Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Adding flavor to a tasteless world"

Message preached August 11, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Mark 9:33-50

Order of Worship

            Tony Campolo, who last month was a favorite speaker of many youth at NYC, tells the story of a trip he once made to Hawaii. Because of jet lag his inner clock was confused, leaving him restless at night. Instead of tossing and turning, he made his way to an all-night diner, which also happened to be a gathering place for the people of the night, particularly those women who walk the street. Minding his own business, he overheard a conversation between two prostitutes.

                        "Y'know," one said to the other,
                                    "tomorrow's my birthday."

from Amsterdam Journals, by Mario Minichiello                   "So what!," the other replied.

"Y'know," the first went on, "I never had a birthday party, or a cake."

                    "So what!," came the response, and the conversation went on.

            After the women left, Tony talked to the waitress & the cook, and discovered the woman's name. It bothered him that this person never had a birthday party. So, he decided to give her one. Him, a stranger in a strange city. The more he talked it over with some of the others in that restaurant, the more excited they got. And so the plans were laid to surprise this woman on her birthday. They decorated the place, bought a cake with candles, and gathered the folks of the night into that diner to wish her well.

            When she walked in off the street she was totally surprised. "Happy birthday to you," they all sang, and gave her the cake. She just stared at it, and tears rolled down her cheek. Then she asked one of the strangest requests:

                        "Could I take it home with me?"

            And she did ... right then. She left. Just like that. The place was quiet. At that moment Tony did something even stranger. He asked the people if they'd pray with him for her. And they did, these people of the night. Everyone bowed their head and Tony prayed for her, remembering that Jesus had died for her, because God loved her very much - that child inside who had never received a birthday party. They all prayed with him. Afterward the cook came up to him and said,

                        "I thought you were a preacher! What church are you from? I'd like to join it."

            And Tony said with a smile, "a church that throws surprise birthday parties for prostitutes." 1. 

* * * * *

            The old adage goes: "it is more blessed to give than to receive." St. Francis of Assisi put it better: "It is in giving that we receive." Now, maybe Francis was saying the same thing. However, I wonder. To say that giving is more blessed than receiving for some people means that to receive is wrong.

            As Christians, we believe that our ability to give, our ability to reach out in love, is grounded in what we first have received. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in (or, might we say, whoever receives) him may not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Our giving, then, is grounded in what we first have received.

            Receiving is important. That is why Jesus first washed the feet of his disciples, before he said, "wash each other's feet" ... "Unless I wash your feet," he told Peter, "you have no part in me." Receiving is important. It's okay to receive. Of course, we can become overly preoccupied with receiving. Still, receiving is important. If we don't know how to receive, do we really know how to give?

* * * * * *

            After a dusty journey through the countryside, Jesus and his disciples rested in the lakeside community of Capernaum. They had barely brushed the dirt from their sandals when Jesus took them mentally back out on the road.

            "What did you talk about as we were walking?," he asked. Obviously, he knew what the discussion had been. And they knew that he knew. It was one of those conversations about the order of things, who was the most sincere of the bunch, who had given up the most to follow, who was the top dog next to the Master, who was the most qualified as leader. You know, one of those chats you're not too proud of after the fact. The disciples just sat there with tight lips. Silent.

            After a while Jesus said two things, let me paraphrase them. First, he said that to be a leader, to be first, one needs to be a giver, a servant. Then, he said that to be a giver is to be a receiver.

            Taking a child into his lap, he said, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me and, thus, him who sent me." He wasn't just talking about youngsters, y'know. He was speaking about all God's children, of any age. In order to follow Jesus you need to be a giver; and in order to be a giver, you need to be a receiver. In other words, as St. Francis wisely said, "it is in giving that we receive."

            Immediately after Jesus spoke those words, the disciple John brought up the case of a man they previously had run across. He was healing people in Jesus' name. "We told him to stop it," John said, "because he wasn't following us."

            And Jesus looked at John and the others, all of whom were nodding in agreement. "You shouldn't have done that," he replied. "Nobody in one breath does something great in my name, and then curses me in the next. Remember, those not against us are for us." And then Jesus said the most interesting thing: "Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name will not lose his reward."

            Now, our first thought, as good Brethren, is that Jesus should've said: "If you give a cup of water to someone in my name, you won't lose your reward." But he didn't say that. I believe Jesus worded it as he did because he wanted to stress again that giving involves receiving; and receiving is so very hard to do, particularly when you're suspicious of the person who is giving to you. In reality, few of us receive without a degree of suspicion.

