I love it when things come together. We have been making our way through the Gospel of Mark, and today we come to this story of Jesus welcoming a child – on the very day that we are dedicating Ethan. Ethan, my man, you have impeccable timing.
Jesus and the disciples were traveling through Galilee, on their way to Capernaum. In last week’s scripture, Jesus spoke of his own suffering death and told his followers that they must take up their own crosses and follow him. Peter considered this crazy talk coming out of Jesus’ mouth and tried to shush him up, whereupon Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” which is not really what you want Jesus to be saying to you.
In today’s passage, found later in the same chapter of Mark, Jesus speaks again of his coming death, and that he would rise again. But the disciples did not understand what he was saying and given what happened last time, they were afraid to ask. But it appears that some really weren’t listening too closely anyway. Jesus could hear heated words among the disciples but didn’t know what it was all about. It stands to reason that if Jesus couldn’t hear them, then they probably couldn’t hear Jesus.
When they reached Capernaum, Jesus asked what they were arguing about along the way. The scripture says, “They were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
The disciples had missed Jesus’ words while they were arguing over who was the greatest. This begs the question: what do we miss concerning God’s kingdom because we are arguing about something else?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we live in an argumentative age. You see it in sports. I don’t know how many times I have watched a basketball player arguing with a ref over a foul that wasn’t called while the other team keeps on playing and scores a basket.
It happens in politics. How much political grandstanding goes on over relatively insignificant matters while the important issues of the day are left behind? And how many good ideas are dismissed because someone on “the other side” thought of it?
It happens in churches. I know of a church that had a big argument over the color of the new carpet, and one man got so mad that he left the church over it. The focus was not on spiritual growth or serving others or developing community or loving one’s neighbor – for this person, the focus was on getting his own way.
Of course, this happens in families as well. How often do families squabble over matters that in the end don’t really matter very much, while more important concerns go unconsidered?
Now, disagreement is not a bad thing. It can be a good and healthy thing. It is important to have honest discussion, to air differences. Jesus didn’t back away from hard issues. But when Jesus had an argument with someone, it was over something worth debating. It was almost always about the lack of regard for the needs of people. The disciples, however, are entirely self-serving. It’s all about them. They are arguing over who is number one.
In Jesus’ time, life was all about hierarchies. Someone had to be top dog. There were national hierarchies: the Romans, and the conquered nations, vassal states. Greeks looked down on everyone else, much as people from the high-culture big city might look down on hicks from the sticks. There were religious hierarchies: we read about Pharisees and Sadducees in the gospels, but there were numerous groups, with varying social and religious standing.
There were economic hierarchies: rich and poor, those who owned land and those who didn’t. There were rich absentee landlords, landed managers who ran their estates, and poor day laborers who eked out a meager existence. Below them were slaves. There were all kinds of hierarchies, and the disciples were simply trying to establish their own. Who was the greatest?
It’s hard to be too tough on the disciples, because we are a lot like them. The concern for who is number one sounds familiar. Every Monday the Associated Press releases its Top 25 College Basketball poll. Who is the greatest? At the moment, the Hawkeyes, amazingly, are #4, while the Cyclones are #14 – although both may drop tomorrow. But we all know that the exact ranking doesn’t matter: in head-to-head competition, ISU beat the Hawkeyes, so we have bragging rights.
A lot of effort goes into determining who is the greatest. You’ve got the Grammies, the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards. Band and orchestra members seek to be first chair. Girl Scouts battle to sell the most cookies. It goes on and on – how many people want to outdo the neighbors in their Christmas light display?
There are plenty of hierarchies in our world, and there can definitely be religious hierarchies. I am glad that I don’t hear it so much in American Baptist circles, but it is not uncommon to be asked, “How big is your church?”
The disciples, believing that Jesus’ kingdom was imminent, were arguing over who was going to be vice-messiah. In all of their discussion about who was the greatest, they didn’t hear what Jesus was saying. He was talking about important stuff. He was speaking of his own suffering and death and resurrection. But they missed it.
Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about back there?” But the disciples just kind of looked at their feet. They didn’t answer him. They were embarrassed that they had been arguing about who was Jesus’ number one disciple.
But Jesus had an inkling as to what the discussion had been about. You get the feeling that maybe they had been through this before. He said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then Jesus took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.”
