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The Last Will Be First

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Sep 23

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 11:1-11 and Mark 9: 30-37

I’d like to begin today by sharing another story from my summer study tour to Israel -Palestine, this one not having to do with the geo-politics of the region but instead with a deeply spiritual experience of walking the ground where Jesus walked. Our text from Mark today is set in the Capernaum, which is a coastal village nestled into the base of lush hillside that meets the Sea of Galilee, the largest fresh water lake in Israel. Today, Capernaum is an archaeological site and a place where pilgrims from the around the world can see the first century floors and foundations of small homes and gathering places, and large stone olive presses where oil was harvested. The gospels tell us this was the hometown of Jesus’s disciples Peter, Andrew, James and John as well as that nameless tax collector. This was the place where Jesus did a good amount of his ministry. This was the place where he preached and taught and healed. Indeed, it’s where he settled in and lived after leaving his hometown of Nazareth.

When I visited Capernaum this summer, our exceptionally knowledgeable guide pointed out a stone pillar there with an inscription, from the first century that honored a wealthy local fisherman named, Zebedee – “A Blessing Be Upon His Name.” This is the same Zebedee who was the father to James and John, Jesus’ disciples, who was the husband of Salome, who was a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion. This is the same Zebedee who surely met and spoke with Jesus on many occasions in that small town where only several hundred people would have lived. Who knew there was any historic record of Zebedee but here was proof that Zebedee wasn’t just some character in a story. Something about the seemingly timeless beauty of that coastal landscape taken together with those historical and archaeological facts as hard as stone gave me a new sense of spiritual proximity to the stories of Jesus that I’ve never before had.

Our text for today reads: They came to Capernaum and when he was in the house he asked them what they were arguing about. Before we get to the what, I want to dwell for a moment longer on the question of where they were arguing. The text says it was ‘in the house”! Was it Peter’s house? I visited those ruins! Was it the same house I saw, the same rocks upon which an octagonal church has been and rebuilt? Or, could it have been God’s house, the Bet Knesset, or the house of gathering as the local synagogue was called?

Not far from the ruins of Peter’s house, maybe fifty or so paces, there stands today the ruins of a 5th century temple that is built on top of the first century foundations of yet another temple. One can easily make out the walls, stand inside its sanctuary. Over in one corner, a fence surrounds a rectangular hole where one can look just a few feet down and see the stones of that first century floor. It almost incontrovertible that this is the very ground on which Jesus would have taught and preached, perhaps even the place where he spoke the words from our scripture today! Is anyone else’s mind being blown right now or is this one of those you had to be there moments?! Maybe a little of both? I figured you’d be primed for some of this biblical archaeology by the headlines from this week. Did you all hear that a Harvard Divinity School professor came across a piece of 4th century writing that make reference to Jesus’s wife? The ancient business card sized papyrus also said that this same woman was his disciple! I’ll save any commentary on that juicy morsel for after my sabbatical! Back to the temple floor, because it gets even cooler, especially in light of our reading today.

After standing inside the sanctuary of that temple -- the roof was long gone, by the way, and the sun was blazing down -- we stepped just outside of it onto the ancient rock floor that was the patio. Our guide gathered us in a circle and asked us what we noticed about floor. Our eyes came to rest on a grid-like pattern of lines etched into the stone floor, right beneath our feet. We all took guesses as to what it was. Then our guide asked us, “who would gather outside the temple while all the grownups are inside praying?” He then kneeled down and told us there is a little known field of archaeology called the archaeology of play! It finally dawned on us--the line patterns were a children’s game! It was an ancient version of a tic-tac-toe board! Consider it a First Century version of our book corner. Don’t you love that? The archaeology of play?

Okay, enough already about the where of this argument in our text. Let’s dig into the what. What were they arguing about? They were arguing about who was the greatest! Who was the greatest teacher? The greatest leader? The greatest prayer? The greatest disciple? The text doesn’t say. Were they arguing about who Jesus would call his b.f.f., his best friend forever? We don’t know but its clear Jesus is not interested in playing this game! Instead, he lays down his own rules and says who ever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all. He then calls over a child, maybe one who was playing next door on the temple patio. He says whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me!

Why a child? The child was no doubt cute, innocent and arresting, but I don’t think it was those classic traits that Jesus was most interested in lifting up. For Jesus, the child served as a symbol for anyone who has no voice, no influence and no power. The child is a stand-in here for anyone who is easily shushed out of the shul, one told to ‘hush up and hold on’! The child was a symbol of an outsider, of one whose place in grown-up’s pecking order of importance was always last. Not surprisingly, Jesus turns the game the disciples were playing upside down. He says that in God’s house, these are the people that must be first in line, the children, the outcasts, those with no voice of their own. Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me! I wonder who else was made to stand outside his father’s house, outside on the sidelines, idly watching the children play, while those who thought they were first in God’s eyes prayed and taught and learned and worshipped, right there beside the Sea of Galilee!

While Jesus was no doubt talking about very real children, whose names he probably knew, and very real servants and very real outcasts of his day like that tax collector, I wonder if he might as well has been talking about an internal cast of characters also. I wonder if this lesson as easily applies to those voices that we would just as soon cast outside of our minds, those memories of pain or even joy, that we bury and seal behind walls and beneath layers of distraction and denial as thick as rock! It’s one thing to take this last-will-be-first and first-will-be-last hospitality as a vision for a kingdom-come community that surrounds us. Jesus surely meant it this way! But what if the same holds true for that community of voices within us, all of our inner children, and inner outcasts, those voices inside of us that always remain last in line when it comes to conversations with ourselves, others and God. Remember, whoever welcomes the child, welcomes me!

