Mark 9:30-37They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Every time I read this passage I get this vision of Jesus driving the family station wagon (yes I realize I am dating myself) full of disciples, down the shore (yes I'm from Jersey). When I was a kid, my father was the sole driver in our family of 9, and the pea green wagon had 3 seats, including one that faced backward, so whomever was lucky enough to score those seats got to look out the rear window. Now you have to remember there were no seat belt laws in the 60s- I'm not sure the car even had seat belts. But the best part about that old wagon was that the back seats could be folded down, so that all of us, plus a few friends, could fit in the back area, leaving good old dad in the front by himself. Ways we kept ourselves occupied for the trip spanned from car games, to singing at the top of our lungs, to quiet conversations, usually involving someone under 7 being convinced they were either adopted, or had inherited any number of genetic mutations that hadn't shown up yet. My dad never flinched, never turned around to ask us to keep it down... i asked him once when I got older how he did it, and he told me he didn't mind the noise at all- he was deaf in his right ear and he kept the drivers side window open to hear the breeze, so our antics in the back didn't phase him. But he always knew exactly what happened- he knew our conversations, our intentions, our teasing each other, fighting with each other... everything.
So these memories fuel this scenario for me- after a long ride, Jesus slows the car and turns into the gravel driveway to the bungalow, turns off the car, gets out and has a long stretch. Uncle Elmer is already halfway down the front walk with a big smile, and the smell of Aunt Dot's peach pie baking in the oven is a perfect compliment to the smell of fresh ocean air.
After unpacking, and washing up, everyone has a nice dinner, and as their hosts clean up in the kitchen, Jesus and the disciples get a chance to sit around the living room and just chat. And Jesus asks the question: What were you guys talking about on the way down here? It was getting loud back there. And everyone looks a bit sheepish, but no one says anything. No one wants to let Jesus know they were talking about who was the greatest- no one wants to admit to that conversation. But Jesus knew exactly what had happened- knew their conversations, their intentions, teasing, fighting with each other... everything.
So he gives them that knowing look, and explains- 'if you want to be great, you have to be a servant'- and he stands up and gets little cousin Shirley, just 5 years old who had been watching from the corner of the room, and places her on his lap and gives her a big hug. "It's about welcoming one like her in my name- when you do- you also welcome the one who sent me- you honor God.'
Seems like this should be such a simple lesson. Ministry isn't about you. It's about the least of these. Ministry isn't about position. it's about making a way for all people to be included. Ministry isn't about having people follow you, it's about bringing people into your inner circle- to God's inner circle. Sounds good, well, except for that bringing those other people into our inner circle... I don't know about that one. I kind of like my inner circle the way it is. I like who's in it- they were hand picked by me! Each one had to undergo, unbeknownst to them, a pretty rigorous screening process. I had to make sure I "really knew" them, and make sure they would be loyal- no talking about me behind my back- I was hurt like that before so now I surround myself with people I can trust. And by the way, all of my inner circle are smart, and kind of good looking (just a little less good looking than I am but still) and they have, if not great sense of humor, then something that enriches my life in some way- maybe a great listener, or someone who helps me stay focused or calm when life seems unhinged. And of course, I am a great friend to them too- its not ALL one way...
What? Why are you looking at me that way- you have a better inner circle or one that's formed with different criteria? I'm talking about the people you have to dinner, or go shopping with, or chat on the phone about, i mean, with... the one you take selfies with and post little heart emojis on their posts. And they are at lest somewhat successful or at least do something with their lives that make you feel proud to know them, and lucky to have them as friends...
Isn't this the way we are taught to do it? Isn't this the inner circle we hope our children develop and will move in? Isn't this the way we hope they will move up in the world, and get introduced to influential people, and build their self worth and sense of accomplishment, and give them that sense of security we talked about last week? We want them to be great people! And we want them to be filled with pride- in all the best ways!
That's our stumbling black this week by the way... pride. I asked in the beginning of the service and you shared with one another a time when when you have felt valued- it's a good feeling. And make no mistake, Jesus knows how good that feels- I believe that so wholeheartedly that I preach it every week- you are loved, you are valued, you are accepted. It's the message jesus gave his disciples to bring to the world- this is the good news! God loves you!
