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“The Surprise of the Cross,” Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20th 2009

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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20th 2009

Jeremiah 11:18-20 Psalm 54 James 3:13-4.3,7-8a  Mark 9:30-37

Sermon Hymn # 474 “Children of the Heavenly Father”

(from the Green Hymnal: Lutheran Book of Worship)

The Surprise of the Cross

Jesus tells his disciples how he will be killed and rise again on the third day. He is trying to buy time, so he wants his disciples to keep his whereabouts a secret and he himself has returned to Galilee in secret.

I can understand this secrecy, because my father was an American citizen in Hitler’s NAZI Reich and he would always say to us, “Never tell anyone what we say here in the family.” And there he often had to go into hiding. Now when we came back to America, he still said it and sometimes it seemed like he even hid in the house, even though our situation had changed. That was being paranoid.

But Jesus was not being paranoid. He knew that it was just a matter of time and he would be arrested and killed and he told his disciples so.

Now they were so frightened they did not understand him. I imagine the disciples, when Jesus drove the demons out of Legion, all hiding behind gravestones until it was over and Legion had come to his senses.

If we read between the lines and put two and two together, we can surmise that the disciples were probably arguing about who was the greatest among them, because if Jesus was killed, they asked themselves, which one of them would take over in Jesus’ place?

That is why they were so embarrassed when Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about.

They certainly did not understand. We can look back and say perhaps Peter became their leader. But he denied Jesus three times; then he took the wrong side in the discrimination issue. At one point he no longer ate with the Gentile Christians and Paul had to stand up against him to his face. Perhaps Paul became their leader? People still have trouble understanding Paul and he had a thorn in the flesh. The Corinthians said, “His letters are weighty and strong, his physical presence is weak, and his speech is of no account” (II Cor. 10:10). They said that about St. Paul!

Was he the greatest? James, the brother of Jesus, took over the congregation of Jerusalem, but he wanted all Jesus’ followers to be circumcised and to become Jews.

The death of Jesus was going to make Christ rise in every Christian’s heart and his words were going to touch his followers in a more powerful way than even when he walked on earth among us, but the disciples at that time could not know that.

That is why Jesus said to them, if you want to be the greatest, if you want to be first; then you have to be last of all and the servant of all. He took the least of these, a little child and put it among them and taking it into his arms he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me, does not welcome me, but the one who sent me.” God is in that child that we welcome. The Father in heaven is welcomed when we welcome, when we receive such a little child.

We dare not become sentimental concerning the children of that time. In those days and many times in ours too, children were considered non-persons. A Roman father had the right to beat and kill his son or sell his children. He would only have to pay a small penalty for it. Children were the most vulnerable and the most helpless and there is Jesus saying that those who would be the greatest had to identify with such a child, really become the last of all, really become the servant of all. To welcome such a one was to welcome the greatest human being on earth, to identify with a child, was to be capable of being a Christ, like Jesus leading all his disciples.

When the women brought children to Jesus to bless, the disciples wanted to turn them away. Jesus had to stop them. Men did not think relating with children good use of their time. They felt that they were more important than children and they relegated the care of children to the women and by and large we still do.

Jesus, you see, was turning the order of this world upside down, because God is just helplessly in love with this world and God will not allow that you have to be on top to be a leader, that you have to exercise your power, attain power, have influence, get on the road to wealth and success, even if you have to walk over dead bodes to get there. The Lamb of God heals the sick, brings people to life, makes people come alive.

When Jesus died for us on the cross, he connected heaven and earth in God’s love again. Now God’s will has to be done on earth just like it is done in heaven. But although we sometimes confess Jesus with our lips, we refuse the business about the cross and children. Say a family is moving. The children are not asked. The decision is made over their heads. They have nothing to say. Janusz Korczak, who ran a Jewish orphanage in Poland and remained with the children all the way to the gas chambers of the Treblinka extermination camp, wrote a child’s bill of rights, but that is way out ahead of us, where Jesus already was, but we have not yet followed.

For us to be Christ is to be first and we don’t hear the part about being last. To be great is to be served by everyone. Whoever heard of someone great having to serve everybody? If you are rich and famous, you don’t go to your doctor, your doctor comes to you. In the old days, family doctors came to your house and treated you. Today they are way too important for that. We also had visiting nurses. The nurse from our congregation still makes house calls and doing so she sets an example for our community!

You see it is much easier to confess Jesus Christ with our lips than to follow him by making ourselves last and becoming the servants of all. Mostly we contradict most of what Jesus stood for with our lives and we turn a blind eye to these words, because to be last and to be such a servant is a cross too heavy to bear. Let’s face it. This teaching of Christ is humanly impossible. But all things are possible through Christ who strengthens us. We have to beg the Holy Spirit to transform our spirit and to change our hearts. But then how can we survive? We become lambs for the slaughter.

This inward change is so very difficult. We would rather change what’s out there. For example, we voted for a new president so we have changed our administration in our country, but ask yourself, do you think we have really changed our hearts? We cannot expect Americans to have a change of heart, but we can expect that from Christians; whether we are republicans or democrats if we are Christians, we should have had a change of hearts.

