Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20B] - September 23, 2012 (Mark 9:30-37)

Since the last time I climbed into this pulpit, I have put one of my own children into kindergarten. Our family’s sleeping and waking schedule has shifted quite a bit from what it used to be, and we’re still trying to figure out just exactly who in our household needs to get up at the crack of dawn and do exactly what to get her out the door on time, but by far the biggest wake up call for me is the length to which we’ve gone to help that school receive our daughter.

Mind you, these lengths are not just ours; they are all a part of a system that has been has developed and put in place in order to make all of us painfully aware of how valuable and important this step is. Like every parent of a kindergartner, we had a one-on-one orientation with her teacher so they could get acquainted with one another three weeks before school started (which is after the kindergarten screening we had back in April). Then we had open house where we got to meet some of the other kids in the class and their parents. Just this past week we experienced our first back-to-school night, where the teachers and administration of the elementary school put on a big show to make sure we understood how much everyone values and appreciates our children—from the principal in the office to the bus drivers outside.

And then there was the shopping list. At some point during this roller coaster ride, my wife, Melinda, approached me with a piece of paper that contained a rather extensive list of everything we needed to properly outfit Clare for school. Two different pencil boxes stocked with all the usual goodies. A towel for sleeping at naptime. An old t-shirt for painting at art time. Binders, boxes, broad point markers. Crayons for this box, a different set of crayons for use by that box over there, and crayons for home. At the bottom of the list was something I had truly not expected to see: tennis balls, four of them. Sure enough, the teacher had even thought about the legs of the chairs. The tennis balls were not for some fun game or activity, but for cutting open and placing on the four feet of the chairs so that they wouldn’t make noise scraping across the floor. Another father who had sent his child to kindergarten the previous year asked me one day, “So, did you cut your tennis balls open yet? Watch out. I almost sliced my hand open doing it.”

As I peeled open the Wilson jar and bent down to and jam them on the chair legs, it half occurred to me that the tennis balls were on the list as much to help the dads get involved in the process of welcoming that child to school as they were for cutting down on the noise level. No matter the reason, we have gotten the point: they’ve thought of everything. They are ready to receive our child.

Yet it has not always been that way with children. When Jesus takes a child and sets it among his disciples on the way to Capernaum, he does not start talking about the safest way to cut tennis balls open for the legs of its school chair. Welcoming a child in Jesus’ day and age meant far different things. In fact, not a whole lot of thought was given to it. Back then, children were huge liabilities, germ-carrying, resource-depleting moochers that often didn’t make it to adulthood. They were a drain on the family economy (I guess some things haven’t changed, after all) and very little worth was placed in their lives, unless they happened to make it to young adulthood, which very few of them did. It is estimated by some historians that infant mortality in those days could reach 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by the age of six, and 60 percent were gone by the age of seventeen. There was little point in getting too attached even to your own children—not to mention someone else’s—since their chances of survival were so slim to begin with. It is safe to say that childhood was a terrifying time and people did not romanticize it or seek to prolong it nearly to the degree we do in our culture now.

This is all to say that when Jesus chooses a child to make his point about his kingdom he is identifying his kingdom not just with the most vulnerable among us, but with a social non-entity. Jesus is associating discipleship in his name with those who can do nothing for them in return. Jesus’ kingdom is not like a kindergarten classroom, with its whiz-bang Promethean boards and shiny new iPads. It is place where the scraps are tossed and where all kinds of germs are passed around. To identify service in Jesus’ kingdom with welcoming even a child in his name was to say that Jesus’ kingdom was about utter humility and self-sacrifice. It was about completely relinquishing yourself and your ideas of grandeur and instead opening yourself up to the possibility of loss and disappointment. It was a lesson that if God’s kingdom was going to be located somewhere, it was not going to be located more readily than among those who were outcast and on the margins. It was about thinking of others not chiefly in terms of what they could eventually do for you but rather in terms of how they might introduce you to Christ.

"Jesus teaching his disciples, and holding a child"
Thomas Stothard (1780)
For the disciples, Jesus’ teaching entails a huge shift in thinking. The Messiah was typically thought to usher in God’s appointed time of prosperity and power, where judgment against evil was issued with unmistakable power. And the Messiah’s kingdom was to be one of decisive riddance of everything that stands in the way of righteousness. But they are still thinking in human ways, and the stuff Jesus is talking about is so frightening to comprehend that they don’t even ask him about it. The shift, then, entails thinking about power in terms of service and humility, of stooping down to the least among us and welcoming God there.

I recently came across a news article about a well-known comic book illustrator, Karl Kesel, who, at the age of 53, adopted his first child, a baby who was born with a heroin addiction. In addition to the significant costs often associated with the adoption process, this one came with another set of staggering medical costs associated with neo-natal intensive care and detoxification from drugs. In order to help defray those expenses, Kesel has begun selling off his entire comic book collection, his back pages, the priceless originals of his own work he had been holding onto for over forty years. Worth over tens of thousands of dollars, they are being handed over for a new legacy to begin growing. “I don’t necessarily feel that I’m putting away childish things.” Kesel remarks. “I may be putting away my childish things. But I’m embracing Isaac’s.”

The article claims that the only way he and his wife can keep the child from shrieking as his tiny body reacts to withdrawal is to hold him in their arms constantly; that is, to set down the things of old importance and value and embrace the new. It is to get rid of the old definitions of worth and future and inheritance and start learning the new ones. It is to say goodbye to the old arguments about authority and power and begin making space for the powerless.

How might such a model mold us as we become frustrated with the baby who starts crying during the sermon, or the single parent who is trying her best to keep her kids quiet during worship? Or the newcomer who arrives just in time for church but is really looking for a handout? Or the new face at youth group who clearly needs a friend, but who would distract you from spending more time with your established group of friends? Or the food pantry guest or CARITAS guest who acts unappreciative of all your hard work? Because my guess is that no kindergarten teacher has made a list of how to receive those folks. They just show up, needing to be cradled, needing to be listened to, needing to be seen, needing to be fed. They can't really do many things for us. But be warned: when we welcome one of them in Jesus' name, we are, in fact, welcoming God.

This past week one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh told me that at last Sunday’s service they baptized a three-year-old. As they held him over the font, he screamed “NOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs. This week, he underwent a five-hour-procedure at a hospital, followed by six hours of having to remain perfectly still. His nurse entered his room after recovery, asking the obligatory, “What’s your name?” Without hesitation, this three-year-old replied, “Nathan Johnson, child of God.”

May we be so confident in our identity…that, yes, that is who we are. That, in fact, is whose we are. And that is how we have been received--as children--by the Messiah who offers up his own priceless back pages to suffer, die, and rise again to cradle us and claim us as his own.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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