Sunday, February 19, 2012

To Be Truly Great

To Be Truly Great
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 19, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 18:15-17
Luke 9: 46-48

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. We turn a corner on one season of the church and begin the season of Lent. My sermons since Christmas have traced some of the major events in the life of Jesus as he made his journey from the Manger in Bethlehem, through Baptism and Temptation, through rejection at his hometown of Nazareth, to his choosing of the twelve disciples, to his healings and actions that worked to tick off the Pharisees, to last week covering his teachings through the Sermon on the Plain. Next week and as we go through the Sundays of Lent we will focus on the events of the last week of Jesus's Earthly life. Beginning with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and concluding with the Resurrection on Easter. Today though, I got to pick what aspect of all the remaining events of Jesus' life and ministry I would study and would get my focus. I chose this story for two reasons. One it appealed to me because it seemed to fit in perfectly with the development of the messages I have been giving the last few weeks, and two because it speaks to a very important issue in the life of us as we discern our mission here in Gordonsville.
Last week we talked about how the kingdom of God turns things upside down, and that we are called to disregard our own personal interests in order to seek the Kingdom of God. It is interesting then that this week we focus on the disciples asking which one of them is the greatest. I mean how would you know where you stand with Jesus because all of your definitions of success have been swept aside. Everything that you had used in the past to measure your worth has been rendered obsolete. Every notion that had previously been the basis of your esteemed status has been made irrelevant. Look at what the disciples have just done. In this chapter in Luke, chapter 9 you see the disciples return from their mission, being called for the first time apostles instead of disciples,; they have fed five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish; one of their lot, Peter, has made his declaration about the identity of Jesus as Christ; they have seen Christ Transfigured, and they have been let in on the idea that Jesus must go to Jerusalem to die, where he tells them that if they want to truly follow him they need to pick up their cross. In the wake of all this, they must have been feeling pretty good about themselves. They certainly feel as though they have picked up their cross, they feel as though they have left everything behind, so they all feel like they have arrived and are above all others, and they seem to be jockeying for position to see who is best among themselves, as it says that an argument rose about them as to who is the greatest. Surely they all have some claim based on the things that they have done in the recent past, but true to form Jesus brings them back to reality in his description of what "True Greatness is." He grabs a child and says,  “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.” Whoever welcomes the child. . .
Last Sunday was a neat day. We welcomed new members. The Choir sang a beautiful anthem. Joan providentially picked an offertory song for the choir that I had actually quoted in my sermon. We had visitors. We had great fellowship, sharing delicious cake and tasty punch. And most importantly we had children here. We had so many that during the children's time they spread across the front two pews. We had children, and what a joy it was. I know so many of you have talked to me in passing as to how nice it is to have children in church--their songs, their smiles, their questions, their innocence, their cuteness. Yes it is a joy. It is a joy. We had children here, but what did we do to welcome them in Jesus' name? They came. They filled our hearts with joy. They sat in the service for their allotted time, came up for their part of the service, and then when the time came they either went back to the back with one of their parents and grandparent to put together the furniture in the nursery, or stayed and let me bore them to tears with my sermon. I think it's easy to say that if welcoming children in Jesus' name is the measure of greatness, we have a long way to go.
We do have a long way to go, but I would not mention it if I didn't think we had the potential for this exact kind of greatness. I want to challenge us this morning, that by the end of August, for the new school year, that we have both a viable nursery with consistent and dedicated volunteers and a Children's Sunday School program in place.
The two Gospel readings for this morning talk about the importance of children to the Christian life, showing how our greatness is tied to it, but I want to go farther in looking at why this goal is so important, not just for any ideas of our own greatness or for growth of the Church, but because we need to serve these kids, the ones that we have already in this community. Let's start with the Sunday School. So much of my childhood memories of Church did not take place in the sanctuary, but rather in the Sunday School rooms. It was there that I learned the stories that I dearly love. These stories are so formative for our lives, knowing our place in the world, and coming to know God's power, God's presence, and God's love.
