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Upside Down Welcome

A sermon on Mark 9:30-37

Sometimes, the very first time I read through the next Sunday’s gospel lesson I will be struck by a particular realization or perspective that grabs hold of me and demands my attention as I prepare my sermon. This week that initial response was: “Jesus would have made a really bad business person.”

In case that connection is not immediately obvious to you, I promise I will explain it, but not right away. First, I want to tell you about how this realization connected with my life this week.

It starts with one of my dearest friends, an ordained Presbyterian minister who is in the process of interviewing for a new job. (I share this story with her permission.) She is interviewing for a position that seems made for her in many ways. The job is working for a non-profit relief organization that connects churches with opportunities to support poverty-fighting relief work. My friend has a passion for fighting poverty, experience doing direct service work, and the theological training and relational skills to be able to connect this work to the mission of the churches to which she would be reaching out. It’s a perfect match.

But the interview process has been a bit disorienting for her, because a number of interview questions were framed using business language. For example, instead of asking how she would identify the best contact person at a new church, they asked her about her approach to “data retrieval” from the contact database.

It might just be semantics, but at the same time, language matters. The adoption of efficiency-focused business models for church work raises an important question: Can God’s mission be run like a business?

I don’t think there is a simple yes or no answer to that question, but I think it is an invitation to really explore the nature of God’s way of working in the world. My friend did just that in a talk she prepared for her final interview, to show how she would present the organization’s work to an imagined congregation. In that presentation she talked about God’s “upside down” kingdom, in which Jesus is a totally unexpected kind of king:

“Jesus is a king who rules by serving… by standing with the least, the lost, and the left out. Jesus is a king who entered this world as a vulnerable human baby and died as a vulnerable man on a cross. Jesus is a king who empties himself of hubris and pride. Jesus is a leader who seeks the company of rebels, outcasts, and the marginalized. Jesus is a Lord who touches the untouchables, heals the sick, and proclaims release to the prisoners. Jesus is a king who disrupts the status quo, and challenges us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.”[1]

My friend asked me to give her feedback on that presentation (which I did), but I’m sure she was helping me much more than I helped her. Because that description of Jesus’s kingship is such a powerful reminder of what it means to lead like Christ. And on today, of all days, I want to surround myself with such reminders.

My ordination this afternoon is an event I have been waiting for, in some ways, for most of my life! To be called and affirmed in my ministry to the church of Jesus Christ is one of the deepest joys I have ever known.

It is also a heavy responsibility. And I don’t always respond to responsibility with vulnerability. It’s not usually my first instinct, in a leadership position, to empty myself of hubris and pride. And although my theology pulls me to the margins, and challenges me to stand in solidarity with the oppressed… I’m so easily tempted by the status quo; by the sense of my responsibility to the institution and to “good order.”

I believe in the Upside Down Kingdom of God, but I also know myself, and how much I prefer to be strong and self-assured, over vulnerable and self-emptying.

Today of all days, I want the reminder of how Jesus leads because I know it is not my default pattern. But as I begin my journey as an ordained minister, as your ordained pastor, I want a new pattern. I want a pattern that is NOT about proving My ability, and competence, and worth, and is instead about affirming the worth of everyone Jesus calls me to serve, a worth for which ability and competence are irrelevant.

Which brings me back to why my first thought when I read the gospel this week was that Jesus would have been a bad business person.

My competence-centered instincts have been learned from a business-oriented culture of success, but they don’t match Jesus’s teachings here. Well-run businesses don’t put the first last, in a position where their skills are under-utilized. Well-run businesses don’t highlight someone who brings absolutely no value (which was the way children were seen in the ancient Near-East). They don’t take the person with no usefulness to offer and say “here. Make a big deal out of this person. That’s what it’s all about.” That’s NOT the way to run a business, but Jesus says that it is the way to do discipleship.

Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on this gospel text, talks about this as the “topsy-turvey kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first and everyone who thinks he or she is on the top of the heap is in for a big surprise.”[2] Moreover, she argues that Jesus’s example of the child is about everyone who shares the child’s vulnerability. “(Jesus) is talking about all the little ones in this world with no status, no influence, no income. He is daring us to welcome them as bearers of God, to believe that God’s hierarchy is the reverse of ours and that greatness is only available to those with no ambition to be great.”[3]

Whether we call it Upside Down or topsy-turvy, Jesus is telling us that God’s kingdom doesn’t work according to our rules. God’s “greatness” looks nothing like our expectations of success.

Now, because of some of the public conversation in our world this week, I think it’s important to diverge for a second to make an observation about powerlessness. Jesus’s teachings here (and elsewhere) should never be used to fetishize weakness, or to justify systems that do harm by keeping people powerless. Disempowerment, and the abuse that so often thrives in situations of disempowerment, are NOT God’s design for human society. Jesus does not tell his disciples to become like the little child, who lacks status and influence and the opportunity for self-protection. Jesus tells them to WELCOME the one who is treated as worthless. To affirm the worth that has been denied her.

Because in doing so, we welcome God. Welcome is the way Jesus’s Upside Down Kingdom responds to the realities of vulnerability in our world.

And that’s really important for his disciples to understand because their instinctual reaction to vulnerability has been the opposite. It has been fear. When Jesus started talking to them about his own vulnerability, about how he would be betrayed and killed, the disciples got confused, and they got scared.

And then they did what most of us do when we get scared. They tried to banish the fear by making themselves feel powerful. By arguing about who would be “first.” The typical human response to vulnerability is to seek security, to establish our status by claiming the right to be first, or maybe just to retreat into our competence… to grasp onto systems or business practices that promise success.

It’s a danger for disciples, and for pastors, and it’s a danger for churches too. Vulnerability is a reality for churches in the 21st Century. The culture isn’t designed around us any more, and more and more people see organized religion as irrelevant. That truth can tempt small, vulnerable church to cast around for a source of security.

And while I know you all love me for me, I’m also aware that “finally having a permanent pastor again” could be just such an illusion of security. And I’m aware that such a mindset would play into all my desires to prove my worth by “doing a job.” By implementing all the right business practices to ensure our success.

But I don’t want to ensure our success. I want us to do the work of God’s kingdom.

At the end of her sermon on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor writes “I don’t know how you operate a church or a business or a society by turning it over to those with the least to offer, but I do know that God’s values are not our values, and that knowledge alone may be enough to keep us humble.”[4]

I don’t think it’s my job as your pastor to have the least to offer, but I also know it’s not my job to protect us from fear, or to make sure that everything is safe and secure, or even to make sure that we succeed.

It’s my job to keep proclaiming the upside down, topsy turvey kingdom of God, where we don’t have to prove our worth, because the people who have nothing to offer are welcome, and the people on the margins are where we see God.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Used by permission, unpublished presentation.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All,” in Bread of Angels¸ Cambridge, Cowley Publications, 1997, p. 133.

[3] Ibid, pp. 133-134.

[4] Ibid, p. 135.

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