, I rounded with Palliative Care for a while to get to know the rhythm of their services. Palliative Care is a consult service that allows physicians to call on this specialized team of providers to help patients through difficult diagnosis and terminal illnesses. This team can be called even when active treatments are in place to help address pain and symptoms otherwise hard to manage. This is a multidisciplinary team, and includes medical professionals and specialists, doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains.
One of my duties on this team was to listen to the patients, and to be part of the team’s initial meetings. I learned to identify spiritual distress and help address the spiritual needs of patients.
Many patients would share deep contemplative pain around how they interacted with family members and neighbors, wondering if they could be forgiven, and a strong sense of a fear of death or fear of the unknown.
This is where atonement plays a huge part of our faith story. Atonement is the reconciliation of our relationship with God, or another way to say it: At-One-Ment with Christ.
Different theologians talk about how at-One-ment with Christ works, but I ask, how does it work for me, and how does it work for you. This gospel message is about the things that get in the way of our at-One-ment with Christ.
One of my patients, I will call him John, was very ill, dying of liver failure from medications he had to take for almost 30 years. He was afraid it was too late to reconcile his relationship with his parents, and possibly too late to reconcile his relationship with God. A few days later, I met John’s parents. They are elderly and healthy. It was hard for them to process their son’s illness, in light of their own health. They shared with me the sleepless nights they had trying to make sense of their son’s life and experiences. They shared that their inability to love him fully was like a giant boulder in the path of having a deeper relationship with God. I experienced their expectations of their son getting in the way of their at-One-Ment with Christ.
Intentional or not, we all do this, right? But there is hope for us! And that gives me great joy!
There’s a faithful community of worship called After Hours Denver located in Denver, Colorado. It is comprised of people seeking justice and working for community. This faith community is a part of the United Methodist Church connection, lead by a United Methodist pastor, appointed by our shared bishop, Elaine Stanofsky. After Hours Denver serves lunch in the park to homeless people. Rain or shine, the feeding crew shows up in the park, ready to offer smiles, hugs and feed people. One time, Tom took our youngest son, Mason, while I was at work and our oldest were in school. Mason served bottled water to all who were waiting in line. His retelling, through five-year-old eyes made mine water. The ministry is so rewarding that people give up their own Christmas morning in pajamas to get dressed in winter gear to offer food, clothing, coats, hats, gloves and sleeping bags to those who have no shelter on Christmas night. Humbled and beyond grateful, the individuals who receive the help line up patiently, waiting in line for their turn, and offer joyous thanksgiving and praise to the helpers as they receive basic essentials needed to survive those cold Colorado nights.
Jerry Herships is their pastor. He is the pastor of After Hours, and ultimately of the people from the park. He frequently posts his experiences on Facebook. As I meditated on the word of God this week, I encountered one of his posts.
“It always amazes me.
All the guys will go thru the line and line back up (sometimes we can give seconds)...
They will get to the front...and stop.
...and wait for me to call to make sure everyone has gotten their first before they take a second.
In a world that teaches us to get more more more
They are the least selfish group of humans beings I know.”
To me, that sounds a lot like what Jesus is telling his disciples in the scripture today. It is much too easy for me to picture people who are hungry arguing and perhaps fighting over the line. Or hangry, that special combination of hunger and anger. I imagine Jesus’ disciples arguing, in part because they are worried about their basic needs and also because they are worried about the suffering of Jesus.
So, imagine a bunch of us on a hike up the mountain. Getting to the waterfall doesn’t take long, but hiking in twos becomes natural. On the way up a friend you love describes to you the pain she will endure during treatment for a recently diagnosed illness. Now, at the waterfall, there isn’t much talking, because the water rushes over the rocks and crashes into the pool below. You and your friend are interrupted and on the return hike, she walks with someone else, so your processing time was cut short. How do you feel? I feel disjointed, rushed, and perhaps upset that I was not able to share my concern for my friend. Now, imagine that everyone else on the hike heard a piece of this pain and the whole group is concerned. Patience and grace take a back seat to the immediate feelings everyone is experiencing. Shock, disbelief and bargaining are a few of the emotions I experience the disciples as having at this time, when Jesus is teaching them.
As you reach the parking lot at the trailhead, everyone is ready to find something to eat. Our friend retreats to the outhouse and a big argument ensues within the group as we visit hangrily about where to eat. As she approaches the group, she wants to know what the argument is about. Silence overcomes us. Perhaps the disciples are embarrassed that they were caught arguing. Perhaps it was the content of their argument that ripened embarrassment.
Regardless, Jesus has caught their attention and delivers the good news. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Those who welcome a child, welcome Him. And those who welcome Him, welcome the One who sent Him.
I think of the hungry ones in the park. They are first, because they are last. Not because Jesus requires them to be homeless and hungry, but because each demonstrates a willingness to put other’s first.
Columbia Falls United Methodist Church does a lot of this work too. Putting others first is one of the main objectives of all of the Mission work that is done by this community. Putting the needs of others ahead of ourselves is a spiritual issue and a spiritual gift.
Welcoming is another spiritual issue and spiritual gift. In the past few weeks, you have welcomed the stranger. You have opened your hearts to a new pastor and a new family in the community. You have shared stories, and shared bread. These have been wonderful gifts you have given. Certainly the Holy Spirit is at work in this place.
This week, I have had my mind on you, on my former patients and colleagues, and on refugees. My own migration was easy, in part because there were blessings on both sides of my move. My colleagues blessed me and sent me on my merry way. And, here, you greeted me with excitement, warmth and a passion shared for this church community!
As I consider the refugee, or stranger, I wonder how I might respond. I wonder how this church might respond. It is easy to wonder from afar and pray for our sister congregations in Europe that they might open their hearts to the tens of thousands of refugees.
As I sat wondering, I heard the story of Pastor Calvin Hill, just over the mountains and through the woods from us at the Blackfeet United Methodist Parish. When people in the community of Heart Butte were in danger from the Spotted Eagle Fire, Pastor Calvin opened his heart and the church property to allow families to camp onsite while they awaited evacuations to lift. I am thankful for his faithfulness and openness to welcome both family and stranger to the church property to provide immediate relief.
Sometimes, our capacity to be open to others stems from that deep concern we have for each other in our pain. It is in that pain, that our openness can offer respite for others. For some, worshipping together this Sunday may be providing immediate relief from their week. I invite us to listen to one another and learn how we are welcoming and consider the ways in which we are welcoming Christ, and in ways we can be more intentional about how we welcome each other and stranger alike, and to listen to that voice within that helps you know the work that must be done to allow Christ more fully into our lives toward at-One-Ment.