You show us a child, Jesus,
to show us how to live;
save us from our false ambitions and desires,
that we may receive the pure heart
which comes with true wisdom;
this we ask in your name. Amen.
The real surprise inherent to the narrative itself comes when Jesus takes a small child and tells the disciples that in receiving such a one they receive him—and through him they receive ‘the one who sent me’ (presumably, following the rule of faith, the Father). Given our domestication of Jesus, however, this often comes across to our congregation as another ‘cute’ story about Jesus and little children. — Nathan G Jennings, in Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol.4, Kindle ed’n, loc.3507
Sometimes, a novel just has an absolute corker of a first line that makes you want to read more. One of the most famous first lines comes from Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen (1813)
Or this, from Neuromancer by William Gibson:
The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel. — (1984)
I can see that colour!
And what about
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. — C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), one of the Narnia stories
There’s another first line which I love. It is very helpful to remember it when we read the scriptures:
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
That’s the first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, published in 1953.
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’
Let’s keep that in mind as we turn to today’s Gospel story. In it, Jesus teaches the disciples that he is going to undergo something unimaginable:
The Son of Man is now to be handed over into the power of men, and they will kill him; and three days after being killed he will rise again.
‘But,’ Mark says, ‘they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask.’
on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest.
Can you imagine? Jesus is telling them about his death; all the disciples can think about was which one of them was the best.
In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples really just don’t get it. And how can they? Jesus is turning everything they know upside down.
Look, he’s doing it again! Now, he says to the disciples
If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.
Hang on, Jesus! The first is the one who wins the race, the one who becomes prime minister, the richest one, the one with the best car and the latest computer system. How can the last be first? How can a servant be number one?
Then, Jesus sets a chid in front of them. This is where we need to remember that ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. Jesus isn’t doing something ‘cute’ here; I tried to google images of this story. They almost all have a lovely Jesus with long, fair, well-combed hair who is surrounded by endearing children and admiring mothers.
These images are all cute.
But more than that, they are cute fantasies.
Today, we are aware of the importance of respecting children. We know that all sorts of psychological, emotional and spiritual harm happen to kids who are mistreated or neglected. We know the scandal of the abuse of children by representatives of the church. We have processes in place to make church a safe place for children.
That’s not how it was 2000 years ago in Century One.
Then, a child was a liability, not an asset.
Then, a child was another mouth to feed when there may not be food every day.
Then, a child, while it was a child, had the status of a servant.
So Jesus is definitely not being cute here. He is taking a child as an example of someone at the bottom of the heap, a powerless one. A disregarded one. A not-listened-to one. Someone quite unimportant.
And Jesus says
Whoever receives a child like this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.
Jesus calls us to receive children. Literally! We are to look upon children as full members of the community, even while they need guidance and nurture to grow well.
Jesus calls us to receive children. Figuratively! We are to include and welcome those who are on the margins, whether they are poor, disabled, LGBTIQ, asylum seekers or refugees.
Jesus calls the church to be a community of people who listen to the calls and cries of those who are on the margins of society or church—and who serve them.
The best theology is done from the margins.
The most marginal place for us is the cross of Jesus. There hung a naked, bleeding, powerless and publicly-shamed man. He invites all of us who have power to come to him.
He calls those of us who have power to use it for the wellbeing of people on the edges.
We’re in a good place in West End to meet and welcome people on the margins.
Yet we are few. What can we do?
There is much. We can get to know people in the local area. We can listen to their concerns and fears. We can advocate for them. We can welcome them into our life, whether that is on a Sunday or during the week.
The Apostle Paul spoke about the wisdom of the cross. I mentioned it last week. The wisdom of the cross is wisdom gained from the edges, from the margins, preeminently of course from the crucified Lord Jesus. The Wisdom of the cross comes from following what the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church calls the risen crucified One:
The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Para. 3)
Christ is here with us, among all the twos or threes who gather in his name. He holds his hands out to us, and we see they still bear the scars of the nails.
The risen crucified One always calls us to look to the edges to see what God is doing. He calls us to the wisdom of the cross.
So let’s be the Uniting Church here in West End. Keep your eyes open to see where there are people in need; your ears to hear their calls; your hands to receive them, whoever they are. That’s where Jesus is.
Delivered at West End Uniting Church, 23 September, 2018