Pentecost 18B – September 23, 2018 – 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Pr. Tom Kochenderfer

“Then he took a little child and put it among them….” Mark 9:36
What a joy to be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of the Rev. Thomas T. Kochenderfer today! Family and friends have gathered, special music prepared, Pastor Kochenderfer serving as our celebrant of grace-filled worship where he got to pick all the hymns and then a party afterwards. If he was with the disciples in this morning’s Gospel there’d be no argument about who was the greatest, for they had followed Jesus for less than three years, while Tom has for 75, 50 of those as a pastor. He’d be the greatest for sheer perseverance, let alone the innumerable committee meetings, more than two thousand sermons, countless pastoral calls, and the all those confirmation retreats. Not only that, now in retirement, he serves on not just one church staff but on two, here and at Augustus in Trappe and travels about the country-side impersonating Pastor Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, the Father of American Lutheranism. Even bold and brash Peter who had the audacity to tell Jesus what to do, would declare the Rev. Thomas T. Kochenderfer the greatest, and he would be very, very wrong. And not just because Tom would be embarrassed and annoyed, but because the whole notion of greatness is built upon insecurity, that we are not enough, that we don’t measure up, that somehow, we fall short so we play endless games of comparing ourselves to others, of sizing each other up and putting one another down.
That’s where we meet the disciples today. They are playing the greatness game, jockeying for position and power. And it’s no wonder because this is a group of anxious people. For a second time Jesus told them he will be betrayed, killed and after three days will rise again. Just like the first time they don’t hear or understand the rising again part. The word “killed” trips them up. No wonder they start debating who is the greatest because perhaps he will be their new leader. They need a contingency plan and they’re working hard to figure it out.
Now, we have to give Jesus some credit there. He’s under a lot of stress and the guys that are supposed to be helping him are fussing with each other. He could’ve raised his voice and yelled, “Knock it off.” Or refused to be drawn into the conflict by saying, “Work this out among yourselves.” Or as my mom often said to me and my four sisters, “I wish you all could learn to get along.” Instead Jesus takes them home and in private, sits them down and says, “So you want to be first? Take the last place. Be the servant of all.” Then to be sure they get it, he adds a visual aid – a little child – and puts the child in the midst of them saying, “whoever welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me, and far more than me, welcomes God who sent me.”
What’s going on here? It helps to know that in the first century and indeed in many places today, children represent the future – they will carry the family name, provide security for their aging parents and bring forth the next generation. But in the present, they were a liability. Infant mortality rates were high and in a subsistence economy, they were another mouth to feed. They didn’t have much worth because they could not yet produce worth. In our society worthiness is often determined in the same calculating manner. How else do we explain the nearly 500 children still separated from their parents as of August 31st? With words and a child, Jesus turns upside-down our notion of who is the greatest.
But more is going on here than Jesus’ disciples and us becoming child friendly – setting up play areas for little ones or doing children’s sermons or having activity bags for them to play with during worship or being tolerant when they cry out. Eugene Peter’s translation of this passage helps. Instead of the word welcome, he uses “embraces.” “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do, embrace me and far more than me, embraces God who sent me.” Embracing goes beyond welcoming to holding children close, to advocating for them, caring for them, loving them.
And yet, if truth be told the disciples as well as us can still play who is the greatest game only this time by who is the greatest servant or the greatest “welcomer of children” or the greatest at being humble or whatever. Growing up my sister Laurie would always do what my mother asked – the dishes, dust the living room, run the vacuum. Mom didn’t even need to ask Laurie twice. She just did it. Once I asked her why and she replied, “I want Mom to love me best.” Ah, the greatest.
Let’s go back into Jesus’ house. In the center of the circle of disciples, there’s Jesus holding the child. Imagine yourself in the circle and as you look at the child, let go of all the achievements, of 50 years of ordained ministry, of the degrees and diplomas, the titles and promotions; and of the stuff, designer handbags, Eagles’ jerseys, houses and cars and the relationships, being Mom’s favorite or Dad’s chosen one. Let it slip away one by one. Then let go of the frustrations and failures, along with disappointments and guilt, the fear, hurt and anxiety. Take off the years too, the eighties, seventies, sixties, fifties, forties, thirties, twenties, all the way down below the teens, trust me, you won’t have to go through puberty again, to being four or five. Then simply be the child you are beneath everything you’ve become. Be that precious child, embraced, beloved by God. Be. Amen.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville