Mark 9: 30-37
Last Sunday, we had the great joy to celebrate the baptism of Tessa Morris… and to be very honest… I was completely upstaged during the service. Everyone was looking at her, not me. It was such the case that if I ask you what was the topic of my sermon, I believe you would not be able to tell me… and this is totally okay. Together we experienced what is called the ‘Crying Baby Test’. Rev. Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist minister, wrote this article about the time when he was at a Conference where each day the Bible Study was led by a performance artist / theologian who acted the biblical story and gave some insights to the Scriptures. It was amazing, he wrote. However, on the second day, a baby began to cry loudly in the audience. After a few minutes of this, the performer stopped, looked at the parents, and said, “I’m getting really distracting.” The parent and child got up and left the room followed by several other parents who went out in solidarity and protest. Then, Rev. Smith goes on in his article about the difference between those who are performing (which is about focus and transmission of content, and it is the audience’s job to received the content and engage it) and those who are preaching which is about naming and claiming God’s love present in the room. Preaching is essentially all about the Holy Spirit that is not given exclusively to the preacher and then transmitted to the people. The Spirit is already in each one present in the room and it goes for one to another in order for the proclamation of the Good News to take life. Rev. Smith concludes by stating, “It’s my belief that if I can’t preach over, above, through, or alongside a crying baby, then I have no business preaching.” To this I can only say amen brother!
In our churches we like to talk about the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. We like the idea of the gathering of the people of God under the same roof. However, too often, we tend to focus more on those we consider important and overlook those who are the lowly, the smallest or the least among us. We tend to value those who have the ear of our government or leaders and forget others who are voiceless. We tend to evaluate the success of an event based on the numbers of adults we attracted while forgetting that our children and youth are already full-fledged citizens of the Realm of God. We have this tendency to make the distinction between who is really important and great and whose not.
When he was back from his trip to the villages around Caesarea Philippi, Jesus turned and asked his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” The disciples must have been embarrassed by this question because we can sense an awkward moment of silence in today’s text. They were like small children caught with their hand in the cookie jar. The reason is that the disciples were discussing who was the greatest. Like those in most movements of religious renewal, the followers of Jesus understood themselves as holding to a superior ethical standard. They were convinced they knew better than the others. They had become really important individuals. They weren’t ‘nobodies’ anymore.
Since the beginning of time human beings have tried to organize and structure society based on power and authority. These days we have beautiful diagrams that charts the power, where it comes from and where it goes. They are usually shaped in a form of a triangle with the many at the below and the few at the top to which we usually attribute greatness. We say such people are of great value and importance. They made it to the top of the ladder. We look at the trajectory of our own career path and we wonder why are we not over there. Why am I not serving in a bigger congregation with more people in the pews, with a larger staff and a bigger budget? If it were the case, I would surely be invited be to in the medias. I would be asked to write a book about my own journey. I would be called to serve on a prestigious committee of our denomination. In short, I would be considered a great minister. I would be important.
As it is usually happens in the Gospels, Jesus’ understanding of greatness is not necessarily what our society might expect. That day Jesus sat down, called the twelve – those who were the closest to him, those who were in a leadership position, those who were at the summit of the pyramid of this new movement – and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, let them be last of all, and servant or slave of all.” To the disciples who wanted to find their way to the top and to claim greatness, Jesus told them to claim the last and lowest place. To be his faithful disciples, they must abandon seeking position and prestige.
To make sure his lesson is understood and his point is getting across, Jesus used a visual aid. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus adopted this technique to reinforce his message. Maybe you remember the mustard seeds, the lilies in the field or the worker that arrived at the eleventh hour. This time, his illustration is a little child who happened to be nearby. When we look at this text through our 21st century lenses, we are wondering who is this child and what he or she is doing in midst of this group of grown men, and why this child is not in a more suitable place. But Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcome me”, Jesus, your master.
These few words inspired millions and millions of images depicting Jesus surrounded by little children from every origins and tones of skin. Our nurseries and Sunday Schools are filled with posters of Jesus tenderly cuddling a child. We love the idea that under the exterior of this big, rough and bearded man, there is a soft heart that melts for a simple child. This picture is very beautiful, but once again, Jesus was not trying to say something sweet or sentimental. His use of a child was meant to be perplexing, disconcerting, and totally provocative. Back then like today, people loved and cared for their children. They would carry on the family name and provide for their aging parents. We take comfort in the fact that our children will take our place eventually in our institutions in due time. They are the future – not the present, but the future of the church. Jesus said, “No! Welcome them today for what they are today. Welcome them fully knowing they do not have the power or the ability to welcome us in return. Welcome them fully knowing you cannot expect reciprocity or any return on your investment. Welcome them fully knowing they are not great or important according to the standards of our society.
All around us we are surrounded by people who are considered to be devalued, unimportant or not worthy of our limited attention. We are surrounded by those who are considered to be old, handicapped, sick, illiterate, unemployed, immigrants, prisoners, homeless… This list could go on and on for hours. These vulnerable human beings are those we are called to welcome in our midst. Jesus asks us to develop a sense of solidarity with lowliness of our world. Jesus challenges us to discover the presence of the divine when we are caring for those who cannot repay us.
Today, we are hosting a community fair, outside, right after the service. We have invited some of our partners and also representatives of diverse groups that are involved in our community. I haven’t met them all, but I am deeply convinced these men and women have the gifts and resources to be involved in “much important causes” than the one they are supporting. I am convinced those who are on the payroll of those groups have all the qualifications for a better-paid job offering better benefits. Still, they made the choice to be involved in such way in our community, to support those who need it the most, and to care for those who are vulnerable in our society. The question we all have to ask ourselves this morning is, When we will leave this place, what will we do? Will we try to ignore them? Will we walk by them and nod politely? Will we go and tell them they are doing an amazing job and then run as fast as we could before they could sign us up for something? When we will leave this place we call a church will we look at them and see people who actually do what Jesus calls us to do? Will we listen and engage them? Will we allow ourselves to be touched or inspired by their stories? Will we welcome them as we would welcome Jesus in our congregation?
The day the disciples debated who was the greatest, Jesus served them a lesson in humility. Greatness is achieved by being a loving and serving person. Greatness is welcoming those who are vulnerable, small, lowly and unable to reciprocate. 2,000 years later, we have to be careful not to fall exactly into the same trap. We could find ourselves distracted by measuring our own righteousness against that of the disciples, and somehow judging ourselves greater, more aware, more faithful or more Christian then them. This is maybe why we constantly need to be reminded this is not about us or how important we think we are. This is maybe why we need to have little children to disturb our beautifully crafted worship services and remind us we can experience the presence of Jesus when we are at the service of the smallest in our midst. Amen.