18th Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2018 – Mark 9:30-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN
After hearing today’s Gospel passage we may be tempted to dwell on the image of the child. Young, sweet, innocent. Imagine the little ringlets of hair, the brilliant blue eyes, and the curious little fingers. The image of the child sticks with us for good reason. There is a lot to admire about childhood. It’s largely carefree.
In one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, Pete says to his cranky coworker Liz Lemon, “I hope you’re happy!” “Not since I was a child,” she replies.
Adults often long for the simplicity of childhood. No bills to pay. No working day. No headaches or office cubes under buzzing florescent lights.
Bring a child into the hustle and bustle of everyday life and everything gets better, even if just for a moment. A mother brings her newborn the the office to visit her daddy and it provides a nice break for everyone. “Oh my gosh she is so cute.”
Take a baby into a nursing home, stand back and soak in the smiles and the memories cast on the faces of the elderly residents.
Whenever we see a child we get that beautiful feeling. Their energy is rejuvenating. Something in their rosy cheeks offers us a an escape.
We’ve all seen the woman in the grocery store pushing her cart down the aisle. When she see a young father pushing his baby she stops to smile and wave, lost in infant’s gaze.
Maybe this is why so many stained-glass windows depict Jesus with children. They add freshness to our mundane lives. (At least as long as we’re not with the all the time.)
I really do think we idealize childhood. But—make no mistake about it—Jesus does not. Don’t let yourself get caught up in childhood sentiments. Pay attention to the rest of the story. Jesus is lifting up the virtues of childhood for a very different reason than sentimentality.
His disciples argue about who is the greatest, and he gives them a reality check. The greatest is not the biggest or the strongest or the smartest. The greatest is the one who welcomes a child such as this. Jesus does not show off the kid because the kid is adorable. Jesus redefines the cultural hierarchy of his day by dramatically elevating the status of the child.
“If you welcome a child you welcome me.” These words turn the value system of the day upside down. In ancient Palestine children didn’t have rights. A father could sell or trade his own child with no repercussion.
This is not to say that parents didn’t love their children. I’m sure the opposite was true, but there were different economic realities. People didn’t have kids simply for procreation, they also needed people to work on the family farm or in the family trade. Jesus turns this child, much more than a helping hand, into someone who is honored and revered.
Today we may be more sentimental when it comes to kids, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we still have a tendency to devalue childhood. As far as our culture is concerned children exists to grow up. They are simply biding their time until they can function as productive members of society. They are in training for the “real world.”
When someone fails to mature fast enough we criticize them. “Oh grow up!” “Get your head out of the clouds!” “I’m not always going to be here to clean up your mess!” “If you can’t even put your name on your paper how are you going to get a job?”
However, Jesus helps us reimagine the value of childhood.He doesn’t do it by highlighting their adorable characteristics or exploiting our emotions. Instead, Jesus illuminates the virtues of childhood. Jesus shows us that children are the receivers in life. They receive their life from others. Literally.
They exist because others make it possible for them to exist. I new mom once who told me, “All I remember about the ride home from the hospital is how nervous I was.” The child completely depends on them. Sure, the parents create the child together but they also continue to give it life after it is born: fresh milk, clean diapers, loving touch.
Adults are the givers life. They are the ones in control. They change the diapers and warm the milk. Adults earn the money, keep the lights on, make the beds, and drive the carpool. Parents offer punishment: Time out. No dessert. “Go to your room.” The grown ups are in control. But the children do what they are told. They can’t even walk for almost a year.
Jesus reminds us in the presence of a child what it truly means to be child-like. It’s not about being cute and naive; it’s about facing the reality of our dependence. To be child-like is to depend on others.
We all depend on others. The farmers that grow our food, the teachers who teach us how to think, the friends who support us when we are alone. Even the water treatment plant workers, the electrical linemen, and most of all, God.
If you want to be at the top the hierarchy, if you want to rank first in the kingdom of God, then you have to remember that you depend on others.
My mother has had the rare experience of her own mother becoming like her child. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and can’t care for herself like she used to. My mom to prepare her meals, dresses her, and combs her hair.
Do you remember what it was like to depend on others? To really rely on others and be completely at their mercy? It may be a time when you were extremely sick or broke your leg and you couldn’t do anything for yourself.
Jesus is urging us to remember what it was like to receive help from others so that we will will in turn be quick to serve others in return.
Jesus says, “If you want to be greatest, don’t focus on yourself, focus on those in need. You need to recognize the holiness of the people on the bottom rung of society. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to serve others because people depend on you.”
A really good way to remember that is to remind yourself that you depend on others. “If you really want to welcome me, you’ve got to welcome this child. Not because the child is innocent, not because he child is cute or sweet, but because the child depends on you.”
A child of God is anyone who depends on others for survival. When you serve those who depend on you, you serve God. Serve all of God’s children in need. Anyone who is hungry, or thirsty, or naked. Serve anyone on the receiving end of life. Serve all who are controlled by others. Serve the powerless and manipulated. Serve the slaves. The widows. The orphans. The oppressed. The poor. The outcast. The refugee. The criminal. It is in the prison cell, the refugee camp, and the Social Security line that you will meet the God who himself ended up completely at the mercy of others.
So make haste! We don’t have much time. Even now we are passing away. We are people of a servant Lord who stooped to wash the feet of his disciples and in so doing taught us that whenever we wash someone’s clothes or buy someone’s lunch or help someone change a flat tire that we are serving Him who first served us. The One who taught us that by feeding our 88-year-old mother we might glimpse the One who gave himself to be food for others.
This is our loving God: the one we meet these beautiful moments of self-sacrifice. The very God that they disciples could not yet recognize, but that we have known all our lives. The very One who gives us greater joy than even the cutest little baby.