Sermon; Proper 20B; Mark 9:30-37
“What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
So many things pop into my head. A vision of Jesus saying, “Don't make me stop this donkey and come back there!” to a Thumper-like scene where the disciples, head down, kicking at the dirt, say, “If you can't say sumpin' nice, don't say anything at all.”
This scene is really a microcosm of life (generally) and the Church (specifically). We humans have a tendency to want to be great. Whether that's moving up a corporate ladder to becoming millionaires or billionaires, or making a name for ourselves in some manner, we pursue greatness. It also happens in the Church. We want to be known for having great music, great kid's programs, great education, a great many people, or any number of other things.
In answer to this, Jesus says, “That isn't what greatness is about.” Greatness is about being last in line and serving others. Then he took a child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.”
This act of taking a child into his arms is significant on at least three levels.
The first level is theological. Over in 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about feeding the congregation with milk and not solid food because of their immaturity. In this action with the child, Jesus is giving a theological example of mature vs. immature followers. Not everyone who comes to Saint John's is a mature Christian. Not everyone who belongs to Saint John's is a mature Christian. If we expect people to be fully-formed Christians when they come through our doors, we may be sorely disappointed. If we don't welcome the newcomer, the seeker, the questioner, the person who constantly asks, “Why?” after every service, we are not welcoming a child of God in the name of Jesus.
The second level is practical. This is yet another incident of Jesus welcoming an outsider. We have recently seen Jesus interact with a Syrophoenician woman who was an outsider based on her ethnicity. We have seen him interact with a deaf man who was an outsider because of a physical defect. And now we see him interact with a child who is an outsider based on their age. There's a lot of literature about children in that day and age, and Paul, at Galatians 4:1, equates children with slaves. What Jesus is doing here aligns with his ever-expanding viewpoint of the kingdom of God – “Welcome this child, welcome this slave, welcome this outsider, into your midst.”
The child also supports his statement about being servant of all. Any of us who have children know that we really aren't in charge. We exist to serve the child, at least to a point. We feed them on their schedule. We change them on their schedule. We drive them to soccer games and dance lessons and band practice on their schedule. But we also lead them in showing them how to navigate the world, how to become independent, and (hopefully) how to be good adults. If you want an example of servant leadership, look no farther than parenthood.
This child represents the outsider who is not fully part of society, it represents a human needing our care and protection, and it represents the ability to grow from child to adult, from immature to mature.
Finally there is the third level that follows the theological and practical and which I will call the ideal. This third level takes what we are given – the text and the words of Jesus – and asks, “What next?”
Every Monday I meet with a few clergy colleagues to discuss the readings for the upcoming Sunday. As we talked about this passage, one of them brought up a thought that I had heard before but bears repeating here. He said, “Are we only called to welcome people?”
I asked him to elaborate. “Well,” he said, “we can welcome people into worship services, we can welcome people to our picnics, we can welcome people to our concerts, events, and other activities, but is there a difference between welcoming somebody and including them?”
So we got to talking about that question. Do we welcome children – as longs as they sit quietly and are seen, not heard? Or do we include children to gather up front, to serve as regular worship ministers, and to take on any role they are both physically and mentally capable of (let's face it, I wouldn't want Dash to be chairman of the finance committee)?
Do we want to welcome new people to church so we have full pews? Or will we include new people to serve on committees, listen to their opinions, and encourage them to take leadership roles? Granted, there's a line here we don't want to cross. We don't want to go up to someone who has shown up twice and say, “How would you like a lifetime membership to watch over the nursery?” But do we look for opportunities to include those people who come through our doors?
We welcome homeless people to church, we've welcomed them to be fed at picnics, and we try to have a welcoming presence in general. But are we willing to include them?
At Saint John's Day last week I invited a homeless man to both worship and the picnic. He came for the picnic and we welcomed him and fed him. Several people talked with him. How would we have reacted if he said he wanted to join the choir?
It's an interesting discussion to have as we think about welcoming and including.
Today's gospel story covers a lot of ground: theologically, practically, and ideally. In the cycle of Mark, we are approaching Jerusalem and Holy Week. The first three verses of today's gospel are what's known as the Second Passion Prediction. But for us, this is something like the beginning, which Dcn. Sue referenced last week. Our “program year” kicked off last week with the celebration of our Patron Saint, and we are fast approaching the annual pledge drive.
With that in mind, I ask that you think on these three things as we move forward, both in our own personal lives and as part of the body of Christ known as Saint John's.
First, think theologically. Are you faithful in worship, fellowship, and prayers? Are you participating in any of the education opportunities offered so that you can move from theological milk to solid food?
Second, think practically. How can we, like Jesus, expand our circle? How can we welcome those who may need an advocate to speak for them. Are we willing to do the oft-times messy work of serving those in need?
Third, think idealistically. What are we willing to do, to change, or to sacrifice in order to actually include those people we have welcomed?
These are things this gospel passage brings to our attention. And as pledge season approaches, we all have the opportunity to think theologically, practically, and idealistically as to how we can offer our time, talent, and treasure for the benefit of Saint John's, the wider Church, and to the glory of God.