Sunday, September 13, 2015

One Such Child

What's the difference between Jesus' call to become like a child,
and his call to welcome one such child in his name?

                              Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
                                  Take our lips and speak through them.
                                  Take our hearts and see through them.
                                  Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Back to Square One
All summer long we have been making our way through the Gospel of Mark, and last week our story a dramatic turn. For the first eight chapters of Mark, Jesus had been announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom. He had demonstrated its power and presence with powerful words and powerful deeds. He exorcised demons, cleansed lepers, and healed the lame. He raised the dead, and restored hearing and sight to the deaf and the blind. He stilled storms, walked on the sea, and fed thousands with just a few loaves. Surely God was with him. Yet, this Jesus also consorted with tax-collectors and sinners and Gentiles. He disregarded purity traditions, rewrote parts of the Law, and committed blasphemy. So perhaps he was just crazy, or perhaps he was in league with the Devil.

So, for eight chapters the questions and the rumors and the speculations circulated. Who is this Jesus? Is he John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets of old? Or is he just a drunkard and a glutton, a false prophet leading the people astray. Even his own disciples struggled to understand Jesus and his mission. But then in last’s week’s episode, Peter declares, “You are the Messiah.” Finally, the disciples get it right. Finally, they have come to the conclusion that Mark’s readers have known since the opening verse of the gospel, that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed.

But this glorious moment of recognition is short-lived. As soon as Jesus’ identity is known, he lets the disciples know the road that lies ahead. He begins to teach them, saying, that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” It sounds like the talk of a madman, so Peter rebukes Jesus as though he had a demon; and Jesus rebukes Peter right back. Now we are back to square one. Who is this Jesus? And what does it mean to follow him?

A New Trail
To help us find the answers to these questions, Mark has marked out another trail for us follow. The trail of breadcrumbs led us to the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah. This new trail, however, will help us understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah and what it means for us to follow him. This new trail is called the Way of the Cross, and it will guide us through the next three chapters of Mark, depositing us in Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.

In Mark, the Way of the Cross is easy to recognize because it has a clear pattern. On three separate occasions, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and be killed. Every single time, the disciples say or do something that shows that they don’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about. Jesus then teaches his disciples what it means to follow him. This pattern of passion prediction, misunderstanding, and teaching on discipleship is repeated three times. It first occurred in last week’s reading, and it occurs again in today’s reading. So, take a look at the gospel reading in your bulletin.

Notice how the reading begins with Jesus’ prediction of his passion: “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.” Second, notice how the disciples demonstrate their total lack of understanding by debating with one another about who is the greatest. Just last week Jesus had said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). But how can you deny yourself, take up your cross, and still engage in a debates about who is the greatest? You can’t; those things are mutually exclusive.

Given their obvious misunderstanding of his mission and purpose, Jesus calls the Twelve together and offers a second teaching on the nature of discipleship. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t criticize his disciples for engaging in a discussion about who was the greatness. Instead, he redefines greatness. He paints a picture of what true greatness looks like, at least what it looks like in a kingdom that is ruled by a king who will be crowned with crown of thorns and enthroned on a hard wooden cross.

Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a little child and puts the child in their midst. Then taking the child in his arms, he tells them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:35b–37).

One Such Child
Now if you will indulge me, I would like to offer some reflections on how this this text affected me personally this week. On Wednesday evenings at 6:15, a small group study meets here at the church. For several months now, we have been practicing a particular method of reading the Bible called The Art of Engaging Holy Scripture, which offers a contemplative approach to the Scriptures. In this method, we begin by reading a passage slowly to ourselves. As we do this, we make some observations: “What am I seeing? What questions does this passage raise for me?” After a while, we then move from observations to attractions. We begin to pay attention to those things in the passage that we find ourselves particularly drawn to. We ask ourselves, “What is attracting me in this passage? And, why is it attracting me?” In taking the time to become aware of what attracts us and pausing to focus on it, we are opening ourselves to Scripture. We are placing ourselves in a listening posture, listening for what God might have to say to us through the Scriptures.

Well on Thursday morning, I was using The Art of Engaging Holy Scripture to interact with today’s gospel lesson. And I noticed that my mind kept coming back to this business with the child. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” I kept reading it over and over again, wondering why it was attracting my attention. Then it occurred to me; it wasn’t saying what I thought it was saying, or at least what I thought it should say. I was confusing this statement with a similar one Jesus makes in Matthew.

Once Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And he responded, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:3–4). So, in Matthew, Jesus told his disciples to become like children, but here in Mark, Jesus says to welcome children, which is somewhat different. So then I began to wonder, what does welcoming one such child have to do with being last of all and servant of all?

