Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 20)

Final sermon as pastor of the people of the Nambour Parish

Text: Mark 9:35-37
Jesus sat down, called the twelve disciples, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all." Then he took a child and had him stand in front of them. He put his arms around him and said to them, "Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not only me but also the one who sent me."

True Service

It’s never easy saying farewell.  It’s not easy for me to say farewell as your pastor.  We have travelled together for almost 9 years.  You have allowed me to share in your spiritual journey.  Sometimes we have shared happy times –
the birth of a baby,
the celebration of many years of faithful marriage,
a good report from your doctor,
your marriage or the marriage of a son or daughter or grandchild. 
Sometimes we have shared gloomier and more solemn occasions –
the unhappiness caused by misunderstanding or ill chosen words,
the medical report that had serious consequences,
the worry and anxiety over a wayward child,
the problems in a marriage,
the dying and death of a loved one. 
I am grateful to God for this opportunity to have shared with you in your spiritual journey. 
I am thankful for what you have meant to me as you have supported me, encouraged me, and helped me along way. 
I give thanks to God that he gave me the opportunity to be your pastor, that he gave me this time at St Luke’s (Good Shepherd) to know you and to experience the mutual care and love that we have shared as members of God's family here in this place.  We have shared so much together and that makes it so much harder to say farewell.  Of course, this isn’t the end of our travels.  We will each go our separate ways, and God will guide us and challenge us as we travel toward the time when we will meet again around the throne of God in our heavenly home.  

Since this is my last sermon to you as the pastor of St Luke’s/Good Shepherd I wondered what would be an appropriate message to leave with you.  What message could I speak to you from God's Word that would be helpful and meaning as we part ways?  My first thought was to inspire you to greatness, to be the best, to do God's work even better in this community, to be faithful workers for God building the church and bringing people faith.  

The Gospel reading set down for today has provided a focus for this sermon. 

Mark records an occasion when the disciples were talking amongst themselves, in fact, there was quite an argument.  What were they discussing with so much passion and heat?  Who of the disciples was the greatest and more important? 

This is one of those endless arguments.  Like the children heard in a playground (maybe you can recall a similar discussion from your childhood). 
“My dad is stronger than your dad.” 
“Is that so, my dad is richer than your dad”.
”Well, my dad is smarter than your dad, so there!”
And so the argument goes on.  There is no end to it.
What criterion can be used to determine who is greater than another person?  But in spite of uselessness of such a discussion we still get into that kind of thinking. People want to determine who is the more important, the greatest, wealthiest and so on. 

The disciples got into this kind of argument, thinking that Jesus was far enough away and couldn’t hear them.  They were wrong.  When Jesus asked them what they had been talking about they were embarrassed.  They suddenly fell silent, like a kid caught with his hand in the biscuit barrel.  They realised that Jesus had caught them out.  The best thing they could do was to keep their mouths shut.  But Jesus knew what was going on.

So Jesus sits down – the posture a teacher took when he was about to tell his students something important.  He says, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”  God has built into the human heart the desire to succeed in everything we do.  Jesus isn’t saying that wanting to do our best, to be first, is a bad thing.  Ambition in itself isn’t a bad thing.  Rather Jesus redefines what it really means to be first.  He tells them the true way to greatness.  “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”  

As on other occasions, Jesus is here turning things upside down again.  What I mean is that the world measures greatness by prestige, power, how much people applaud the great things accomplished, how many people serve you, how wide spread is your fame that you have achieved great things. 
Greatness is when people slap you on the back for your dedication and the achievements you have made.  In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, a great deal of time was spent in deciding where people fell in the pecking order. It was important to know where people were ranked. 
Status, authority, and titles were all important.

But Jesus said that if someone wants to be first, that person must become servant of everyone else.  Now most of us have heard that before and it's not new.  But for the disciples this was so different to anything they had heard before.  Compared to the criteria that the rest of the world uses to determine who and what is great, this was a revolutionary idea!  And it still is today.

To be first in God’s eyes is a complete turn around to the kind of greatness that the world thinks of.  The person who wants to be great in God’s eyes must be the servant of everyone else. 
It’s not about how many people serve me
  but how many people do I serve. 
It’s not a matter of how many people slap me on the back and praise me
  but how many people have I encouraged and given praise.
It’s not a matter of how often have people have spoken to me, or how much others have helped me
  but how often have I a spoken to others, or given others assistance.
This kind of servanthood isn’t about letting others do all the work
  but finding out in what way can I visit a shut-in, or the sick, the grieving, the lonely

There is no doubt about what Jesus is saying here.  And I could make this my final message to you that you ought to strive for greatness in your lives by loving and serving to the best of your ability.

