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The Child Within

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on September 20, 2015.

Texts:     James 3:13-4:8; Mark 9:30-37

The Child Within

Sounds to me like some especially Good News from the gospel today.  This passage gets me to thinking about something else Jesus said to his disciples: when we feed that hungry person, clothe and shelter that homeless person, visit that criminal in prison—etc. we do it or do not do it to Jesus himself.  That passage leaves me feeling like an underachiever.

What Jesus says in our gospel passage today is such a relief!  What great news!  Unlike that other thing Jesus said, this is something we pretty much do all the time, right?!  I mean, c’mon we welcome children–especially our own—but hey we even welcome other people’s children.

So it appears that we can feel pretty good about ourselves.  It appears we may have grounds to give ourselves a pat on the back.

Then again … such a notion leads me think about the disciples and what led up to this whole incident with Jesus.  There they were, walking along … just walking and talking … talking and walking … as they walked the roads from Galilee to Capernaum.  Now that’s about 38 miles folks.  That’s no walk in the park!  That’s quite a distance to cover, not to mention a great deal of time to pass.  And there’s nothing like a good walk to help us think and process life.  The disciples had time to ponder and process what they experienced with Jesus.

Small wonder that Jesus’ disciples get to talking.   And I imagine it starting out very upbeat, enthusiastic. They’ve seen Jesus do many awesome and wonderful things.  There was much to talk about.  Oh and it was just a few days ago that Jesus took three of them up to a mountaintop where Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah pop in for good measure.  So perhaps among other things they had to talk about, maybe, just maybe Peter, James and John couldn’t help wondering aloud what it meant that Jesus took the three of them.  Did Jesus have something in mind for the three of them?  As they walk along, mile after mile … after mile … would it not be surprising if this did NOT come up in conversation?!   And if it did, then it’s certainly possible that the three of them — or all twelve of them — might have had different opinions or thoughts on the matter.  And so the discussion got a bit, um, animated.  Jesus’ question to them suggests as much.

Oh it’s just a bunch of guys talking, right?  Harmless right?  Reminds one of the election campaigning going on.  So much TALK.  Perhaps it’s a comparable situation.  Bunch of guys.  Out on the road.  Feeling good about their chances … jockeying for position as the best (the one deserving of your trust; the one deserving of your vote).  Out there on the long road to election day the talk heats up, the rhetoric starts its ascent up, up, and away, way over the top.  I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of bluster about how important children supposedly are—the term used is “education”.  Some candidates may even draw a child into their circle (photo opportunity) to talk about how important our children are to the future of our great nation.  It’s as close to political gold as one can get to “welcome the child”.  Who’s gonna vote against that?!

Oh sorry.  Back to our gospel story:  once Jesus and his entourage arrive in Capernaum, nearly forty miles worth of conversation later, how wonderful it must have felt to relax and settle into the comfort of a house–an actual home after all that distance covered on the road.  It’s possible they forgot all about that conversation … perhaps it was just one of many along the way.

Jesus, however, remembered,  “What were you guys getting all worked up about back there?”

Silence.

If they had forgotten about it they remember it now.  And now they feel awkward.  It’s not going to translate very well from out on the road to the quiet of the indoors.  There’s no way to explain to Jesus that it was just a bunch of talk–nothing serious.  But nobody dares to even explain it.  And so to a man they go silent as stones.

Time for a team meeting.

Perhaps Jesus knew this day might come.  Perhaps Jesus knows how easy it is for us to get caught up in our own rhetoric.  He must have overheard the disciples sounding like products of their culture—visions of grandeur, power, influence dancing in their words. And that’s when Jesus calls his followers to gather around.

His definition of greatness contradicts the notions they were raised to believe.  Jesus says it’s all about working behind the scenes–away from the spotlight, in the margins, serving the unknown, the disowned and the infamous, doing things for people who don’t have anyone rooting or caring for them.  But Jesus seems to realize that words, even his own words, have limits.

And so he reaches over and pulls into their circle a child—probably the son or daughter from among the throng of people accompanying Jesus and the disciples on the way.  To us, it’s an appealing scene—especially to anyone with young children. But to the disciples it’s not at all appealing.

Kathryn Matthews notes that children shared space on the margins with many others in their society, people who didn’t count: the elderly, the handicapped, sick, illiterate, those declared ritually unclean, peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, slaves, the unemployed, aliens, immigrants, prisoners, the homeless (Matthews cites Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).

