Welcoming Children

“Welcoming Children”

jesus and child

Mark 9:30-37 (9:37) – September 23, 2018

Can you remember back to elementary school? Remember the bickering and fighting on the playground and in the hallways—“who is the best?” Who is the best speller? Who is the best at math? Who is the best kicker at kickball? Which one is the greatest? It doesn’t matter whether you remember your own school days, or the bickering of your children or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. Isn’t that a common conversation among children? They are encouraged to compete, to win ribbons or trophies—who’s the greatest? Who’s the best?

Just before the Gospel reading for today, Jesus and the disciples are walking on the road to Capernaum. The disciples have an argument: they are bickering over which one of them is the greatest—the “best” disciple. One problem: they tried their hardest to have this argument privately, without their Rabbi Jesus hearing about it.

Of course, we all know what really happened. Jesus knew about the argument anyhow. Except, He acted like He didn’t, and asked a leading question: “When Jesus was in the house, He asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’”

I suspect you are all familiar with the reaction of a small child when he or she has been found out, and is guilty of something. Perhaps breaking a glass, or spilling some milk, or something even a little more serious. The guilty look, the sidelong glance, the trembling lips, ducking the head. Even a few tears. There is embarrassment, even feeling ashamed. We all know the signs. We’ve all been there. The response from the disciples? “34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”

Who is the greatest, anyway? Jesus tells us, in His usual puzzling, even roundabout way. With a seeming paradox, no less.

Jesus sits down. That’s important! Did you know that teachers and scholars in the first century would always sit when teaching? Our Gospel writer Mark wanted to make that clear, so that’s why he mentioned Jesus sitting down—going into teaching mode.

We already know the disciples were confused about a lot of things. This was another of those things. Just before this reading, Jesus reminds them about His death and how important it would be. Immediately after that, almost as if Jesus had never mentioned such a serious thing at all, the disciples start to bicker about which one of them is the greatest. Imagine! We always knew the disciples were pretty clueless. As if we needed another reminder.

Next, Jesus did something quite unorthodox. (As was His habit, after all.) Jesus brings a little child front and center, right into the middle of His teaching session.

Sometimes, when children are brought to the front of some churches, it’s because “they’re so cute!” With pretty little outfits, and darling, chubby cheeks. Often, children act silly or say the darnedest things!

As one commentator says, “However, during the rest of the sermon, are the children central? Are they models of faith? Or are they there just for the giggle and cute factor?

Jesus very distinctly does not say, ‘I love these cute little guys. Isn’t this kid so adorable?’” [1] That is not the purpose at all.

Just to make sure we all understand just how unorthodox this was, we need to know the position of children in the first century. Children were not considered persons, yet. They were considered helpless and marginalized in that society. Isn’t that what Jesus always did? Didn’t He go straight for the helpless, the marginalized, the outcasts, the least of these? That is what He did, in this situation.

Bound up in this spotlight on a small child is Jesus’s statement about who is truly “the greatest” in God’s eyes. Remember, Jesus is still in teaching mode. He states that “the kingdom of God was based on a completely different set of principles. God’s kingdom ushers in a new world order…. [This] radically reverses normative standards and declares a different definition of discipleship—service to others. The one who is willing to be last of all and servant of all is, in fact, great in God’s kingdom.[2]

Talk about turning the world in its head! Jesus was, indeed, turning the world the disciples knew on its head. I suspect the words coming from Jesus did not compute in the disciples’ brains. Not right away, anyhow.

What does this definition of greatness mean to you and me? Jesus’s definition is completely counter-cultural, whether we are talking about the culture of the first century or of the twenty-first. This does not mesh at all with any modern idea of “the best” or “the greatest” or ribbons or trophies or Olympic medals. However, Jesus does not concern Himself with adjusting or accommodating to other people’s standards. Instead, He “calls us to imagine that true greatness lies in service by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore.[3]

Isn’t that Jesus, all over? Isn’t that what Jesus would do? He wouldn’t hang out with the cool kids on the playground, or with the rich folks on the right side of the tracks. Instead, Jesus would seek out the lepers, the tax collectors, the Samaritan woman by the well, the blind and the lame and the demonized ones. Those most vulnerable, those with little influence or power.