And so I did a bit of reading, and I was reminded that in the first-century Mediterranean world, status and honor were very important. Therefore, in Jesus’ day, “It was taken for granted that people would be concerned about their rank on the social ladder.”[1] So perhaps we should not be so surprised that the disciples were discussing their relative greatness within Jesus’ inner circle.

Moreover, not only were status and honor important values, they were also limited goods, and so constituted a zero-sum game. For example, in a given social group, if one person’s status increased, it came at the expense of another’s status. Say you wanted to climb the social ladder, you would have to climb over people of higher rank, which means they would lose rank, relatively speaking. And obviously you wouldn’t climb over persons of lower rank because that would mean that you were going down the social ladder, thereby losing status and honor.

But that’s exactly what Jesus is suggesting. “If you are going to become great in the kingdom of God, then you must become the last, the servant of all.” And there is no better illustration of this than a child because “in the first-century Mediterranean world, the characteristic feature of children was not… their innocence, but their lack of status and legal rights.”[2] In other words, Jesus placed a child in their midst, not because a child connoted innocence, but because a child had no social standing. Therefore, to welcome, receive, and extend hospitality to a child gained you nothing socially and in fact diminished your social standing. Therefore, to welcome one such child in Jesus name was to give up all pretense, all striving for status and honor.

As I pondered these things, I asked myself, “If Jesus has called me to welcome one such child in his name, then who do I know who lacks social status and legal rights?” Immediately, a name popped into my head, George. (Now George isn’t his actual name, but I am using it so that he can remain anonymous.) I met George several weeks ago; he was introduced to me by a mutual friend who sometimes comes to our backdoor for assistance. This friend said, “Fr. Ted, we’ve got to help him.”

And so, I have gotten to know George. Six to seven years ago, George had a good job and a good life. He was a sheriff’s deputy in Texas until he was in an accident in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury. His legs and back are pretty messed up, and he suffers from anxiety and depression. He’s on disability, and has been living in transitional housing. He had been hoping to get an apartment, which would make it possible for his two sons to visit him on weekends. His new apartment was supposed to be ready on September 9th, but the move-in date was pushed back. In the meantime, his deposit disappeared, he was evicted from his existing place, and he is now staying at the Union Rescue Mission.

George has called me on an almost daily basis for the past several weeks. On Monday, I went with him to visit his landlord to get a better understanding of why he was being evicted. She told me of his ongoing refusal to abide by the rules, and told me how he doesn’t take responsibility for himself, but instead relies on other people. Her words had an effect on me. Over the next several days, I found myself becoming less compassionate and more impatient with George and his situation.

Then, on Thursday morning, as I sat pondering today’s gospel, as I focused on what was capturing my attention, I saw parallels between my situation and the disciples. In our society, status and honor are not values, at least not in the same way that they they were in the first-century world. But we do have other principal values. For example, in our society we value independence and self-sufficiency above almost everything else. This means that those who are able to stand on their own two feet, those who are able to provide for themselves have a higher social standing. Now we don’t mind offering the occasion helping hand to those who are in need, but we have our limits. We don’t want to create dependency; we don’t want to be taken advantage of; we don’t want to be responsible for other people; we want to be allowed to take care of ourselves, and let others take care of themselves. These were the thoughts that had been triggered by George’s landlady; and these were the thoughts that were contributing to my lack of compassion and patience.

But Jesus’ challenged me; they questioned the values that were operating inside of me. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” George is one such child; George is one without much social status in a world that values independence and self-reliance. I was helping George, but clearly I wasn’t doing it in the name of Jesus, because I lacked compassion and empathy. In those moments, I was operating out of first-world values, not the values of God’s kingdom. Like the disciples, I still need to learn what it means to deny myself, to take up my cross, to be the servant of all. I still need to repent for the kingdom of God and its values are at hand.

The Old Man and the Starfish
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” There are lots of one such children in our world; people who lack social status or legal rights—the homeless, the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the unborn, the undocumented, the bullied—the list could go on and on. And because there are so many, we often feel overwhelmed to the point of inaction. How can we help the plight of the poor, it’s such a big problem?

But what if we stopped thinking about helping the poor, and simply thought about helping one person who is poor, one such child of God who is in need? What if we adopted the principle: Do for one what we wish we could do for everyone? Mightn’t we get further.
Every day, an old man walked the beach with a pail, picking up starfish that had been washed in by the tide, and throwing them back into the sea.

One day a young boy stopped the old man and asked, “Why do you throw the starfish back? It doesn’t matter. They will only wash up on the shore again tomorrow.”

The old man picked a starfish out of his pail, threw it as far as he could into the sea, and replied, “It mattered to that one.” 

And Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, 2006, 280.
[2] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, 2006, 281.

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