Thursday, September 28, 2006


My friend and mentor Charlie Johnson has begun a new blog. Charlie is one of the best Baptist preachers around and we are all hoping this new forum will give Charlie's voice a larger audience. It is a voice that needs to be heard.

I remember the first time I heard Charlie preach. I was in college and had been invited to speak to the high school Sunday School class at Second Baptist Church, where Charlie was pastor. Second B was the church I had attended as a boy before my family quit church altogether.

When I arrived at Second B my most consistent adult experience of church had been the seeker service kind. Some praise songs that got us all in the mood and then a very "relevant" sermon - usually with three points, illustrating the three "principles" we could all take home from the scripture.

Charlie's preaching was entirely different. He didn't preach a how-to sermon. Instead his preaching was more a kind of unleashing. Whereas so many others preach about the gospel, Charlie understood that the preaching act itself is in fact part of the gospel. For the first time I realized that to proclaim the Gospel is to let loose the power of God which first spoke life into the world. "Let there be..."

Sermon: Letting Children and Others In

Letting Children and Others In
Rev. Ryon L Price
United Church of Colchester
September 24, 2006
Mark 9:30-37

I turned thirty this week. It has been a long while since birthdays were a big deal. Twenty-one was of course a significant milestone – from what I remember of it anyway. But the last eight have just sort of come and gone. Hum drum.
Needless to say I didn’t see it coming. I thought thirty would be another yawner; but I was wrong. Way wrong. Apparently for everyone else in the world thirty is a really, really big deal. My health insurance jumped up by nearly half – which should concern you because you pay my premium. For the first time I received a birthday card that began with a statement like, “It doesn’t matter how many birthdays you’ve had…” That was supposed to be reassuring but it sounded patronizing. Backhanded even. If it doesn’t matter then why remind me? And then, to top things off, my mom called and she just couldn’t quit saying, “Thirty years.” “I just can’t it’s been thirty years.” “It just doesn’t seem possible that it has been that long.” My mother of all people. I kept thinking, I used to get candles and cake; now I get insults. “Gee, Mom, thanks!”
Yet I wonder if the profound reality is that my mom might be wrestling with the truth that if I am thirty years old, she is now thirty years older. That did little to comfort me of course.

We live in a culture where youth has unprecedented power. Just look at all the activities our kids are involved with their infinite practices and ballgames and recitals and we can see that we are not only kid-friendly, but we can sometimes be kid-run. This is why we have to have “toy free” checkout lanes at the grocery store. Some of you parents look at me knowlingly.
If we are to get what Jesus’ is trying to say we must imagine a very different world from our own. From the very beginning I think it is important for us to realize that children in Jesus’ day belonged to a much lower station in life than their contemporaries today in the first world. In fact it is much better to compare the children of Jesus’ day to the children of somewhere like third-world Africa. It is these children who are the most vulnerable to death and disease and the abuses of corrupt military and political powers. If we can imagine the kind of lives these children live then we might well come close to imagining the kind of lives children lived in Jesus’ day.

We have been talking about how in the eighth chapter of Mark there is a dramatic turn in the course of events. The first half of the book is characterized by a certain rocket-like combustionable force. Jesus bursts onto the scene of Galilee like British rock stars busted onto the American shore in the 1960s. Reading all the signs correctly, Peter confesses to Jesus his belief. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” But then the rising action climaxes with sudden and surprising foreshadowing of a dark turn in the narrative. “Then,” the scripture says, “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer and die.”
The disciples were having none of it. They refused to hear what they did not want to hear. Their vision was too clouded by their own religious, political and ideological preoccupations and the delusions of their own grandeur to see Jesus for who he really was. As they walked along, the disciples began arguing about who amongst them was the greatest. Jesus knew something was up. Perhaps he heard their muffled rumblings. “Me” “Mine” “Greatest” “No team in I” When they reached Capernaum, Jesus had had enough. It was time for an intervention. “What were you arguing about on the way?” he asked. Embarrassed silence was their response.
He sat down and called the twelve to him, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all.” Then he took a child, and set the child before them, and put his arm around him and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the Father who sent me.”

