The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 9th Chapter
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “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. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then 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.”
Hold on for just a second… I need to shift this pulpit into reverse and the clutch on this church sticks a little… Alright, now we can back this thing into the Gospel lesson!
Sometimes figuring out how to get to the heart of a story takes backing into it, rather than looking at it from top to bottom. Looking at this week’s story from the bottom up, you see Jesus telling the disciples that when they welcome “one such child” they welcome both Jesus and the One who sent him. In Jesus’s day, children had no status. They were property at best. They could be bought, sold and traded… and were. But here, in this lesson, Jesus wasn’t pointing only to people below the age of adulthood… Jesus was pointing to anyone who was thought of, or treated by those in power as less than legal, less than important, less than human.
Backing into this lesson challenges us to ask ourselves, WHO… who, in our day, is considered as, or treated as less than legal, as if their life didn’t matter, as if they were less than human? Who are the weak, vulnerable and desperate being demonized, terrorized and brutalized by those in power? We know who they are. They’re in graphic pictures on the news. They’re the easy scapegoats of fear filled campaign and policy speeches, they’re the ones who cling to rubber rafts… or fail to… and the ones who, right here in Augusta, get told to go back to where they came from. Jesus said to the disciples… Jesus says to US… “Whoever welcomes one of THESE in my name, welcomes me.” In them, we will see Jesus.
Now, if you keep backing up, you back into WHAT. Jesus asked the disciples, “WHAT were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asked like he didn’t know… Jesus knew. Jesus asked in the same way my mom always asked, “whose shoes are these in the middle of the floor”… Mom knew… and Jesus knew too. Jesus KNEW they were arguing about who was first and who was last… who was a winner and who was a looser. Jesus KNEW and THAT’S why he lifted that child up to make this point. Welcoming the least, the lost and the last… THAT is welcoming Christ.
But WHY were they arguing!? Keep backing up into that question and you’ll back right into the heart of this lesson… They were arguing because they were afraid. When people puff themselves up and argue about who is greater and who is not, you can bet THAT is a person living deeply in fear. Jesus told the disciples what was going to happen but they didn’t understand… the couldn’t understand because they were AFRAID!
Afraid they were loosing control. Afraid they'd been wrong about Jesus, that he wouldn’t raise an army, kick out the Romans and become their king…They were afraid that with every step toward Jerusalem they were becoming more like that child… more like someone who wasn’t in control, wasn’t on top and more like one whose life just didn’t matter. They were afraid that what Jesus was saying was true! That being transformed by God meant not living on top of the world in a gold plated palace… but that being transformed by God meant living from the bottom… being transformed by a cross.
What Jesus was saying was true… it still is true… the path to a fulfilling, purpose filled life comes through nailing our preferences, privileges and priorities to the cross and letting them die. When we insist on holding on tight to what we have, we’re never able to open our hands enough to receive the gift of life God is giving us. The one prerequisite for resurrection is death. Easter only happens after Good Friday. It means loosening our grip, our need to control, our need to hold on to what is known and what’s safe… It means letting go of everything the world tells us is important… allowing all that we have, all that we know, all that we are, to fall more and more and more deeply into the arms of God and completely allow ourselves to be molded, reshaped and changed by God into the new creation God is calling us to be.
THAT is how it works… but I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not very good at doing it. I’m good at thinking about it. Up here, in my noodle, I understand it… In fact, up here in my noodle I LOVE it for it’s beauty, grace, simplicity, and particularly for it’s irony… but DOING it is hard… I like talking about it too (obviously)… but to let go of my need to be in control… particularly when it comes to the parts of my life around holding onto resources and money so that I… I… can provide for my family. I find that part very hard to release. But you know, I think that too is part of what Jesus was trying to teach us with that child.
There’s a TED talk by Amy Cuddy who advises not to “fake it till you make it” but “Fake it till you BECOME it.” This is the other reason Jesus pulled that child onto his lap. Children don’t think about walking until they can do it perfectly… they fake it until they become a walker. Children don’t contemplate the theory of playing an instrument until they are perfect from the beginning… they fake being a musician until they become one! They begin with nothing and are transformed into walkers and musicians in the same way Christians like you and me start with nothing and are lifted up and transformed into the radically welcoming, compassionate, loving and generous people God is calling us to be.
So, just as Jesus walked the disciples one step at a time toward Jerusalem… and one step at a time God transformed them into Saints, we too are called to take one step at a time toward trusting God to mold us into what God is calling us to become as well. And it’s time to take a step. Just one small step, away from yourself and toward the other… toward the one the world has demonized, brutalized and forgotten. ONE, concrete, physical step… not just in our heads… but with our hands and feet, with our actions and advocacy.
It’s time to take a step. Just one small step toward being as generous with what we have, as God has first been generous with each of us. Not just in our heads or with our prayers, but with our money, time and gifts as well. Just one small step toward a deeper, more regular, continual practice of giving and generosity.