By Rev. Kris Russell
The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-194
Today’s Scriptures, from James and from Mark are beautiful and simple. Our rushing, fast paced, simple Mark scripture tells us a brief tale of the disciples first not understanding what Jesus had to say and then being taught a lesson in what it means to be successful and a leader. James reminds us that God is as near as we ask God to be. James also describes some of the characteristics of a Kingdom follower, gentleness of spirit and kindness but it is in Mark that we find the qualifier that Jesus asks us to use to evaluate success.
Jesus first tells his disciples what is going to happen to him in the coming months. Earlier in Mark’s gospel he states again the fate that awaits him and again the disciples don’t or won’t understand. Here it seems they just don’t want to understand. They were afraid to ask him and they didn’t understand what he was saying. Then, almost immediately the disciples start talking among themselves and Jesus inquires as to what they are talking about. They tell him and he responds with one clue as to the nature of a truly successful Christ follower, the last shall be first. The supposed leader shall become the servant of the others.
Then Jesus makes a poignant point by calling a child up to him. He then states that whoever welcomes a child welcomes Jesus and further welcomes His Father. Whoever serves the child will be greatest in God’s eyes. In Jesus day, the only ones who were lower on the social scale than children were slaves. Children were a dual consideration. While they were the future, they were also the most likely to die of disease and famine and were accorded no rights except familial in Jewish or Roman society. Female children were accorded even less consideration as they were usually dependent on men for their social standing and livelihood once they grew up. Back in Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells us that whoever is good to the “least of these” is good to him. Whoever serves the last and the least, serves Jesus. Here in Mark Jesus uses a child to make the point again. Whoever welcomes the least, welcomes him and thereby welcomes the one who sent him.
I’d like to talk about two issues today. One is how do we treat the childlike in our midst, not to mention children and the other is what is it about a child that would cause Jesus to use one as such an important example, in other words, what are the characteristics of a child that God so loves?
First, let’s think about kids and church. Evergreen doesn’t have a lot of children but has had in the past. Think about how children are treated in some other churches. The child makes noise, talks, cries, fidgets or complains the sidelong glances and rolling eyes are quick to appear. A child that needs to be taken out to the restroom often elicits a silent commentary on parenting abilities. I think here at Evergreen children are treated especially well, when they are here and I think that is part of what Jesus is talking about. Treat the child and the childlike with care.
How are we treating children in our world. Just a few statistics can be something of a clue. It has been 59 days since the court ordered unification of children incarcerated with their parents has passed. We have children in prison. In first world countries we have more children in poverty than any other. Children die because medications cannot be afforded and because water is tainted.
The following information is gathered from:
Kids Count, Children’s Defense Fund,& American SPCC
Nationally over 7 million U.S. children come to the attention of Child Protective Services each year according to a Children’s Bureau 2015 report.
1. 37% of American children are reported to Child Protective Services by their 18th birthday (African American children are reported at 54%)
2. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.13
3. 34% of people who sexually abuse a child are family members.
4. 3% of girls were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization, and 30% of girls were between the ages of 11 and 17.
5. 96% of people who sexually abuse children are male, and 76.8% of people who sexually abuse children are adults.
6. 325,000 children at any given moment are at risk of becoming victims of commercial child sexual exploitation each year.
7. The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14 years old, and the average age for boys is 11 to 13 years old.
8. Highest rate of child abuse in children under one (24.2% per 1,000).
9. 80% of child fatalities involve at least one parent.
10. Estimated that between 50-60% of maltreatment fatalities are not recorded on death certificates.
The statistics can be galling, depressing and exhausting. We don’t take great care of some of our children and our child like. This is where Jesus asks us to step into the gap. To welcome these wounded ones as one of us. To welcome the child, the homeless, the gay, the trans, the mentally ill, the divorced etc. We are called to be the healers and transformers in the world. We welcome them we welcome Christ. We draw near to Christ, we draw near to God and as James tells us God in turn draws near to us. It is a give and take that is sacred and a privilege we share as followers of Jesus. What a gift!
Finally, I think this passage and others involving children, begs the question, what is it about children that makes them representative of something beloved of the kingdom? What are the characteristics of a child that draw God so close? I think there are many, but some could be innocence, questioning, vulnerability, awe and play. I think these are things that our creator appreciates in children and looks for in us.
One other way to see children and their characteristics is in the lovely essay by Robert Fulghum entitled “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten”. I’ll read the highlights here. This piece was popular some years back and I think it is apropos for our talk this morning. Here are the highlights from All I Need To Know:
Think about it. Doesn’t that sound like the gospel? Doesn’t that sound like ways to draw near to God. Enjoy life, nap, say thank you, say you’re sorry. All things God asks of us in a million different ways but easily summed up in the life of a child.
