Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
September 23, 2009
Holy Trinity, Greenport
Jesus and his disciples 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."
I remember a good friend from a few years ago, in the last months leading up to his death, who told me that his favorite part of the worship service had become the time when the kids return from Children’s Chapel - seeing them search the crowd for their parents and proudly taking their place in the community.
I am so looking forward to the day when the pews at Holy Trinity will again be filled with children. As, I suspect, are you. But our lifting up of the children isn’t just about tolerance for noise, or even about how incredibly adorable our children are – though they are so beautiful. No, I think that the way we regard children has much to do with the way Jesus regarded children. You see, in Jesus’ day children were the ultimate symbol of powerlessness. Children were regarded as not quite persons, at least now yet persons, and as mere possessions of the father of the household. For Jesus to take a child in his arms and proclaim that the child merits the same welcome that the Christ receives, and that in welcoming the child they are welcoming God - that offered a very serious challenge to the social norms of the day.
There appears a rather abrupt transition in the gospel reading today. Jesus becomes aware that the disciples have been arguing with one another about who is greatest among them. And Jesus tells the disciples, “"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." And then, to illustrate his point, Jesus takes a child in his arms and tells his listeners that children deserve the same hospitality generally reserved for those of higher status, those who occupy a place of usefulness or prestige.
Lifting up our children is indicative of the way in which we at Holy Trinity seek to lift up the powerless in a multitude of ways. Encouraging people to take on leadership roles, to discover the untapped abilities that lie within. Offering dignity to the poor. Honoring loving relationships, in the many forms that relationships can take - relationships that in the larger community around us are often condemned.
One of the most vivid pictures I remember from my early childhood was depicted on the inside cover of the pale blue bible I carried to Sunday School. It was a picture of Jesus looking kindly down on a child he held in his arms. A sweet portrayal, but I think it missed the Gospel lesson. The point is not just that Jesus loves the little children, but that Jesus’ love for the children is emblematic of his love for the downtrodden, the poor, those who stand outside of the mainstream. Once again we are confronted with the paradoxical nature of God’s will and reign. Whoever welcomes one such child, the powerless among us, welcomes the Christ, himself.
Twice in today’s gospel reading, the disciples were overtaken by silence. The first time they were rendered speechless because they did not understand what Jesus was telling them about his eventual betrayal, death, and resurrection. The second time their silence seems to have been the result of shame. They were embarrassed that Jesus had heard them arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when to remain silent, and when it is better speak up. When it is best just to listen and when we should offer a word of comfort, or to speak out against oppression or injustice.
The columnist George Will, someone I don’t often quote, once wrote a piece titled “High-Five Nation”. It seems he had listened to an episode of a radio variety show called “Command Performance” that was originally broadcast in 1945 on the day in which World War II ended and was heard by U.S. troops around the world.
The show featured Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, Bette Davis, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant – the most celebrated stars of the era. The most striking feature of the show was that there was no “chest-beating”, no erecting “triumphal arches”, no high-fives. Despite the fact that the Allies had achieved one of the greatest military victories of all times, it was a day of great humility, of awareness of the sacrifice of millions. Arrogance and boasting were absent from the proceedings.
Bing Crosby, the show’s host, said “All anybody can do is thank God it’s over…Today our deep down feeling is one of humility.” As George Will explained, “The war produced such monumental effects, and such rivers of blood, that the individual ego seemed petty in comparison.”
Those who fought and the families who sacrificed during that time, those whom Tom Brokaw labeled “The Greatest Generation”, were great, not simply because of the magnitude of their accomplishment, but because of their willingness to set aside their own egos, their own desires, and act on behalf of the common good. They had witnessed a world turned upside down. The fascism that the Allies had heroically battled, was characterized by lavishness, boasting and zealotry. And those who understood the nature of the sacrifice wanted no part of the kind of arrogance of those who seek greatness solely for themselves.
We live in a different time – where boasting and self-aggrandizement are commonplace. Where athletes celebrate their smallest accomplishments with the grandest displays. Where rock stars quarrel over whom among them deserves a third rate music award. Where even the President of the United States is constantly seeking praise and recognition.
Jesus teaches us a different way. Just as he urges his disciples to put down their own striving for status and glory and to recognize that, in his kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first, he makes his point by holding a child before him, the ultimate symbol of powerlessness.
True greatness requires that we bring our focus onto something other than ourselves. Greatness comes from welcoming one who is not considered great by the larger culture, those for whom the child is the exemplar, those beyond the inner circle, those who most need a welcome.
When we welcome a child we welcome someone who does not possess accomplishments, status, or pretensions. Jesus asks us to welcome every person in the same way, without regard for external measures of their worldly importance, wealth, success or failure.
One more thing. To imitate children, as Jesus repeatedly asks us to do, provides with an understanding of ourselves. Helping us to realize that we are human beings loved by God, not because of our own successes, honors, or accomplishments, as if what we had done might help us win favor with God, but in the sure and certain knowledge that we are loved by God just as a child is loved. And that, Jesus tells us, is the way we experience the presence of his kingdom.