* * * * * *

            When I went into Brethren Volunteer Service, one of the things they told us was that a "giving" type of person can be less-than-helpful if they don't work at receiving, as well. You can give and give and give, but if you don't let the other person give in return something of his or herself, which you receive and accept "as is," then their suspicion of you will forever be a wall between you. However, if you do receive from them, whatever their cup of water may be, receive it with integrity - calling out the best in each of you, the reward will be great - for both of you. "It is in giving that we receive," said St. Francis.

            Jesus added to these words, about giving and receiving, the fact that both are done "in his name." When we give and receive because we belong to Jesus Christ, it becomes a deed which can transform lives. Who knows what happened after that surprise birthday party in Hawaii, thrown by a stranger in a strange city. Did it become an act that transformed a woman of the night into what she was made to be - a child of God?

* * * * *

            Let me end with another story, about a fifth grade teacher - Miss Thompson. This conscientious woman sought to treat all the children in her care equally. However, there was one boy who she found it very difficult to like. His name was Teddy Stallard.

            Teddy didn't seem interested in school. He was not an attractive child. His schoolwork was horrendous, and his attitude was little better. In short, there was nothing loveable about Teddy. Indeed for some strange reason, Miss Thompson felt a great deal of resentment toward this boy. She almost enjoyed giving him "F's." There was something about him that rubbed her the wrong way.

            She knew his academic background. In first grade he showed promise, but had problems at school. In second grade his mother fell seriously ill and Teddy started falling behind. In the third grade, his mother died. Teddy was tabbed as a slow learner. In the fourth grade he was far behind. His teacher, then, noted that his father had no interest in Teddy's progress, he was never there for any parent-teacher conference. Even knowing all this, Miss Thompson still resented Teddy dragging the class down, and being a discipline problem.

            Christmas time came, and the boys and girls in Miss Thompson's class brought her gifts. To her surprise, among those gifts was a very crudely wrapped present from Teddy. Opening it in front of the class she discovered a rhinestone bracelet with half the stones missing, and a bottle of cheap perfume. Sensing that the other children were beginning to smirk and giggle at these simple gifts, she had the presence of mind to put on the bracelet and open the perfume. She put some of the scent on her wrist and invited the children to smell.

            "Isn't this bracelet beautiful?, she asked. "Doesn't this perfume smell lovely?" Taking their cue from their teacher, they responded with "ooh's" and "aah's."

            At the end of the school day, Teddy came timidly to her desk and said, "Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother. And the bracelet looks real pretty on you, too. I'm glad you liked the present."

            When Teddy left, Miss Thompson fell on her knees and asked God for forgiveness for her attitude toward Teddy, and gave thanks for the presence of mind not to abuse the gift.

            From that day forward, Miss Thompson became a new teacher, and Teddy Stallard became a new pupil. Both his attitude and grades improved dramatically. Eight years later Miss Thompson received a letter from Teddy, telling her he would be graduating from High School 2nd in a class of 900, and signed it, "Love, Teddy Stallard." Four years after that she received another letter from him. Teddy was graduating from college, 1st in his class.

            Several more years went by and she received a third letter from that little boy who once presented her with a gaudy bracelet with half the rhinestones missing, and a cheap bottle of perfume. The letter was signed "Theodore Stallard MD." He was getting married. Since his father was dead he wanted to know, would Miss Thompson be willing to sit where his mother would've sat for the wedding, if she were alive?  "You are all the family I have left now."

            Miss Thompson sat proudly in her seat on that wedding day, and it all began with a moment 16 years earlier, an act of giving.  A cup of water, so to speak, a cup of kindness was given, and received. Who actually gave? ... Who received? Does it matter?2. 

            All that really matters is that because they belonged to Jesus Christ, the act transformed both lives. Brothers and sisters, may we in like ways become the salt of the earth, adding flavor to a tasteless world, instead of being merely offended by it.


1. Adapted from The Kingdom of God is a Party, by Tony Campolo, 1990, Word Publishing

2. Adapted from Three Letters from Teddy and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Silance Ballard, 2000, Eslyn Publishing, 2000, originally published in Home Life magazine, March 1976.

online resources for this scripture text: Mark 9:30-37, 9:38-50

For commentaries consulted, see Mark.

9/18/88, 8/4/96, 10/26/97


1988, 2002 Peter L. Haynes

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