Pentecost 17/Lectionary 25B, Mark 9:30-37
Picture the scene: Jesus and the disciples were walking on the road, passing through Galilee on their way to Capernaum.
Jesus spent some of this time teaching them, again saying to the disciples, “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.” Mark reports that the disciples did not understand any of this, but were afraid to ask Jesus for still greater clarity.
Picture the scene: Jesus and the disciples walk along on the road. In my imagination, I see Jesus walking ahead of the disciples, who were following him as a group, perhaps at a distance. I imagine long periods of silence.
But then I hear eruptions of disputes among the twelve, maybe in hushed tones so that Jesus would not hear exactly what they were arguing about.
Once they reached the destination in Capernaum, Mark reports that Jesus asked them what they were conflicted about. They were silent in response, but it seems that Jesus discerned rightly that they were disputing among themselves about who among them was the greatest.
All too typically human. But competitiveness about greatness seems to be a particular scourge of our own day and age in our society. We live in a celebrity culture. Cultural lore focuses on the achievements of great individuals with exceptional gifts, or over- the-top chutzpah. Often, in our heart of hearts, we applaud and even unconsciously aspire to such greatness in our own ways. On social media we clamor for likes and thumbs up emojis.
At least I confess to that at times. Maybe striving for notoriety was part of what drew me to working in the bishop’s office in New York City. The desire for public recognition is part of what motivated me to publish a book.
Indeed, celebrity culture finds its way into the church. We have our TV preachers, and our prominent pastors who get a lot of notoriety. The modest pastors of local mom and pop shop churches cannot compete, even as members may hold them to higher performance standards because of the preachers they see on TV or now the internet.
The explicit and more often implicit pressures to achieve status – even in the church – create a huge burden to carry. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing.
When Denmark was named the happiest country on earth a few years ago, 60 Minutes did a segment and asked Danes what advice they had for their striving, competitive American counterparts. The advice they gave was lower your expectations! Then you’ll find greater satisfaction in life!
The letter of James, today’s second reading, explores the spiritual psychology of the passions about greatness and their ill effects: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind…. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (James 3:16; 4:1-2a)
This aptly conveys the striving, craving human condition. Then in the time of James and now.
What is the antidote to all of this? What waters can put out or at least diminish or control the fires that rage within and among us?
Here’s how Mark reports that Jesus addressed the disputes among the disciples about who was the greatest. In the house at Capernaum, “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.’” (Mark 9:35-37)
Picture the scene. I have no idea where Jesus got the little child…. But he put the child among the disciples. And then Jesus cradled the child in his arms. It’s a lovely image. Intimate and compelling and inviting.
The child for Jesus becomes the incarnate illustration of one who is last of all. In ancient human hierarchies, women and children were at the bottom, the last in line. Which is exactly where in line Jesus instructed the disciples to locate themselves. (By the way, I hate standing in line, especially when I’m last, and I am not proud to say that I expend too much energy in the Safeway grocery store finding my way to the checkout with the shortest line… It’s a sinful game that I play….)
But Jesus instructs the exact opposite, using the child as the embodied example.
What does a child convey? Vulnerability. Radical dependence. Direct, unfettered, uncomplicated access to basic human needs without all of the encumbering ways in adulthood we find to make what we need and desire more complex and hidden.
And we’re instructed to welcome such children, a welcome that Jesus embodies by taking the child in his arms. Again, picture the beautiful scene.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” Jesus said in Mark.
We’re months away from Christmas, but recall that we are presented with Jesus as a child, the Christ child, born of mother Mary. In this child is the vulnerability of God. God placed the Christ child into our midst in ancient days and still does so during our liturgical Christmastide.
The vulnerability of the God-child has the effect of getting us in touch with our own vulnerability and is thus an antidote to the striving fires that rage within us. The presence of a child in a room tends to draw all eyes, taking people out of themselves at least for a moment, thus, calming the greatness-seeking cravings within us.
Thus, as the prophet Isaiah prophesied, “A little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
So, it’s a powerful image when we baptize infants and children, vulnerable, dependent beings who can only receive in the most primal, visceral ways the grace given them at the moment of baptism, pouring water over them that puts out or at least diminishes our raging fires in and among us.
Picture the scene: every infant and child we baptize becomes a little Christ to us, if you will, a re-incarnation of Christ as we are baptized into him, into his death and resurrection. Think of it! Picture it. Every child at the font is the Christ child in the manger. Each baptized baby is in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. We usually think of the priest or pastor as the stand in for Christ – but in baptism it’s the children in our midst.
As we witness these sacramental mysteries, we also can see ourselves as infants, as children, as vulnerable, radically dependent and in need of being taken into loving arms, as Jesus did with the child in the presence of the disciples, as Jesus does with us at the font and in our lives in Christian community. What is our striving for greatness but a longing for love? In Christ, we receive that love!
So it is that we also cradle Christ Jesus in our uplifted palms as we receive the bread at the sacramental table. Then in the act of taking that sacred gift into ourselves, the cradle we offered in our uplifted palms to receive the living bread becomes the occasion for Jesus to cradle us, embrace us, with sacred, loving, real presence.
Picture the scene – no, let us re-enact the scene in a few minutes! But I want to recall to you one of my elderly, homebound members in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. I’d visit Joe in his home to offer Holy Communion, and he would present me with his upturned palms in such a way as to communicate his deep desire for Communion with Christ, the desire for Christ’s sacramental embrace. I shall never forget the way his hands expressed so clearly and vividly a faithful posture for our humble, needy reception of Christ’s very self. It was beautiful. Picture the scene. Recreate the scene here!
As beautiful as this all is, our sinful selves still too often crave the uglier scenes – of envy, strife, competition, war, the very scenes played out again and again in the world as seen on TV and social media and more. The enemies of the prophet Jeremiah, as indicated in today’s first reading, devised schemes to “destroy the tree with its fruit” cutting the prophet off from the land of the living, so that his name would no longer be remembered. (cf. Jeremiah 11:19b). And so, too, enemies of the divine commonwealth seek its destruction still today.
But in Christ Jesus, it would not be, and will not be. The tree of the cross bore its fruit and birthed in the harvest that was the empty tomb life everlasting, carried by a name that is above every name that is still remembered and extolled and praised, even Jesus Christ our Lord.
With our raging fires under control, if not extinguished, by Christ in the word and in the sacraments, our cravings for greatness are relativized and calmed, and we can more willingly take our place at the end of the line in patience and humility, and then can present ourselves as “servant of all,” as Jesus instructs as recorded by Mark.
And in this is true freedom, genuine liberty. Remember Luther’s paradox that a Christian is a perfectly free sovereign, subject to no one, but also a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. We are freed by Christ from our strivings to be for the other, to welcome the other into our midst, to cradle them, especially those most vulnerable and dependent, the children and the child-like.
In this Spirit we devote ourselves to welcoming all the world’s children, and the childlike realities in all who are find themselves at the end of the line. And in this we all discover healing in Jesus’ name. Thanks be to God. Amen.