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September 24, 2000
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Jeremiah 11:18-20 and
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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An Incident on the Capernaum Road

It happened several years ago, but the picture remains firmly etched in the minds of many. A Christian denomination's annual meeting made the evening news of the major networks.  It was not a pretty sight.  Almost 2000 people had gathered for a national meeting where a doctrinal issue had created much controversy.  The debate at one session turned so volatile that one man punched another.  Several moments of "fisticuffs" broke out and all was recorded on tape for the nation to watch!

The sad fact was that many good things happened at this three day meeting.  But, can you guess what people remember?  The good things are long forgotten, but the picture of Christian (?) people slugging it out on national television is indelibly stamped on the minds of countless people.

One man who saw the report remarked, "That's why I don't want anything to do with the church!"

It does not, however, take a major tragedy like this to bring dishonor to the church. There are countless numbers of people who have been burned by their experience in the church.  It is sometimes difficult to deal with the fact that "church people" are not perfect people.

Have you seen the bumper sticker, "Christians are not perfect -- just forgiven ?"  There is a good thought in this concept somewhere, but I fear it is seen by the world as one big copout.  As I read our epistle lesson from the book of James, I can not imagine what James would say about this bumper sticker.  Listen to his words, "...if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts...  for where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind." 

His bumper sticker would more likely read something like, "Christians aren't perfect, but they had better be working on it!"

***

Our gospel lesson for today turns the table on our culture's sense of success and what it means to be a truly great person.  When we hear the words, "He's a great man," or "She's a great woman," a picture of a servant does not likely come to mind.  And if we describe someone as , "truly successful," we do not usually think of someone whose goal is to become a servant to everyone!

Yet, the surprising thing about Jesus and his ministry is the way he went about selecting those who would become his representatives in the world after his death. If we can understand why he chose the people he did and how he worked with them, we will go a long way toward understanding how God can use us in our world today.

First a few notes about Capernaum   Capernaum was a small fishing village on the North end of the Sea of Galilee.  It was here that Jesus set up headquarters during at least the first half of his public ministry.  From here Jesus traveled far and wide while news about his teaching and healing ministry spread throughout Israel like wildfire.  Capernaum was the home of four fishermen who gave up the fishing industry to become followers of Jesus.

The Capernaum road is the road where you and I work and live and play.  The village of Capernaum is like our town or city where ordinary people try to make ends meet, raise their families and make sense out of life.  Whether fishermen like Peter and Andrew, James and John or carpenters, laborers, doctors and insurance salespersons like you and me.  It is where we live that Jesus comes looking for those who will see to the completion of his work.

Capernaum-type disciples  As you look closely at the lives of the fisher-disciples of Jesus, you will see them portrayed with all their failures and imperfections.  Our scripture this morning is an almost embarrassing account of how these disciples shamelessly allowed their personal ambitions to stir up contention and rivalry in the ranks of Jesus' closest associates.

For most of us, the incident in our scripture would be a very discouraging time.  It had been only recently that Simon Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus now for the second time tells the disciples he will be put to death.  He is on the way to Jerusalem where he will be denied by Peter, betrayed by one of his disciples and be arrested, tried and condemned to death.

Now this.  Out on the Capernaum Road, just when the crisis begins to intensify, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest.  Seem unbelievable?  Think about it.  The world we live in is no less troubled than the world of Peter, James and John and the village of Capernaum.  While churches squabble, cities crumble.  Christians debate as societies decay.  Religious parties struggle while children starve.

There is a very serious question to be asked here... a question that is critical in understanding Jesus' choice of followers... a question that is important to you and me today...  How can Jesus Christ use such imperfect people to build a perfect kingdom?

The Master's plan  God made the most radical decision -- the Divine plan is that the followers of Jesus Christ, with all their weaknesses, will build the Church of Jesus Christ.  Jesus did not go to the rich or powerful or famous to gather troops for his movement. He chose the "rag-tag" crew on the Capernaum road and still  chooses people like you and me to build the church and carry God's  good news to a fractured world.

