The Greatest First Baptist Church of Worcester Ever

Sunday September 22, 2012  First Baptist Church of Worcester

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.” 

A few weeks ago, I went to the church where I am a member to water our shared garden and pick a few ripe tomatoes. Like many a church, we share our space with the local nursery school and so my walk to the garden was full of small people asking “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “What’s your name?” I answered and wove my way to our raised bed, dragging the hose behind me. Most of the small children ran off to chase a cat, but when I turned around one remained.  “Who are you?” he asked. But I couldn’t form a response, the hose stayed on, spraying the dry garden. All I could see were two rivers of snot flowing out of his nose, dripping down off of his chin onto his shirt. His skin next to those two streams was red and raw. The collar of his shirt was stained. The backs of his hands were wet and his pants were damp where he wiped them. Jesus said “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Let us pray…

There is silence. That awkward, full, unbreakable silence. After another too-busy afternoon of casting out demons from strangers who come seeking relief, too many people pressing in, demanding attention, Jesus pulls his disciples away from the crowd.  On the back roads, away from the crowded city of Galilee, Jesus pulls them aside. I have something important to tell you. Listen closely. I know, you’re still thinking about those demons you couldn’t cast out, and had to call me in for.  But this is important. This is what is coming for us: He said, “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.” Dead Silence. No one says a word. Maybe he looks at them, expectantly. Maybe he asked them, do you have any questions?  Nothing.  Silence. Mark tells us “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Well, ok then. Jesus put back on his sandals, stood up, picked up his bag, and started back on the road to Capernaum.

And that’s when the disciples start talking to one another. Maybe Jesus walks up ahead a bit, leaving them in a bunch back behind. Far enough ahead so he can hear that they are talking, not so near that he knows what they’re saying. For miles and miles, Jesus walks on the chalky road up ahead and the disciples chatter behind. Just before dusk, they arrive in Capernaum, and settle in to the house where they are staying. Maybe it was after dinner and they’d gathered in a common room.  A second time, a second silence. Jesus asked them “What were you arguing about on the way?” The Gospel writer Mark tells us in verse 34“ They were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

Mark’s disciples get such a bad rap but they are so utterly human. They fail to understand Jesus’ words and then fail to ask him to explain. Maybe they were worried about looking stupid. Each one of them is unclear about Jesus’ pronouncement but unable to speak up. Well, if Peter isn’t asking he must understand, so I’m not going to raise my hand and ask the teacher and look like a fool. Maybe their self-conscious about their schooling, where they are from, what their parents do for a living. Oh Lord, Thaddeus is asking a question? Jeez, this’ll be good. The son of a fishermen who’s never read a scroll in his life.

Now, I‘m not native to Massachusetts, so you’ll have to correct me if you think this is off- but as an outside observer, my sense is that Worcester may have a bit of an inferiority complex. Billboards shout “New England’s second city!” “No need to drive to Boston!” Stay here, we’ve got it all here. You don’t need to go somewhere else for the things you need, stay in Worcester!  Mix that in with being a Baptist? We’re not like those Baptists. We may not be Congregationalists, but we’re ok too! Our churches may be a little off the town square, and I swear we’ve recovered from the indignity of getting run out of the state to Rhode Island. Maybe the disciple Thaddeaus was from Worcester, unwilling to ask a question if Peter from Boston wasn’t going to ask it first.

It’s been somewhat of an ego-deflating day for the disciples in Mark. In the section before this passage, the disciples have to call in Jesus for an assist. They try to raise a boy from death and can’t do it. They call in Jesus, and he brings the boy back to life. Then Jesus tells them about what will happen next, and they completely do not understand. Jesus entrusts them with the knowledge about the Son of God and they return it with blank stares. The disciples are not feeling especially capable or knowledgeable. Fishing, that I knew how to do. But raising the dead to life? Understanding Jesus? Messed up twice already today and it is only noon. You know this feeling. You’ve had days like this. Doubting their power and doubting their understanding, they turn to an utterly human strategy: comparing themselves to one another.

If we pretend that we are any less prone to comparison or less competitive than the disciples, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  We compare the other cars in the parking lot and the colleges named on rearview windows. We compare our golf handicap, our marathon times, our commute to work. We compare our kids, our kids’ kids and that photos of that remarkably ugly new baby just posted to Facebook and we feel good about our own attractive children. We constantly compare ourselves to the people around us.  And like the disciples, we compare ourselves to others when we are feeling inadequate ourselves. There’s nothing like looking at the poor slob that’s worse off than you to make you feel better.

