Sermon preached on Sunday, March 29, 2020 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. You can view the recorded version here.
NRS Luke 9: 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. 46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
This is the final message in my series on “Better Reasons to Believe” and it is this: “because we are invited to serve.” That sounds strange, I admit. “The chance to sacrifice what I want so someone else can have it” doesn’t top most people’s lists of what matters the most.
The poor lieutenant governor of Texas this past week, in a moment of bravery, said, “We grandparents need to risk sacrificing our lives for the economic futures of our grandchildren, even if we die.” The firestorm was predictable. Whatever his intentions, a lot of people said, “After you, sir.”
But how do we sacrifice in this moment of global pandemic? And will that be enough? It’s a real question. But not a new one.
This Bible story happened in the aftermath of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when
Peter acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, and then followed the Transfiguration, when three of the disciples went with Jesus to the top of the mountain and saw a vision of Jesus radiant with the glory of God and a mysterious voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son”
After this astounding spiritual experience, though, they went back down the mountain and the next day everything started to go wrong. First, the disciples, giddy with their calling to go forth try to help, try to help a poor child who suffered from convulsions and the father came to Jesus, saying in essence, “Your disciples tried, but they couldn’t help.” So, Jesus healed the boy.
Then Jesus told them for the second time that he was going to die, and they became afraid, too afraid to even ask about it.
Then they began to argue about which of them was the greatest. So Jesus interrupted to pull a little child over for an object lesson and shared these words: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
We are so familiar in ;the church with this story that we don’t even react. “Of course,” we think. But right after this, they went right back where they were, complaining about someone not on their “team” doing healing work. And then they asked Jesus to call fire down on the Samaritans because they didn’t welcome the disciples this time. Jesus rebuked them again.The disciples were pretty thick. What would it take? But then again, I ask you, how well do humans do with giving up what they want for others? Mature people, yes. But then you see these folks crowding on the beaches, ignoring health warnings and common sense you wonder.
You’d think after seeing the glory on the mountaintop, the miracles, the healings, and all the rest the disciples would have it. But humans are hard-headed about shifting away from themselves.
I’ve stood on some mountaintops. I worked in Colorado for a summer—one day, just before the end of that summer, I went on a Sunday afternoon. My summer of exile was nearly over. I was in love, engaged, and had been reduced to letters (and back in our day, you had to send them through the mailbox and wait 3-5 days to get one!). In about a week we would be reunited, my fiancee and I.
We took a picnic lunch, about 5 of us, all college students or young professionals, and climbed up one of the easier foothills along that massive wall of Rocky Mountains that rises to the east. It was a long way up, probably two or three thousand feet. And it was euphoric to reach the summit and look back, across the vast plains that stretched south to north below the mountains.
But after a while of rejoicing and laughter, we said, “Well, we have to go back down.” Let me tell you, going back down isn’t as fun as going up. And in some ways, it’s more dangerous and difficult. So, I understand Peter and the gang wanting to stay there on the mountain.
We are not willing to come to this difficult stage of “going down,” I am guessing, not because we do not want joy and pleasure in God, but because we are not realistic about the steepness of the way and what is really involved in the death and surrender of ourselves to God’s purposes for us.
We want to stay on the mountain and keep quiet and be peaceful and at rest with God. But that is never the point of the life God has called us unto. I get it–the danger of the world out there and its problems and needs are so great that we can lose our way as we try to do what God wants. Without the inner compass of God’s Holy Spirit, which our journey inward teaches us to see more clearly and follow, we can get lost in other people’s agendas, programs, institutional concerns, and the overwhelming volume of needs out there.
Jesus never got lost on the way to the Kingdom like the disciples did. They wanted to stop short or change it and make it more manageable. There is something in us, our sinfulness, that is not about doing evil so much as stopping short of what is there for us. We are childlike when you get down to it.
Think about Peter: here, the upper room, in the garden with his sword, all the way to the end he underestimates the seriousness of the work Jesus is doing and overestimates himself in his ability to do it. It will break his heart and make him start all over on God’s terms.
