Mark 9: 30-37
September 23, 2018
I come from a family of three girls. As kids, my two sisters and I had a pretty typical sisterly relationship of getting along and not getting along, with the usual competition, which often included vying for our parents’ attention. My parents are pretty smart people, and of course well aware of our antics. When we would put them on the spot and, as kids do, ask who they loved more, my dad would always respond in the same way. You, Carla, are my favourite… middle daughter. Alanna, you are my favourite oldest daughter and Tanya, you are my favourite youngest daughter. My dad still uses this regularly – and I will often get introduced as Carla, his favourite middle daughter, or I will get cards addressed to “my favourite middle daughter.” Some of you may even have heard him say it here when you have met him.
In the reading from Mark today, Jesus returns to his home region of Galilee to continue to teach the disciples. The disciples in the gospel of Mark are represented as not really getting it – they are slow to understand, so he seems to have to teach them repeatedly to get the message across. He tries to explain what is about to happen to him, that he will be betrayed and killed and then three days later will rise again. He had just told them this same message right before this happened, but here he is, saying it again.
The disciples again do not understand, and they are afraid to ask questions as well. We don’t know why they are afraid to ask questions. It might be because they remember what happened to Peter when he asked questions, and did not want to risk similar humiliation, or maybe they were afraid to show how much they didn’t yet understand, or maybe they didn’t want to understand this message that the one they are investing their lives in, is about to die. We can relate to this, can’t we? Sometimes it is hard to ask questions because we risk revealing what we think is our ignorance. For the disciples – these were the ones closest to Jesus, living and working with him every day… they should know all the answers – they shouldn’t still have questions!!! Or maybe that’s what the disciples think.
I know I have certainly been in the situation where I assume that everyone else knows what is going on, and I must be the only one that doesn’t. Then finally someone asks the question I’ve been afraid to ask, and I find out that many others in the room were equally confused.
In some places our questions are welcome and other places questions are not as welcomed. Here at Mt Seymour we hope that this is a place where everyone feels secure enough that they can ask questions, because we are all in it together, figuring out what we believe about different aspects of our faith. Some of us may have spent more time thinking about these things and be able to articulate them more clearly than others, and others of us may feel like we have more questions than answers worked out for ourselves. But, it is in the questioning that we can really identify those truths for each of us.
As some of you know I began this ministry path many years ago. I went to the Vancouver School of Theology 20 years ago, but completed my degree and decided not to pursue ordination at that time. So now, 20 years later, after working in the church for 10 years and volunteering in the church for 10 more while working a different job, I have returned to the process. This process involves some interviews and also a supervised ministry experience, what we used to call an internship, which my work here became in the spring. During this process, there are a lot of questions. There are questions I have to prepare answers to before the interviews; there are the interviews themselves, and then there are questions for the two evaluations for this internship portion. If I am completely honest, as much as I might dread having to answer another set of questions, these questions have all really helped me to assess my understanding of ministry and to better articulate my faith.
Asking the hard questions helps us to reach greater understanding, but we have to have the courage to ask the questions or to explore the answer for ourselves.
For the disciples, instead of asking questions of Jesus, they argue amongst themselves. They argue with each other about who is the greatest among them. Who is the favourite.
Their question that they were afraid to ask Jesus was not ‘how can we better understand your mission while you are still here with us to teach us’ rather their question was “which one of us is the best?!”
So in typical Jesus fashion, he turned this into a teachable moment. He teaches them again how living in God’s way turns society’s idea of greatness on its head. True greatness is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder, but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status, such as the child that Jesus embraces and places before his disciples.
The first century had a completely different attitude toward children than people in the 21stcentury. Back in the first century for an adult male to recognize the presence of a child in a public setting was a very rare thing. Infant mortality was very high in the first century and people believed that most children didn’t have what it took to develop into an adult and this is why so many of them died. So, when you encountered a child in all likelihood you were encountering a little being who might never become a person. Children were considered to be of little use until they proved that they could survive. It seems harsh to us. But, it is reasonable to assume that some people probably protected themselves from the tragedy of infant mortality by simply ignoring the presence of children unless they absolutely had to.
When we read or hear about Jesus bringing a child into the midst of adults and insisting that in welcoming the child they are welcoming him, the radical nature of the gesture is all but lost on us because in our culture children are prized, cherished and adored, most of the time. But try to imagine living in a culture like the first century which was harsh in their treatment of children. Now try to imagine a bunch of disciples who are obsessed with being first, hearing that they must lower themselves to welcome children because in welcoming such lowly creatures as these they are welcoming Jesus himself. Then to hear Jesus claim that in welcoming him they are welcoming the One who sent him. Jesus is saying that the One can actually be seen in creatures who were considered as lowly as children.
This should not be big news for the disciples, but as I mentioned before – they were a little slow on the uptake. They had been with Jesus as he was teaching and doing ministry, as he was associating with the last and least in society, the Gentile women, lepers, tax collectors, and sinners – and also children.
The radical grace of God that Jesus is teaching throughout the land, is that greatness isn’t determined by status, wealth or achievement. Greatness on God’s terms means being humble, lowly and vulnerable like a child, and greatness means recognizing that God’s love extends further than we can ask or imagine.
The good news for us is that this love extends to us too even when we don’t think we deserve it, even when we don’t understand and don’t know. We don’t need to fear the questions that we might have or be afraid to ask them because God is with us through the questioning and through the doubt. We don’t need to be like the disciples – or like me and my sisters – and argue about who is the greatest, who is the favourite, who is loved the most. God’s love and welcome is bigger than that. We are all beloved children of God, and our challenge is to recognize that in everyone we meet, and even to recognize it in the person we see when we look in the mirror each day. Let the card from the backpack blessing be a reminder for you, that God’s love for you never ends, and you are not alone.