Faith Like a Child – Caroline Dean (2/18/18)

“Faith Like A Child: The Last, The Littlest, The Least”
February 18, 2018
Christ Church, Summit
Mark Chapter 9:30-33

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus 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 Jesus was saying and they were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing along the way?” But the disciples were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. Jesus 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, a little one, 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.”
Let us pray: Dear God, teach us this day that we are already yours, there is no need to hustle for our worth or our position in your kindom – we are already cherished and beloved – just as we are - without fancy dressing, without anything to show for ourselves – we are already yours. Amen.
Imagine Jesus, ginning up the courage to talk to his disciples – to confront them with a hard truth. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, and there he will most certainly die. This is an inconceivable truth for the disciples, who are so deeply rooted in the traditions of the Jewish Messiah. The Jewish Messiah was to usher in an era of unending political peace & prosperity – not offer himself up to be tortured, publicly humiliated & ultimately killed. Jesus was about to take the place as the humiliated Messiah, the failed Rabbi, the disciples’ “Adoni” – their “Lord” who would soon die on a hill in the town dump.
Those paradoxical truths are too difficult to hold in tension. So, when Jesus shares his trajectory, the disciples keep quiet – they don’t ask questions – and perhaps as a coping mechanism in the face of such mysteries they go back to their ordinary banter walking with Jesus on the road that day.
Once they arrive at their destination, a host graciously welcomes them for the night – Jesus sits down among the disciples with the kind of gentle authority that develops between mentor and student.
And Jesus says, “What were you discussing along the way?” The disciples again are silent – afraid to fall short of Jesus’ expectations. Finally, someone shares that they were debating amongst themselves “who was the greatest?” This is a custom of their day, a common conversation, in worship, in court, at a meal, in any dealing, there “constantly arose the question who is greater and estimating the honor due to each – a task which had to constantly be fulfilled and was felt to be very important.” (New International Commentary on the NT: Mark page 339). Think of it as a sort of social status road trip game, something to pass the time. Upon whom had Jesus conferred the most honor that day? Which disciple was given the most attention, shown the most glory? Where was Jesus’ favor? – A riddle to work out as they marched along the road.
Perhaps Jesus thinks to himself, “okay I’ll play your game.” And he says, “However you have ranked yourselves, whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all” So the first person (whom they had deemed “most worthy”) was actually in last place. The last person (who was the most shamed, the most ignored) was in first place. And that person – who we thought was last but is actually first – is the servant of all of them!
The disciples were again totally baffled, rightfully so, by this teaching. Jesus perhaps anticipates this miscommunication about what “greatness” in God’s kindom looks like. And so, across the room, out of the corner of his eye, Jesus sees a servant child, the one who had just brought them a meal. Jesus puts the child “among them & takes the child in his arms.” Jesus pauses collecting his thoughts, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Imagine that the disciples thought about this teaching late into the night. The greatest among them will welcome the littlest one - the ones who has nothing to give? The greatest among them will become like the servant child? But the riddle still unfolds to this day – what exactly does that mean!?
Firstly, we have to understand that children during Jesus day are essentially servants in their household. Children did not have any social standing - they do not contribute any economic value to a community. Most importantly considering the disciples conversations jockeying for social status – children do nothing to enhance “one’s position in their struggles for prestige or influence.” (Feasting on the Word Commentary).
And so “what does it mean to have faith like a child?” What is “childlike faith?” To have “faith like a child” in our culture is “to trust in something unswervingly without doubt” – with a sort of innocent ignorance. Jesus on the other hand doesn’t mention anything about receiving him questions unasked – in fact the disciples’ silence in this passage only inhibits their faith. And, if we are to approach Jesus like a child, according to my non-scientific research, this would not mean “belief without doubt” it would mean “belief paired with a million insightful questions.” But for Jesus it isn’t really about the posture or gifts of children (which to be clear are spiritually inspired!) instead Jesus teaches his followers to become like a child in her servanthood, in her low social status, in her “leastness” in her “lastness.”
Again, this teaching “The first shall become last and the last shall become first” has also sort of lost its edge over time. I often quote it waiting in line at a large gathering for food – particularly down south when we have a good potluck – to cope with my anxiety that all of the deviled eggs will be gone by the time I reach the front of the line. As if to say I will get some sort of heavenly reward for being the last one – the poor soul who doesn’t get a deviled egg.
And so, if “faith like a child” doesn’t mean “believing without any doubt” and being the servant of all isn’t about taking the last place in a buffet line, then what does it mean?
