Christ Centered Resources

Travelling Incognito

Rev. Ed Searcy

Mark 9:30-37
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 24, 2000
As Jesus and his disciples“passed through Galilee ... He did not want anyone to know it”. Jesus is travelling incognito. He wears no name tag. There are no megaphones announcing his arrival. No advance team stirring up the locals to come out and meet him in person. Not now ... “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.” It is the second of three times that he warms them of what lies ahead. The first of his predictions leads to the ugly spectacle of an angry argument with Peter. The last announcement finds James and John shamelessly seeking places of power. This time all of the twelve find themselves unable to see what the future holds. As Mark reports: “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him”. It all sounds a little like a lecture hall filled with first year students studying calculus. No one dares blurt out the truth - that none of them have a clue what the teacher is talking about. Incognito - ‘without knowledge’ - is the only way to describe it. Jesus is not known ... even by his own disciples. This lack of understanding is soon obvious to their Rabbi. An argument ensues over which of them “is the greatest”. It all sounds so childish, so foolish. What qualifies these simpletons to be Jesus’ students? Then the Vatican releases the declaration entitled ‘Dominus Iesus’ in which it reasserts the claim that only in the Roman Catholic Church can the true church of Christ be said to ‘subsist’. It asserts that a Protestant congregation like this one can only be called an ‘ecclesial community’ and not truly a church. In this declaration Peter’s descendants continue the shameless argument over which of Jesus’ followers is the greatest. We, of course, are suitably appalled by such blatant assertions of greatness by the Vatican. Imagine the gall, the arrogance, the self-righteousness entailed in producing such a document. But notice how quickly we have entered the very debate that we decry. Now we subtly lay claim to being greater than those who published ‘Dominus Iesus’ for we are surely more tolerant, less judgmental ... more ‘Christian’ ... than they. Somehow, like the confused and bewildered disciples, we know that this unceasing argument is not what Jesus has in mind for those who follow him. When he asks “What were you arguing about on the way” we, like the twelve, are silent rather than admitting that his community has become the scandalous scene of a rancourous debate about which is the true Church of Christ. Frustrated, Jesus sits the twelve down ... sits the church down ... and says in simple, straightforward language: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Remember how one commentator describes Jesus’ gospel: “You shall know the truth ... and the truth shall make you odd”. This upside-down, backwards logic in which first is last and the lowly are of highest importance strikes us - and others - as odd. So odd that the church in our part of the world has long since forgotten that it is meant to embody Jesus’ strange logic. Think about it. When people hear the word ‘church’ how many in our culture think of a community in which those with power and status serve the outcasts of society? Not very many! Most people hear the word ‘church’ and think of hypocritical fights over which is the ‘true church’ ... or they remember being incessantly brow-beaten by an over jealous relative ... or they think of the times when they have endured mind numbing worship. Just look at the results in the annual reader’s poll in the Georgia Straight’s ‘Best of Vancouver’ edition. The top three answers given to the question ‘What is the best reason to go to church?’ are: (1) a wedding; (2) to meet people; (3) there’s no reason to go to church. Precious few know that the reason one goes to church is to join those odd people who practice what Jesus preaches: “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” But where are we to begin? The church has so long seen itself as the guardian of goodness and normalcy - as the nation’s upholder of ‘values’ and ‘morality’ - that it has forgotten its calling to be odd. Seeing the quizzical look in the eyes of his disciples, Jesus provides a case study. He puts an unnamed, unknown child in the centre of the circle. Then he embraces the child, saying: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”. No, I did not select this reading specially for this Sunday in order to raise up the theme of hospitality yet again. In truth, once we begin to view the Bible through the lens of hospitality we find the command to welcome everywhere. Hospitality is the core of the odd gospel that Jesus comes to announce. The call to make room is the scandal that even Jesus’ own disciples cannot comprehend. This is not hospitality offered as a successful strategy for church growth or as the latest fad for bible study. Welcoming those who have learned that they are not welcome is the way in which God’s kingdom comes ... it is the gospel lifted off of the page and brought to life. The ‘meaning’ of the gospel cannot finally be known in concepts that remain only in the mind. The good news that is the gospel of Jesus Christ must inevitably take the physical shape of a community that gives up its busy life in order to make room for the forgotten and the lost. The gospel confronts the wisdom of the world with the social reality of communities that live a surprisingly odd life together. In Christian community those who do not count elsewhere discover that here they are counted as precious. In this discovery they - and we - see the first tell-tale signs of the arrival of God’s kingdom, God’s time, God’s purposes fulfilled on earth as they are in heaven. Now, to be fair, Jesus’ embrace of a child does not strike us as such a radical gesture. Children are our priceless treasures, after all. Yes, they may disrupt the adult world with their energy and activity ... and welcoming children into the centre of an adult-oriented church may be difficult ... but, like motherhood and apple-pie, it is widely agreed to be desirable. The children of the 1st century are not quite so treasured. Life is harsh. Survival is not a certainty. It is commonplace for infants and children to die. Widespread poverty means that many children cannot be fed by their family. The cultural practice of child abandonment is a fact of everyday life all over the Mediterranean world in which Jesus walks. The social problem of what to do with abandoned children - ‘foundlings’ - is discussed in numerous ancient writings. To this day, the vocabulary of the modern university still reflects that ancient debate. Our use of the word ‘alumnus’ to identify a graduate is an adoption of the word that means an ‘adoptee’. An abandoned child who was raised by an adoptive family was known as an ‘alumnus’ of that family. Of course, other abandoned children were not so fortunate. Many did not survive, others were sold into slavery by those who came upon them. When Jesus places a child in their midst he brings his disciples a street urchin surviving by her wits in the alleys of Capernaum ... he brings an abandoned baby to Pastor and Margaret at the door of the Puerto Rico a Pie Orphanage in the Dominican Republic ... he embraces the illiterate son of a widowed mother in Mamolete’s beloved Lesotho. In other words, Jesus challenges his disciples to welcome those who bring with them great need for an embrace ... and for much more. The way that leads to the cross is not the way of a polite Canadian welcome - a handshake and a smile - that costs nothing more. As the Christian community on the Isle of Iona repeats at the time of offering: “We will not offer gifts that cost us nothing”. The peculiar way of Christ is a costly path in which there is no time to argue over who is the greater because the time is taken up in making room for those who need a place. This includes even our own children. It was not that many years ago that there was some question about whether to have a Sunday School at University Hill. It seemed a shame that the volunteer teacher would arrive each week, prepared to lead a class, only to find not one child to teach. But then you said: “If we are not ready to host children when they come ... they will not come back”. So you determined that there would be Sunday School ... whether there were children or not! Then when children did come we struggled to make room for them here in worship. They brought so much noise ... they were so disruptive. Yet together we slowly found ways to make the Chapel a place of welcome for children - with carpets and soft toys, with important tasks to undertake on behalf of the community ... such as greeting and ringing the bell and marking the Bibles and lighting the candles and offering food and reading scripture and serving the bread and wine. Now we have begun to extend that welcome beyond worship. One by one we are beginning to offer the children an adult mentor ... a partner ... a host. Today’s lector, Tommy, is one such child in our midst. Tommy’s father, Nigel, can not live at home because of the stroke that paralyzed him. Tom’s mother Sue has often expressed her wish that he have the gift of a ‘big brother’. Our Christian Education Committee discussed and prayed about this ... and then approached Derek to ask him to embrace Tommy on our behalf. Thanks be to God that Derek has found room in his heart and full life to say ‘yes’ to Tommy’s need. There are other children like Tommy, of course. There is Adam, whose autism makes it difficult to know how best to welcome and make room for him. There is Matt, at sea right now in the new world of grade one. There are older children, too. Grown up children just fresh from high school feeling as nervous and lonely as any first-grader ... only farther from home. And there are children who are older still ... children who sense that they do not count ... that they do not belong ... that they are only worth what they can produce or deliver or earn ... children who do not yet know in their bones that they are welcome here ... that here their burdens and sorrows and needs can be shared ... that there is always to be time and room enough for them here. Such children come looking for a people who will welcome them ... who will embrace their lives with hospitality. Make no mistake. Jesus places the need of these last and least at the centre of the church’s life. He makes room for them. He is the host at the Table who welcomes the most unlikely of guests. Jesus is host ... and he is also guest:“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus is still travelling incognito. He wears no special vestments that will identify him in the assembly ... he has no academic credentials (not even a Masters of Divinity) ... and he does not announce his arrival with a fanfare. It turns out that the elusive God of the universe is to be met ... not, as we might expect, in the warm spiritual glow of a glorious sunset or even in the awesome experience of an incredible mountain vista ... but in the open-hearted reception given to an oh so anonymous Jesus. The holy incognito traveller is waiting to be found in the last and least place that anyone thinks to look ... in a stranger’s need.