20 September 2009

Sermon for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost: "Children on the Way of the Cross"

When I started college at the University of Nebraska I majored in music education. I was going to the U to practice, work hard, and possibly earn a spot with a major symphony in their trombone section. But if my dream of the Chicago Symphony didn’t pan out, I figured I would enjoy being a band director. Heck, everyone thought I should do it – I was the music guy in my high school and in my conference. I was first chair in the All-State Band as a senior, and St. Olaf had accepted me into their music program, so why wouldn’t I succeed?

Three years later, things had changed. I discovered that though I loved music, I did NOT love music education. What I did love, however, was God. Most importantly, I loved the idea of serving God professionally, so I dropped the music major for work in religion and philosophy, and I began preparing for seminary. But I stayed active in the music programs at the University, because I did love making music with my friends.

In the fall of my fourth year in Lincoln, I was preparing to become the principal euphonium player for the Wind Ensemble, the premier performance group, with whom I had been playing for two years. The previous year I had been second chair euphonium, but Pete, the principal, had graduated and so I assumed that the chair was mine. To be honest, I was looking forward to taking over the principal chair; I thought my time had come.

As I entered the audition room, the director greeted me warmly, heard my audition, nodded, and asked a question I hadn’t expected: “Why didn’t you prepare a trombone audition?” I told him that I had assumed I would be playing euphonium again that year, that he and the other directors knew my skills as a trombonist, and that one audition, I thought, would suffice. He nodded again, listened to the remainder of my audition, thanked me for my time, and I left.

The roster was posted the following day. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that I was not the principal euphonium player. I had been replaced by two freshmen, both of whom were under my leadership as a baritone section leader in the marching band. I was going to play bass trombone.

I was mortified. I had told those freshmen how much I was looking forward to playing with them in the Wind Ensemble… someday. I was trying to be the magnanimous upperclassman, but instead I looked like a pompous blowhard. Bass trombone? Why not just make me go play piccolo or something.

In truth, they were better than I was. For the good of the ensemble, my role changed. To make better music, I took on a different role and followed the direction of my leader. But the embarrassment of discovering how poorly I had judged the situation has remained with me to this day. It was a question of ways: the way of my glory, or the way of the director’s will. I had to choose which way to follow.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, You take us along the Way of the Cross as the way of discipleship. You lead us down roads of sacrifice and service, where our desires and our needs are replaced with Your will and Your mercy. But all along the Way, we misunderstand You. We seek greatness where You desire humility. We seek power where You desire mercy. We seek individual glory where You desire the glory of Your body, the church. Forgive our arrogance and our ambition. Help us welcome each other as fellow children in Your family, and forgive us as we struggle to follow You. In Your name we pray: Amen.

It’s never an easy thing, getting your ego deflated. It’s an even harder experience to endure when your desires for individual glory are in service to a greater good. Or so you think.

It’s easy to demonize the disciples in today’s reading from Mark. Who would be stupid enough to argue about being numero uno when Jesus was around? But take yourself out of our modern church for a minute and think about life from the disciples’ perspective. Tiberius has been emperor of Rome for a few years. Your people have been captives to Rome for almost 100 years, prisoners in your own homeland. The Messiah, you believe, will deliver you from your bondage, and now that Jesus is here, now that you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, you think it’s about time for the deliverance to get going. When Jesus delivers Israel, he’s going to need helpers to make sure all the work gets done properly. According to Dr. Don Juel, “as [Jesus’] followers, they will undoubtedly be assigned places in His cabinet.”[1] If you’re going to be in the cabinet, who wouldn’t want to be prime minister? Secretary of Agriculture? The disciples were a diverse group; is it possible that they were thinking of their own individual gifts and talents and how Jesus might best use them in his ‘inside’ group?

The disciples would have had no problems reading our text from Jeremiah today, with all its talk of retribution and destruction of enemies and evil deeds. They were, after all, faithfully serving God by following Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The coming of the kingdom was at hand! God was finally going to put things right, and the faithful would be sorted in the order of their deeds and their faithfulness to God’s commandments. Finally, Israel would receive her reward and receive her proper place as the people of God on earth. The way to Capernaum was the first step in the way to Jerusalem and the new kingdom of God!

After listening to this all afternoon, Jesus asked them at the evening meal: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Can you see the sheepish looks on the disciples’ faces when they realized Jesus had heard them planning His kingdom for Him? Jesus took that opportunity to teach them what it means to follow Him. The disciples believed that they were on the way to Capernaum. They believed that this was just another day along the path to the deliverance of Israel from her bondage. They were right; Israel was to be delivered, but the way was not through Capernaum: the way Israel would be delivered would be the Way of the Cross.

The Gospel tells us that before any of this happened, Jesus tried again to explain to His followers that He was going to be betrayed, handed over to be tortured, killed by His own people, and rise again. This was the second time in a week that Jesus told His followers about His death and resurrection, and also the second time they didn’t understand it. Worse, they were afraid and didn’t ask Jesus to explain further. Peter tried to tell Jesus that his ideas about death and resurrection were nonsense, and got a good rebuking for his trouble; why would any of them question Him again? So we see that the disciples weren’t just missing the point; they were trying to avoid the point altogether. The cross was the 800 pound gorilla in their lives, and they were very busy arguing about their greatness so they wouldn’t have to talk about it.

So, at the supper table, in Capernaum, with their ignorance and arrogance exposed, Jesus began to teach. He taught that the Way of the Cross reverses the order of things: the first become last, the greatest are servants, and the least are served. Then Jesus further deflated their hopes and dreams by showing them the most honored guest in the kingdom of God: a child. In Jesus’ time, a child was without worth or stature. Until a child reached adulthood, they were cherished for their potential but not nearly the people of power they are in the 21st century. A child in Jesus’ time would have lived out the old adage, “Children are to be seen and not heard,” but Jesus welcomed the child as a monarch or a head of state. Jesus tied the whole of his power and prestige and glory as Messiah to a nameless child, and so, Jesus said, should those who would follow Him. This is the Way of the Cross.

Not an easy way to follow, the Way of the Cross. On the surface one might imagine that one could follow the Way of the Cross by always going to the back of the line and always being nice to children. But it’s more than simple exterior actions. To follow the Way of the Cross, one is called to completely “abandon one’s authority and status, spending them on those with the least ability to repay.”[2] The Way of the Cross involves a complete devaluation of the self – “I” cease to exist without having “you” to serve. “I” the adult am nothing without the child of God to welcome in the name of Christ. “I” look for ways to lift up Christ through lifting up those around me. Jesus does not ask his followers to target the lowest in society and ignore the greatest: Jesus asks his followers to consider all people, be they lowly or of high stature, as blessed children of God and worthy of honor and respect. This is the Way of the Cross, as Jesus describes it. This is the Way to follow Him.

As we follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, we remember that Jesus asks us only to receive what He has to give. On the Cross, where Jesus gave His life for you, the greatest became the least and the Living One died for we who were already dead in our sins. When Jesus asks us to follow Him on the Way of the Cross, He asks us to throw out the world’s order of greatest and least and simply serve all people as fellow children of God. When Jesus asks us to welcome one another as children in His name, He asks us to welcome each other as we were welcomed into His family – without thought or consideration of worth, simply as the greatest gift a loving God could give.

The way to follow Jesus is not a line: it is a circle, gathered with Christ at its center, where all serve the Servant of All. Who is the greatest? Jesus is the greatest – and we are His children, children on the Way of the Cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Juel, Donald. Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994. © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. p. 354
[2] ibid, p. 355.

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