// There is an old legend that tells how Jesus, after his ascension, was asked by the angels how he planned to complete his mission. The angels were incredulous.  "Them?" they exclaimed pointing to the fearful, unlearned disciples who stood lost and confused on the earth below, "You are going to depend on them to complete your mission?"

"That's correct," Jesus answers.

"And should they fail??" the angels counter, "If they are not capable of carrying on your work, do you have a back-up plan?"

"They are my only plan," Jesus says. //

There are two key issues in our gospel lesson about the way Jesus intended to shape imperfect people into bearers of his good news.

  • He chose people who were teachable

  • He chose people regardless of their station in life

[1] Jesus took his disciples aside and did some teaching about what it means to be great.  Because they were teachable and receiving of his words, there was hope for their transformation.  The word of Christ was the transforming power and the teachability of the disciples was the transforming premise.

"If you want to be first, you must be last," he taught them.  They had argued about who would be the greatest in terms of the world's view of greatness.  In the eyes of God, however, greatness is measured by servanthood.  Those who live with a "me first" attitude will come in last with God.  Those who live with a "you first" attitude in the family of faith will come in first with God.  Jesus would continue on from this event to his arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem.  The disciples would witness the greatest "you first"  in all of history.

[2]  Jesus set a child in the midst of his followers and said that the welcoming of a little child was a welcoming of Christ himself.  To welcome a child is to welcome the most vulnerable and the most insignificant.  This was a great reversal of the "children should be seen and not heard" attitude of his world.  If fact it was more than that.  Women, children, gentiles, the sick and the dispossessed were the insignificant and even rejected part of society.   A male, Jewish Pharisee was at the top of the ladder, a gentile woman was a "dog."

Jesus turned all of this inside out and upside down.  He chose the fisherman and tax collector over the priest and the scribe.  He put a child first and a ruler last.

The way up with God is down !

Here's the genius of the Master's plan.  Whenever the followers of Jesus Christ would think about the fact that Jesus had chosen them - of all people - to carry on his mission, they would automatically be called back to the heart of the good news of God.  "If God can love even me, then God's love is truly for everyone!"

Here's the Master's plan for us today  It's as easy as ABC.

Acceptance:  Jesus Christ has accepted us for who wee are and his spirit works within us to make us who God wants us to be.  Our acceptance by Christ translates into our acceptance of others.

Belief:  I believe or trust that Jesus Christ knows what he is doing by choosing me for his work.  I may feel insignificant or powerless to help with his mission, but the fact is that as a Christian person, I am chosen to bear the good news to others.

Commitment:  I make a commitment to choose the way of Christ instead of the way of the world when it comes to the meaning of greatness.  Instead of "me first" - it is "Christ first."  Instead of "my way" it is "his way."

***

The one thing that can bring authentic renewal to our life of faith and to our witness in the world is to stop and reflect seriously on that incident of the Capernaum Road.  When we come to terms once again with the fact that God loves "even me" - we are in touch with the power that can change lives and change our world.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

James 3:17 provides a center for the lectionary texts for this Sunday:  "... the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." 

The qualities of the servant of God are portrayed in the passage from Jeremiah who receives God's insight that his life is threatened, yet he is led to the slaughter like a "gentle lamb."  Jeremiah here is like the servant Jesus who is also led as a lamb to the slaughter.  Gentleness, peace and pure motives come from the Lord, James says, while conflict and dispute come from the unredeemed self which needs to be submitted to God.

It is through servanthood and a child like spirit that one shows the character of God in action.

 

Jeremiah 11:18-20

Jeremiah follows the will of God in bringing a message of reform to the people.  The citizens of his own town conspire to assassinate him.  He is a "Christ-like" figure whose innocent life is threatened as he lives in obedience to God. The parallels of this passage with the life and work of Jesus are striking.

  • He, is "...like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter."
  • A plot against his life threatens to, "...cut him off from the land of the living."
  • His hope is in the Lord, "...for to you I have committed my cause."