This lesson came home to me in very particular ways over this past month as I’ve been preparing the ground of my soul for a time of sabbatical rest and renewal. I’ve been feeling like the floor on which I usually stand has been breaking apart, feeling as if there’s some archaeology of my inner life that is already underway. Its an archaeology of play to be sure, as I get in touch with my hearts desire to spend time playing and relaxing with friends, playing and relaxing with my own kids, and perhaps even befriending and playing with my own inner child that’s been shushed away after 13 years of ministry and 13 years of trying to be the best grown-up version of myself. I was talking with someone about all this on Thursday. This person shared with me a provocative question she was asked while on a retreat modeled after a Native American vision quest. The question was this: what is your deepest remembrance? The question was followed with an invitation. Once this person had discovered what that deepest remembrance was, she was invited to hold onto it, to cherish it, and know it as a devotional place, as a prayerful place, as a place of guidance to her now. Talk about some archaeology of the soul, talking about shifting the last, or the deepest, to the first, and most surface! I could already feel myself digging into those questions and responding to that invitation!

The other way our scripture resonates has to do with a profound dream I had just before waking up on Regathering Sunday, September 9. Before I go into that, let me say that if this is your first time here, please know that this is my last full sermon for awhile and I don’t usually get so personal. Frankly, I don’t usually remember my dreams, let alone share them in sermons! My sincere apologies if this is t.m.i., but just think, if it is, you’ll have four whole months to forgive me.

In this dream, I myself was a child, of maybe ten or eleven. And I was playing in a yard in my hometown of New Jersey. Three other kids were there, one who I knew as friend, the other two who seemed a little distant, and dare I say, outcast. I didn’t mind playing with them all. We were spread across a broad side yard of someone’s house. I reached into a cup I had in my lap, pulled out an ice-cube and playfully threw it at my friend. It hit him square in the face. He laughed and played along. I then took another ice cube and hucked it at one of the others kids who did not take it as well. He charged towards me, and took from my hands a cassette tape I was holding and proceeded to tear out the tape and rip it apart. At first, I was patient, maybe understanding that the kids had some kind of issues. Then I realized, the tape he took from my hand was a tape of my father’s voice. Many of you know that one of my deepest remembrances is that my dad died of cancer when I was 17. What you may not know is that since that time, there has been a pile of tapes sitting in my mom’s house with recordings of my dad’s voice. He was also minister, and the tapes are of a Lenten series he led on death and dying, just a few months before died and when he knew full well that he himself was dying. I have yet to be able to bring myself to listen to those tapes. Well…when I realized in my dream that this kid destroyed the tape of my dad’s voice, I got pissed, super pissed. I yelled at him “what are you doing? Do you know what those tapes were? I next tore off after him, chasing him around the yard, into the house, up and downstairs until I stopped, waited, outsmarted him and walked into a room where he was hiding, conspicuously balled up, under a chair. Out of the fierce anger I felt, an anger that was barely recognizable to me in my waking life, I started kicking this poor kid. And then I woke up. I lay in bed for about ten minutes. It didn’t even take me that long to know what the dream meant. The kids in the dream are voices, little kids inside of me that I have cast out, silenced and said ‘not now’ to, stand in line behind all the important voices clamoring for attention. In this time of sabbatical preparation, as the tectonics are shifting within me, as the usual surface ground on which I walk starts to crumble, as I get in touch with a deeper ground, and deeper remembrances, I hear the voice of that angry kid saying “its time to listen to those tapes! You’re ready!” I hear the voice of Isaiah saying that the little child will lead them, and that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, maybe even that lamb that I have cast out and kicked under that chair. I hear this voice of Jesus saying: Whoever welcomes the child, welcomes me!

I wonder how this last-will-be-first theme finds resonance in your own stories, in your own psyches and souls, in your deepest remembrances and your deepest dreams. What are those voices beneath the bedrock of our daily lives, at those deeper layers of foundation? What are those dominant voices that we too often lead with, and that need to take a backseat for a time? What are the voices that we are leaving out or even casting out, that need room and hope and voice in a larger household of God? What is that archaeology of play that is calling to you? Whosoever welcomes the child, welcomes me! Whosoever welcomes the vulnerable, the ones with no voice, the outcast, welcomes me! Friends, this is good news. This is a brand new game! This is the kind of play that will allow for our joys and dreams and God’s joys and dreams to meet!

Let me also say here, that if you are wondering about my plans for the next few months, know that much of them will be spent reading texts like this one, befriending others and befriending myself and welcoming those parts of myself, that I’ve kept last and deepest and that may or a time at least become first and foremost. I plan to spend a few weeks on the quiet of Cape Cod, listening to and reflecting on those tapes. I’ll make a return trip to the Holy Land, to study at the Shalom Hartmann Institute and to practice havruta, the ancient rabbinic form of scripture study that we’ve been introducing here at First Church. In all of this “no ordinary time,” I will be listening for and learning from unheard voices within me, listening for God’s leading, listening for a deeper devotional place and a guide for my now! I will go with prayers in my heart that you all will be listening for some of the same. I with great gratitude in my heart for this time of rest and renewal and for this household god that always has room for us all, even for those of who are heading out to play on the patio for awhile. Amen.

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