“Downside-Up Kingdom”

This summer, a friend and I stopped by our favorite bar, The Bulldog, for a beer after a long day. It was a weekday and early in the evening so there weren’t many people in the small, dimly lit room and we found a seat at the bar easily. Halfway through our first beer, a gentleman near us struck up a conversation. He was in town for work and was interested in sights to see while he was visiting. My friend and I gave him a few tips, and then he asked what we did for work. When I told him I worked for a church and had just finished seminary, well he had about a million questions for me, and this actually happens quite a bit when people learn that I work at a church.

I told him about First Church and the United Church of Christ; he told us about his religious upbringing growing up Catholic and leaving the church after college. He admitted that he’s no longer a Christian but follows Jesus’ teaching of “love thy neighbor” and remarked that this is a pretty easy rule for us all to follow. I casually agreed, smiling and shaking my head. We talked for a bit more, and then he got up, shook our hands, and made his way out the door, back to his hotel for the evening.

This conversation was a pretty innocent, small talk that happens at the barstool quite often. But I’ll admit, this conversation with our out-of-town guest bothered me—quite a bit, actually. And it has stuck with me even months later.

This fall at First Church, we are exploring many of the teachings of Jesus. We are moving Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel of Mark and how it calls us to “Live the Jesus Life” in subversive, yet culturally relevant ways.

Now I’ll admit, when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, Mark’s gospel isn’t the first place that I would look. Mark has much more of a flair for the theatrical, if you will. Jesus doesn’t have much time for teachings and parables in Mark; he’s too busy rushing from town to town, performing miracles, casting out demons, sparring with Pharisees.

In the stories leading up to our reading today, Jesus feeds four thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, then he heals a blind man, then he foretells his death and resurrection, and then he performs an exorcism, and somewhere in the middle of all of this he finds time to journey to the mountaintop for the Transfiguration.

A conversation with his disciples about serving others and welcoming children, feels like slamming on the breaks as we race through stories of miracles and prophecies.

But everyone needs a rest now and again, even Jesus and his disciples. So in the middle of all this rushing around, they stop at a house in Capernaum for the evening.

While there Jesus asks his followers, “What were you arguing about on the way?” I picture the disciples sitting in a circle, looking at their laps, ashamed and silenced by Jesus’ question. Of course he knows the answer, and the disciples know their argument was about something pointless and petty.

Who is the greatest among them, that’s what they were arguing about. And Jesus is quick with his response, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then Jesus takes a child and holds it in his arms and gives the disciples a good old-fashioned object lesson, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Seems pretty cut and dry, wouldn’t you say? A nice little summation of Christian faith. “Following Jesus for Dummies,” if you will. Serve others, welcome children. Throw in “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and you’ve got the Holy Trinity of Christian virtues. Amidst all of the miracles and prophecies in Mark’s Gospel, we need the occasional reminder of what it means to follow Jesus. I imagine my conversation partner at the bar this summer would agree that serving others and welcoming children are also easy rules that all people should follow.

Perhaps they aren’t our favorite things in the world to do, but we all have to admit that being a Christian is about serving our neighbors and making children feel loved and welcomed. These are some of the most important teachings of our faith.

One of my favorite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, has this to say about Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus speaks to his disciples about things like “welcoming the children,” and “the first must be last,” he’s not teaching them moral lessons nor is he giving them a list of do and don’ts for the Christian life. He’s actually painting them a picture of what the kingdom of heaven will look like.

A few years ago, I was in New York at a conference for young religious leaders. During one of the plenary sessions, the speaker asked the crowd a discussion question. “If you had to create a new symbol for your faith, what would it be?” In other words, if tomorrow you woke up and the cross was no longer the symbol for Christianity, what would you use in its place. After a few moments for thought, we turned and discussed with our neighbors. One woman chose a heart, meaning love; another said a footprint as a symbol for walking in discipleship. And then the young man next to me, who I hadn’t heard say a word all weekend, spoke up. His symbol was a globe turned upside down. For this young man, the Christian life is so counter-cultural it turns our world on its head.

He believes that Jesus’ life and teachings call us to change our view of the world in a radically new way, a way that challenges all our assumptions about what is good and right and holy and easy.

At that house in Capernaum 2,000 years ago, Jesus was painting the disciples a picture of the kingdom of heaven, one that flipped the kingdom of this world on its head.

You see, for Jesus and his disciples, theirs was a society of status. Serving others was the job of slaves and servants, the lowest of society, not of the wealthy and the blessed. Children in first century Palestine had no rights and little value. Biblical Scholar Amy Allen writes, “Small children were more likely to contract and illness and to die. They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed. Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave. Children were insiders left on the outside.”

When Jesus says “the first must be servant of all,” and that “children must be welcomed,” he isn’t given his disciples instructions for kindness or rules for how to live a good life. He isn’t being sentimental about how good it feels to serve our neighbor and be friendly with children. Jesus is showing them the downside up world that is the kingdom of heaven, the place where the poor are blessed, the slaves and servants are first, and when you “if you welcome a child, you welcome Jesus himself.”

What picture is Jesus painting for us today? What glimpses of this downside up kingdom of heaven do we get in our world? Where are we being called to serve others and welcome children not out of pity or because it makes us feel warm inside, but because as disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to usher in the kingdom of heaven?

I think we get glimpses of this kingdom every so often in our time.

In Palermo, Italy churches are turning their sanctuaries into housing for refugees fleeing Syria and Africa. As Rev. Rosario Francolino told the Associated Press, “We’ve substituted the altar with beds. I think it’s the most beautiful Mass the community could celebrate.”

In our own Minnesota Conference of the UCC, Monica and Tom Liddle are raising funds so they can return to East Timor for a four-year mission, where Monica will serve as a physician in a clinic in Lospalos, working with remote villages who have little access to basic health care, and her husband Tom will work with a local Protestant Church of East Timor on training pastors to serve rural congregations and assisting the social outreach foundation which runs a vocational school and two clinics.

Here at First Church, Jane, Gary Burns, Tom Lincoln, and I just spent the weekend with seven amazing youth, our new confirmation class. We cooked out, went hiking, and had a million laughs, and I learned so much about God, about fellowship, about trust and forgiveness, when I sat with those youth in the center of the room.

As disciples of Jesus we are blessed to do the holy work of creating this vision of God’s kingdom in the day-to-day of our lives. When the teachings of Jesus stop being a list of dos and don’ts and start being a picture of the kingdom of heaven, how we follow these teachings starts looking different as well.

It means serving others not only out of abundance, not only when the checking account is full, or I don’t have anything else on my calendar that day so I guess I can do it, but even when we feel like we have nothing we can give, we give of ourselves any way.

It means welcoming the children and those on the margins of society, not out of a sense of pity, or because it makes us feel good to help, but because we know those same children and people on the margins might disrupt our lives, our agenda for the week, or even our worship service. And that is the kingdom Jesus is talking about.

My charge to you this Sunday is to spend some time this evening, not tomorrow or sometime later in the week: this evening. Spend some time praying, thinking, writing, or even painting a picture: what does God’s downside up world look like to you? Who is God calling you to serve? Where is God asking you to be last where you are usually first? How does putting children at the center change the perspective of the whole landscape?

Blessed be. Amen.