Mark 9:30-37

For the second time, Jesus speaks of his death and adds that he will be "betrayed."  One hears the Jeremiah passage echoing through these lines.  The disciples do not understand yet.  When Jesus first told them about his death, Peter took Jesus aside and corrected him - this time there is silence.  The silence does not, however, come from understanding.  We might imagine that the dullness of Jesus' disciples was a significant part of his suffering as the weeks move toward Jerusalem and the final confrontation.

Jesus' teaching takes on more urgency as the journey continues.  These followers will have to assume the mission.  Yet, like quarreling children playing "king of the castle," they argue about who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom to come.  As they do not understand Jesus' impending death,  so they do not understand the nature of greatness.

It is important to capture the sense of Jesus' teaching here.  Our world is not different.  Servanthood is not now and has never been seen by the world as the way to greatness.  In fact, servanthood implies lesser status than the one who is served.

Jesus takes a child into the midst of them.  Children had "their place" in the culture of the day.  The disciples has discouraged the presence of children on one occasion.  They were to be "seen and not heard."  Is not simply the nature of the child that is important, but the acceptance of the child as a person of significance that counts with God.  Servants and children were near the bottom of the social ladder.  Jesus once again turns the values of the world inside out - this is consistent with his relationship with servants, children, women and gentiles.  What counts with God is not that which counts with the culture.  It is this dynamic that drives our sermon theme for today.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

James might be seen as a commentary on what took place among Jesus' disciples on the road.  He very clearly identifies the source of the power struggles and arguing that invades even the closest circle of Jesus' followers.

"Bitter envy and selfish ambition," are destructive of community and have their roots in that which is "devilish."  The whole passage here is an analysis of what happens when "self" instead of "servanthood" rules.  The Christian community is a new framework for relationships where serving is valued and selfish ambition is held in disdain.

All of this shows genuine wisdom which is from above. A genuine, Christ centered heart which shows itself in gentleness - even in the face of opposition and rejection - is a sign that the wisdom of God reigns within the servant of God.

Can we embrace these things?  There are values here which represent the strong crosswinds of God against the world's standards.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship ( Based on Psalm 54)

Leader:   Lift your voices to God on high,
People:  And call upon the Lord to hear our prayers.

Leader:   For our help is in the name of the Lord,

People:  The One who upholds and strengthens our lives.

Leader:   Let us present to God the sacrifice of praise,
People:  It is good to give thanks to the Lord, for it is good!

 

A Prayer of Confession

Be gracious to us today our Lord, for we are in need of your mercy.  We are often quick to doubt and slow to pray. We are tempted to let go of faith when we need to hang on. We are discouraged by wrong when we need to be encouraged by your Spirit. O God, our loving Lord, give us strength to trust in you all the days of our lives. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Beloved in Christ, hear the words of scripture, "...If we confess our sins {God} is faithful and just to forgive us of our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."  Believe the good news that in Christ we are forgiven.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give you thanks and praise today, O gracious God, for your mercy toward us is more than we could ever deserve and beyond what we could conceive.  Even in our best attempts to be your children, we come so far short of all that we could be if we would but attend more carefully to your will.  How much you must love us! We can not begin to fathom just how deeply we are loved. 

O God, it is in our experience as parents that we more fully understand Your love for us. How it must break Your heart when we persist in doing the things that finally erode the meaning and the joy of our lives. When we see our children heading in directions that will be their undoing, it worries us so. Yet, we can not control the what, where, how, when, or why of their living without doing damage to their persons. As we do with our own children, you patiently lead us, teach us and guide us with the fond desire that we embrace all that will make of us worthy servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God... help us to listen today. Not only with our ears. We've seen the faces of our children when they are listening with their ears alone. Help us to listen with our hearts. And hear with our souls. And act with our wills. O loving Lord, give us the joy of knowing the light of Your Holy Spirit breaking into the dark recesses of our spirits, that we might faithfully give ourselves to the service of your Son Jesus Christ and so bring glory, honor and blessing to your Holy Name.  Amen.

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

O Lord God of every good gift, give us hearts to perceive You in all that we are and have. The gifts we bring to You are but the outward expression of Your life in us. We ask that day by day we would grow closer to all that You have designed us to be, and in doing so my our giving begin to change our world. Amen.