“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.