This is more or less (I preach from the aisle without notes) the sermon I preached yesterday. The lectionary we used is Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37. The link is here.
Today’s Gospel gives us one of the most beloved images of Jesus. At the end of the passage, Jesus has the apostles gathered around him. He reaches out to a child, gathering the child into his arms, onto his lap. This is the image of the loving, gentle Jesus so many of us call to mind when we think about him. It’s the child-focused equivalent of that other gentle favorite, the good shepherd.
And while it is true that Jesus is loving, Jesus is gentle, when this is the image of Jesus on which we choose to focus, we completely ignore the fact that this passage is about something very different. This passage is about the radical Jesus, the Jesus who defies the societal norms and challenges our very human expectations and standards. This is Jesus giving us yet one more example of how it is we are to live our lives with him
I invite you to think about what you know about children…Think about the complete dependency of babies and very young children. They need a responsible someone to take care of them and their most basic needs for food, shelter, nurturance, just so that they can live and grow. Children are, by virtue of not being adults, weaker, more vulnerable, and in need of care. Their very survival depends upon their having someone to depend upon, and they let us know in their own ways what they need (think crying, whining, demanding to be fed, wrapping their little bodies around legs, and such).
Children show us what it is like to be weak, to be vulnerable, to need and to accept care. They show us what it is to trust that our very survival depends not on ourselves but on someone not us. And they show us that it is okay to ask for what we think we need or what we know we need. We may not always get it, but it is okay to ask. How many of us are as comfortable as children in our prayer lives?
As they grow older and start to talk and to show their personalities in more socially outgoing ways, they begin to ask the question I think I came to dread with my children: “Why?” Although to tired and overworked parents (and other responsible adults) there never seems a time when the question is not asked, even when it has been answered before, it is a good question. It epitomizes their curiosity with and wonder about the world around them. It is not asked to be contrary, but rather as a way of saying, “Hmm…I see that this thing is this way and I want to know more about it.” Children are so beautifully accepting of life and diversity in life, while also wanting to understand all they can about it.
Children show us what it is like to accept what is, while also asking questions to satisfy their seemingly insatiable curiosity. Can you imagine how transformed life would be if we all approached God with childlike awe and wonder?
And then children do what children do: they use that learning and experience in ways intentional and not to continue to grow, to refine their questions or to discover new ones. They do this in so many ways, including changing their minds and deciding that what they knew yesterday or what they had to have yesterday is now not true at all. (I’m thinking of the umpteen times I heard from one of my children, “I don’t like to eat…” when the day before they were sure they would die if they didn’t have whatever it was that is now unwelcome on the plate.) Can you imagine how different life would be, how different we would be, if we were as open as children to the possibility that what we think we know about God deserves a bit more reflection, a bit more study, or a bit more prayer? Or perhaps it deserves to be set aside to make space for new insight, new learning.
In summary, children bring their full selves to their lives, and they do it over and over again, day after day, week after week, and on it goes. That’s not a bad way to approach relationship with God.
I’ve been talking about our relationship with God on the individual or one-t0-one level. It’s just as important to talk about our relationships with each other. This is Jesus after all, and Jesus is never only about individual relationship. Jesus calls us into a specific kind of discipleship, the kind that is willing to defy the status quo, to loosen our hold on some of the things our flawed humanity tells us are important. It’s the love-your-neighbor-as-I’ve-loved-you kind of discipleship, which really is the only kind.
Imagine being one of the twelve. You’ve been hanging out with Jesus, witnessing his ministry in the community. You’ve been with him when he touched people considered outcasts, healing them of all sorts of ailments. You’ve heard him speak out against the government and the structures that support the status quo, including challenging some of the religious practices that are deemed necessary to right relationship with God. All of this is pretty indicative of a leader unlike any you’ve ever met before, the kind of guy who takes risks and does things differently, defiantly sometimes, but always with active love for the other. You’ve signed on to this plan. And then Jesus tells you that he is going to be tried, convicted, and executed, all before rising from the dead on the third day.
And your response? You step back and talk amongst yourselves about who is the best, who is the greatest? You clearly know this is the wrong response because when Jesus asks about it, your initial reaction is silence. You’ve seen what you’ve seen and heard what you’ve heard, and still your response is to compete, to jockey for the “prime” position? Really?
But Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. Instead he overlooks your immaturity – not childlike awe and wonder or demanding curiosity, but self-centered immaturity – and gives you a completely radical way of understanding what it means to welcome him.
Jesus tells you that to welcome him, which is in fact welcoming God, you must welcome those considered the least among you. (Remember that children in Jesus’ time were not cherished in the same way we cherish children today. They were born and raised with an eye to how they would contribute to the well-being and sustenance of the family and community, if they lived into adulthood.) You must welcome the weak, the vulnerable, the dependent. You must cast aside your ideas of who is important, who is worthy of your time and attention, to take up the cause of people with no apparent value to you and your life. You are to offer hospitality, to care for those who have nothing to offer you in return. It is the doing of that, not your wealth or your status or some other measure of “greatness,” that will please God.
This, my friends, is radical Jesus at his radical best. Jesus is calling us into the kind of discipleship that changes how we live our lives. In reminding us that he came to show us how to live life in vastly different ways than we think are important, Jesus calls us to life-affirming, transformative relationship with him. We are to approach this journey deeper into the heart of God with awe and wonder, with curiosity and hope, aware of our weakness and our vulnerability, trusting that God will give us all that we need to thrive. And then we are to go out into the world to do the work that God has given us to do, to love others, to serve others, to do as Jesus would have us do, with kindness and gentleness of heart.