Doesn’t identifying and having empathy for children mean having it for the most vulnerable and helpless people in our society? Immigrants are like that. They are like the powerless and vulnerable children that Jesus lifted up. How can we round them up, hold them in prisons, let them sicken and die there or evict them from our country?

Look, we stole the Southwest and Texas from Mexico fair and square. How dare they cross our border and live here once again? What if God forbids us from coming into the kingdom of heaven? The American flag is not over the cross. The cross is over the American flag and every country and its people will have to answer to the Lord Christ in the kingdom of heaven. When you welcomed that undocumented immigrant, you welcomed Christ, and not only Christ, but the Father in heaven who sent him to save us. Before God we are all aliens, like Abraham, called to be strangers in a strange land. Like Barny Frank asked, what planet have we Americans been spending the most time on recently? This planet earth belongs to God and all the countries on earth have to answer to God and Christ, who rules from heaven and God cares about the immigrants as much as for those who came over on the Mayflower. That is one story. Others came over on slave ships in a direct contradiction to the Gospel of Christ, in wanting to be masters and bringing others to be their slaves. Then there are the Native Americans, who did not realize that the new comers said they followed Christ, but all their actions would contradict him. In the name of Christ they did not make themselves last but first and did not serve others, but “lorded” it over them, putting the Native Americans onto reservations and enslaving the African Americans.

Being last and the servant of all is usually the last thing we want to do. I’ll be a Christian and take all the privileges attached, and you can take all the responsibilities. Being last and a servant of all, like a child, means to carry the cross. So the Christians in Europe took power and they let the Jews carry Jesus’ cross. They came to America and said, we are the Christians and they put the cross squarely on the backs of Black people and made the Native Americans the last people to be considered in our country. The cross is too much like failure. Let somebody else be a loser. “Nothing succeeds like success!” as we say.

Ah, but the children of the heavenly Father, have to suffer the cross. Carrying your cross is like digging your own grave. I remember a movie about the Mexican revolution, where a fellow had to dig his own grave before being shot by a firing squad. He said, “Hold it!” Went and picked up his sombrero, put it on, and tumbled into his grave when they shot him. I have fond memories of a theologian, Helmut Gollwitzer, whom we called Golly in Berlin. He said, When we try to carry out Jesus’ words, then like his, they nail our hands to the cross, so that we cannot do God’s will. And they nail the feet to the cross of the one bearing glad tidings of peace.[1]

But Jesus did not only become last of all and the servant of all, he also laid down his life for us all. When we are baptized we suffer and die as well, the way Christ did. But the surprise is that when we thought becoming last and becoming that suffering servant was death, new life rose up through that death. Becoming a child of God brings certain suffering, but God blesses us through it. Golly said, God lets you suffer until you get the full blessing contained in it.[2] When you become last and servants and children of God, then you will fail. But Jesus placed all your failures and mine into God’s hands, when he died for you and me on the cross. Your body that has become sick [is in God’s hands], your soul that has sustained such damage [is in God’s hands], Golly continues, your children [are in God’s hands], the years of your lives that you have senselessly wasted [are in God’s hands], your failed profession [is in God’s hands], your failed marriage [is in God’s hands], your bad parenting [is in God’s hands], all your burdens and all your needs, Jesus placed and still places them into the hands of his Father,[3] who forgives you and receives and welcomes you as his heavenly children.

Once when I was young, I realized that to follow Christ I had to live a life in which it was impossible to survive. I turned away and said, I want to live not die. But I failed to see that I had chosen to die and not to live. Choosing to be last, the servant of all, and laying your life down for others, brings the cross. But the surprise of the cross is that it is the source of life.

I can preach for you here, but Jesus himself has to come and touch your hearts with the words from heaven and give you the faith to see life in that death and death in a false life. Golly quoted a Russian bishop who was before a firing squad, being shot by the Communist Bolsheviks: “Farewell to you the dead; I am entering life!”[4] That takes faith. When you and I and Bethlehem place ourselves last and become servants of all, when we become joyful and helpful children, then it seems like we will suffer failure, loss, and die; but really God will make us the heavenly children filled with empathy and compassion for others. The surprise is that we will experience the adventure and thrill of fresh new life. Our eyes and ears will be opened and we will recognize the living presence of God turning death into life. Forgetting about our own survival, becoming the last, becoming suffering servants, ready to lay down our lives, places us in the presence of God, whom we left all alone, when we turned away concerned for our own interests, our own survival, our own thing. But out there in faith, we find God, whom we deserted but who did not stop loving and saving us.[5]

Ah, who is the greatest? Those who become the least of these, those who become last, those who become helpers of everybody, those whose faith lets them lay down their lives with love, who awaken in the likeness of Christ, the greatest human being who ever lived on earth, leading many into the new life. Amen.


[1] Helmut Gollwitzer, Jesu Tod und Auferstehung, (Muenich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1956), page 61 and 63.

[2] Ibid., page 78.

[3] Ibid., page 80. (This citation is freely translated.)

[4] Ibid., page 97.

[5] Ibid., page 55: This is the actual core of sin, that we deserted God in his struggle [to save] the world.

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Written by peterkrey

September 28, 2009 at 6:44 am

Posted in Selected Sermons

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