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On An Upside-Down Mission
a sermon based on Mark 9:30-37
by Rev. Frank Schaefer

There is a humorous story about a fellow named Tom Burns who was on an ocean voyage. He shared a dining table with a Frenchman who obviously spoke no English. Since Burns didn't know any French, they had to enjoy their meals in silence. The only time they spoke was at the beginning of each meal. The Frenchman would nod at Burns and say, "Bon appetit!" Burns, not sure how to respond, would nod and reply, "Tom Burns." This had been the pattern of their meals for three days, until one day a friend heard of it and took Burns aside. He told Burns that "Bon appetit" was not the man's name, but was French for "Good appetite!" He was telling Burns to enjoy his meal! Burns was ready at the next meal. When the Frenchman entered the dining hall, Burns nodded at him and said, "Bon appetit!" The Frenchman smiled and replied, "Tom Burns!"

Misunderstandings are very human. Misunderstandings were not foreign to Jesus's disciples either. In our lesson, Jesus predicted what was going happen to him once they reached Jerusalem. "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." And the text says that the disciples didn't understand.

Do you think it is possible that we, too, could be mistaken about Christ at times? This is a scary question, isn't it? Perhaps many people who think they understand Christ really misunderstand his message. Sometimes we tend to think Sunday School is for children. We don't need Sunday School because we understand Jesus; we think we have Him figured out. But today's Scripture lesson illustrates just how dangerous that thinking can be.

The disciples had been with Jesus for three years. They had heard Him teach the crowds; they had watched Him heal the sick. They had received private instruction from Him as He prepared them for the time when they would have to carry on without Him. The disciples thought they understood, but they were mistaken.

While they were traveling through Galilee, Jesus noticed that the disciples were having quite a lively discussion behind Him. So when they got to Capernaum, He asked them, "What were you arguing about?" This embarrassed them, for they were arguing about who among them should be second in command behind Jesus. Instead of focusing on what Jesus was teaching them, they were campaigning among themselves for the top position, not unlike the presidential candidates in the in the US right now.

The disciples were thinking along the lines of this-worldly standards. Can you imagine Jesus' frustration? "What about all these years of sitting under my preaching? Didn't they hear any of it?" This situation called for something drastic. Mere words wouldn't do. So he took a little child who was playing nearby and placed the child before them and said in so many words: "here is your VIP!" I can see the disciples now: "Say what?" Jesus wanted His disciples to identify with the child, instead of with power and prestige. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

What about our standards? If someone were to ask you this morning to teach a Sunday School class or to help with child care, how would you respond? Would you be willing to serve in a classroom where much of what you do goes unnoticed by most of the congregation? Or would you be more inclined to accept some leadership position where you are more visible? If you are in a leadership role, do you see your role as that of a servant who is willing to be a part of the total effort to provide our church's ministry, or are you concerned about your own power and authority as a leader? If we are not careful, we can lose our focus and allow our standards to become confused.

That is what happened to the disciples. They were already arguing over who would occupy the positions of power in this new kingdom. Jesus wanted them to think not in terms of power but in terms of the powerless. That is why He pointed to the child in their midst.

The drive for power has wreaked so much heartache in this world, and it is still a constant threat in every part of society. Jesus is looking for people who are willing to give up their own power to a power that is much greater.

Following Jesus will not necessarily lead you to success; it will lead you to service. Jesus put it this way: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." The Gospel is not about who chairs the board or who the first soprano in the choir is. It is about love, self-giving love. It is about the kind of love Christ showed us. Are you ready to receive the Gospel message today? Are you ready to open yourself to His love and forgiveness? Some of us have gotten Christ's message all wrong. Nowhere does Jesus promise He will make you a success. Rather He promises to make you a servant, a servant to Him and the world. The Gospel is about love. Christ loves us - we love Him and we love one another.

This morning, Christ reminds us that our human nature often causes us, even his church, to misunderstand him. His kingdom is not consistent with logical human thought, it is not of this world. In the words of our VBS slogan, Jesus is on an "upside-down mission," and so should we be. In God's eyes the VIPs are the ones that are "weak" in the eyes of the world. It's about humility and service. Isn't that refreshing?! The church should be different from the job place where elbowing and politicking is the name of the game. It's time for us to give up the quarrels and the power struggles and get with God's program: the upside-down mission! Let's do it! Amen.