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They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘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.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
When our family moved to Decatur some years ago, our twins were entering 7th grade.
For any adolescent, middle school can challenging at best, especially when entering a new school.
At their old school, back in South Carolina, John and Mac knew almost everyone.
They had close friends that they had known since preschool.
Then, all of a sudden, they were dropped into a brand new school having only met three other students
before classes began.
Fortunately for John, on the first day of school, when he arrived in the cafeteria at lunchtime,
all three guys that he had met the week before were standing there smiling at him.
Mac arrived at the next lunch period, looked around, and did not recognize a single person.
Mac reported that he was standing awkwardly in line, waiting to get his lunch,
when suddenly a cheerful voice from behind him beckoned: Hey, are you new here?
Mac turned around and saw the smiling face of a boy named Marty Faschina.
Marty said, “If you don’t have anywhere to sit, you can sit with me.”
It was a word not only of welcome, but an expression of grace, a kind invitation gratefully received.
As a parent, I will be eternally grateful for Marty Faschina.
Marty made Mac’s difficult transition a bit easier.
During those first traumatic weeks at Renfroe Middle School,
Marty helped my son gain a sense of belonging.
Our text for today locates Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum, in a house,
probably Peter’s mother’s house, which was their home base.
The way the story is told, it sounds as though this scene may have occurred after dinner,
when the work of the day was done, and everyone was beginning to relax.
What were you talking about on the way here, Jesus asked them?
The room fell silent. The disciples were embarrassed.
They had been walking down the road arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Jesus decided to take advantage of a teachable moment, so he sat down and called the 12 around him.
Now, whenever a Jewish rabbi sits down when a question is before a group,
this is a clue that some important teaching is about to occur.
This is what rabbis do after they read the scroll, the Scriptures, in the synagogue.
They sit down and begin to teach.
There, in Peter’s mother’s home, after dinner perhaps,
Jesus sat down and spoke some of the most memorable and challenging words ever spoken:
“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
For any of us who have ever desired to be “first” at anything,
these words of Jesus do not seem to make any logical sense.
They certainly do not outline some “get rich quick scheme”.
This is not the kind of advice typically given to the young person entering the competitive business world.
This is not what players trying out for a team are encouraged to do during training camp.
If you want to be first, place yourself at the back of the line?
If you aspire to be the greatest, become the servant of those less talented than yourself?
While the disciples were still pondering these strange words,
Jesus called to a child, brought the child in the midst of them, and taking the child in his arms,
he said: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,
and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
There were likely many young children running about the small town of Capernaum.
When Jesus was in town, we can imagine a number of kids, elementary and middle school age,
hanging about Peter’s mother’s home. Some were probably relatives who lived close by.
Others would not have lived far away, within fifty yards or so,
among the dense, closely gathered huts of the village.
Children in the first century were not typically treated as precious princes and princesses
as they often are today. Life in the first century was hard; life expectancy was short.
These children were expected to be seen, not heard.
They could observe, but not participate in adult discussion.
They were supposed to stay out of the way, be helpful when needed, and not be a distraction.
When Jesus, the most powerful person in the village, paid attention to the least powerful,
to the children, this began to transform everything.
When the person at the center of a group of people notices, welcomes, and includes the person
at the far edge of the group, this influences everyone.
The actions of noticing, welcoming and including give hope to all.
Location on a circle is important.
If you live in a city, big or small, and you live any distance from the city center,
the tendency of most folks will be to turn back and drive toward the city for their needs.
People tend to turn back toward the center when going shopping, or out to dinner or even to church.
If we compiled a survey of those who live in Oakhurst,
I would venture to guess that those who live beyond Oakhurst Village shop and dine more often there
than those who live between Oakhurst Village and downtown Decatur.
If we surveyed the residents of Tucker,
I would venture to guess that those who live beyond downtown Tucker shop and dine more
in downtown Tucker than those who live between Tucker and Atlanta.
Our natural tendency is to turn toward the center.
Jesus broke natural tendencies.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus moved away from the center and toward the margins.
Over the last two weeks, we have heard about Jesus helping that desperate mother in Tyre, on the coast.
Then we heard about Jesus healing a deaf mute in the Gentile region of the Decapolis.
The gospels are full of stories of Jesus turning away from the crowds to welcome the outcast,
to touch the leper, to listen to a beggar, to welcome a child.
The child in our text for today begins the story not “in the midst of them”.
The child was on the outside of Jesus’ circle of belonging in Capernaum.
Like the other children, he was to be seen and not heard. He was allowed to be visible, but not included.
He was tolerated to be present, but he was not fully welcome.
Many women still face this sort of expectation in the workplace.