So, welcome the child, the childlike and most especially welcome the child in you, regardless of your age. Somewhere deep within you lives that small child you once were and, in many ways, still are in the eyes of our creator. Welcome that in yourself, welcome that in others, welcome that in God. Amen.
We all have our favorite old-time hymns. Today I’d like to share with you the stories of how they came about. The stories about the people and circumstances that inspired them to write the poems and music that became some of the Church’s favorites. I’ve gotten my information today from the book “25 MOST TREASURED GOSPEL HYMN STORIES” by Kenneth W. Osbeck.
Hymn 378, Amazing Grace
Ephesians 2:8-9 reads, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.
When John Newton became a Christian until the time of his death at the age of eighty-two, he never ceased to marvel at the grace of God that had had transformed him from his early life as an African slave trader to – as he put it – a "proclaimer of the glorious gospel of Christ." This was always the dominant theme of his preaching and writing.
In 1779, Newton and his friend, William Cowper, published a well-known collection titled Olney Hymns Hymnal, one of the most important single contributions to the field of evangelical hymnody. "Amazing Grace" was one of the nearly three hundred hymn texts written by Newton for that collection.
Though the text comes from England, the tune is an early American folk melody. It was known as a plantation song titled "Living Lambs." It was first united with John Newton's text in 1831. The final stanza found in most hymnals, "When we've been there ten thousand years . . ." was added by an American, John P. Rees, and first appeared in 1859 in the Sacred Harp collection. "Amazing Grace" continues to be a favorite with God's people everywhere.
Hymn 369, Blessed Assurance
Hebrews 10:22-23 says, Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. . . . Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
After receiving some bad medical treatment, Fanny Crosby became blind when she was six-weeks old. Yet throughout her 95-years of living she wrote over 8,000 gospel song texts.
The themes for her texts were often suggested by visiting ministers and friends who wished to have a new song on a particular subject. Other times, musician friends would first compose the music and then ask Fanny for the lyrics. This was how one of Christendom’s favorite hymns came about. One day Mrs. Phoebe Knapp, an amateur musician, the daughter of a noted Methodist evangelist, and a close friend came to Fanny’s home in New York.
Mrs. Knapp had had the melody racing in her mind for some time, but she couldn’t put words to the music, so she asked Fanny to. After kneeling in prayer and clutching her little Bible, the blind poetess stood to her feet with face aglow: "Why, that music says, 'Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine . . .'"
Hymn 128, He Leadeth Me
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. Psalm 23:2-3
For some, becoming a Christian is a thrilling experience – when one is aware of a personal relationship with their Creator. It’s a blessing to realize that the Heavenly One is guiding us on this journey to enlightenment. Joseph Henry Gilmore, though respected in his day in both religious and educational circles, is best remembered for this one gospel hymn that he quickly wrote at the age of 28. Here’s how he remembers writing it…
I had been speaking at the Wednesday evening service of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia about the truths of the 23rd Psalm, and had been especially impressed with the blessedness of being led by God Himself. Later that evening, the wonder and blessedness of God's leading so grew upon me that I took out my pencil, wrote the text just as it stands today, handed it to my wife and thought no more of it.
Later, without Gilmore’s knowledge, his wife sent the poem to the Watchman and Reflector Magazine, where it first appeared the next year. When the text was discovered by William Bradbury, he composed the music to it.
Three years later, in 1865, Joseph Gilmore went to Rochester, New York, as a candidate for pastor of the Second Baptist Church. He related:
Upon entering the chapel I took up a hymnal, thinking, "I wonder what they sing here?"
The book opened up at "He Leadeth Me," and that was the first time I knew that my hurriedly written lines had found a place among the songs of the church.
The author of 25 Most Treasured Gospel Hymn Stories wrote that when the First Baptist Church building of Philadelphia was demolished in 1926, it was replaced by a large new office building with a prominent bronze tablet containing the words for the first stanza of "He Leadeth Me." The inscription states: "This is in recognition of the beauty and fame of the beloved hymn, and in remembrance of its distinguished author."
Hymn 377, It Is Well With My Soul
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
- Psalm 46:1
This next gospel hymn was written by Horatio Gates Spafford, a successful young attorney in Chicago, Illinois. He had four lovely daughters, was a devoted student of the Scriptures, and a supporter and friend of D. L. Moody and other evangelical leaders of his day. In 1871, Spafford began experiencing a number of calamities, beginning with the Great Chicago Fire which wiped out much of the families real estate investments.
A couple of years later, Spafford was going to assist Moody and Ira Sankey with an evangelical crusade in Great Britain, so he decided to lift his family’s spirits by taking them on a European vacation. It is said that shortly before leaving, the family attended a service in Chicago where Moody was preaching and that the four Stafford girls professed their faith in Christ as Savior at the service.