And so it is with our churches. We compare our attendance in worship, our numbers on the mission trip, our years in faithful existence. Our divisions, our distinctions make us feel superior, stronger.  As if our divisions are a point of pride rather than the scandal of Christ’s one Church.

You know the joke, right? About the New England Christian who gets stranded on a desert island? After a few years, a ship comes to rescue her. The rescue crew steps onto the island and in a clearing of trees, they see a town square- and around it a town hall, public school, library, post office and a Dunkin Donuts. Directly across from one another, two identical churches with spires rising high to the heavens. In front of each are perfectly carved wooden signs, reading First Congregational Church and First Parish. The Christian steps out of First Church to greet her rescuers. They ask her why there are two churches. Well, she says.  First Church? This is my church, and that is the church I’d never set foot in.

We define ourselves by what we are not. We are the First Methodist Church, not to be confused with the Second Methodist Church down the street and definitely not to be confused with the First Baptist Church. We are so very different from those Christians. We believe in salvation by grace through faith. We own our building. We have two fulltime pastors. We have a chancel choir, a youth choir AND a handbell choir. We had six new people join our church last week. We are not that storefront church with a pastor whose full-time job is at Polar Beverages. We Christians are not immune from the disciples’ coping strategy of comparison and treating our divisions as sacred. In a Massachusetts town on the North Shore I visited recently that will remain nameless, the town Episcopal church was built from this beautiful local stone, graceful arches, soaring steeple. Not far down the street was the Roman Catholic parish- same local stone rough cut, shaped into a rather plain, squat building. The established Episcopal landowners had the Roman Catholic parish built so that their employees- the Italian stonemasons and Irish domestic staff- had somewhere to worship.

And into the disciples’ conversation about who had the greatest hand-bell choir and SAT scores, Jesus places a child. Physically places a child in their midst. Let us quickly dispense of the overly precious sermon that looks to the wisdom of children as some 2 foot tall mystics able to unlock Gospel. In the middle of a room of adults who were anxious about their own capacity and standing, Jesus places the person of the lowest status, wraps his arms around her and says “who ever welcomes this dirty, snotty, hungry child, welcomes me.” A number of the biblical scholars who look at this text think that Jesus wasn’t talking about children at all, but he was trying to demonstrate how his Gospel message inverts status and demands the inclusion of the lowest. Jesus looked around the room and spotted the person with the lowest status and made that person the example. In both early Roman and Jewish cultures, children held status like that of a slave, maybe even less so. A child was another mouth to feed, prone to getting sick and dying young, had the potential to be productive but wasn’t able to work yet. In the middle of the disciples’ anxiety about their own capacity and status, Jesus places the one person in that house who wasn’t productive and hadn’t yet come to worry about status- and says, Welcome this person. Welcome this low status, unproductive, demanding person and then you welcome me. The Boston College scripture scholar Pheme Perkins writes “This example treats the child, who was socially invisible, as the stand-in for Jesus.” Who is the greatest? That’s the wrong question. Jesus shows that the status of greatness doesn’t matter. What is greatness? Greatness is welcoming the socially invisible.

This church, this First Baptist Church in Worcester, has much to celebrate over your 200-year history. Truly, you do. But you can celebrate your own history not because of what you did and other churches didn’t do. You can be proud of your history of faithfulness to the Gospel by looking at whom you welcomed in, who were the least, the lowest, the lost. How wide have you opened those doors?

Comparison is an utterly human response to feeling insufficient. We compare to determine our status, where we rank in the scheme of things. But Jesus takes our impulse to compare and turns it on its head. Jesus says my love is not reserved for the head of the class, the young and able bodied, the 1%.  God’s love is an infinite resource, more than enough for all.  The disciples are looking to name the greatest among them, and Jesus says that greatness is when you welcome the lowest status person among you.  That’s what it takes to be a servant of all. To take the hand of that damp child unrelated to you and invite him into your gated-fenced garden and offer him your heirloom tomatoes into his small, wet, undeserving hands. For each one of us who is graced this day to feel that somewhere along the way, Jesus took our hands and lead us home- we are asked to do the same. This continued wide embrace will make you the Greatest First Baptist Church of Worcester ever. May your next 200 years be similarly filled with the great wide opening of your gates. Amen.

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