A friend of mine spent a couple of years as a missionary in Africa. She was much younger then, more idealistic, and maybe a bit more selfish. She went to Africa because, well, that’s the top of the game as far as the mission field goes. It’s dangerous, you could get sick, the conditions are abhorrent, and you will see unimaginable poverty that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Like most missionaries to Africa, she spent time ministering to people. Helping little ones learn the Bible, worshiping with the older ones, building schools and hospitals. And of course, when she returned, she had all this missionary clout… You know, she spent two years — not just two weeks — in Africa. But then her next pastoral assignment back stateside was at a small church in the Midwest. And that town had it’s challenges: Lots of poverty, depression, alcoholism, domestic abuse, deprivation… But this mission field, she thought, wasn’t for her. She wanted to go and change the world. How could she do that in a small church in the middle of nowhere? But after spending a couple of years in this little Midwestern town, she began to understand something about herself, and about God’s will for her life and the world: It didn’t matter whether she was in Africa or the Midwest; the mission field was still very present. No, it’s that being in Africa fed her ego. She was a somebody for going there. Anyone can pastor a small church in a small town… What glory was there in that? Eventually, she began to realize that she was in missionary ministry for the wrong reasons. She went to Africa first for herself, not for God. And her elders knew this. And that’s why she was placed in this little town. Once she realized her error, she became so thankful for that placement. This morning, I’d like for us to talk about what it means to serve and why we do it. Specifically, how we welcome others into God’s kingdom when we serve for the right reasons. Mark In our reading today, we get a behind-the-scenes look at the disciples, who are squabbling about who is the greatest among them. So far, they have been with Jesus, watching him perform miracles, outsmarting the Jewish religious leaders, and all the whole, building up an enormous following — a movement in the making. And Jesus — the Messiah — hand-picked these people to accompany him. What an honor! But Jesus overhears them bickering, then leans in and asks them in verse 33: “What were you arguing about on the way?” They all go silent. So Jesus rounds up all of them and tells them: If you want to be first, you have to be last. You have to serve everyone. Then he takes a small child and places it before them and says in Verse 37: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Holding back the kingdom You see, my friend thought God had called her to minister in Africa. And maybe God did. And maybe while she ministered and prayed with the people there in God’s name, she was more interested in what she could do for their lives, and not what God could do in their lives. Do you see the difference? I mean, I wonder what the people in that African village saw? Most likely, something they’ve seen fairly often: Voluntours… That is an amalgamation of the words volunteers and tourism. The voluntourism industry is worth about $173 billion annually today. Imagine what these countries could do with $173 billion annually… Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that anyone — or even the majority — who goes on a mission trip does so for selfish reasons. For my friend, well, she was a bit caught up in that. She thought she would have a career in voluntourism — spanning the globe to the darkest corners to save people… And that would have been great, she admits, if she just did it for God and not herself. The right reasons The disciples had it wrong. Their argument showed Jesus — and shows us — just as much: We may actually be helping people both around the world and at home, but we’re not fully helping them to God. If we’re practicing hospitality — that is, we’re being welcoming — for the wrong reasons, we’re not really welcoming people into kingdom. We’re not really welcoming them to God. We’re welcoming them to ourselves. It’s a very fine line, sometimes.
Welcoming A few years ago, when I lived in Harrisburg, I visited a soup kitchen. I was a part of a Leadership group that was learning what it meant to be a servant-leader. A servant-leader is exactly that: Rather than leading from the top and letting everything sort of trickle-down to the others below, the servant-leader is at the very bottom, empowering those to rise above. When we arrived to the inner-city soup kitchen, we all thought we were going to don aprons and serve folks in line and clean up after them, all the while patting ourselves on the backs for being good servants. Then as we entered the soup kitchen, the leader stopped us to tell us what we’d really be doing. She said, “You’re not going to serve food. You’re going to just go and sit and eat with them. Don’t go together. Go by yourselves. I’ll come pick you up in an hour…” I was there for the wrong reasons. And I found that out very quickly. Another serving See, it’s easy to serve. It’s easy to clean up after people; it’s hard to sit next to someone who is so different from us. People we might tend to avoid in life. When we serve, we’re in control. When we do this, we’re in it for the wrong reasons. We have to let go of that control and welcome them into our lives. Give them control. Why is that? When we truly welcome them into our lives, then they are being welcomed by God. Again, Jesus tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Do we hear that? We are actually welcoming Christ. And at the same time, Jesus says we’re not only welcoming Christ, but the one who sent Christ. God, the Father. But we are neither welcoming Christ nor God the Father if we are not welcoming them in Christ’s name. What does that mean? Sacrifice It’s by no accident Mark opens this account with Jesus telling the disciples that he will be betrayed and killed and will rise again. Why are we talking about Jesus’s death and resurrection in the same breath as welcoming others in Christ’s name? Well, we just said that the power of the servant is not what we do as much as who we do it for. When we welcome others and serve others, it’s not for our own selves; it’s so that we make God’s presence known in the world. If we’re serving out of some sense of duty because we feel like that’s how we become good Christians in God’s eyes, we have it all wrong. In a sense, we’re serving ourselves — even if we’re doing it with good intentions. The last shall be first: We have to sacrifice for a Greater Good than our own selves… When we serve, we are welcoming people into God’s kingdom. We are the very image of Christ serving and sacrificing for us. This is how we can make God’s presence known in the world. It’s not to glorify ourselves — that we will have a better place in the kingdom — it’s to glorify God, so that others will have a place in the kingdom, too. Jesus’s ministry is a wonderful example: He welcomes everyone and serves all of them. And there is no better way for Christ to welcome people into God’s kingdom than by taking all of our brokenness and atoning for those sins with his own blood. The blood shed redeemed us to God. And now we are welcomed into the kingdom once more. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples about what’s about to happen to him. Human Welcoming takes sacrifice. Serving takes sacrifice. Not sacrificing your time or money or even your gifts… but giving truly of yourself in Christ’s name. We’re all human, we’re all imperfect trying to get closer to perfect… If we truly want to be more like Christ, we have to act more like Christ. When we serve, we have to try to understand what it feels like for others to receive. Does it matter to them whether we’re simply serving them, or that we’re loving them? That we’re doing some task or duty and an hour later going back to our normal, comfortable lives or being with them and getting to know them so that we can never really go back to our own normal, comfortable lives; because we have seen, and we have been changed. Jesus glorifies God by glorifying the child. 2000 years ago, children were not glorified. They were not dignified. They had no voice. Christ takes the most vulnerable and least powerful and glorifies them and in so doing, glorifies God. Welcoming the powerless actually welcomes the Most Powerful: It welcomes the one who sent Christ. It welcomes God. Conclusion My friend knew her efforts in Africa were not all for nothing. God knows we’re not perfect. God knows we can be tempted and misled and just plain self-centered sometimes… And God still blesses our efforts. I’m sure God blessed my friend’s efforts. She did great work in Africa. But once she began to understand how to welcome by serving, her ministry blossomed. She’s unstoppable, really. And she’s a blessing to thousands of people today. In Christ’s name We serve in the name of Christ. That means giving up ourselves for others. Stepping forward when no one else is willing to do so. Going places where no one else wants to go. Not for our kingdom resumes; but only to make God’s presence known in the world. The biggest change we can help make in others’ lives isn’t laying bricks or teaching English; i mean, those are great… but the biggest change we can help make in others’ lives is welcoming them into the kingdom in the name of the one who sends us.