At the time of their scheduled departure in 1873, Horatio was detained by some urgent business matters, but he sent his wife and daughters on the ship as planned, promising to join them in Europe as soon as possible. Halfway across the Atlantic, the ship was struck by an English vessel and sank within twelve minutes. All four daughters drowned. Mrs. Spafford was one of the few who were rescued.
Horatio Spafford spend hours on the deck of the ship carrying him to rejoin his grieving wife in Wales. It is said that when the ship passed the area where his daughters drowned that Spafford received sustaining comfort from God that allowed him to later write, "When sorrows like sea billows roll - whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well with my soul."
The early gospel music writer, Philip P. Bliss, was so impressed with the experience and expression of Spafford's poem that he soon composed the well-suited music.
# 2146 His Eye Is On the Sparrow
Matthew 10:29-31 reads, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Mrs. Civilla Martin wrote the words to our final hymn while visiting a bedridden friend in the city of Elmira, New York. After some singing and reading she asked her friend if she ever got discouraged. Her friend responded “How can I be discouraged when my heavenly Father watches over each little sparrow, and I know He loves and cares for me?". This prompted Martin to find paper and pencil, and in a very short time she had completed the poem. Mrs. Martin wrote the "sparrow song" in 1904.
Based on James 1:17-27 & Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
By Rev. Kristina Russell
Today’s scriptures are rich and varied but they both point to a common idea. Traditionally all the scriptures offered in the daily lectionary are somehow combined. These two scripture share a common theme of Freedom and wholeness. The Law of Liberty, the quote purity of a religion. From a theological standpoint these verses reiterate how much of a change Christ makes for us. For the contemporaries of James and Mark this was a radical idea. To be free from the laws of the Torah was unheard of. It was heresy to some and frightening to others. Jesus talks in Mark today of ritual cleanliness and James talks of being tied up in rules and dogma. Both passages assure us that neither of these things will help us or make us whole.
I was surprised at the amount of commentary on the law of liberty mentioned in James 1:25. Like last weeks controversial eating and drinking of the flesh of the son of God, this weeks law of liberty and argument over ritual uncleanness is turning the old law on its head. Remember Jesus was a Jew and he wasn’t about destroying of Judaism but reminding people who were so bound up in the rigidity of it that they forgot the supportive, amazing God they met back in Moses’ day. A Pastor Hunt reminds us that James is just boiling down pure religion for us, love one another and help the disenfranchised. And that’s what it’s all about. This law of liberty, this law of love. Love one another.
Jesus of course adds the caveat that we are to love as he loves and that’s where the difficulty lies. We are like the rich young man who wants what Jesus has to offer until he learns he must give up everything he owns. We want to live in this freeing love of Jesus but we sometimes back off when we are called to love so radically.
James calls us to help the widows and children, this is shorthand for the marginalized. The people that don’t fit in the picture perfect religious mold we have come to expect. Jesus says we’re too caught up in the minutiae of the law and James reminds us that we are too caught up in pure religion. Jesus brings a law of liberty. He stated that his yoke was easy and his burden light. He told us he’d be with us always. This is a radical new and engaging law. This is life without fetters and ritual hand washing. This is extraordinary.
In Buddhism there is a saying which I am paraphrasing but is attributed to the Buddha. Religion is a finger pointing at the moon. We get all wrapped up in the finger, if the finger is held just right it obscures the moon and we don’t see it any longer. We concentrate on the finger and all the things about the finger. The moon keeps shining and we’re just sitting there clueless staring at the finger. I think this is kind of what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees. You’re wrapped up in rituals and dogma and you’ve forgotten the basics. Then James reminds us that it’s all about the basics, love one another, radically and help the less fortunate. That’s it!
I want to close with my take on the liberty we have in Christ. As you all know, I am a recovering Alcoholic and belong the the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA those of us captured and trapped by alcohol are set free through a series of steps that ultimately results in a “conscious contact” with a Higher Power, God. As one set free from the prison of alcohol I can attest to the visceral freedom God’s unconditional love offers. The law of liberty that Christ offers us, in contrast with the man-made laws is wide and expansive and never exclusive. Everyone is invited to the table, everyone is set free from ritual and dogma and everyone is loved.
I invite you to put the rule book down, let go of staring at the finger and just relax in God. We’re going to share in this precious feast in a few moments and we are radically accepted. Everything is upside down, everything is free and we are asked to invite the folks from the other side of the tracks to enjoy this blessed meal with us. Go, tell folks of the freedom, tell folks of the basics, tell folks of the love. Then come and dine. Amen
Diana Hunter is our Senior Pastor;