Many people of color understand all too well that they are expected to be seen,
but not expected to be heard. They are expected to be visible, but not necessarily fully included.
Whom shall we serve? We serve God first, God alone, of course!
But Jesus taught us that if we want to receive God, if we want to be in God’s presence,
we must move away from the center of power and influence and toward the edge of the circle.
If we want to follow Jesus, then we turn our faces away from the center and serve those on the margins.
On our Staff retreat this past Monday, we engaged in an exercise called the Circle of Belonging.
We drew a circle and put our names in the middle,
then we were to identify where we felt others were located within that circle,
based upon our feelings of connection or belonging to them.
If we work with someone closely,
or if we had known them for many years and shared many life experiences with them,
we may have put them close to the middle of the circle.
But, if we had just recently met them, or perceived some emotional distance from them,
they may have been further from the middle of our circle.
The point was to become more aware of our feelings of belonging among the staff,
and with whom we might need to nurture a relationship.
We have an extraordinary church staff, and we get along with each other well,
but I am convinced that as we deepen our sense of belonging among the staff,
there will be a ripple effect among the session.
And if we deepen our sense of belonging among the session,
there will be a ripple effect among the congregation.
And if we deepen our sense of belonging among all the members of this congregation,
there will be a ripple effect within the broader community.
When we examine the ministry of Jesus, he nurtured the inner circle, no doubt.
For three years, Jesus walked and talked and ate and slept outdoors with those closest to him,
with his disciples.
They asked him many questions; they challenged his words and actions a few times,
and he challenged them often by what he said or did.
There was a significant emotional connection between Jesus and the twelve.
And there was a deep connection with a number of others, the next ring of Jesus’ circle,
sixty or more persons, including a number of women,
who travelled with the twelve and spent significant time with Jesus.
While Jesus became very close to these inner circles, Jesus taught through his words and deeds,
time and again, that if you want to see God, if you want to receive God,
then do not just stay in your comfort zone near the center of your Circle of Belonging.
Go out to the edges! Go discover someone whom God has there for you to meet,
someone who will stretch your horizons and reveal anew God’s mercy.
At the far edge of his circle, in Tyre, on the coast of the Mediterranean.
Jesus met the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter had an evil spirit
In the Decapolis, the region of ten Gentile villages.
Jesus met the deaf mute whose dear friends brought him before Jesus.
In today’s West Bank, a region most often avoided by Jews as they walked from Galilee to Jerusalem,
Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well.
Do you remember how the story of the Exodus begins?
The Almighty God of all the nations heard the cries of an oppressed slave group in Egypt,
a people called the Hebrews, and God showed up through Moses to deliver them.
We learn in reading the Old Testament that God’s care and concern for the least gives hope to all.
Do you remember Jesus’ parable of the shepherd leaving the ninety nine
to go find the one sheep lost in the wilderness?
The Good Shepherd reaching out to the margins and responding to needs of the one most in need
gives hope to all who feel hopeless.
Time and time and time again, Jesus went to the edges of the circle – to welcome and embrace.
When Jesus embraced that one child in Peter’s mother’s home in Capernaum,
and told all the men in the room that they also were to receive that child and become that child’s servant,
he gave hope to every poor child of Capernaum.
Look around your neighborhood – who is at the far edge of your circle of belonging?
Consider your school or your workplace – who is at the far edge of your circle of belonging?
How about this sanctuary – who is at the far edge of your circle of belonging?
And what might we do to follow Jesus to the margins and love unconditionally?
The Scripture teaches that we are to serve God and God alone,
and Jesus makes clear that we serve God best when we move beyond our inner circles to the margins.
Since my sabbatical this summer,
I have been talking about five key ingredients for the 21st century church –
following Jesus, nurturing relationships, sharing stories, embracing change, and celebrating diversity.
If you want to follow Jesus, move to the edge of your current circle of belonging.
Nurture a relationship with someone who is perhaps very different from you.
Listen carefully to their story, and be willing to share some of your story.
Be prepared to embrace a change in your perspective.
And finally, celebrate. Celebrate that God just may be at work in you, through you,
opening you to a broader diversity of relationships and understanding,
and working through you to help usher in God’s kingdom.
If you happen to be someone who feels as though they are not at the center of anything,
but instead find yourself most often at the margins, I encourage you to turn your face toward the center.
You may have been hurt before. You may risk being hurt again,
but turn your face toward other human beings, and open yourself to the possibility of something new.
The Samaritan woman at the well became a powerful witness to a community which has spurned her.
The Hebrew slaves became a light to all the nations which had looked down upon them.
God alone knows what kind of special human being that child whom Jesus welcomed became.
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
‘Whoever welcomes one such person on the margins in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 23, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030