It is amazing how contemporary some ancient conversations sound. When Jesus asked the disciples what they were arguing about on the way, “they were silent, [Mark tells us], for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” The 2015–or 1915 or 1995– version of this little conversation is, Mom or Dad: “What were you guys doing?” Kids: “Nothing.” Uh huh.
“Nothing that we were supposed to be doing,” is the complete version of that answer, and indeed, the disciples knew that arguing about who among them was the greatest was hardly the right follow-up to Jesus’ telling them for the second time that the Son of Humanity–by which he seemed to mean himself–”must be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant by that, afraid that he really was talking about what was ahead for him–and maybe them–so they decided to talk about who’s on first, or rather, who would be first, who would be greatest.
“What were you arguing about?” “Nothing.”
The thing is, Jesus–just like most parents when they ask the question–did know what they were doing, what they were arguing about, and so when they finally got to the house in Capernaum, he sat them down and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Oops. He heard us. But they were still afraid to ask him what he meant by that. Really? The first must be last and must be a servant of all? That is so not how the world works….so not how we want it to work, because we spend an awful lot of time trying to make it to the front of the line.
But then, as if it weren’t bad enough, he took some street urchin who had snuck into their gathering, took her into his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”
Biblical historian John Pilch says that Mediterranean cultures, like first-century Palestine, put a very low value on children. Even in medieval times, “Thomas Aquinas 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.” (Cited by Kate Huey in sermonseeds, 9/20/15) No “women and children first in the lifeboats” here! “Children were fillers, not main events,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes. (BBT, Bread of Angels, p. 131)
Children in our day and age are clearly seen quite differently, especially in middle- and upper-class families. Every step, every syllable, even every bowel movement, unfortunately, is cause for celebration and praise, pictures are posted on Instagram, videos posted on Facebook. Newborns are enrolled in nursery school. Infants are dressed in clothes designed by Ralph Lauren and the cost per wearing is phenomenal. Helicopter parents keep in touch with their children–all the way up through college–with minute-by-minute text messages. We want our children to be at the head of the line, first in show, captain of the team.
This is not what Jesus had in mind when “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” He was not trying to be sweet or sentimental; but rather this action was “perplexing,” “disconcerting,” and, as Kate Huey says, “certainly provocative.” (Ibid.) This was one more world-upending lesson from Jesus, the complete opposite of the way the disciples thought things were supposed to be and, honestly, hoped things would be. They did not want to hear that instead of the top place, it was the lowest and last that they were to seek.
Jesus could have brought a leper into their midst, a man possessed by demons, a widow, an orphan, an “unclean woman”–any of these cast out, rejected, avoided, looked down upon, powerless. Or a shepherd, an old bent-over woman, or a child. All of them were de-valued, vulnerable, powerless. They were all on the receiving end of the power flow chart, not on the giving end. [Peter Marty, cited by Huey, op cit.] Helping them, welcoming them, associating with them was not going to get you anywhere. You could expect nothing in return for your trouble.
But here was this child, Jesus said, already a “full-fledged citizen of the realm of God.” (BBT, op cit., p. 132) “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me,” welcomes God. God with snot running down her face, God with his knees all scraped up. Right now. Here. This child.
One of the things I often hear when people talk about their hopes for the future of our congregation is that we need to attract more families with children. “We’re all getting so old. We need younger people. Children are the future of the church.” I absolutely agree that our church family would be enriched by the presence of more children and their parents, but not because they could become junior members of the Administrative Council or grow up to become Trustees. Jesus reached out to a child and drew him into their midst saying, “Right here, now, welcome this child” and you welcome me and the One who sent me.
I have said before that although we can encounter God anywhere, if our eyes and hearts and minds are open to it, we also know that there is the expectation that somehow, in this place, in a “church,” one can encounter God. We often expect that in the silence, or the architecture, or the music, or maybe the prayers or spoken word; but here Jesus seems to be saying, When you welcome a child, in that welcome you’ve welcomed the Christ, you’ve welcomed God. Honestly, the kids’ tables at Sunday Social and our nursery and the Godly Play sign-up sheet ought to be packed with adults seeking to encounter God in the interactions offered there!
The child that Jesus drew into the midst of the disciples stood for all the outcast, all those deemed worthless, all the non-entities that will never get us any further ahead. There is no payback to these relationships–other than learning about your own “greatness” and experiencing a glimpse of what the kingdom of God might be like. As we renew our intention to move out into the community with acts of service and generosity, as we increase our invitation to our community to join us in our work and even our worship, it cannot be primarily to increase our numbers, raise the number of potential pledging units or committee members. That is not an invitation into the realm of God. I read this week that, in fact, 20-30 year-olds are not looking for “big” churches because they do not think they can experience the close, personal relationships that are more likely available in smaller gatherings. Bigger is not necessarily better.
The disciples were having the conversation about “Who’s the greatest?” because they didn’t want to think about what Jesus had just told them about being killed. They were afraid. “You know what that is like,” as Barbara Brown Taylor says. “When you are scared of something, don’t ask. Act like there is nothing wrong. Change the subject and talk about something else instead, something that makes you feel big and strong. That is what the disciples were doing, which was why Jesus had to sit them down and give them a leadership seminar right then and there.” (P. 134) “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…When you welcome one such child in my name, you welcome me…and the One who sent me.”
It’s still scary. How is this all going to work? One could get the impression from observing those already in or wanting to lead our government that the kids are indeed “in charge”–at least the adolescents are. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he drew that child into their midst. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” the author of the Letter of James asks us. Who indeed?
Perhaps there is some wisdom in the tradition of the Children’s Fire as heard from the elders of the Hopi Nation.
The whole community sits around a circle called a Medicine Wheel. Around that wheel are representatives of all the different aspects of the community….In the center is the children’s fire, [and] next to the children’s fire sit the grandfather and grandmother…[If you want to ask a question of the community, say, ‘May I build a condo on Spirit Lake?’, you must ask all the various aspects of the community.] The last people you must ask the question to are the grandmother and grandfather who guard the children’s fire. If these two decide that the request is not good for the children’s fire, then the answer is ‘no.’ They are the only ones in the circle who have veto power. The concept of the ultimate question is simple. Does it hurt or help the children’s fire? If it can pass the test of the children’s fire, it can be done.
[Imaging the Word, vol. 1, p. 32]
It’s the same idea as asking what effect a decision will have on the seventh generation.
Of course it isn’t simple, really, for decision-making on anything other than a small community or family level, although one could hope that decisions about environmetnal protection, decisions about tax policies and budget cuts, decisions about educational policy might be made with the Children’s Fire or the seventh generation in mind.. For us as a church community, seeking to be the church, the Body of Christ, in this time and place, we would do well to consider how we welcome “the children” –those who have nothing to offer us except the unsettling, messy, transformative presence of Christ, right here, now, as well as to the 7th generation.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all….Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and the One who sent me.” It is a strange, upside down, counter-cultural journey, this following in the Way of Jesus. But if that’s not where we’re headed, why would we want to go there? May His Way be our way.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark