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!)

Generous With Our Words

“Generous With Our Words”

Jesus cures the blind man John 9

John 9:38 – March 15, 2015

In our sermon today, we are going to consider a situation where Jesus met a man who was born blind, and healed him. Miraculously! I could preach an awesome sermon on the blind man, or on the healing. But I want us to look at the aftermath of the healing. As we consider this man, I would like you to think about his lonely, isolated, marginalized situation, too.

I want to read chapter 9, from the Gospel of John. I’ll be reading from a modern translation called “The Message,” by Eugene Peterson.

True Blindness

1-2 Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

3-5 Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”

6-7 Jesus said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed—and saw.

 

The Rabbi Jesus performed another miracle! And this time, He healed a man who had a dark cloud over his head. The man was born blind. He had never, ever been able to see anything. We can tell how he was isolated. Shunned. And like I just read, certain people blamed the man for being born blind. “Well, he must have done something to be born that way!” Treated in that way, we can see how he was marginalized! Other people blamed his parents. “Serves them right! Look at them, having a child born blind! Just a nuisance, a drag on them and their lives.”

Isn’t that like some people today? Isolating, shunning, marginalizing people because of some seeming disability. What kinds of negative, judgmental things are they thinking of? Whose cynical words are they paying attention to? Are they like the disciples, or the other townspeople, listening to their own preconceived, sometimes faulty judgments?

Let’s hear what happens next, in our reading today.

Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging were saying, “Why, isn’t this the man we knew, who sat here and begged?”

Others said, “It’s him all right!” But others objected, “It’s not the same man at all. It just looks like him.” He kept saying, “It’s me, the very one.”

10 They said, “How did your eyes get opened?”

11 “A man named Jesus made a paste and rubbed it on my eyes and told me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ I did what he said. When I washed, I saw.”

12 “So where is he?” “I don’t know.”

We can hear the disbelief of everyone in the town. The townspeople were arguing! Some said this guy was the blind man. Others said he couldn’t be. He, himself, kept on saying, “Yes, I am! I’m the one! It’s me, the very guy!”

The former blind man’s words showed he was fully aware of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. He knew very well how he had regained his sight! And after the healing, Jesus was nowhere to be found. Let’s continue. See what happens next!

13-15 They marched the man to the Pharisees. This day when Jesus made the paste and healed his blindness was the Sabbath. The Pharisees grilled him again on how he had come to see. He said, “He put a clay paste on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “Obviously, this man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”

Others countered, “How can a bad man do miraculous, God-revealing things like this?” There was a split in their ranks.

                We see the Pharisees as official, religious people of the town. They were the ‘judges’ or ‘experts’ for all things religious, in their day. They ruled on proper behavior and correct rule-keeping, as far as everyone’s daily lives were concerned. The Pharisees were meticulous in following the Mosaic Law code! You had better believe they made sure that everyone else followed the law code just as closely as they did, or else everyone would hear about it!

We know the blind man had been begging outside the Temple for years. However, the religious leaders had paid so little attention to him! Now that he had sight, they did not recognize him when he was not in his usual place, begging. The Pharisees had never even noticed him, a person, except to toss a few coins in his cup. This blind guy was totally marginalized, even shunned. Jesus on the other hand, saw him and paid attention to him.  He treated the man as a real, worthwhile person. In response to his need, Jesus healed him. And was promptly criticized.

17 The Pharisees came back at the blind man, “You’re the expert. He opened your eyes. What do you say about him?”

He said, “He is a prophet.”

18-19 The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”

20-23 His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see—haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)

In this specific case of the formerly-blind man, the Pharisees carefully investigated this guy. They brought questioning words, and made cynical, unbelieving comments. Plus, we can see how the super-religious people intimidated the townspeople, not to mention the blind man’s parents. The leaders badgered them into saying that this healing Rabbi Jesus was definitely not the Messiah. The townspeople listened to their own fears. They didn’t want to be ostracized, too!

The judgmental attitude of the religious leaders was aided by their skeptical, angry words, capped by. “This man can’t heal on the Sabbath! This man can’t possibly be from God!” The Pharisees were blinded by their meticulous rule-keeping. They were hindered from seeing the marvels of God and God’s miraculous working. But, back to the reading.

24 The Pharisees called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind—and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.”

25 He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . now I see.”

26 They said, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27 “I’ve told you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?”

28-29 With that they jumped all over him. “You might be a disciple of that man, but we’re disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.”

30-33 The man replied, “This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

34 They said, “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!” Then they threw him out in the street.

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

38 “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.

39 Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”

40 Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?”

41 Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.”

In the final act of this chapter, we see the former blind man meeting Jesus. He had already mentioned the miracle-working power of the Rabbi Jesus to the Pharisees, and was thrown out on his ear for his bold statements. Then, he runs into Jesus. Remember, he had never seen Jesus before. Only heard Him. What do you know, the man addresses Jesus with believing words! The former blind man’s eyes were opened in a number of ways!

Just as the townspeople and the Pharisees were blinded by their fears, skepticism, and preconceived notions, the same thing might very well happen to us today. We can strive to be like the man born blind, who gave witness, and told the religious leaders what happened after he was healed. The man sees what Jesus has done, and gives Jesus believing words, too! Speaking up for Jesus! Can we speak up for Jesus? Or will we hide in a corner? Can we offer each other generous, positive, God-focused words? Or, will we keep quiet, be timid, duck our heads and run away? This is a challenge all of us can listen to today.

Thank God, we can offer each other encouraging words! Generous words! Positive, God-honoring words! Just like the formerly blind man. We, too, can say we believe Jesus. Praise God! Amen.

 

Thanks to Eugene Peterson for his wonderful translation The Message. I quoted John chapter 9, around which I have interwoven this message.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)