Father Greg Boyle writes about his ministry with gangs in LA - in his book “Tattoos on the Heart” (page 75)
"Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered "Blessed are the single-hearted” or "Blessed are the peacemakers" or "Blessed are those who struggle for justice." Greater precision in the translation would say, "You're in the right place if…you are single-hearted” “You’re in the right place if you work for peace." The Beatitudes is not a spirituality, after all. It's a geography. It tells us where to stand."
So, Jesus is saying, “You are standing in the right place if you are standing with the littlest one, the one who has no glory or honor to bestow upon you.”
In life Jesus locates himself with the sinners, the prostitutes, the shady tax collectors. Jesus touches lepers, and gently draws the outcast back into the fold. And in death Jesus locates himself on a hill, on the town dump. He is the Messiah who dies. He descends downward emptying himself of access to his divine status, he inhabits human flesh and blood. Even further he takes on the role of the suffering servant – the lowliest human. And he embodies this great lowering, this great suffering in order to enact God’s great love in the world.
Our second scripture today emphasizes the beauty of the lily of the field - in its glory is dressed in finer robes than King Solomon himself. Scripture asks us to consider the birds of the air who never toil or spin, they don’t gather food in barns – they are glorious in their own right – without earning a single thing – their simple being holds enough glory. And that’s what we discover in the “lowest, least, last places” – we discover that our glory & the glory of our kindred is already established. It does not depend on social status, or any dressings of this world. God calls each of us beloved. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is for each person – no matter social status or dressings or work ethic.
On our most recent trip to Nicaragua a few of us had the pleasure of meeting a student named Brian Sanchez Garcia. Brian was about eight or nine years old at the time. And he is learning English on top of his other studies. Brian reminds me of one of my nephews, smart, charming – a bit nerdy. He wears these glasses, which bring into focus his quick wit & his deep wisdom at such a young age. Brian also has cerebral palsy - he is bound to a wheel chair. He lives in extreme poverty and he has limited access because of his illness. And yet he attends to this amazing school (one our Christ Church partners through Peaceworks). They have horse therapy, physical therapy, mentors & professionals to guide Brian along his journey. And so why is it that despite Brian’s challenges he shines like the sun? Why is it that his brilliance cannot be tamed by any outward situation? According to any definition of power Brian is the lowest, the least, the littlest one – a child, in extreme poverty with debilitating illness. And yet he shines when you meet him, like those lilies in the field – he is clothed in glory & honor – more than even Solomon himself. Brian carries the undeniable imprint of God’s love. And here’s the great secret – (whisper) we all carry that imprint – we are just so often stuck on the dressings, the toils, the status games that we forget, we no longer see clearly our own inherent belovedness.
Some among us today feel like we are in “last place.” We are grappling with serious illness or grief – we are in a tough space financially – we are on the margins of a society who so often cannot see us or our inherent worth. In the person of Jesus, God proclaims that God is with us in the lowest, most vulnerable seasons & broken places! God is with us in our “leastness, our littleness.” When we are last, when we feel low God is near.
And so, God’s geographic destination is clearly outlined, but where do we stand as a community & where are we heading? When Jesus sits among us, who is he calling us to welcome? Who are our kin? Where do we belong? And who belongs with us?
Do we locate ourselves next to the teens at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? Are we in solidarity with the ones who are now gone and their peers who are crying out in grief & courage demanding change? Do we locate ourselves next to parents who are wailing, weeping as they send their kids back to school? Do we embrace even our children who struggle with mental illness & hold darkness in their hearts? Do we locate ourselves next to the vulnerable children in communities of color? Do we call kids who are differently abled, our kin? Do we welcome the child who is poor, afflicted by war, the infant refugee who doesn’t have a home?
Jesus says seek ye first the kinship of God and all the rest will follow. And being kin to one another is hard work. It’s more than sending money. It’s more than showing up every now and again. It’s more than preaching or sending thoughts or prayers.
One of the reasons that Brian from Nicaragua climbed into my heart so quickly is that he reminds me of one my nephews. Somehow that kinship – the bond between myself and my nephew transferred easily to myself & Brian and it made me realize the simple fact Brian and I already belong together. We are bound together in our glory and in our humility.
Father Greg Boyle writes (Barking to the Choir page 170)
“Jesus’ desire & longing…is about wanting all of us to stand where he stands – to include as he does. It is less about what it is we are to do at the margins and more about what will happen to us if we stand there. Knowing homies & gang members has changed my life forever, altered the course of my days, reshaped my heart, and returned me to myself. They have indeed been trustworthy guides. Together, we have discovered that we are all diamonds covered in dust. They have taught me not that I am somebody but that I am everybody.”
And so, go now beloved, pay attention to where you belong & who belongs with you. Let us in good Christ Church fashion draw our circle wider and wider and wider – discovering our kinship in the most unusual places – and thereby rediscovering our God – over and over and over again.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.