Christ Centered Resources

God's Spies

Rev. Ed Searcy

Mark 9:30-37
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 21, 1997
"Then he took a child and put it among them, 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me'." That old childhood hymn 'Fairest Lord Jesus' seems so fitting on a day when the lectionary takes us back, back, back to that scene of Jesus and the children. Remember the picture ... in the children's Bible that you received for good attendance ... or the one hanging in the nursery next to the cradle roll. All of this on a Sunday when we dedicate a new faculty of teachers in our Church School. The sermon seems so self-evident. Only a few short years ago our congregation had to decide whether or not to continue to offer a Church School ... seeing as how there were no little children to welcome in Jesus' name. But you persisted ... just in case a child came knocking at the door. Now we have a new problem ... namely, children! Or, more precisely, the energy, noise and distractions that they have brought to our worship. Oh, it's a lovely problem to have, for sure. But it is a problem nonetheless. Today Jesus provides just the opening we need to talk about it, don't you think? Welcome the little child, he tells his associates ... like the little five year old sitting next to you during the prelude. The one who, in the space of three minutes while you are trying to meditate ... swings his feet, drops his bulletin, picks it up, looks under the chairs while on the floor, uses the leaflet as a fan, stands, waves to Billy and his family with the bulletin, waves to the Smiths who are smiling at him, resumes his seat, holds his legs out stiffly, crosses and uncrosses his legs several times, runs his finger along the sharp bulletin edge, glances at the ceiling, studies the height, the play of the sun through the windows, and the oak beams radiating from the center, squints to test the effect, lies down on the carpet to get a better view of the ceiling, kicks his brother in the process, dodges his brother's retaliating kick, moves over and stands again to make room for Mother who is now changing places ... (adapted from "Children in the Worshiping Community" by David Ng & Virginia Thomas, pp. 4-5). Welcoming children. This is what the sermon was going to be about on Tuesday. I'm not quite sure when it went off the rails, though I suspect that Jim Love had something to do with it. Jim wondered aloud about what kind of kids were running around that household in Capernaum. "I imagine that they're saying to these travellers 'Hey Mister, wanna buy some chicklets ... hey Mister do you have money' and as soon as one of them stops they're stealing his wallet!". Suddenly I am not thinking of well-scrubbed children in Sunday School classes but of scruffy little Oliver Twist and Fagan's band of street-wise thieves. Who knows how it happened ... but this 'Fairest Lord Jesus and the children' sermon turned into something unexpected along the way. Reading the Bible didn't help matters. It often happens this way. We think we know exactly what a text is about ... what a friend means ... until we pay attention to what they actually say! It's like the question I spotted on a coffee mug this week. "What did I say that sounded like 'Tell me about your day'". All it takes is a hint from Jesus that his disciples are to welcome children and I can be off on a favourite hobby horse in no time. Except it's more complicated than that. Jesus is travelling through Galilee incognito. He wants to spend time alone with his friends. It sounds as if Jesus struggles to escape the 1st century paparazzi ... that he and his close associates rarely get to talk. Such time is precious time ... like this time. A short time in a busy week to focus on Jesus and to learn from him. This is when things become difficult. It's what he teaches them that gets it started. For the second time in a few days Jesus speaks of the impending betrayal and violent death of 'the Son of Man' followed by his 'rising again'. It's obviously on his mind. It's obviously something that he wants to impress upon them. It's obviously something that they should want to talk with him about. "But", as Mark reports, "they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." Well, it's one thing to not understand Jesus. Heaven knows, we don't always find this stuff easy to figure out. But 'afraid to ask him'? What about 'fairest Lord Jesus' and all that? This doesn't fit our Sunday School portrait of Jesus ... or of his disciples. Then again, if we've been paying attention we'll recall that this is not the first time that the twelve have got it wrong. Mark's gospel does not paint them in a very positive light. Peter and the gang are, how shall we put it, slow learners ... dullards ... fools. By this point in the story Jesus is one exasperated 'Son of Man'! In the preceeding scene, in fact, Jesus comes upon a crowd that includes his disciples and says:"How much longer must I put up with you?". It's clear when they stop for the night in a little 'Bed and Breakfast' in Capernaum that this next scene is about more than just welcoming little children.. "What were you arguing about on the road" Jesus asks them. Now they are afraid to open their mouths once again ... but not because they don't understand. Oh no. They understand full well that he won't be pleased with their spat. First Peter had said, a la Muhammed Ali, "I am the greatest" to which James and John had replied, "No, we are the greatest" ... and before anyone knew it all of them were in on the debate. It all sounds so much like kids in a sandbox singing "I'm the king of the castle, you're the dirty rascal". And it is all so maddingly contemporary. The desire for greatness affects more than just the politicians who pay careful attention to the latest polls. A Canadian journalist returns from a number of years in Japan ... and discovers that Canadians are far from the humble, deferential people that we like to portray. Instead he finds an arrogance he hadn't expected. This boastfulness is everywhere in a culture that takes pride in being the very best country in the world (and has the U.N. statistics to prove it). It even creeps into the attitudes of United Church boosters: "First church in Canada to ordain women. First to ordain gays. Socially active ... relevant ... open to change." And, yes, such talk can be heard in many a congregation of self- congratulatory followers trying to keep pace with Jesus on the journey to Capernaum. But he doesn't pry. Jesus