I have a friend who coaches seventh grade basketball at a middle school in Dallas. Now I have to tell you that most kids don’t grow up idolizing their seventh grade coaches. Us kids who played basketball in junior high all thought we were going to grow up and be the next Michael Jordan. The Nike commercial still plays in my head. “Be like Mike, if I could be like Mike.” Somehow it never occurred to us that not all of us could be like Mike, but that some of us were going to grow up and be like my own seventh-grade coach, Coach Arterburn. As much as I loved and respected him, “Be like Arterburn” just didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Coaching seventh grade wasn’t my friend Jayson’s idea of making it big time either. Nevertheless there he found himself two years ago suffering through a winless season coaching one of the worst teams in the history of Dallas ISD sports history. And just to add insult to injury to that ill-fated season, the team was getting drowned by thirty in the final regular season game. It doesn’t get any lower than this.
With a few minutes left in the game Jayson decided to clear the benches and let some kids who seldom saw any playing time have a chance to run up and down the floor a few times. He even put in the manager, Timmy, who was physically and developmentally disabled and had a penchant for shooting the ball anytime he touched it – no matter where he was on the court. I don’t think Jayson ever really thought that Timmy might actually touch the ball; instead he thought the other kids would keep it between themselves. But as fate would have it, with just over a minute left in the game someone was desperate enough to pass Timmy the ball. He was standing just inside the half court line when the ball fell into his hands and he turned reflexively and heaved it toward the bucket. I can imagine that in the brief second it took for that ball to sail toward its goal all of the darker human emotions of shame and repugnance reared their ugly heads in the hearts and minds of Timmy’s teammates and coaches. And yet hidden beneath those dark emotions I believe there was also a sprig of human hopefulness and longing, buried like a mustard seed in the depths of the dark earth. If you had to put words to that tiny, hopeful feeling it would sound something like a prayer. “Please, Lord, for Timmy’s sake, please.” As the ball arced toward its final destination all breath was held within the gym and then released in a sudden, collective and unmistakable burst of sound. S-W-I-S-H.
The game came to a complete stop. Parents and fans and both teams rushed the floor and hoisted Timmy into the air. Suddenly for my friend Jayson and for all those others gathered there life had been put into perspective. Winning and losing didn’t matter so much anymore. Being on the bottom of the coaching ladder did not matter anymore. Not only did the question of “Who is greatest?” no longer matter; the question no longer even made sense. For the lowly had been raised up. Yes, for the sake of the lowly. But for Jayson’s sake also. And for the sake of all people in that gym. And for our sakes too. And for the sake of the entire world.
“Let this little child come in,” the hymn says. And not just for the sake of the child. But for the sake of us who allow the child to come in and find space and change our lives. “For whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me,” Jesus says. The scriptures tell us that we must open ourselves and our homes to the stranger because in doing so people have sometimes entertained angels unawares. Jesus’ teachings today go even beyond that. He says that in opening ourselves up to the lowly, we open ourselves up to God.
The Biblical word for this is hospitality. It means creating an open space for others to come into. Our challenge as the community of God is to work toward creating that space so that single mothers might feel that they can give birth to their children and that the alien and foreigner among us might also find a place to be him or herself in spite of differences in theology and worldview. Simone Weil said that creation is that space where God ceased to be all things so that we might be some thing. And so it is with us.

You may or may not have noticed that many of today’s music pieces revolve around the theme of water. That is quite appropriate given the events of my life this past week. As another piece in my rite of passage into old-age this week, I baptized someone for the first time. Now I have to admit that up until now I have felt a little phony as a minister. Yes, I had married and buried but not yet dunked anyone – which is the primary charge Jesus gives his followers at the end of the book of Matthew. “Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” A minister who is only burying old Christians but not baptizing new ones soon learns that he is working himself out of a job. So I am very glad to have now dunked someone in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Brad, the young man who I baptized is home on leave from the war in Iraq and the son of two Kevin and Jill McKinstry who are both a part of our congregation. Most of the time this would have been a more church-wide affair and would have involved him joining our church as a member as well. Since Brad will not be staying here but heading back to a base in California however, we felt it was appropriate that we were baptizing him into the Christian body at-large. As we sat along the banks of Lake Champlain, contemplating our courage to enter into the chill of the early-fall waters, I talked to Brad and his family about the importance of this moment he was entering into. I said that being baptized is being baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ and then raised into his resurrection. It is a death – a kind of burial itself – where the shell of our old lives are washed away and we are raised into new life with Christ. It is a submission of our lives to the claim of Christ – a promise that the Way of Christ will be our way. It is a promise to strip ourselves of all our pretences toward greatness and leave them on the banks of the shoreline and enter into the waters, adopting the words of the first baptizer John the Baptist as our own, “He must increase. I must decrease.” “What is your profession of faith?” I asked between the cold rattle of my clattering teeth. “Christ is Lord,” Brad responded.
As we were leaving that spot along the banks, I secretly pocketed a small, stone from among the shoreline. Thousands and perhaps millions of years of waves lapping against the shore have worn this rock flat and smooth. The course edges are gone. The rough edges have been flattened, and buffed.
When we submit ourselves to the waters of baptism we in faith say no to the false dreams we might have made of ourselves and yes to the dream God has for us in the womb of his imagination. The coarse edges of our lives are made smooth. “Have Thine own way Lord,” we sang earlier, “Have Thine own way, Thou art the potter and I am the clay.” To say yes to God is to say yes to whatever form God desires to make out of us.
To be baptized is in the end to come to a profoundly new understanding of who and what is great. When we fall back headlong into our Baptismal waters, the whole world is turned upside down. The lofty are brought low and the lowly are raised up. And there is only one answer to who is the greatest and that name is Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.