Proper 20 (25), Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
23 September 2018
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
When we were looking for a house in Richmond we realized that our youngest wasn’t old enough for us to move into an adults only community. That was no big deal it just set some of the parameters of our search.
We ended up moving into a townhouse complex without putting green, gym, or swimming pool (we’re very much OK with that) but with a playground as its only amenity.
The complex is built on top of the underground parking which means there’s no cars driving between the buildings and it’s a great place for kids to run and play.
Our own children are pretty much grown up. Pascal is still at home, but pretty soon we’ll be empty nesters and so we are always happy to hear children play around our house.
Children also feature in our reading from the Gospel of Mark. Along the way, when the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus about what he had meant when he had spoken of the Son of Man’s betrayal, murder, and resurrection, they had started their own conversation, which had nothing to do with what Jesus had spoken of. They had argued among themselves about which one of them was most important. This was sad not only because they had not understood Jesus but also because they had not understood that they were all important, yet perhaps didn’t get it because to be equally important was not good enough.
That the location were this takes place is Galilee is an indication that things are getting serious now. Just in chapter eight Jesus had announced his suffering and death and said that discipleship included the bearing of crosses, then in chapter 10, after another argument about greatness, Jesus again states that greatness comes through servanthood, and today Jesus speaks of his suffering a second time and calls a small child into their midst to illustrate the ways of God.
There are a great number of paintings that show Jesus welcoming and embracing children. I think there is one at the end of the hall. They are lovely portrayals of a Jesus who loves children and in their portrayal the pictures are a reflection of our own love of children. We get a bit sentimental when it comes to children, especially those of us who don’t have them living at home anymore.
Last year on October 30th Halloween came early. In the late afternoon Jackie heard the call of Trick or treat! come from outside our front door. She was a bit surprised but opened the door and saw two boys expecting some kind of sweet offering. When she expressed her surprise at their early arrival, they mischievously stated in the best accent they could muster that they were from Romania. It was pretty funny, how could you not give them some candy for their effort.
But Jesus’ referencing children has nothing to do with mischievousness or sweetness. While I am certain that parents always loved their children, there was no mystique about children. Children were considered little adults who were unable to pull their weight, which was hard in a society of mostly subsistence living. And so children were at the bottom of the totem pole, at the lowest rung of the ladder. Jesus called a child into their midst not because it was cute but because it was considered the least.
Calling a child into their midst was not an appeal to cuteness or to sentimentality, but it was an object lesson about the Kingdom of God. Like in the parables about the Kingdom of God that Jesus introduces with, “The Kingdom is like …”, so Jesus calls the least into the midst of a people who seek to be the greatest.
Now if the Kingdom were only a matter for the next world, for life after death, then Jesus may not have spent quite so much time teaching about the Kingdom, for once we got there we would understand. Now we see dimly, the we will see face to face.
But Jesus spends time explaining the Kingdom of God because in Jesus the Kingdom has already come near and is no longer only a matter of the future. That the disciples want to be the greatest is not awful but how they may be great matters. Of course, we too are disciples.
Last Sunday we considered Jesus’ question about his identity, ‘Who do the people, and do do you say that I am?’ This question about Jesus’ identity was important because it concerns not only Jesus’ identity but ours as well. The church only exists in relationship to Jesus, understanding Jesus’ identity will then also help us understand our own identity.
The cross and the question about greatness are questions about the identity and life of the church.
John Shea in his commentary on the lectionary says that ‘when St Francis kissed the leper, the leper became Christ. Before he kissed him the leper was just a leper. It was in the act of kissing that he became Christ. Thus, it is in the act of welcoming that Christ appears. And Christ always brings the Father with him,’1 thus Jesus says, “whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Kissing the leper, like welcoming the child, turns our existing order on its head. We begin not with the most esteemed or powerful but with the least and thus Mary’s prophecy is fulfilled: “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Shea suggests that there is another meaning of the word “least”. And while this word does not pop up in our translation I believe it is relevant to understanding Jesus’ teaching.
Dag Hammerskjöld once said, “People comment on Jesus’ lack of moral principles. He had sat at a meal with publicans and sinners, he consorted with harlots. Did he do this to obtain their votes? Or did he think that, perhaps, he could convert them by such ‘appeasement’? Or was his humanity rich and deep enough to make contact, even in them, with what is in human nature which is common to all [people], indestructible, and upon which the future has to be built?”2
I was at the dentist’s last Monday. And on the large screen TV overhead was a program on Vietnam and the Vietnam war. I could not speak, as I was in the dentist’s chair, but my dentist told me that as he has grown older, his views have changed. When he was young, growing up in Taiwan, there was great fear of communists, and one can understand why. But now he has come to realize that they too are just people, people like us. And I would like to think that his being a Christian has something to do with that.
The disciples did not figure this out on their own, no could they have. They learned this in relationship with their living Lord whose life with them and all people showed them the shape of the Kingdom.
We who live two-thousand years later live in relationship with that same living Lord who not only shows us the shape of God’s Kingdom but enables us to become again people created in God’s own image, people who sing Mary’s song, and who learn day by day that greatness comes to us through service.
1 The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year B, Eating with the Bridegroom, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 2005, page 232
2 quoted in ibid. page 233