I remember very strongly the first time I went to my sister’s in-law’s home. It was before my sister was married to their son, but they found out that I was in town and invited us both over. My brother in law in the oldest of 5 boys, and they are each a few years apart. The youngest brother very energetically welcomed me into the house and showed me around from where to put my shoes, to the living room where he played a short piano piece for me, the basement where the fun big kids toys were, and back to the kitchen where I was offered horderves before dinner, freshly brewed tea, and anything I might want. After dinner, before we left, Louise quickly got up from the table rushing like she had forgotten something. Brining a beautiful book over to me she apologized for forgetting to have me sign their guest book. The whole evening was filled with laughter, music, and warmth.
It was quite the welcome.
I left that evening feeling very cared for and an important part of the family my sister (at that time might) be a part of.
When i think back on it Maya Angelou’s quote comes to mind – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, and forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
In Mark’s gospel today – Jesus is again confronted with the disciples lack of understanding. So he sit’s down with them to have a literal “come to Jesus moment”. In his object lesson, he pulls in a child – how do you get to be great? By welcoming a child such as this.
Let’s take a step back and look at the many different parts that are coming together in this important moment in Mark. We’ve been in Mark for a bit now, hearing from chapter 7 and bits in chapter 8 about what defiles us, how we eat (with clean or unwashed hands) or how we live? Last week we heard more about who Jesus really is. The lectionary skips over the transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter, leaving it for right before Easter, and we hear again Jesus telling his disciples about how he will die. Yet they don’t get it. At all. But let’s not forget that 3 of them have just seen the power and majesty of God as Jesus was transfigured. We might all be very confused what is going on as well. And then to hear Jesus talk about his death? Huh?
Yet, the author of Mark – for which fear is a big deal – points out that they didn’t understand and were also afraid to ask about it.
So they travel a bit, and of course they talk. Not about what they are afriad to talk about and don’t understand, but they argue about who among them is the greatest.
Ironic. They are don’t at all understand the greatness in what Jesus was trying to teach them, but are concerned only with their place in it all. They are excited about the work that Jesus is doing, the crowds that are following him, and how he talks about a Kingdom of God. They want to be a part of the winning team. As poor fisherman and phesants in a Roman occupied territory – their lives are difficult. The picture of hope Jesus brings is a message they desperately want to believe. They want a front row seat to this victory.
Ramsey MacMullen, in his book, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. to A.D. 284, describes a sense of class in the ancient world that, although recognizable to us today, was of a scale that we might have a hard time imagining. He writes “The ancient world had no middle class. Most of the wealth was accumulated at the very top of the social structure, and the bulk of people found themselves poor. Within the elite world, honor was incredibly important. The components of honor and shame were common: “The upper classes emphasized, for everyone to notice and acknowledge, the steep, steep social structure that they topped” (MacMullen, 109). The rich wanted to associate only with other rich, they would intentionally insult and demean those who were slightly less rich, and hoped to accumulate favor with those who were above them.”
He then goes on to point out that “Against such a backdrop, the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel stand out. Saying that the way to gain honor is to receive those who are without honor goes against the logic of the ancient society. The Kingdom of God assesses and assigns value differently than the human realm. God will receive those who receive the child. This will give access to true power, the power of the one who sent Jesus.”
That’s a lot to grasp.
This child that Jesus asked his disciples to welcome, was not at seen in the way that we see children today. In todays society children are precious. Our children’s ministry talks about a theology of childhood that affirms that children are God’s beloved creation – created by God, redeemed by God, equipped for God’s work, gifted, and loved.
Yet not all children in our world today live in a reality in which they are so precious.
After the tragedy on 9/11, this country declared a war on terrorism and went to war with first Afghanistan and then Iraq. The bishop of this conference at that time, Bishop Joseph Sprague, went overseas to Afghanistan to experience and witness what was happening. When he returned he spoke many times to whomever wanted to hear about the things he saw. One story he shared came with a hand drawn child’s illustration. It was a child’s rendering of what it had been like when the bombs began to fall upon his family’s farm.
In the picture were stick figures with their heads and legs blown off, red-crayon blood spilling out, a family dog that was cut in two, and the bombs raining down from the sky on the only world he knew. Bishop Sprague told of the boy he met, and that his entire family perished in that bombing, right before his eyes. The boy had borne witness as his mother, father, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins were blown to pieces. The child was powerless to help, and powerless to stop it from happening. He was powerless to do anything but watch, and then begin the painful work of healing and moving forward in his life as an orphan in a country torn apart by war.
When the disciples argued over who would be the greatest – the winner, the failed to see the complexities of power, class, war, and winners that are complicit here.
Yet Jesus knew. And patiently he brought the disciples back, as he brings us back to his view of the kingdom. Of a place that welcomes the child. That brings honor to the lowest. Of a place far beyond our expectations.
Jesus comes not as we expect
with power that is not derived from war or winning
Jesus comes not as we expect
given earthy glory in name, family, wealth, riches, the best clothes – status symbols
Jesus comes with ragged clothes, born into the peasant class
Jesus comes not as we expect
with the plan we think we make things better
Jesus comes with a different perspective and insight
Jesus reminds us that in our dreams of the future, we need children more than we need war. The last truly becomes the first. As disciples of Jesus, who make claims about our God that we can never prove, we must have faith. We must dare to believe these words of Jesus and act on them. We are faced with a choice. Will we chose our way, the human way? Our dreams of winning?
Or will we uphold the baptismal vows we just heard and reaffirmed ourselves? We will chose God’s way? Accepting the power and freedom God freely gives us and Rejecting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
What does it mean to welcome a child in the name of Jesus? These children here, and all the least and the last in our world today?
May the Spirit give us strength and the vision to live out our callings as disciples, choosing each day to be welcoming every chance we get. Amen. (preached Saturday evening 9/19/15)