Sunday, September 24, 2006

According to the Message, this is what happened in the house in Capernaum: “He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.” Now, the New Revised Standard Version is a translation. I trust that Mark’s original text probably says something closer to its language of Jesus taking a child and putting it among the Disciples. Yet Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase captures the tenderness we believe that Jesus would have demonstrated toward a small child. He cradles and embraces the little one. This is the language of love. The first lesson children are taught in Sunday school is that Jesus loves the little children, and this scripture bears witness to that love.

It can be hard to hear the fullness of this gospel text about power and greatness, humility and servanthood, discipleship and childhood, and what it really means to welcome God. Our own culture and context can deafen us to the Bible. We live in a culture that values children. We have an educational system that provides schooling to rich and poor children alike. And though laws are often broken, the mere fact that children are legally protected from abuse, neglect, and labor is significant. In ancient times, children were socially on par with slaves. They were completely powerless. Even today, children are endangered in certain cultures. So while we hear Jesus’ call to welcome children in light of our culture that, as a whole, agrees that children are to be cherished and protected, we might miss how off-key this lesson sounded to the Disciples’ ears. This is yet another example illustrating the upside-down, topsy-turvy Kingdom of God, where a servant is the greatest and one can welcome God by welcoming a child.

So as Disciples, our lesson is that we are to take the risks of servanthood. “Greatness is achieved in Jesus's eyes, not just by the fact that we serve others, not just by the fact that we pour out our time and our talent for the sake of others, greatness in the eyes of Jesus is found in the willingness of his disciples to receive, to accept, and indeed to really welcome those they would normally consider un-receivable, unacceptable, and unwelcome.” Including a child.

As wonderful and necessary that lesson is, it isn’t the one I’m called to preach today. In my study this week, I practiced a prayerful way of reading the Bible that was taught by St. Ignatius, one of the great guides of Christian spirituality. The Ignatian method of bible reading encourages Christians to put one of God’s greatest gifts to use—our imaginations.

“Generally, Ignatian prayer works best with narrative material in which actual characters live a story of faith. The idea is to place yourself into the text as a careful observer -- a fly on the wall. Ignatius commended the use of the five senses in such meditation. You taste, hear, see, smell and feel your way through the passage. Occasionally you become one of the characters, seeing the story unfold from his or her viewpoint. Most of all, the aim is to help you perceive the narrative from the viewpoint of Jesus so that you may more fully participate in his mind, heart, and work.”

While the Ignatian method doesn’t replace traditional bible study, it is a wonderful way to interact with the living word of God.

So I imagined my way into the gospel text. So much to see, so much to relate to. I started by acknowledging how very tired the whole group must have been, walking so many miles to fulfill their mission. I felt the Disciples’ fear and bewilderment when Jesus again preached that he would be killed and after three days rise again. I overheard the bickering about which Disciple would be greatest—and I recognized their shame and heard their silence when Jesus wondered what they were arguing about. It’s easy for me to relate to the Disciples in the Gospel of Mark, for he is the evangelist who is most brutally honest about their many blunders.

But just as I thought my practice of the Ignatian Method would lead me to remain with the disciples and see the whole story through their searching eyes, Jesus draws the child into the circle. And as I contemplated the simple beauty of the Son of God cradling a little child in his arms, I realized that I wanted, and needed, to be the child. I squeezed my eyes shut and summoned every drop of my imagination into becoming the object of Jesus’ lesson, the little one whom he embraced.

Most of the folks who gather for worship are grown-up Christians. We’re supposed to be learning the lessons the Disciples had to learn, because we are part of the communion of saints before us who spent their lives trying to faithfully follow Christ. And so I am not surprised that every commentary and sermon I read about this passage interpreted it in light of what it calls the Disciples to do to do.

Its lesson is important and startling. Welcome a child, serve the powerless, and you welcome and serve not only Christ but the One who sent him. We need to be challenged to understand what this really means. I have a friend who is both a pastor and a mother, and she is using this opportunity to remind her congregation that they can’t just welcome her kids when they are on their best behavior; if they really want to welcome her kids they have to welcome, in her words, “crumbs in the pews and poop and all kids of unwelcoming things.” Jesus isn’t calling his followers to welcome Precious Moments figurines of children; he cradles before them a living and breathing child who needs care.

We are the Disciples learning how to truly welcome, but we are that child, too, hungry for love and acceptance, needing to know that no matter how small we are, we are great in the eyes of God. Our journey with Jesus starts when we realize, with all the simplicity of a child, that Jesus really does love us. Just as Jesus cradled and embraced that little one in Galilee, he welcomes each and every one of us to rest in his arms.

It is all too easy to teach a child the opposite. I remember the burning feeling I had when I was yelled at in my childhood church for running in the sanctuary during the midweek ministry program. I was sternly told that I was in the house of the Lord. The sanctuary no longer felt safe; the Father’s mansion suddenly didn’t seem to have room for me. No one but Jesus could have drawn me out of my shame. No one but Jesus could erase the harsh words that separated me from feeling like I was welcome in the sanctuary. No one but Jesus.

Fred Craddock tells a story. “Used to have a kid down home who’d believe anything you’d tell him. You could say, “The schoolhouse burned down. We’re not having school tomorrow.”

“Oh boy!” He’d believe it.

“They’re giving away free watermelons down at the town hall.”

“Really? Free watermelons?” He’d go running off.

“Did you know the president of the United States is coming to our town tomorrow?”

“He is? Really? Whoopee!” He just believed everything.

I remember once there was an evangelist who came to our town, and he said to that kid, “God loves you and cares for you and comes to you in Jesus Christ.” And do you know, that kid believed it? He actually believed it.”

I hope that you believe it, too.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Dear Pastor Katherine,

This is a wonderful, soul-enriching sermon.

My comment here is mostly directed toward what you said to me after the sermon: This was the third sermon you wrote this week, and I believe the implication was that the first two weren't what you felt you wanted to say. (I hope I'm right about that.)

Please do not think the time you spent writing those sermons was wasted time. It wasn't. Those were your attempts at "finding your true voice" that day. (I hope you'll forgive the arty term.)

With love through Jesus Christ,