Tell you a story: Jimmy’s Daddy was a Baptist minister and former member of the United States Marine Corps who presided over rural churches in southwestern Oklahoma and west Texas. He and his wife encouraged their young son Jimmy to play the piano and organ and by the age of 12 was playing for the choir of his father’s churches, accompanied by his father on guitar and his mother on accordion. It was a conservative religious home.
During the late 1950s, the son started writing songs, influenced by the church music he played and also by some of the new music he heard, including Elvis Presley. In 1964, the family moved to Southern California, where he attended college and studied music. The next year his mother died.
His Dad decided to return to Oklahoma, but Jimmy wanted to stay in California to continue his music studies and to pursue a career as a songwriter in Los Angeles. As father and son said goodbye in San Bernardino, the father said, “This songwriting thing is going to break your heart.” Seeing that his son was determined to be a success, he gave his son $40. “It’s not much”, he said, “but it’s all I have.”
Jimmy Webb went on to write “Up, Up and Away”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “MacArthur Park”. His songs have been recorded or performed by Glen Campbell, The 5th Dimension, The Supremes, Richard Harris, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, R.E.M., and Chet Atkins, among others. According to BMI, his song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was the third most performed song in the fifty years between 1940 to 1990.
In recent years, Webb has talked more openly about his return to the Christian faith of his upbringing and the role it has played in his music. In an October 2007 interview with Nigel Bovey, editor of The Salvation Army Newspaper the War Cry, Webb was quite explicit about his renewed faith.
“I couldn’t write a song without God. Sure, I could hack out hackneyed phrases and clichés, but to write anything meaningful I have to be in tune with God. He is the great source, my inspiration, the current that I have to connect to. Sadly, I’ve not always used the gift he’s given me — the answered prayer — as best as I could or should have. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve done things I wish I hadn’t done. [But] “I am a strong believer in God… God is important to me.”
It may have all turned on a Daddy willing to give his son all he had–$40 and a blessing—to turn loose those great gifts for the world.
It doesn’t have to be a world-sized gift. It can also be the strength to move into and through a loss or a trauma or a tragedy It can be a gift unused. It might be being willing to move outside familiar places to a new set of challenges. It might mean a renewed commitment to where we are—a church, a marriage, our parenting.
And it can be something as simple as staying in so doctors and nurses are not overwhelmed, pitching in to call and encourage people who are alone in this crisis, not obsessing about your retirement fund by focusing on a helpless neighbor down the street and how to help. Or teaching at home.
Following Jesus says, “Giving up what you want is the only way down the hill.”
But we have to say, somewhere, this thing will break your heart. At least for a little while. Right now, we have to learn how to follow directions and obey the rules and give up our desire as Americans to do what we want whenever we want. That goes against our grain.
But if you are a Jesus follower it doesn’t. Here’s a chance to put it into practice. And here’s the good news. That $40 worth of self-sacrifice inevitably in the economy of God sets loose treasures that will bless the whole world.
I’m seeing it happen. I have watched Michael Thomas, one of our members, organize to get masks to the hospital by collecting them from around our community. I doubt there’s a shield or mask within ten miles of here that Michael hasn’t found. And there is joy from his act of giving. Many others are doing what is in reach, setting aside the trip they were going to take or the plans they’d made for the joy of this moment.
The recession will end, we will find a vaccine, and life will go forward at some point, but that isn’t the point of this moment. The Jesus way is the way through this. It means walking down a steep hill into where we are, not where we wish we were. And somewhere up ahead is a clearing and a light and joy. Right now, we must give our $40 for the chance to bless each other beyond imagination.
They way you get there is to listen to what Jesus said. An ego won’t do it. But every time we do, it is multiplied. Even in recessions. Love grows, hope gets stronger, others come alive. That’s our privilege, even in a moment like this one.
And the strange part is this: every now and then, in a moment of reflection, you might even feel a deep satisfaction that says, “I am so much happier now, living this way. I don’t think I’ll go back.”
Get Jimmy Webb’s music on his website or your music outlets. Here is one of my favorite songs by him, “If These Walls Could Speak.”