What would Jesus do? Who would Jesus hang out with?

As we consider our church, St. Luke’s Church, and our children, we can follow the excellent example of many African American congregations. Overwhelmingly, they have “reached out to children in love. This spirit has deep roots within African American history and culture. Now, more than ever, vulnerable children need to be embraced by the church just as Jesus embraced children.[4]

That’s what Jesus did. Listen to our reading: “Taking the child in His arms, Jesus said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me.’”

Jesus reached out to the margins of His society and drew a small child into the center of His community. What is more, He welcomed the child. He welcomed the least of these and integrated them into our fellowship. Can we do any less?

It’s not only the children, but also the other people on the margins, on the outskirts of society today. The outcasts, the lonely, those who are stigmatized or separated. We need to welcome all of these, the least of these. No matter what. Just as Jesus welcomes the children fully into our fellowship today.

Who would Jesus welcome? He welcomes you. He welcomes me. Praise God, Jesus has His arms open wide to welcome everyone.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary25bgospel/

Children in the Center of the Assembly, Clint Schnekloth, The Hardest Question, 2012.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=74

Commentary, Mark 9:33-37, Imani Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

[3] http://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/

“A Different Kind of Greatness,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2018.

[4] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=74

Commentary, Mark 9:33-37, Imani Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

A Blessing from Jesus

“A Blessing from Jesus”

Mark 10 Jesus blesses the children

Mark 10:13-16 – October 4, 2015

Who doesn’t love babies and small children? A small minority of people do not care for them, but by and large, babies and toddlers bring a smile to many people’s faces. Take social media, for example. Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter. Do you want a lot of “likes” or “retweets?” Put up a photo or a picture of a darling baby or toddler, and watch how many people share or retweet your post.

We see, today, pictures of Jesus welcoming small children, even babies. Wonderful scenes! Darling, adorable, even touching pictures. However, I caution you—modern ideas of the innocence of children and the freedom we in 21st century America associate with young ones is not consistent with the first century understanding of children. But I’ll get back to that, later on.

This week’s sermon is a continuation of last week’s sermon. Last week—I’m reminded of my summer sermon series, which I compared to a radio serial. “When last we left Jesus, our intrepid hero—!” As I was saying, last week we talked about how much the disciples just didn’t understand the point Jesus was talking about.

In last week’s sermon, to make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. Then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.” Here, again, same story. The disciples are really dense. Very similar situation in this case, and they just don’t seem to understand what Jesus is saying.

Let me set the scene for today’s reading The Rabbi Jesus is teaching, as He so often does. He does not discriminate! He doesn’t only teach to men, but also to women. And the women, often being moms, grandmothers, aunts or older sisters, sometimes bring their children with them to the open-air teaching sessions.

I suspect that Jesus was one of those people who loved and cared about children. Was good with little ones. Can’t you imagine Jesus as being welcoming towards babies, toddlers, children, adolescents? All the kids! Just from His brief interactions with children in the Gospels, I get that feeling. And, I bet moms and grandmas could tell that about the Rabbi Jesus, too.

So, when women try to bring their children to the Rabbi Jesus for a blessing, what happens? Our reading from the Gospel of Mark says that the disciples rebuke those who are bringing the children to Jesus. As I looked at alternate translations, one had the disciples censuring the adults for trying to pester their Rabbi! That’s a strong expression of disapproval!

Hadn’t these guys learned anything from their recent discussion with Jesus? When Jesus brings a small child into the middle of the circle, lifts the child in His arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me.” Are these men that dense? I guess they are, because in today’s reading Jesus gets really upset with them when He finds out that the disciples are turning parents and children away.