It is in Sunday School that you learn the Noah story, that a rainbow in the sky is a promise from God that the rains will always stop short of flooding the world. It is in Sunday School that you learn the Moses story, that God can protect a baby floating in a basket even down a river, and that a child in a basket can grow up to lead a nation out of slavery, that sometimes slavery is easier than freedom, but that with God's help the difficult becomes worthwhile. That even in the desert water can be found, that even in the desert food can be found, that there are ten commandments that guide a life of freedom. In Sunday School you learn about a young boy named David who defeated the mighty Giant Goliath, showing again that even the small and weak can do great things in the service of God. You learn of a young widow who goes against all wisdom to the contrary, assuring here that she will not ever have a husband, and is blessed with that very thing, that a Hebrew Princess can save her people through her faithfulness even up against a powerful king. You learn that even though hope is gone, that parents are too old, that the blessing of children can still be born. You learn that through God, man can be protected not just in a desert, not just against a giant but within a den of lions, within a fire, in the shadow of death, from Pharoah, from Philistines, from anyone who would want to do us harm in any place because we've learned that God's presence and power know no bounds.
You learn in Sunday School to sing songs with lasting memorable messages about life. Like to always let your light shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. . . or that the wise man built his house upon the rock and it stayed firm but the foolish man's went splat, after the rains came down and the floods came up. . . And that if you stand at the door and knock, knock, knock, he will open the door, and will come in. . . Or that there was this wee little man named Zachaeaus, who could not be kept from Jesus, or how great peace is like a river. . . or how great it is to rise and shine and give God the glory glory. . . that you can praise him praise him praise him in the morning and praise at the noontime and to praise him when the sun goes down. . . That between the highways and the hedges you can be somewhere a working for your lord. . . That Jesus wants you for a sunbeam, and a disciple, and a child of God. . .and that the knowledge of that can give you Joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart. . . and that your cup will overflow. . . and that the Lord has been good to us by giving me the things I need the sun and the rain and the apple seed. . . and especially that Jesus loves all the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in his sight. . . every child in every land that he holds them in his hand, because he's got the whole world in his hands. . .and you learn that Jesus Loves Me, for all of these Bible stories tell us so. . . They tell us that he loves us like a shepherd, like a father, like a mother, as a friend and companion who desires to walk with us in the cool of the day, like an artist and poet loves their work, that in addition to loving us he knows us, that his thoughts of us are more numerous than the grains of sands on the beach, that he has numbered every hair upon our head, that he will provide for us as he does the lilies of the fields, and the birds of the air, that he loves us so much that he sent his son so that we shall not perish but have eternal life in communion with him in heaven.
Those stories change us. . . and we must give them to these kids because these stories, and songs, and prayers show them who they are, what they are, and why their very existence is important, crucial to this world, and a valid and necessary part of God's plan, yes even them, each of them, uniquely them, no other who has ever been or who ever will be is them. They are unique and beautiful children of God. Let's face it, our world seeks to minimize and characterize people, and kids especially, teaching them to conform, attaching their identity to material things, like fashion styles, tatoos, and piercings, or grouping them into classes, or racial, ethnic, citizenship or gender distinctions, rather than the solid all encompassing identity that is eternal and true, that we are each beloved children of God. I can think of nothing more important, and I see glaringly every day the tragic absence of the knowledge of that identity in the lives of the teenagers I teach. They are all seeking, but have not been freed by the knowledge of their identity as a unique manifestation of God's glorious creation. It is heartbreaking. . .
But there is more to Sunday School even than all of that. It is also in Sunday School that children learn that people care for and about them. The relationships formed between adults and children at church, beyond their parents reinforce the idea that these kids are truly loved. The value of that is not just given to the kid either. You can have no greater reward in life than connecting with a child, helping and watching them grow, seeing the steps of their lives, being with them in those moments, and then one day interacting as peers and partners. Look at Kane with the bell choir. Look at the wonderful work that Ben does in this church. Like I said the potential is here. Let's rekindle it.
