St. John's, Centreville
September 23, 2018
Proper 20 B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In our gospel lesson last week, Jesus tell his disciples that he will be rejected by the chief priests, and killed and after three days he will be resurrected. In today's gospel lesson, Jesus tells them again that he will be betrayed, killed and resurrected. But the disciples do not understand what he is talking about. They cannot imagine that suffering and death could be a part of the divine plan.
The disciples do not understand and they are afraid to ask Jesus about it, to offer a few more details, to explain what he means. Why do you suppose the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus? Because they are afraid to hear what he has to say. It is a lot easier to ignore what Jesus said about betrayal and death or pretend they didn't hear what he said. Sometimes it is scarier to know the truth than to hide behind ignorance.
So the disciples get themselves off that topic and take up a more comfortable one, a more human one - who is the greatest among them. When Jesus asks them what they were talking about as they traveled from Galilee to Capernaum, they are silent. They don't want to confess that they were talking about who was the greatest disciple. They were embarrassed. Have they not heard, have they not understood Jesus' teaching for the past three years, that humility and service to others are more important than power and prestige? Have they not heard him say that the last would be first and the first last? Jesus has been talking about, teaching about, serving others and not falling into the earthly traps of putting self before others, of climbing the corporate ladder without worrying about who you might be stepping on. Don't play the power games. Don't think that you are better than someone else because you have this degree or that corner office or the nice house and sports car. Those things don't mean a thing. Haven't the disciples heard Jesus teach these things?
Their silence to Jesus' question about what they were talking about indicates, at least, that they knew Jesus would not approve of this conversation. When they arrive at the house in Capernaum, Jesus tries one more time to help the disciples understand what he has been teaching. So he gathers them around him and into their midst he brings a small child and puts the child on his lap.
Now children in the first century were not held in high regard as they mostly are today. Children had no power, no voice, no vote. They were weak and many died at a young age. Children in the first century were not worth much until they could start working and contributing to the family by doing chores or bringing in an income.
As Jesus addressed the disciples, he brought in a child as a symbol of all those who are marginalized - the poor, the elderly, the sick, the disabled. If you couldn't pull your own weight, what good were you? These are the marginalized.
Into this culture and mindset, Jesus brings in a small child and says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the One who sent me." Every person is a beloved child of God, Jesus is saying to the disciples. The worth of a person is not based on whether they have power or wealth or status symbols. The worth of each person is in the fact that they were created and redeemed by God. That's what makes them worthy. And that includes those who can't take care of themselves, those who are in need, those who are on the margins of society. If we treat children and the elderly and the poor and the sick and the disabled with as much honor and respect as we would treat someone we would classify as "important", then we truly can be named as Jesus' disciples.
It was important for Jesus' disciples to understand this. Jesus knew he would be crucified soon and the disciples would be left to carry on this ministry, to spread the gospel, to teach about God's love for us. So he gives them a visual lesson with a small child to help them understand that "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
In today's society most children are treated well. The parents want the best schools, the best medical care, the best education for their children, along with opportunities to discover the child's passions and talents, like sports, or the arts. We try to protect our children the best that we can and we severely punish anyone who intentionally harms our children.
So who in our culture might Jesus choose to draw into the center of his disciples as a symbol of the most vulnerable in our society - the mother on welfare, the man with AIDS, the immigrant coming illegally into the country to escape violence, those in our nursing homes, those in our prisons. Who is the most vulnerable and how do we treat them?
I read about a movie called "Marvin's Room" that came out in 1996, starring Diane Keaton, who plays Bessie, and Meryl Streep, who plays Lee. They are sisters who respond in very different ways when their father has an incapacitating stroke. Lee leaves as soon as possible, and Bessie makes the difficult but loving choice to give up her own dreams and return home to care for their father. He cannot sit up, walk, speak or understand what is going on around him.
For seventeen years, Bessie cares for her father full time, time filled with loneliness, fatigue and struggle. When Lee finally comes to visit, Bessie tries to tell her how blessed Bessie has been. Bessie has been blessed because she has been able to love someone else so much, something that Lee cannot understand. Bessie has found grace and her deepest fulfillment in self-sacrificing love.
Like Bessie, we are invited to see the challenges in our lives as opportunities for grace to take root more deeply. We are called to take care of the other, the vulnerable, to be servant of all, no matter what their position in life is. We are not called to suffer for the sake of suffering, but to give of ourselves as we can, and to watch out for those who cannot watch out for themselves.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." May we open our hearts and our minds to welcome the least, the last, and the lost, as God welcomes us. Amen.