Proverbs 31: 10-31
James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37
+In the name of God, our creator, our redeemer, and our sustainer. Amen.
It’s only the twenty-third of September, or on the church calendar, the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The weather has just begun to cool off after our horrendously hot summer. Fall is definitely in the air. While we’d like to savor the season, our nation’s retailers are pushing us on towards Christmas with those catalogs that have started to show up in our mailboxes. Though the church calendar keeps us firmly rooted in the present, today’s Gospel reading nevertheless makes me think ahead, too. It makes me think about Santa Claus. You’re probably wondering what I’m thinking of at this point, but please let me explain.
According to the song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Santa Claus knows if we’ve been naughty or nice even without being able to see or hear us. He’s making a list and checking it twice. This idea is a wee bit disconcerting, to say the least. Popular culture endows Santa Claus with the omniscience that we usually attribute to God, who also knows when we’ve been sleeping, when we’re awake, and if we’ve been bad or good. You know the rest. When I was a small child I remember feeling some confusion between God and the bringer of Christmas presents. Maybe you did too. I thought that Santa Claus both loved little children and could read their minds. I also thought that God made lists and kept score. It wasn’t a comfortable idea at all. Reward wasn’t guaranteed. Punishment—in the form of coal in one’s Christmas stocking or something eternal—was a real possibility. Please hold that thought for a little while.
Let’s go back to our reading from Mark now. As Jesus and the disciples travel through Galilee to Capurnaum, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again in three days. Mark tells us “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Now we’ve heard this story over and over again through the years, and it doesn’t strike us as strange or frightening, even though it certainly is. We affirm Christ’s death and resurrection every Sunday when we say the Nicene Creed. We know how it all comes out and we know that through the terrible event of the crucifixion comes the salvation of the world. But the disciples aren’t us. They are first century Jews living under Roman oppression, walking down a dusty road with the man they’ve given up everything to follow. They don’t know the end of this story, not in their hearts. They’re scared. So what do they do rather than face their fear? They focus on something they can handle, something they can understand. They argue about who will be first in Jesus’ kingdom; they argue about who is the greatest among them.
We know that they argue because Mark tells us that they do. Mark doesn’t include the argument itself. He doesn’t let us in on which disciple claims the top spot for himself. We don’t get to hear the dispute, and Jesus apparently doesn’t hear it either. Jesus asks the disciples what they’d been arguing about, and understandably the disciples don’t want to tell him. If they’re afraid to ask him about what he’d been teaching them earlier, they’re even more afraid to tell him that after hearing about Jesus’ eventual death, all they’ve been doing is fighting over who’s going to be number one.
It turns out that Jesus doesn’t need to ask the disciples about their dispute. Without being told, he just knows what they’ve been bickering about. Mark doesn’t say so, but I think we can safely assume that the disciples were caught up short. Here is one more sign—on top of all the death and resurrection talk—that their teacher is no ordinary rabbi. Here too is a clear indication that the disciples have displeased their master.
If the disciples expect a reprimand, they don’t get one, or at least not the kind of reprimand they expect. Jesus simply calls the disciples and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” What Jesus does next is even stranger. He takes a child and puts it among the disciples. The twelve would have been taken aback. We’re used to seeing pictures of Jesus with children and probably grew up singing songs like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Jesus Loves Me.” In our time and culture children are cherished and singled out by law for special protection. But the culture of first century Palestine was not like our culture today. Children were virtually invisible in that society; they might as well have not been people at all. It’s quite possible that their low status was the response to their high mortality rate; an alarming number of children of that time didn’t live to grow up.
For the disciples, Jesus’ next words are also deeply shocking: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In a few words, Jesus undermines the disciples’ assumptions about how God’s kingdom works. Jesus demonstrates by word and action that everything and everyone the world holds up high is not as valued by God as the littlest and least among us. No one counted for less in first century Palestine than a child, but Jesus tells us that even the little child is precious in his sight and in the sight of his Father. The disciples’ notions, and our notions, of who will be first in God’s kingdom mean nothing at all. God has a different value system entirely. God cherishes the very ones who were of so little account in Jesus’ time as to be almost invisible.
In our Gospel lesson today the disciples’ notion of who matters in God’s kingdom has been completely turned upside down. Maybe our notion of who matters in God’s kingdom could stand to be turned upside down too. Who are the last and the least in our world today? The undocumented farm worker who picks the food we eat is one of them. The person standing on the median strip in the intersection with a “Please help” sign is another of the last and the least in our world. The young mother with several children who stands in endless lines for food and clinic services is among the last and the least. So is the person in the nursing home who never seems to have any visitors and so is the person with schizophrenia who talks to people we can’t see.
While most of us here today are relatively privileged people, we’ve all experienced lastness and leastness at one time or another. For the young, it’s not being picked for a sports team or not being invited to that party that all your friends are talking about. In our middle years, it’s being laid off from a job or being cast aside by one’s spouse of many years. As we age, it’s people treating us as if we’re too old to contribute to society any more or as if our opinions no longer matter. For the rest of us, feeling last and least is what happens when others see our color, gender, or sexual orientation and ignore everything else about us.
The last and the least will be first in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us. In a few words Jesus tells us what the kingdom looks like and what being a disciple entails. Like Jesus and the One who sent him, the disciples are to welcome those whom the world values least. As Jesus’ twenty-first century disciples we are to do likewise. NO ONE is of so little account that they are beyond God’s love and concern, and NO ONE is of so little account that they should be beyond our love and concern either.
Like the disciples in our reading today, we won’t always succeed in living into this charge. We may fall back into just the kind of disputes that prompted Jesus’ correction of the disciples. God will know when we welcome the least in the kingdom and when we fail miserably in doing so. But we don’t have to worry about whether we’ve done well enough to deserve the Christmas present or whether we’ll only get the piece of coal in the stocking. God isn’t in the business of reward and punishment, and God isn’t in the business of assigning high and low status. Jesus takes the little child in his arms. That little child is each and every one of us. My prayer for us all this week is that we will welcome all the little children among us as we ourselves have been welcomed. Amen.