Jesus knows how easy it can be to start dismissing people who can’t “do” anything for you.  Barbara Brown Taylor one of my favorite preachers puts it this way:  when Jesus scooped up that child, he showed his followers who was greatest: “twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, nobody. God’s agent.”  Taylor says this tells us that “there is no one whom we may safely ignore” (Taylor, Bread of Angels).Pulling a child into their circle he’s saying to his followers that it’s not so much a question of who is great and who is not, but rather a question of simple hospitality; endeavoring to make someone who is commonly rejected feel welcome, included; that they belong.

That’s gospel to anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of such hospitality.  If you’ve ever been on the outside looking in, if you’ve ever had someone go out of their way to welcome you into a situation in which you felt out of place or uncomfortable, you never forget that.  Over the years I’ve heard many wonderful stories from many of you—about when you first came to this church.  You remember who reached out to you and made you feel welcome here.

What sounds easy or simple on the surface, is not so easy when exploring the depths of what Jesus means.  Jesus isn’t interested in who we say or think is “the greatest” or who appears to be greatest or looks to be great among us.  Jesus is interested in who demonstrates grace, compassion, and love to anyone who society or culture declares unworthy of it.

Such was the situation with children in ancient times.  Historians of the period compare the status of children to that of a slave, in fact, the Greek words for “child” and “servant” have the same root. Although  children participated in the household labor, they were obviously not as productive as adults– but they still had to be fed and clothed.  So while children as an ideal were valued because they do carry on the family name, the family business, etc., in the day to day reality and relationships children were treated as a liability.  By medieval times, Mediterranean culture put such a low value on children Thomas Aquinas is said to have taught that “in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child” (John Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B).).   Aquinas apparently didn’t take seriously this episode from Mark.

While we might think that things have dramatically improved since those long-ago days, and while we certainly love and cherish children, we’re no doubt aware of how vulnerable and at-risk they remain.  The statistics of child abuse have a story to tell us.  The plight of children in our cities and rural areas, and in nations in the developing world have a story to tell.  The children of South Sudan, and Egypt, the Syrian children fleeing their homeland, the children in our cities and communities who live in poverty and are being raised by chemically-addicted or mentally ill parents have a story to tell that could rival any child living in ancient times.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we spend some time with children to see how marvelously and tragically like us they are: “noisy, clinging, destructive, self-centered, and surprisingly cruel.”  Her point is that we would do well to remember how far short we all fall when it comes to “greatness” and that we can all do more to tend to our own behavior and our treatment of the little ones of every kind, those “who do not count” in our society and the circles we run in (Taylor: “Last of All” in Bread of Angels).

We might not consciously think about aspiring to greatness, let alone claim it openly among our friends and colleagues, but many of us do long to be faithful and righteous in the eyes of God.  Dianne Bergant sees our number far outnumbered by people who are more concerned with success, beauty, strength, confidence, and fame, or admiring (adoring) those celebrities and others “who have made a name for themselves ….” All of these, it seems, are more important than “righteousness,” that is, being “gentle and merciful, faithful and sincere … lovers of peace … willing to take the last place” (Dianne Bergant, Preaching the New Lectionary Year B).

When we consider what we love best about children, we encounter those “traits” which naturally lend themselves to wisdom born of gentleness, to a righteousness that is akin to mercy, grace, peace, love.  The kind of love that animated everything Jesus said and did:

“Know you what it is to be a child?” Francis Thompson wrote back in 1908.  “It is to be something very different from the (adult) of today.  It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism; it is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything, for each child has its fairy godmother in its soul; it is to live in a nutshell and to count yourself the king of infinite space; it is …

‘To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour;’

-Francis Thompson (1859-1907) from the essay “Shelley” in the Dublin Review, July 1908  inner quote from William Blake

The righteous may very well be the ones who are last in line because they’ll be the ones who are first in caring for others.  Jesus says when we do this, we do this to Him, and not only to Him, but to the One who sent him.  And just maybe as we love and care for others, we care also for the child within: the child within our borders, the child within our walls, the child within our churches, the child within our schools–the child within our very heart.

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Sources:

Amy Allen “Welcoming the Child, The Politics of Mark 9:30-37”

http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/politics-mark-930-37-welcoming-child/

Kathryn Matthews (Huey) http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_20_2015