They 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."
My task as a preacher is to take the good news, which often comes to us as an abstract theological idea, and flesh it out in terms that we can relate to. Luckily, today’s gospel texts include both an abstract theological idea and an object lesson provided by Jesus himself. By simply reading the gospel I’ve done just about all I can hope to accomplish in a sermon. So, allow me simply to remind you of what you’ve just heard in the gospel text.
Today’s theological idea is the concept of greatness. Who or what is great? What makes someone great?
I hope the irony is not lost on you that the disciples are the ones arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, the disciples have been busy doubting Jesus’ teaching and doubting their ability to heal and cast out demons in Jesus’ name. They really do come across as the bumbling Keystone Cops in Mark’s gospel.
And what were they doing in today’s story as they walked to the next town? They were arguing about who among them was the greatest. This is like players on a winless team arguing about who on the team is the best. It’s a discussion that misses the mark. The disciples wanted to be greatest. They wanted to be first. So they sped off to the next town, leaving Jesus behind on the road, and argued while they were on their way.
Jesus entered the room where all the disciples have gathered after their roadside argument. Notice, this means Jesus walked in last; which makes his words all the more demonstrative and incisive: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Jesus is literally talking the talk and walking the walk. He literally walks in the room last and calls the disciples’ attention to the fact that when they get too far ahead of him they lose focus and direction. I imagine Jesus saying, “Quit running ahead in ignorance and arrogance. Instead, walk with me, or ••gasp•• even behind me once in a while so you can see what it is I’m actually doing in the world.”
But he doesn’t stop there. The gospel continues, “Then [Jesus] 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.’”
These disciples who run off ahead of Jesus…
These disciples who can’t manage to do what Jesus promises they can do…
These disciples who misunderstand what he says…
These disciples who argue among themselves about who is the greatest…
…do you think these disciples are the type of people who would make any time for children?
I doubt it. After all, children were invisible in that culture. Children had no inherent worth until they reached the age where they could produce income for the family. Males would work and females would marry. In that culture, children were nothing more than potential adults.
Showing attention, care, or affection to a child would have been a significant waste of time in that day and age. But along comes Jesus insisting that whomever wishes to be great must be last, a servant, and a friend to valueless and overlooked people such as children.
Here, too, Jesus talks the talk and walks the walk. Jesus heals and casts out spirits from children, such as daughter of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark chapter 7 and the boy from the passage immediately preceding today’s account from chapter 9.
In another account, in Matthew 10, Jesus raises a girl from the dead! Imagine that…not just any child, but a female child (a double whammy of cultural valuelessness at the time) – a female child benefiting from what we could call Jesus’ most amazing miracle.
Jesus insists that children have intrinsic worth and they should be welcomed.
And so, we, like the disciples, are called to be welcoming
Unfortunately, I can’t think of any churchy word that has come to mean as little as the word “welcoming.” Every single church today would claim to be welcoming. Even if they don’t allow you to take communion due to not being the right denomination, or if they don’t allow you to serve in any leadership capacity because you’re a woman or not straight, I guarantee you their signs will say “All are welcome.”
Welcoming does not mean merely tolerating. Instead, to be welcoming means to actively draw people into full inclusion, participation, and relationship.
Children are a great gift…not because of their potential, but because of who they are right now. Children are open to possibilities, full of enthusiasm, truly humble, and living as through no one can keep them at arm’s length from God’s love.
By welcoming children, by actively drawing children into full inclusion, participation and relationship, children change us. Their openness, enthusiasm, humility, innocence, and love rubs off on us. It’s frankly a selfish commandment for us to follow, because we stand to gain so much from being in relationship with children.
So, permit me to extend an invitation for you to reflect on the degree to which you heed Jesus’ words about children, particularly as it relates to our ministry in our church and community. Are you someone who tolerates the presence of children, or are you someone who actively celebrates their full inclusion, participation, and relationship?
Trust me when I say there is a need for more inter-generational relationships in this congregation. Would you consider spending an hour a month helping other adults teach a Sunday school class? Would you stand to gain anything from learning the name of the child who is sitting near your seat in worship? Would you go to cheer on one of youth as they demonstrate their talents in extracurricular events? Would you help staff the nursery once in a while so that parents who are completely submerged in the art of parenting little ones can have an hour of the week to focus and worship?
I nearly talked myself out of making this sermon an appeal for you to get involved in the life of our youth. I thought maybe it would come across as heavy-handed. I thought you’d probably say “no” to the invitation; or tell me that’s my job, not yours; or tell me it’s a woman’s job, not yours (which must be a thought some of you have because we only have one male Sunday school teacher right now). But then I remembered that this isn’t an appeal for help, it’s an invitation to follow Christ by having fun with awesome little people. I would be doing you a disservice by withholding the invitation.
Regardless of where you individually go from here. Here’s what we as a congregation are going to do to honor our youth this morning. Before the music plays, I am going to ask the children’s church leaders to bring the kids back to the sanctuary. As they walk in I want you all to turn to face them and applaud them as they enter. These kids deserve a standing ovation.