A Sermon for 23 September 2018
A reading from the gospel of Mark 9:30-37. Listen for God’s word to us – and remember that the gospel records this as taking place shortly after Jesus is transfigured into dazzling white on the mountain before Peter, James, and John. Prior to that, for the first time, Jesus told what was to come of him – how he would be killed and rise again. Listen for God’s word to us in this reading of the gospel of Mark.
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Being a disciple of Christ is really difficult! Especially if you read things like the gospels. In particular the gospel of Mark. In this earliest written version of the good news of Jesus the Christ, which also is the shortest and most quickly moving; we have to wrestle with pronouncements from Jesus like: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). No sooner does he gather the crowds to tell them this, than he takes his closest followers away to repeat himself saying: “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” (Mark 9:31). Who wants to hear the charismatic teacher they just left everything to follow make pronouncements like: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31)? Whether his disciples realized Jesus was talking about himself, or if – as the Greek suggests, the Son of Man meant something more general like the Human One. As in the True Human – or the One living their true, full humanity; who among us wants to sign up to be on Jesus’ Team when he keeps on talking about really tough stuff? Sure, he’s telling them about rising after dying – a cycle they knew well as those living close to the land. But certainly few could fathom the kind of rising again Jesus would experience. Do any of us really want to register to follow one who says we have to be last of all? Servant of all – which means, as one commentator reminds: “The person who was ‘servant of all’ was the lowest in rank of all the servants – the one who would be allowed to eat only what was left after everyone else had eaten their fill” (Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4; p. 95).
As if being the last one, the lowest in the household rank isn’t humbling enough; Jesus grabs a child to drive home his point. “If you want to welcome me and the One I embody in full,” Jesus says, “welcome one such as this” (Mark 9:37). Nodding down to the fragile bundle shockingly in his arms, this amazing Rabbi likens welcome of him and the One he embodies to welcoming a little child. We’ve loved this story in the church. Seeing it as a sign of our sweet Savior, our Tender Lord taking up into his arms the wee ones of the world. Yet, that same commentator who clarifies what it means to be the servant of all, reminds that “Mark’s audience would have heard the word ‘child’ as referring to someone like the servant who served meals to everyone else in the household, in that both were seen as without ‘honor’ or high social standing. A child did not contribute much if anything to the economic value of a household or community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence. . . . Children and servants were of equally low social status” (Ibid., p. 97). So why? Why did Jesus pick up a child as a symbol about which he spoke? As his followers were arguing about the things of this world – jockeying for position in hopes of being first in the line of the world’s greatest disciples; Jesus held a baby. In welcoming one such child, what in the world was Jesus asking us to embrace?
Downstairs in the fellowship hall this week during our preschool’s afternoon hours, I was reminded of a few truths about children. Guided into the room by two teachers, the little ones couldn’t even reach high enough to turn on the light by themselves. One fell down almost as soon as he entered the room. Two others had to be reminded that they needed to share the toy both of those little twos had claimed at the same time. “Each take a turn,” I heard the teacher say. Suddenly a little voice below me was telling me his momma was at work. His daddy was coming soon. What a pleasant surprise when I looked down to see our precious little Ziggy who we’re watching grow each day! Every few minutes I’d hear his little voice again, telling me the latest of import to him. One such as those little toddling two-year olds are amazing gifts! Yes, they are gaining more independence each day. Ask any mother of a two-year-old how that can be! But they remain incredibly reliant upon the big people in their world. Little children require big people. From the start they need us to feed them and clothe them and ensure they feel safe. Generally, they can’t get themselves very far in this world – figuratively and literally too. They can’t drive until at least 16! Depending on the make-up of our personalities when we arrive at our birth, and the circumstances created by the big people in our lives; we are and remain reliant for about the first 18 to 25 (or so) years of our lives. Some of us fight against that more than others – as is a part of the process of growing into healthy, contributing-to-society adults. But for the most part, children are reliant. And not all bothered by the fact that they are. Unlike the self-sufficient, go-it-on-your-own value held as great in our culture, is Jesus wanting us to embrace reliance?
Children are authentic too. I love that about them! They haven’t yet learned of the social masks the world wants us to wear. They just are themselves. Whether bashful or bombastic; ready to take on the world or more observers of all the action; children don’t know yet how to hide who they truly are. Think of a baby. When they are hungry, they cry. When happy, they squeal! When something strikes them as funny, they laugh. When they experience pain, they seek comfort. It’s only as we grow older that we learn what the culture in which we are raised thinks appropriate. In order to fit-in, we are taught to modify who we authentically are. To pay no attention to what’s really going on in our body, mind, and soul. Just adjust to the behavior expected of us by the big people all around. . . . It’s such a crazy journey we go through in this life – learning how not to fully be ourselves for the sake of sheer survival, only later in life to have to unlearn all the ways we’ve not fully been ourselves in order to thrive as the blessed ones God has created us to be! Children truly are unstained by the world – free, at least at birth – to be our authentic selves, which may be the only way we have courage enough to let God be truly God – and others themselves too. True to who we are; there’s enough space for all just to be. Unlike the fitting-in-at-all-costs value held as great in our culture, is Jesus wanting us to embrace our authentic selves?
Children also wonder. Easily. Often. And sometimes annoyingly to the big people in their lives. Children ask why? They marvel at creepy crawly caterpillars on the ground – usually at the very moment momma or daddy are trying to rush them out the door before they’re both late for all the day holds. Children stop to smell flowers. And want to look up at the stars. They love to play in the sandbox and stomp in muddy puddles no matter how dirty they get. Look at a three-year-old on their birthday right before blowing out the candles on their cake. They’re not afraid to let their whole body show their great excitement – awe at the beautiful moments of life.
Unlike the drive to produce – and more and more more quickly – value held as great in our culture, is Jesus wanting us to embrace wonder?
What would it look like to be disciples who heartily welcomed reliance – upon God and one another. Defiant of cultural pressures to think we’re self-sufficient, ones able to go it all alone. Unwilling to accept anything other than the truth that we are inextricably bound to God and one another. What would it look like to be disciples who heartily embraced authenticity – genuinely appreciating the marvel that each of us is so that we all would be courageous enough to be ourselves? If not everywhere we go in the world, then at least among our families and friends and church. Because we each are a particular gift given by God to this world. Beings with certain skills, experiences, and passions that God desires to be used for the highest good of all. What would it look like to be disciples who absolutely cherished wonder? Which is the purest form of worship. Time and space simply to behold the beauty of Creator. Relish the joy of all creation. Open yet to newness instead of stuck in ruts of certitude. . . . Long ago Jesus took up a child to teach what it looks like to be great. Unlike the values of our culture, Jesus defines the greatest as those at home in reliance. Authentic in being ourselves. Overflowing with incredible wonder. Welcoming such in ourselves and others; we are invited to remember that with God, that’s what it means to be great.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)