As of this minute, we have at least four kids who are here regularly. There may be more, but four is enough to warrant our service to them. Actually one would be enough. When a child is baptized in the Presbyterian Church vows are made by the parents and by the congregation, to raise the child up as a child of God, not by God parents, but by the congregation. All of us. We must serve these kids because we promised to do it, and it is the right thing to do. Our kids need it and our world needs it.
It will be difficult though. On Friday Nights because I have duty at the school I usually eat dinner there with the family of one of my good friends I work with. He usually asks me what I'm planning to preach on for Sunday. When I told him this time, he said, quite astutely, "Wow that's a important message, most people will agree, but what will be difficult is getting them to also act and follow through." He may be right, I don't think so because I have faith in us, but he may be right because this will be difficult. New beginnings always are, which is why I'm talking about it now, so many months before our goal line. We will need all of us, and all of us, each of us needs time to discern what we have to offer. Many pitfalls will challenge us, and we will need many people involved. Of course we will need to find committed teachers to give their love, time, and talents. It is a hard job, and a lot of work and sacrifice will be required. Those teachers will need support, moral support, substitutes, curriculum assistance, hugs, relief after a period of time. They need to know that others are just as committed as they are. They will need to have confidence in themselves, knowing that no teacher is perfect, and that mistakes will be made, knowing that they are empowered by Christ, and by us. They will need training, education, and support. There will be Sundays when plans are made, a lot of time is put in and no kids show up. There will be times when it seems as if the kids do not care, and that the parents aren't appreciative. There will be times when it seems like it is all a complete waste of time because we seem to be getting nowhere. All of these things will happen, and they must all be overcome, and they will be overcome if we are all in together. Yes we need all of us. Every member of this church has something that they can share with these kids. We are not all called to the same role, but we are all called to some role. We must do so in faith, and God will provide. . . provide us with the strength and endurance so that we can persevere, and it will make a difference even if only with these four children. The first steps will be difficult as anything new always is. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
We can't see the future. We can't see the whole staircase, and we won't know the whole staircase, either. All churches wish to grow, and if we put these effective programs we may just grow. . . We may grow in numbers that none of us can believe, but then again we may not. Growth should not be our goal, fulfilling our obligations in love must instead be our goal. Each child that comes through these doors we must love and welcome into the love of Jesus Christ. Each child. One thing is certain: if we do not do these things we absolutely will not grow. We won't grow because we will not be fulfilling our basic charge. It's as simple as that. Jesus say's if you want to be truly great you must, "welcome this child in my name." We do a lot of great things here. We really do, but so did the disciples at this point, and it was not enough. I said a few weeks ago that one of the difficulties with the standard being love is that there is never enough, and we are never done. Those words do not exist.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said that by the end of that decade, America would put a man on the moon, and despite all the odds, it was done. I don't claim to be like JFK, and this church does not have all the resources of the United States of America, but in the same spirit I offer this challenge. By August we will have a Viable Nursery with consistent dedicated and responsive staffing and we will offer Sunday School Classes for our Children. Luckily for us we don't need to send a man to the moon, we simply need to love our children, so despite the difficulties, through and with God's help I know we can get this done. May it be so. . . Let us pray. . .
Father God, sometimes the simple things can be very difficult in the beginning stages. Help us to take this first step to living up to the challenges that you have placed before us as we try to live out our lives here as disciples and followers of Christ. Bless us over the next few months as we put together ways to serve our children in this place because we know that by welcoming them we are welcoming you. Bless the people who will be asked to sacrifice their time, and bless the people who will be asked to dedicate their talents to serving your will in this place. Guide us along this road, just as you have always done. We know that the with you amongst us, no challenge is too great. We ask these blessings humbly in the name of Jesus Christ Your Son our Lord. Amen.