So why then does he bring this child, someone who, in the first century, was not even considered a fully developed human, one with no rights, no voice, no possessions of her own- one who we usually find watching from the corner of the room- why would Jesus take her into his arms and tell us it's about her!
Now don't get me wrong- I'm not saying we shouldn't help her... I mean, those like her. I like taking care of people same as the next person and there sure is no shortage of opportunities to serve. It makes me feel good to do it! Just look at my FB page- it's filled with pictures of me helping people just like her... and all my friends and fans have posted little heart emojis and I've gotten hundreds of like on them... I'm a good person- and proud of it!
If any of this resonates with you, then by now you're either feeling pretty bad or you are ready to give me a big hi five... But what I'm trying to get us to look at, is the way we work in our cultured, intellectual, financially merited society, is that those people in the corners are not there for us to save... or serve... or selfie. Instead, says Jesus, the ones we consider in some way not worthy of being in our inner circle, or the ones we easily dismiss, are exactly the ones who should be included. And the fact that we can still look to the corners, or the margins, and find people there-who, when they get too noisy, are easy for us to silence- it says in big bold letters that we continue to stumble over pride.
And listen, no one is alone in this... and it comes from something called mimetic desire. I have talked about this concept before, but in its simplest form means that we learn by imitating others. Eat your food with a fork like mommy, use the potty like daddy, learn to read like your teacher, be athletic like your sports hero of choice..., we learn by imitating what we see- and we learn to want what others have. We see how some people are taken seriously, and some are dismissed- and this is present in all levels of society, amen? Our mimetic desire kicks in and we want to be lumped in with that first group. We want to feel valued, accepted, loved... this is normal. So it goes against our nature to say, "I'm going to forget all of that and go hang out with the people others look down on, and those people are going to be my inner circle."
If you don't know the story of Dorothy Day, look her up sometime- and you'll see an example of someone who did just that. Dorothy felt a call to work with the homeless, and instead of doing what 99% of us would do, and go work with the homeless at the shelter and then come home, shower, eat, and maybe go out, Dorothy lived in the very shelters she managed. She not only cooked for the hungry, she ate with them, and was often hungry herself. The homeless became her family, her inner circle. All the while, she wrote newsletters, solicited funds, had meetings with influential people who could donate money or resources- but those people were not ones she wanted to emulate- instead she saw her work with donors and powerful people as a necessary way to support her ministry- her inner circle.
This is one of the reasons Jesus was criticized by the religious elite- for seeking and hanging out with people who were looked at as the lowest in society, or pushed to the corners, the ones easily dismissed, or with poor reputations... "he eats and drinks with sinners!"
What stops us from doing the same? And again, I'm not beating anyone up, I'm trying to help us understand that though its normal to want to be seen and respected and feel good about who you are, and part of that, a large part of that is feeling good about yourself. Again, I asked you in the beginning to talk about when you felt valued... and I also did that so that because when we have to think of a . time when we feel valued, it means that we all can recognize a time when we've felt devalued, dismissed, or marginalized. Most of us know what it feels like to feel left out, or sadly, bullied, or unwelcome. For many, this church, our backyard has been the first place were you have felt like you are loved just as you are, welcomed, affirmed, and part of something. For many, you may be just coming to believe that the God of love values YOU- or that you are not judged or written off as hopeless.
And though I may have just named something in your life that caused you great pain, and though God's people may have been horrible and cruel to you, I'd like to challenge you today to start thinking about that time in your life or those experiences differently- even as a gift. Because remembering the way you felt at your worst, is also a realization that there are so many others still out there who feel that same way. Remembering the person who first reached out to you, or the voice who spoke the truth to your spirit, or the light that first reached into your dark corner, helps us not just empathize with those still on the margins, but encourage us to walk over to the corner and bring them to the center of the circle- to wrap them in our arms as God embraced each of us.
And if it makes you unpopular- or messes with your pride in position or stature or how you look in the eyes of the movers and shakers- remember this... when you welcome the least of these in Jesus's name, you also welcome the One who sent him- the God who welcomed you and loved you and forgave you even before you asked for forgiveness. May God's peace be upon you.