Now, I want everyone to think of our 21st century kind of warm, fuzzy, frolicking idea of childhood, the concept where every child is lifted up as an individual, special, unique and loved. Is everyone thinking of that idea? That idea is absolutely true. However, I have news for you: the first century had no such idea.

I’ll give you a snapshot of two competing but similar ideas from the first century. One, the Roman view. The father—and by that I mean the oldest brother in a family—was the top dog. He ruled the roost. He was the head of the whole extended family. That means younger brothers, and their wives, sisters, and any other dependents. Like elderly relatives, or babies, children, or young adolescents. He was the head of the family, or in Latin, the pater familias.

Children were on the very bottom of the ladder, socially and in terms of that culture. The pater familias could decide whether a baby or small child would be accepted into the family group! So, a baby, a child, did not have any standing in society. At all.

But Jesus and the disciples lived in Palestine. On top of the Greco-Roman culture, they also had Jewish culture to deal with. The Jewish concept of the patriarch was somewhat similar, but not exactly the same. Children were seen as a blessing from the Lord. But, again—the position of children was vulnerable. In both cases—the Greco-Roman culture as well as the Jewish culture, children were dependent, even disregarded. Children were very much counted among “the least of these,” that expression Jesus used in Matthew 25. The ignored of society, overlooked, left out, less than.

All very interesting, you might be thinking. But what has that to do with you and me, in the here and now?

What about these children? These little ones, the downtrodden of society, the overlooked? Jesus rebukes His disciples for their poor treatment of children! In essence, He tells them off! And then, Jesus welcomes the children to Him. I bet He even took them into His lap. Mark tells us He held them in His arms, certainly. And blessed them.

What about last week, when Pope Francis was here in the United States? What do you think parents and grandparents thought when the Pope—personally—blessed their children? I understand that Pope Francis has a special place in his heart for children and young people. I think Jesus did, too!

I have a further question. Does Jesus love only Jewish children? That’s who He was blessing, here in Mark. Do you think Jesus also loved Samaritan children? What about Greek children? Roman children? What about children from all over Africa? Or, from India? Or China or Mongolia? Or children from Gaul (now parts of France and Germany)? Or, across the ocean, indigenous American children? Or indigenous Australian children?

You remember the song “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It does not matter what a person’s culture is, or social standing, or any other ranking system. Jesus still wants to embrace them, bless them, and welcome them. That goes for children as well as for adults. Multi-ethnic? Jesus welcomes you! Multi-cultural? Jesus welcomes you, too! No matter what, no matter where, no matter who.

A minister, who used to post to a sermon discussion group I sometimes look at, put up this entry a few years ago. “One of the greatest joys of my ministry is that I serve a church which welcomes children of all ages to the Table. It is so meaningful to serve children as their parents help them break off the bread and dip it in the cup. True communion, true welcoming. … As I invited people to come to the Table, I realized that no one had told me they would be helping me serve, so asked, “Who will help me serve today.” An 8 year old boy who was already up and ready to receive to communion, said, “I will” “Oh dear,” I thought, “what will people think if I have him serve?” I was sure most would be okay, but I thought some may take exception. But I realized there was no way I could refuse such an eager heartfelt offer. So he stood beside me and offered the bread. … I’m certain it was a meaningful experience for him— it certainly was for me. I realize that the “legalities” of some would have said no to his serving, but I know that our Lord said, “Let the little children come to me…”

Here’s a final thought. Jesus transforms children from their lowly, insignificant, disregarded state into wonderful examples for the disciples to follow. Jesus here tells us we all ought to approach Him in the same way as little children do. Wonderful examples for us adults to follow today, too.

When we come to worship, and when we come to communion, we are to come as little children. Trusting, dependent, vulnerable. We do not give ourselves grace and mercy. Instead, Jesus freely offers grace and mercy to all who come to Him. We can praise God for the boundless love and the radical grace extended to each of us, each day.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!