Today, family life is often centered on children: taking kids to ballgames and dance lessons and school activities. Grandparents dote on grandkids. But this kind of pattern has only emerged in recent times. It was not so in Jesus’ day. Children were considered to be almost without value, and they were to be neither seen nor heard, especially in a gathering of men. Children had no status; their value only came when they were old enough to contribute something to the family.
For Jesus, a public figure, to take a child in his arms while teaching was almost shocking. And his point cannot be missed. The disciples argued over who was the greatest, but Jesus redefined greatness. Greatness was seen in welcoming “the least of these.” This is not a romantic statement about how wonderful children are, and oh my, look at those precious these little darlings, with their innocence and wonder. Rather, it is a statement about how we ought to treat those of low status – how we are to treat the most vulnerable. We are to serve with humility – valuing everyone, welcoming everyone.
A pastor in Dallas says that he once served a small church that was growing. He made the comment that it was great to see 60 or 70 people each Sunday (which was more than the 35 they had averaged for some time).
The woman to whom he was speaking said that she had been counting, and she never came up with more than 45 or 50. The pastor was sure it was more like 60-70. So they decided to count the people there in church at that moment. The pastor started with a family of 6 sitting on the front pew. But before he got to the next pew, the woman stopped him and said, “You can’t count the children!”
He was surprised and jokingly said, “Hey, if it’s breathing and it’s here I’m going to count it.” But she replied with great seriousness, “No, you can’t count them because they don’t give money.” This pastor’s jaw hit the floor as the woman walked away.
The pastor said that he counted for the next year as the number of children grew smaller. The woman made a comment that they now were agreeing on the numbers. The pastor said that all the children had gone someplace where they count.
According to Jesus, how we value others – especially those of low regard - is a test of greatness. In Jesus’ eyes, every person has great worth.
A man recalled being in Coast Guard boot camp. The day came to go to the firing range and learn to shoot. This man had never handled a firearm and had no real desire to start, but he had signed up for the service and had no choice. Most of his fellow recruits bragged about what great marksmen they were. A competition arose as to who would be the best. Needless to say, this man, a complete novice, wouldn’t be in the same league as these self-proclaimed “experts.”
But when all was said and done, although he was not quite “best in the class,” he was close. He had done better than most, including those who knew they were so great.
After they were done, the shooting instructor pulled this man aside and said, “I can tell you’ve never shot before.” The recruit asked how he knew that. “Because you had no bad habits to unlearn and no ego to overcome,” he said. “You were open and ready learn and that is why you were able to shoot so well.”
The disciples, with their egos and arrogance and concern for who was best and who was right and who was number one, were not open and receptive to what Jesus had to offer.
The same spirit that would welcome a child would welcome Jesus. And to truly welcome a child is to value that child, to listen to that child, and begin to discover imagination and a sense of wonder and adventure and a new way of looking at life. How much do we need the capacity to imagine a different world? How much do we need to experience the life of faith as an adventure? A little child, someone like Ethan, really doesn’t care about someone’s race or background or occupation or educational level. How much do we have to learn from children?
True greatness involves humility – not putting ourselves down, but lifting others up, and valuing all of God’s children. In doing that, we are simply following the way of Jesus.
Ike Robinson’s funeral was on Friday in Minneapolis. If you didn’t get a chance to know Ike, he was a wonderful guy, a member here for over 50 years. At the service, there was an opportunity for those present to say a few words about Ike, and it was striking how person after person talked about his humility. People had known him for years before discovering that he had been a Tuskegee Airman. Being in the military had come up in conversation, but Ike never mentioned the specifics of it. A neighbor read an article in the Tribune a few years ago and learned that Ike was so highly regarded as a microbiologist that a species of bacteria named after him. A future son-in-law thought he was a big star and then he met Ike and learned about greatness from a guy who was more interested in welcoming others than talking about himself.
Jesus modeled true greatness in welcoming a child. As Jesus’ followers, we are to value everyone and welcome everyone and be willing to learn from others.
A while back, I came across a word of welcome printed in a church bulletin. It wasn’t your usual bulletin blurb. It read,
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.To extend that kind of welcome, to value all people in that way, and in humility to serve God and others – for Jesus, that is true greatness.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or if you can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion” - we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters … and you!
We are called to be the kind of community that welcomes a child – that welcomes those who would appear to have little to offer. And Jesus says that to welcome a child in Jesus’ name is to welcome him. Amen.