Monday, September 21, 2009

Who Is the Body of Christ?

Sermon for 9.20.09
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:33-37

Please pray with me: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you” (Psalm 26:2-3).

From today’s Gospel: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

One of the Bible verses that sticks with me from the beloved King James Bible of my childhood is “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14). I’m sure I wanted Jesus to love me, but I wasn’t so sure when it was explained that Jesus loved sweet, dear little girls. I wasn’t always sweet and dear. Thus my first real theological dilemma: Did Jesus love ME or only the little girl that others expected me to be? I didn’t need to have worried, and I’m going to tell you why.

This verse from my childhood actually comes from another chapter in Mark, but we often import the interpretation I just gave to our passage this morning. The disciples have been arguing about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom and, to put an end to their quarreling, Jesus takes a little child and tells them to be more concerned about welcoming such a child because this is the way to welcome him and to welcome God.

Sounds a bit like our last sermon? With the ante raised? Deny your own self-centeredness, Jesus said last week, and enter fully into a relationship with me and the journey into which I invite you. Is Jesus now extending that relationship to those who are pure in heart? Some of us don’t have a whole lot of little children to welcome.

And this is the point. We romanticize childhood, at least for our own children and grandchildren. Some of our hardworking grandparents or parents very much wanted a more carefree growing-up than they had experienced in the Depression. And at present, the huge development of markets for pre-teens, children, and even babies gives at least the illusion of total gratification and privilege.

In the time of Jesus, however, children were invisible, non-people. Galatians 4:1 sums it up: “Heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property.” Children who were not to be heirs were virtually slaves. Think of the African-American children on the pre-Civil War plantations. In fact, the child whom Jesus takes in his arms in this passage may well have been one of the slave children of the household that he and his disciples had entered. Mark’s language is so economical that it’s easy to miss his emphasis, but here Jesus is Rabbi. He sits down to assume the formal position of a teacher. Next he gathers his disciples around him and makes a pronouncement: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he does the “Show and Tell.” Taking a child and standing him or her in their midst, he clarifies his statement, “Whoever welcomes one such child….”

To complete the sentence by saying, “whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” is not shocking since kings and generals sent emissaries to deliver their commands. But for a child, a slave, a nobody, to represent God is something else. Children were to be with the women, and slave children had to work. To receive such ones was certainly not what a serious teacher and serious male disciples would expect. And yet Jesus gives the worthless child enormous value. The worthless child becomes a stand-in for him. “Such a one” becomes a stand-in for him and therefore a source of great concern for any of his disciples—including us.

Jesus’ “Show and Tell” gives me much to think about, to pray about, to watch in myself, whenever I am in a situation that gives any possible advantage: as teacher, pastor, family member who knows all the histories, as friend who knows all the vulnerabilities. It also gives me sure footing when I am in a situation that may provide very little advantage. There is a whole culture outside these church doors that ranks us according to birth, brains, success, personalities. Given our environmental crisis, I must also say that our culture ranks creatures and natural resources according to perceived usefulness to us and our perceived need.

Jesus sees it differently. We can take seriously the words of our hymn this morning, “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” The hymn asks questions, and Jesus answers that for creatures—and our children—to praise, and to say “life,” “peace,” and “home,” “the first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus is urging humble service of others, including even the oddest Other. He is urging his disciples to recognize him and God in those who are given no significance and those outside of our own safe groups, even our own safe mission projects. Jesus insists that his sphere of influence and his power transcend the security of our own community and our own church. In taking such risks, we begin to discover who is the body of Christ, who else is in this body of Christ of which we are a part.

As a corollary, it is only fair to admit that there are many children who are not protected in the way we have tried to protect our own. The notion of privileged childhood is an illusion of innocence when youngsters even in our own county are poorly fed, undereducated, under loved, and totally without adequate medical resources. We are not a society that nurtures all of our dependants, either young or old, and yet Jesus states that our discipleship can be measured by how we regard our most vulnerable.

Those vulnerable ones can be in our own families. The youngest of my cousins was always something of an odd duck. A sad fellow, really, without close friends, and so uncomfortable socially that I’m afraid I sometimes hoped I wouldn’t bump into him when we were both students at Columbia. Then one of our aunts died, leaving her money only to her nieces. Unfortunately Sandy thought that she had loved him. In his hurt, he decided to boycott the lot of us. Nothing that we did, including offering him some of our inheritance, made any difference. He refused to see us, letters were returned, phone calls rejected. He had two master’s degrees and an excellent position with a major corporation, but in his anger and isolation, he made himself an outcast, a kind of non-person. For ten years, his sister and I prayed for the healing of this breach, surrounding him with all that we knew of God’s love. We never stopped trying to reach him. Through my prayers, I found—not surprisingly—that I really longed to see him in a way that had not been the case before. And finally there was a break-through. When a second aunt died, he agreed to come from California to the funeral. When he walked through the passenger gate, we all fell into one another’s arms. Something had happened that we could not have done on our own. He finally agreed to some testing and we found that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that explained much of the behavior that the family had found difficult. Our full love for him is now accepted and returned. Like the little child described in Mark, he is among us and welcomed, for himself and as a child of God.

Jesus’ teachings may demand that we do the hard work of changing long-established patterns, but that is because Jesus is challenging us to respond as he does, to respond with the fullness of God. In responding—rather than reacting—to one of those “others,” there is a wonderful exchange, a recognition of kinship. We will probably encounter some Others during the Apple Festival, but that’s all right: they are not only our guests, but God’s. Another of our hymns this morning expressed it beautifully—and in words closer to our notions of childhood: “Like a child we receive all that love can conceive, like a child we believe, Jesus comes.”

Let us pray: Dear God, confirm and strengthen us in all goodness so that in discovering and cherishing more of Your own, we may learn more of Your beloved son, Jesus Christ, and more of You, both in this world and the next. Amen.

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