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Welcoming the Child

Mark 9: 30-37

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 21st September 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Mark 9: 30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for 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.’ 32But 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?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then 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.’

An embarrassing silence descended over the house.  It was the silence of shame.  Jesus wanted to know what they were talking about on the road to Capernaum.  It was an innocent question, really, expected from a rabbi to his students.  Isn’t every moment an opportunity to learn and reflect upon God and God’s world?  “What were you discussing on the way?”  Who was going to be the first to answer the Lord?  Do we tell the truth or maybe stretch it a little?  But Jesus knew what they were talking about, arguing about (as Jesus always knows what we’re talking about and arguing about, the silent listener to every conversation).  

Mark tells us that no disciple answers the question; Jesus doesn’t wait for an answer.  He knows what they were scheming about.  Instead of focusing upon Jesus and the work of the kingdom, they’re preoccupied with themselves.  As called members of this fellowship, they already had their minds set on what would come after Jesus wrests control and brings about his revolution.  They’re debating who among them is the greatest disciple, the best.  Already, the fellowship is beginning to crumble; envy and competition are making their way into their hearts and minds.   Instead of focusing upon Jesus and listening to him, they’re becoming selfish and possibly using Jesus for their own petty glory.

But this won’t do.  Jesus is carefully preparing his disciples for what is about to take place.  “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of man, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). Last week we read Jesus’ words at Caesarea Philippi,  “If any one would come after me, let that one deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”(Mark 8:34). The disciples don’t get it.  They’re stumbling around like fools, arguing amongst themselves who is the greatest, who is the best, who is on top, who is in control.  Their fierce spirit of competition and envy, if left unchecked, will be their downfall.  And while they’re fighting amongst themselves, they are missing out on their purpose as disciples, missing out on the purpose of their lives.

“If any one would be first, he must be the last and servant of all.”  That must have stopped them dead in their tracks.  Even today, it’s not easy hearing these words.  Pow- right in the gut, these words strike us and knock the wind out of us.  Then, as now, these words are so unbelievably counter-intuitive.  They fly in the face of everything we assume about the workings of the world.  In our cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world, you become first by making sure you’re not the last.  You become the best by struggling against your competition, finding his weakness, anticipating possible threats.  

But this is not the way it is in God’s world.  Jesus says you become the first by actually becoming the last.  You become the best by actually letting someone be better than you.  If you want to be great in God’s world, then instead of expecting people to serve you (as the great usually expect), you must become a servant.  You must serve all.  These expectations are so beyond our reach that it’s easy to think that Jesus was only talking about himself or the twelve.  But he’s talking to us, too.  These are difficult things for us to hear.  In fact, it’s much easier to think that Jesus was just calling us to be advocates for children.

That’s how these verses have often been read.  They’ve served the basis for many children’s hymns and beautiful Tiffany windows of Jesus holding a child on his knee.  They’ve served as a celebration of children and of the church’s need to become a welcoming place for children.  Children were special to Jesus, as they are to us.  But this text is not a celebration of children.  In fact, the first century view of children has little in common with our present view of children.  He’s not trying to provide a new teaching on the role of children in the church.  Jesus is talking with the adults.  The focus must be on the adults.  In order to care for the children, we need to focus on the adults.

When we talk with children, we often use object lessons to make our point.   Here Jesus uses a child as an object lesson to make a point with the adults.  He places a child at the center of their circle and forces them to look.  A child had no rights, was at the bottom of the social strata.  The child was “last” in his society.  The child was fragile and vulnerable, easily overlooked and ignored, cast aside, of little worth, no prestige, powerless. 

By placing that child at the center of their lives we learn that from God’s point of view, “preeminent dignity in the kingdom goes to the one who is “last of all and servant of all” (9:35).  This “dramatic gesture of taking a child into his arms says that the greatest in the kingdom is the one who can receive those who have no power or prestige as if they were Jesus himself.”  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (9:37).[1]

This then means to reject the fragile, vulnerable, easily overlooked and ignored segments of society, those excluded and cast aside, those of little worth, with no prestige, influence or power, to not receive them is to reject God and the way of God.  If you want to be great – really great – here’s what you have to do.   The slogan for the Hard Rock Café downtown at the Inner Harbor sums up Jesus’ essential message; it wonderfully captures the meaning of the gospel:   “Love all.  Serve all.”   If you want to be great in God’s world, if you want to be the best servant of God, then this is what you need to do.