But there is more.  We read, “Jesus took a child and had him stand in front of them. He put his arms around him and said to them, "Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children, welcomes me”. 

Why does Jesus associate the act of receiving a little child in his name with being first in God's eyes?  With being the greatest?  After all - children are wonderful are they not?  It’s easy to love a child.  Look at the support that a local radio station has received for the “Give me Five for Kids” fundraising programme for the children’s ward at the Nambour Hospital.  Babies and toddlers are cute and loveable.  We support our kids at school, and watch them at concerts, and cheer them on the sports field.  So why is Jesus making such a fuss about a child as an example of how we should serve one another?

The point Jesus is making is this.  Not only were children at the bottom of the pecking order in Jesus’ day, they were also very vulnerable.  I have read that before their 16th birthday half the children died.  At times when there was war, famine or disease it was the children who suffered first.  For a society that had a fixation on the pecking order in society it was unheard of that someone of importance would get down to a child’s level, sit on the floor, play a game with them, cuddle them when they were all dirty and snotty, get down and put your arm around them when they need comforting. 

When I was a young lad, probably 8 or 9, I remember falling off my bike after loosing control in some loose gravel.  I was trying to fly a kite.  I had the kite tied to the back of the bike. I thought that the extra speed down a hill would get it up higher.  I never found out if it worked.  With gravel rash stinging my hands, knees and face, and I lay on the ground trying hard not to cry.  A man getting into his car looked at me, saw my dilemma, then looked away, and continued on his journey.  That hurt more than my bleeding wounds. That moment has been indelibly fixed in my mind.  It’s easy to look past little kids and their needs.

And the other thing is this.  Little kids are not in the position to give great rewards for what is done for them.  There is no Nobel Peace Prize, or knighthood from the queen, nor can they improve your financial status, give power or prestige.  They might give a simple “thank you” but hey that doesn’t really improve your position, in fact, no one has even noticed what you did.  They represent the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, and the ordinary - just plain human beings.  Didn’t Jesus say in one of his parables, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me” Matt 25:40. 

Jesus embraced a small child and said, "Whoever receives one such child receives me and the one who sent me."  Being number one in God's kingdom is not about conquering or overcoming another.  It's about putting others first. It's about the love of an almighty God who stoops to a sinful world to be beaten, mocked and killed so that a lost one like me might be found - so that a broken one like me might be made whole - so that a wanderer like me might have a home to go to.

Greatness in the eyes of Jesus is found in the willingness of his disciples to receive, to accept, and indeed to really welcome those they would normally be consider as unreceivable, unacceptable, and unwelcome.  Greatness means to welcome others as a child does before he or she is taught to discriminate between who he/she should be friends to, and who they should not.

When Jesus wrapped his arms around that child, he demonstrated his love for the lowly and the ignored.  What Jesus is teaching us here is not just kindness, but kindness that is directed to those who never experience the kindness of the world, not just tenderness but tenderness toward those who never feel a loving touch, not just hospitality, but a wide open armed welcome toward those for whom all other doors are shut. 

Jesus was calling his disciples to a radical new vision of what the Kingdom of God is all about - a radical new vision of how life can actually be.  “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”  The Bible is telling us today that service to others is tied up ever so closely with our belief and trust in Jesus.  To believe in Jesus also means we will serve those who need and crave for love.

This is the kind of servanthood that Jesus has called this congregation. This is a tough kind of ministry.  It is not always understood by the rest of the world who wonder why we bother with these kinds of people. 
It is a tough ministry because it is much easier to go for the more glamorous type of stuff that people will talk about, and give prestige and a greater reputation in the community. 
It is a tough ministry because it goes against the grain of our human nature – we want to focus on ourselves and our own needs, rather than that of others. 
It is a tough ministry because it takes faith that what we are doing is what God wants us to do.  We need God's constant guidance and his Holy Spirit to keep us on track.

God forgive us for the times we have failed to open our arms to the unloved, and may God give you the guidance and the energy to let the light of Christ the servant shine through everything you do in his name.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
21st September, 2003

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