The Sunday I was called to be the pastor at Grant Park Church is mostly a blur. I showed up, everyone told me I was overdressed, I’m sure there were announcements and singing, then I was up front preaching a sermon. After the sermon, I think a few more songs were sung. I don’t really remember. After the service Brie and I went to the conference room and waited for the church to vote, and were relieved when someone (Shelley?) came in and told us that the church would, indeed, like to extend a call to me. Afterwards I was greeted by a flood of people, all telling me their names – most which I immediately forgot – and a little bit about themselves. Even in a church as small as ours, when you try to meet everyone at once, it can be overwhelming. To be honest, I remembered very little from those initial meetings. There was so much going on, so many emotions, so many people.
But there were a few interactions that did stand out. There were a few people who made an immediate impression. One was a small, elderly man in a suit and tie – the only person as dressed up as I was. He told me that he had been at the church since 1958.
Hal Hay, who passed away last week, was the longest standing member of Grant Park Church when I became the pastor. He served on boards, managed the sign out front, and worked as the volunteer building manager. He showed Earnie the ropes and was still getting up on the roof when he was in his 70’s. Hal served this church for nearly 60 years. He was a part of Grant Park during some of its best times, and he was here during what was certainly its worst time. When a pastor drove most of the congregants away before trying to give the building over to another church, Hal and a handful of other members came to the rescue. It must have been hard for Hal, who’s one of the most gentle people I’ve ever met, to find himself in the middle of a conflict like that. But, when It was necessary, Hal stood his ground.
If it wasn’t for Hal’s resolve, and the resolve of the other members, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t own this building. Because of Hal, we can welcome children, as Jesus commanded, into this space through our tenants Lee Owen Stone and Small Wonders. We can serve the community by opening our doors to a number of organizations.
One day I visited Hal at his home, before he moved into an independent living community. When he opened the door I was greeted not only by Hal, but also by his companion. A small, scraggily poodle that stood firmly rooted to the spot. Even as Hal let me in, the dog didn’t move. It stayed rooted to the spot. Hal and I edged our way around the dog, who stood in the middle of the hallway, and still didn’t move.
“That’s Be,” Hal said.
“Be?” I asked.
“Yes, it stands for ‘be happy’…or ‘be good,’ or ‘be…something.’ I don’t know,” He said.
It seems fitting that Hal would name his dog “Be happy” but then, at the same time, not want to be too forceful. “Be happy,” was more of a suggestion, not a command but an invitation. “Be…” Be happy. Be good. But also be what you need to be.
I’ve pondered Be’s name over and over. Was this request, to “be,” directed at the dog? Did Hal want the dog to be happy or good? Was it a reminder to himself, so that every time he saw the dog he would remember to be happy or good? Or was it a way of speaking life to everyone he encountered throughout the day? Everyone knows that a dog is a conversation started. Was this Hal’s way of speaking a word of love to everyone who met his dog? “What’s his name?” strangers surely would ask, and that was Hal’s opportunity to tell them to “Be happy,” or “Be good,” or maybe just to simply “Be.” Or perhaps, maybe, “Be” was a kind of celebration. A celebration of our beingness, of the gift of being, of the possibilities of who we can be. In Hal’s leaving the ending open, perhaps it was a reminder of all that can be, all we can be.
In our reading from Mark this morning, Jesus is once again flipping everything on its head. Last week he said that to save your life you must lose it, and now he redefines greatness, and, as is his custom, he inverts it. Those who are greatest are those who are servants of all.
As I sat this week, thinking about this text, I tried to think of people whose greatness looks like Jesus’ description of greatness. I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, and Mother Theresa. And surely all of these people would work, but then I realized there was a great person closer than them, a great person I was already thinking of this week: Hal.
I thought of Hal’s years of service to this community, his gentle spirit. I thought of the stories he told me about his life, about his wife, his kids, and his job. I thought of his weird little dog, “Be,” greeting me in the hallway. I thought of a picture I took of Hal that day, sitting on his couch with floral upholstery, the chairs and tables around him overflowing with mementos and knick-knacks from a life well lived, Be in his lap, Hal’s eyes closed and a big smile across his face. I thought of the greatness of Hal, and how it contrasts with our society’s – and every society’s – idea of greatness.
Jesus says that greatness is measured in service to others, namely to the most vulnerable of society. In Jesus’ day, there was no one more vulnerable, more antithetical to common ideas of greatness, than a child. Today, I show anyone who will look pictures of Esther, and they’re expected to faun over her, exclaim how cute she is, generally be enamored by my child, even if they just met me. If they don’t, I wonder what the heck is wrong with them.
But in Jesus’ day, children weren’t valued the way they are today. One scholar puts it this way, “…children in that time were regarded as nonpersons, or not-yet-persons, possessions of the father in the household. For Jesus to hold up a child as an emblem of living in God’s household, and as a stand-in for Jesus himself, was to offer serious challenge to the social norms of the day.” Another scholar says, “A child did not contribute much if anything to the economic value of a household or community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence. One could obtain no benefit from according to a child the hospitality or rituals of honor or respect that one might offer to someone of higher status or someone whose favor one wanted to curry. Children and servants were of equally low social status.”