And do you know what happens when you’re serving the weakest, neediest people around you?  Do you what happens when you’re spending your energy on caring for the fragile and vulnerable people, who share your space at home, or on your street or in your development, those who share your space at work?  Do you know what happens when you’re reaching out beyond your comfort zone and loving the people whom you most fear or avoid?  Do you know what happens when you’re focusing your energy on the needs of the people who share or don’t share your pew?  You don’t have the time to be envious, worrying if you’re great.  You don’t have the energy to be bickering or fighting.  You don’t have the time to be jealous, at odds with your neighbor, worrying who is in control, or on top, or the best.  You discover that it all becomes a giant waste of energy.  When you’re serving the needs of people, there’s no time for rivalry.  When you get your ego out of the way, then you’re able to see people – really see people – and then you’re able to reach out to them in love.  This is what the church can be like.

Unfortunately, the church over the past couple of years has taken quite a beating in our society. Between scandal, abuse, dogmatic infighting and the threats of schism, our behavior (especially as a denomination) has been embarrassing.  We have not been “great.”  In our fighting we have forgotten our reason for being.  We have forgotten that the church belongs to Jesus and if we are truly his followers then we need to act in a different way.

But when the church gets it right, when a church exists in the way Jesus intends – loving all, serving all – there’s nothing like it!  Then the church shines in all its glory.  Then we have something truly special and invaluable to offer the world.  Then we are able to preach the gospel with integrity.  When a church is reaching out and welcoming the child, in whatever form that child might take, that’s when the church of Jesus Christ is at its best, that’s when we can say – There is a great church. 

On Friday I was in Manhattan and stumbled into an Episcopal church on West 46th Street, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.  There was a sign on the sidewalk that read, “Church Open.”  So I went in.  I remembered that a friend of mine and classmate from Princeton was serving a parish there in Midtown, but I couldn’t remember which one.  As it turned out, I walked into the hallway leading to the sanctuary, came across a bulletin from the previous week and found his name, John Beddingfield, listed as a member of the staff.  I walked into the sanctuary and found a number of people there.  The doors open into the sanctuary on both 46th Street and 47th Street, just one block from Times Square.  It’s a very high Episcopal church, very ornate, quite beautiful.  To my amazement the doors were left open, with not one church official in sight keeping watch!  There were people lighting candles, kneeling, praying, walking around in a contemplative manner.  On the pews in the back of the church homeless people were sleeping.  As I walked and looked (trying to find the church office to get in touch with my friend), thinking about today’s text, I realized, This is a great church, truly welcoming the children of God.

A great church is not characterized by the numbers on its membership rolls, the size of its budget, the beauty of its sanctuary, or even the effectiveness of its preaching.  A small, struggling, country church might be greater than the rich, megachurch in the suburbs.  A church is great when its people are not worrying about whether or not they are happy, but whether they are increasing the happiness of the children in the world.  

Now, I’m not going to say Catonsville Presbyterian Church is a great church.  Not because we aren’t, but because I think we need to entertain a spirit of humility.  A friend of mine was visiting here for a couple of weeks and sent me an email this week.  She wanted me to know that there is a vitality in this church that is very rare these days and apparently lacking from her church experience.  She wanted me to know this because we might not be aware of it.  (Tom Speers, former minister at Dickey Memorial, said the same thing to me after the Sunday he worshipped here this summer.  Dan Wooten says the same thing when he comes back home from being at Princeton.)  Are we a great church?  That’s not for us to say.  There’s always room for growth and improvement.  We have not perfected welcoming every child into this community.  We have and we do, but we have not perfected it.   No church is perfect.  There’s always work to do.  But we are doing it.

I think of Robert Sinclair, the homeless man who was coming to worship here on a regular basis.  He always wore a makeshift kilt and a worn tuxedo jacket (a kilt he made himself when he was in prison).  He usually showed up during the middle of the sermon, made his way down the center aisle to the front and often left before the service was over.  (Someone actually wondered if he was related to me because he was wearing a kilt!  As if every man in a kilt is somehow related to me!)  We provided sanctuary for him.  He, no doubt, made some uneasy, which is understandable.  Someone said that it was good for us to help him out.  Someone else said that while we might be able to help him, he has more to give us; he has something to offer us – the opportunity to welcome the “child” in our midst.

I think it’s up to others outside these walls to determine for themselves whether or not they would characterize us as a great church.  Let them decide.  Our job is to focus on our mission: 

Are we welcoming into the community of Christ 
the fragile and vulnerable,
the easily overlooked and ignored segments of society,

those excluded and cast aside,
those of little worth,
with no prestige, influence or power?
Do these children know their worth?

Are we reaching out to them?
Do we love all?
Serve all?
Do people see Jesus Christ in us?

Do they see Jesus Christ in you?


[1] Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 107-108 on “The Inclusive Circle Around the Victim (9:33-37),” cited at the following website:  http://home.earthlink.net/~paulnue/index.html.  Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary:  Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard.