Shortly after I arrived at my new post, I was invited to our denomination’s regional clergy meeting. I had stopped attending such gatherings years prior. I had little in common with most who avidly attend. Some clergy are rather boorish, rigid and off the wall. With a different group and a new start, I figured I’d give it another try.
Before coming to the church, I learned that about every three years one of these clergy colleagues tried to force my parish out of the fold. Our church did heretical things like ordain women, and let in the wrong kind of people. Evidently my views on Jesus differ from the views of some my colleagues. Yet maybe if I get to know these guys, I’ll persuade a few that I am not leading a satanic cult.
I arrive at the meeting that November morning, meet a few, we sit, and the meeting begins. I’m introduced, and greeted with murmurings and muffled whispers. What am I thinking in coming here? Then the call goes out for prayer requests. Oh boy, that’s when it started. One brother raises his hand, stands up and announces, “I praise God we had a record attendance – over 3000 for services yesterday.” Another pops up, “I just wanna thank Jesus that we have already met our annual budget last month. Pray they we can figure out what to do with money yet to come in.” Another raises his hand, “I am thankful to God we baptized six people yesterday.” By now my head was spinning, and I was looking for nearest door. I was glad not to be called on, especially in front of such successful holy leaders. All I could say would be: “Well, I have been on the job for three weeks now, and I’ve had three funerals.” For some reason, I kept thinking of Jesus’ disciples arguing over who’s the greatest.
If it weren’t such a sad story it would be funny. Grown men walk down a road acting like children. Jesus has just said he’d be betrayed, killed and after three days rise from the dead. They’ve ignored him. Instead they strut their stuff as if to prove, “No – I should be appointed Vice-Messiah, not you.” Jesus turns, and asks, “What are you arguing about?” He knows. He stops them, sits down to teach, “If you want to be first, be servant of all.” And if that’s not enough, Jesus spots a child, puts her on his lap, “Welcome a child, you welcome me and the Father.” “Say what, Jesus?” We miss the shock here. Our children are cute and innocent, usually. In Jesus’ world a child has no power, value or status – rarely cute or innocent. “Roll out the red carpet for a child? Jesus, you’re building a kingdom.” A child represents Jesus to the world – an emissary on his behalf? Are you kidding? Does that mean Jesus dwells in the lowliest among us – in anybody – our neighbors even?
If you are not startled by the kingdom God brings to this world in Jesus, you may be missing something. Many Presidential candidates these days tout themselves as the greatest, strongest, smartest, most deserving who will save the nation and world. That won’t work in God’s kingdom. Our challenge is to see and live in this world by God’s values that often oppose what the world values. Jesus introduces a God who is radically inclusive, loving and forgiving of all – a kingdom and reign where no one stands higher than anyone else, where those at the top will find themselves on the bottom. Jesus’ kingdom, as Paul says, is foolishness to the Greeks – a stumbling block to the Jews – and the rest of the world. Theologian Karl Barth once put it that we are to think of every human being – the oddest, worst, most miserable as one to whom Jesus is brother and God is Father – and we are to treat them as long-lost family. Think how different civil discourse would be if we really followed Jesus. Next time you’re at the Gathering, or hear of a child being shot and killed in this community, children growing up in poverty around us – even a child acting up in church – think of Jesus. Find a person often overlooked in your world, and welcome them, listen and get to know that person. That’s a measure of our discipleship. You’ll be welcoming Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t chastise the disciples or argue with them. He teaches them. “The greatest in God’s kingdom is the greatest servant to the person before them. Don’t worry about where you rank. This is not the NFL or college football. It’s about life – and finding your life by starting at the bottom, not the top.” After all, that’s where Jesus spends most of his time.
Now back to that meeting. I left annoyed. I couldn’t stomach them – strutting their stuff – “Who’s the greatest?” I wanted to tell them, “I am better than this. Some of you are serving yourselves, not God. You’re so childish. And I’m not.” And I hear again, Jesus – “Whoever welcomes such in my name welcomes me, and the one who sent me.” I wonder – “Jesus, you mean you are a brother to, and God is Father of – clowns like these?” A still quiet voice says, “Yes, Steve, and clowns like you as well.” And that, my friends, is how it is in God’s kingdom. God is with us where we are – how we are – in all of life – loving us, AND those we’d never deem worthy to listen to and get to know.