Sunday September 20, 2015
“Childish” A sermon on Mark 9:30-37
Please pray with me:
This is the conversation we have after the kids have left the room. The hard stuff, the
awkward stuff, the unresolved stuff where there are no good options left on the table. This is what we say when they’ve gone up stairs and gone to bed. This is what we say in hushed tones, whispered as the light fades. These are the things you don’t want to say in the searching light of day.
“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.” Three clauses in that one brief sentence and two of them are awful- betrayed, killed- rising almost seems like an afterthought.
If Mark 9:30-37 were a film, with adult themes, violence, torture, strong language and death, it might receive a rating of PG-13.
First there is prophesy of Jesus’ death while in Galilee, then a disagreement in Capernum about who is the greater, and finally the object lesson with the child. How on earth is all this smashed into one 7-verse passage of Scripture? Mark is always the shortest and most brusque, but here we seem to get snippets of longer stories and something is missing in the transitions.
I love Scripture for the infinite discoveries and possibilities in reading it together. The geography of scripture often gives us clues. Jesus prophesies of his death while walking on the road in Galilee. Is there something to pay attention to that he tells them while traveling? Like those hard conversation we have in the car because it avoids the intimacy of looking face to face? And Scripture sometimes hides clues in the ordering of things- what is next to one another? Biblical Scholar Micah Kiel notes, “Mark also places stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such juxtaposition.”
Something about God comes through in the rub. And right next to Jesus’ prophesy of his suffering and death is this curious image of Jesus picking up someone’s child. I think this is the paradox of the Christian life, where our deepest suffering is placed right next to God’s gracious embrace.
After such hard news, Jesus starts a fireside chat. Actually, it seems to me more like a sermon. Any good preacher worth her salt ought to be able to turn an object into a children’s sermon. (pull something from behind the pulpit) And here, Jesus our high priest takes an unknown child and says, “This. Be like this.”
Here we have a child who has snunk down the stairs and entered an adult conversation. In our time, it loses the surprise and is as boring and mundane as my effort at twelve-years old lie silently in the hallway as my parents watched the R rated “Pretty Woman.” But in Jesus’ time, children were not only not seen and not heard, they were not relevant. The world in which Jesus and the disciples moved includes a social setting where the few rich are the social elite and the majority poor are subjects of domination. Children are a non-issue.
Do not let our domesticated, cult of childhood preciousness blur your vision- Jesus is not a shopping mall Santa Claus pulling some big eyed child upon his knee for a photo op. No, when Jesus says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and puts the child among them, Jesus is upending the entire social order. He’s giving the childish disciples the children’s sermon and saying this, be like this.
In contrast to the petty argument among the disciples about who is first in the lunch line, Jesus is not telling us to be childish, but child-like. This is not theological permission to stick crayons up your nose just to see if you can actually reach your brain, or to fling yourself on the dining room floor when carrots and peas accidentally intermingle on your plate, or to stomp around the room when you don’t get your way at the deacon’s meeting, or to draw superheroes in your hymnals when you get bored with the sermon. That is childish. This is childlike: to wonder without boundaries of things like feasibility studies or budget constraints, to dream big without saying “we’ve never done that before!”, to ask why again and again and again; to try new things without the assurance that you’ll be any good at it, to see the world not from a high up perch but from the low-down, to be entranced with rocks and sticks and mud and clay; to sing out loud because you can! (not because you’re good); to dance when the mood hits you in the glorious body God fave you without care for who watches your weird movements; to splash around the waters of baptism like a baby bird; to take big chunks of communion bread because you’re hungry right now.
We adults get afraid and self-conscious. We see the disciples do it. Jesus tells them all this harsh stuff, and in verse 32 Mark says “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” The disciples, who have been jockeying for attention and status, are each afraid to be the one who says, “I don’t understand.” It’s like a whole classroom that didn’t get the lesson, but no one will admit to it first. The fear of how they would look in front of one another was stronger than their desire to understand. The disciples’ argument about the greatest is childish in the worst sense: self-involved, petty, inconsequential.
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel can come off sounding a little brusque, like maybe it would be hard to say to him, “I don’t understand.” But throughout scripture, we hear the story of the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The God who promises in Isaiah, “before you call, I will answer, and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”(Isaiah 65:24) I think we have a God who is infinitely more interested in our questions than judgment.
Against the backdrop of the prophesy of torture and death, things that are decidedly not kid-appropriate, Jesus introduces an unnamed child, as the infant Christ was introduced into a world of forced migration, occupation and fear. Maybe the promise of Christ’s ultimate betrayal, torture, death and rising is this: the promise of a kingdom come that is tender, gentle, and just.
A world where kids don’t need to be protected; A world where aunties don’t have to step in to nurse because a child’s mother is lost off a rubber boat to the churning sea between refugee camps in Turkey and the promise of new life in Greece; a world where dads don’t have to explain to their black sons what to do when they are pulled over; a world where a young Muslim boy isn’t first presumed to be a bomber rather than a tinkering scientist; a world where moms don’t have to explain to their daughters that sometimes when you say “No” about your own body, people won’t hear you, they’ll keep going, they’ll think you’re playing hard to get: a world without violence ratings. Jesus points to a world where we don’t have to protect children from violent news because there is no violent news.
A pastor colleague recently posted to Facebook asking if she could borrow someone’s child. Well, borrow just for the afternoon. See it turns out that the new Legoland Discovery Center in Somerville only allows adults to enter if you are accompanied by a child.
What if we all are invited to enter the kingdom of God with the hand of sticky, tiny child tucked in our own? Not because childhood is some sort of paragon of Christian maturity, or the suburban idealization of children as some sort of Freudian projections of all our highest aspirations, but because the reign of God will be tender enough, gentle enough for the most vulnerable among us.
A deep, mature, adult faith might mean being child-like, to know our vulnerability and our dependence on our heavenly Parent. To resist the adult-like tendency to think we are in charge, or we are self-sufficient or to push to be first in line.
A deep, mature, adult faith in Jesus Christ might mean being a little less childish, and a little more child-like.
“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.”
(sung) “Little ones to Him belong. We are weak, but he is strong.”