17th Sunday after Pentecost, year B, 2015 (preached 9/20/15)
first reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
second reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
gospel reading: Mark 9:30-37
When I was growing up I often heard the phrase, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Usually this was said to me because I had appeared to someone to overstep my bounds.
I always hated that phrase. As a child I felt like it shushed me – shut me out of the conversation. As an adult I know phrases like that are all about de-valuing. As a child, my opinion didn’t count.
I know the adults around me loved me, and they didn’t consciously mean me harm, but they counted my thoughts and words as UNWORTHY.
But at least my presence was acknowledged and valued. In the ancient world in which Jesus walked and preached, children were NOTHING. Forget about “seen and not heard,” they weren’t even supposed to be “seen.” Children had no status, and were viewed as little more than property.
Now, even since my childhood, the place of children in our society is much greater. One could argue that we’ve become “child-centric.” It seems for parents now, that the world revolves around our children. Our lives are planned around their activities and needs.
Sometimes, I must say, their desires supercede our values. Worship and faith community life take a back seat too often to sports or clubs. Or when our need to have our kids think we’re cool us takes precedence over common sense – like parents who allow their kids to have alcohol at a party at their house.
So in our child-centric culture, Jesus’ act in our gospel reading today can lose its punch.
Remember the status of children in the world in which he lived. Nobodies. Nothings.
He uses a child to illustrate his point – that the one who wants to be first must be last – must be a SERVANT (the Greek equivalent of a waiter).
The disciples were oblivious to almost everything that Jesus was trying to them. He was preaching about suffering. They were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus, as with everything else he said and did TURNED THINGS UPSIDE DOWN.
“You want to be great? Then be last. Do you need a visual for what that looks like? Take this worthless child, and welcome him or her IN MY NAME.”
If we look at this reading too quickly we think it’s just a quaint picture of Jesus telling the disciples that children are important. We need to get back to the SHOCK the disciples must have felt at that moment.
They still wouldn’t get it, not until after the resurrection. After all, don’t we say, “hindsight is 20/20.” But we, brothers and sisters, have the advantage that they didn’t. We can ONLY read this knowing what came after.
So Jesus tells us to welcome the worthless, the nobodies, the powerless. Ok, so he doesn’t directly command us to do so, but he baits us.
“Whoever welcomes such a person in my name welcomes ME – and whoever welcomes me… welcomes the one who sent me.”
When we welcome the worthless, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus we welcome God who sent Jesus into the world for you and me.
Who among us doesn’t want to welcome Jesus? Who doesn’t want to welcome God?
Well, since we’re gathered HERE, in this place this morning, my guess is that most of us DO want to welcome Jesus and God – into our community, and into our hearts.
So what does that look like? What does Jesus putting a child in his arms THEN, look like for us NOW?
I’ll talk about who the “children” are, but first I want us to focus on ourselves as welcomers – and then bring it back to the children.
Number one, ego has no place among us. Let there be no arguments among believers about who is the greatest. There is only ONE greatest, and he washed his friends’ ugly dirty feet on Maundy Thursday, and died on a cross as a despised criminal on Good Friday.
Two, Judgment also has no place among us. If we want to welcome Jesus among us we welcome ALL those who society as deemed unworthy – the nobodies, the worthless. If we want to welcome Jesus among us, we welcome those who WE also have deemed unworthy – because for as much as I might say judgment has no place, we still do it, me included.
It’s sin – this compulsion we have to look down on others, to rate ourselves as better than some. We’re bound to it. We can only confess it, and cling to Jesus’ grace for us, unworthy as WE are.
Because, in the end, that is OUR relationship with Jesus. In the end, WE are that child Jesus took in his arms. WE are the nobodies, the unworthy, the worthless. In bondage to sin, unable to free ourselves.
None of us like to think of ourselves in that way, but there it is. Between what we have done, and what we have left undone, we’ve got nothing to bring to God. We’ve got NO case for deserving GOD’S welcome to US. We’re guilty. We may not look like it. Our worthlessness may be hidden by nice clothes or a fancy car. But we can’t hide it from God.
It’s a radical, shocking thing this love of God.
We have received tremendous immeasurable grace from Jesus – grace that takes us from hell to heaven, grace that welcomes us and gives us the courage AND humility to welcome others.
This is the life Jesus has given us. His love breaks down every wall our sin puts up. His love calls us to love others, and welcome them into this wonderful broken community of grace.
We welcome because Jesus welcomes us. We welcome, knowing that as we do, we welcome God. And it starts and ends with God’s shocking grace.