doesn't force an answer. He doesn't even raise his voice about all this striving after greaness. Instead, he sits us down and says: "If you want to be first you'll have to be last of all and servant of all". Great. Now things are really getting complicated. A sermon that began with a simple melody line - welcome the little children - has become a jazz improvisation in which the melody has become totally obscured. Just what is Jesus talking about? What kind of an upside-down world does he inhabit? We wish that we could, just once, take the Son of Man to a Battered Woman's Shelter to hear the stories of those who stayed too long in violent relationships because they had memorized this very verse in childhood. But Jesus isn't talking about being doormats. He isn't advocating doing nothing. That's the problem! He's advocating doing something. And he shows what he means by enacting a parable. He takes one of the rug-rats who is running around the house, puts the little hellian among them, takes it in his arms and says "If you welcome one of these you welcome me and, in welcoming me, welcome the one who sent me". It's all sounds so much like receiving royalty. You know how it goes: if you receive the Lieutenant Governor of the Province you are receiving the Governor-General of the country, and if you receive the Governor-General you are receiving the Queen herself. Mark's gospel does not record the disciples' reaction to Jesus' brief sermon. Instead there is more of the same. Jesus keeps talking about suffering and sacrifice ... and the disciples keep arguing about how great they are. The whole episode goes right over their heads. It's all so confusing. Guess what. It gets worse. Early this century, in an ancient garbage dump near Cairo, a short letter was discovered, dated June 18 in the year 1 BC. It's a letter from a worker writing to his wife back home, telling her not to worry about his return and sending her his love: "Hilarion to ... Alis. Many greetings ... and to <our son> Apollonarion. Know that we are even yet in Alexandria. Do not worry if they all come back <except me> and I remain in Alexandria. I urge and entreat you, be concerned about the child <Apollonarion> and if I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you. If by chance you bear a son, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl cast it out . You have said to Aphrodosias, "Do not forget me". How can I forget you? Therefore I urge you not to worry." (from John Dominic Crossan, "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography", p. 63). Here is a world strikingly like our own ... and yet a world with a striking difference. It is a world where a child is a nobody unless its father accepts it ... a world where it is commonplace for infants to be 'exposed' in the gutter or rubbish dump to die or to be taken by someone who wishes to rear a slave. It is a world where the Greek word for an elementary school-aged child also means 'slave' or 'servant'. This is not the Disneyfied world of pampered, modern childhood. Then again, for too many children the Disneyfied world of modernity is only an illusion. Perhaps you saw the picture that stared out from this week's news. Taken in a classroom in North Korea by the German Red Cross, it shows a nine year old girl with arms the thickness of little candlesticks. Underneath ran the blunt statistic: "10,000 North Korean children are dying of starvation every month". Putting our own nine year old Korean child to bed, I couldn't help but notice how little the suffering of so many children has effected North Americans. They are, after all, the children of North Korea. Enemies still, I guess. The victims of a ruthless government ... but also of our ruthless detachment. Even as we struggle to make sense of Jesus, he gestures to a nine year old North Korean girl and invites her in, embracing her he says, "to welcome me, welcome her." It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who once remarked that he"wouldn't give a fig for the kind of simplicity that exists on this side of complexity, but would give the world for the simplicity that exists on the other side of complexity." Well things have become awfully simple once again, haven't they? "Welcome" says Jesus, "welcome". In two verses he says it four times. Welcome the last as the first, welcome the least as the greatest. Welcome. A friend pointed out an interesting feature of everyday speech the other day. "Maybe it's just me", he said, "but I've noticed that when I say 'Thank-you' more often than not the response I hear isn't 'You're welcome'. Instead, most people say 'No problem'." It seems such a little thing. Like many little things, though, it reflects a deeper reality. 'No problem' looks back and says 'Don't worry about it ... this time'. 'You're welcome' looks ahead and says 'You owe me nothing, you are always welcome here'. Welcome. Every so often I get a phone call from someone who needs to tell me why they choose not to receive communion. They usually say something like: "I just want you to know that it's not because I don't want to take the bread and wine ... it's because I just don't feel good enough." Sometimes the little child embraced by Jesus is hidden in an adult frame. Welcome. Looking back, it would be fair to say that Mother Theresa's life was an enactment of this story. She gave herself to welcoming the least and the last. Her life taught a world that idolizes productivity that God's ambassadors come in the form of the least productive. They come to spy out earth's hospitality. And they find their way here, to the church. They arrive in the form of those whose wounds or despair ... whose age or orientation ... whose grief or guilt ... makes them a nobody in the eyes of a family, a nuisance in the eyes of a community, a nonperson in the eyes of a world. Here, says Jesus, things are to be different. Here the last and the least esteemed are to be the first and most highly respected. Like seed that falls on rocky ground, these words struggle to take root in the community of disciples. Favouring the strong and respectable we wish the children away and oh-so-quietly shun the stranger to the fringes. Yet, in spite of our hardness, Christ's welcome is extended. Jesus draws near, enters the circle and embraces a child. Do you see who it is in his arms ... the little one who could not expect such esteem, such love, such honour? It's true. It is you that he holds. It is you that he welcomes. It is you that he loves. And it is you that he calls to extend God's embrace.