So this story of Jesus holding the child and commanding that his disciples welcome “one such child,” isn’t simply a cute story of Jesus being good with kids, like a politician kissing babies. It’s a radical self-identification with the lowest members of society – “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” But then, as if that isn’t enough, Jesus goes a step further. Not only is Jesus, the Messiah, identified with the least of these, but so also is the Creator God, the Parent – “…and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” The God who we just sang is “greater,” is “stronger,” is “higher,” is “awesome in power,” identifies with the worldly opposites of those things. It’s not that God isn’t greater, stronger, higher, and awesome in power. It’s just that God’s versions of those things – greatness, strength, power – don’t look like ours. David Bentley Hart calls God’s self-identification with the powerless “the most subversive claim ever made in the history of the human race.”
If we’re honest, this is a lesson that we, like the disciples, can’t really wrap our heads around. We also don’t understand what Jesus is saying and we also are afraid to ask him – afraid because of what it would require of us. Afraid because we might have to follow in that way. Afraid that we will also have to self-identify with the most vulnerable of society. Afraid that we’ll also have to pursue this other kind of greatness, instead of the kind of greatness we want to pursue. And, of course, that’s exactly what it means.
Once again, like Peter, we want to argue with Jesus. “No, Lord, this must never be!”
Last week Jesus said we must deny ourselves, we must pick up our crosses, we must lose our lives in order to save them, but he didn’t really give us concrete examples of what that means. But today Jesus tells us what it means – it means becoming “servants to all.” It means welcoming the most vulnerable of our society. Even those who don’t “contribute” to society.
There’s no following Jesus without serving others.
The early church understood this. In Acts, the church members sell all their possessions and give to one another as any had need (Acts 2:43-47). In Galatians Paul says that he and the other apostles believe the most important thing is that they “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). To quote David Bentley Hart one more time, “Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.”
Even early Christians’ enemies begrudgingly admired their service. The pagan Emperor Julian, who lived after the rise of Christianity and wanted the Roman Empire to return to the old gods, had to admit, “It is [the Christians’] philanthropy towards strangers, the care they take of the graves of the dead, and the affected sanctity with which they conduct their lives that have done most to spread their atheism.” The true ministry of the Church is never just spiritual, never just intellectual, but always tangible. The Gospel is spread not with tracts, or door-to-door visits, or a bullhorn (thank goodness!) but with humble, outward acts of charity.
Jesus’ teaching this week really hit home for me. As I read David Bentley Hart’s words about caring for the widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor as the highest level of Christian obligation, I actually became kind of emotional because I was so convicted. I realized that I’m not doing this.
And, if we’re honest, we, as a church, have room to grow in this area as well. We don’t have any longstanding ministries. We have done a wonderful job of opening our doors to the community, we strive to be a welcoming and hospitable congregation many of us work in helping professions, but as a church we haven’t made service a priority, and I think that needs to change.
I believe this morning that God is calling us to growth in this area. I know for a fact that God is calling me, personally, to growth in this area.
Many of us are frustrated with the way Christianity is portrayed in America today. We are embarrassed to be associated with Christians who seem more motivated by hate and fear than love and compassion, who’s Jesus condemns more than he welcomes. Many of you have shared with me, and with the rest of the congregation, your frustration with these Christians – and especially these Baptists – whose faith seems so distant from ours.
I sense in all of us a desire to bear witness to a different version of Christianity, a different Jesus – the one that we’ve come to know through the Scriptures, through prayer, through our communal worship, and through our personal experiences. But I think we sometimes struggle with how to do it. How do we rewrite the script? How do we change the perception?
Talking about how we’re not like “those” Christians and posting angry articles on Facebook only goes so far. While there is a time and a place to speak out about injustice, and it’s important that we engage in meaningful conversations where we give an account for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), words are never, on their own, enough. That’s what James, our epistle reading from the last few weeks is all about. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” James says. I’m sure many of you have heard the line attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.”
If we truly want to embody of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must take Jesus’ difficult words about discipleship to heart. Our faith isn’t something we simply profess, it’s something we live. So our lives must become lives of service – individually and collectively, as people and as a church.
Here is my hope and my prayer for us: I hope that in 6 months we have at least one ministry that we’re committed to as a church. We don’t have to invent a new one, we can partner with an organization or another church that already exists. But, when people ask you, “What’s your church all about?” in addition to all the wonderful things I’m sure you already say about Grant Park, in 6 months I want you to also be able to say, “And we volunteer with this organization. We serve here.” Will you please join me in praying for this? Will you pray that God will show us the way to put our faith into action, to move beyond speaking and into doing?
I would like to leave you this morning with two images. One is of Hal, who served this church in so many ways for so many years so that we could in turn serve our community. He blessed us that we might bless others.
And the other is of his little dog, Be, inviting us to move beyond lip service and into action. Calling us into a faith that isn’t simply empty words, but is a way of being.
May we be the kind of people we claim to be.
May we be servants of all.
May we be “great” in the way of Jesus Christ.
 Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Mark 9:30-37: Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, 96.
 Sharon H. Ringe, “Mark 9:30-37: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, 97.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 18.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 164.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 154.