Scripture: Mark 9:30-50
All right, if you grew up in the church, I want you to think back into your childhood. Who in the church had an impact on your faith? Who was it that helped your life of faith grow? What was it that they did?
Now, the reason I asked you to share these stories is to think about your journey as a child in the church as we delve into these texts, because they deal with the journey from childhood to adulthood, from learner of the faith to teacher of the faith. The framework of journey is central to this passage, for while the Jesus carries out his ministry largely in and around Galilee, he has just begun his journey to the cross in Jerusalem, all the while instructing his disciples about his suffering, death, and resurrection. And the text this morning on that journey finds them in a specific place: Capernaum, probably in Peter’s house.
But this journey goes beyond physical location where it takes place. Journeys, especially positive journeys, involve both spiritual and mental traveling. There is change, with new perspectives of both the familiar and unfamiliar along the way. Some may see what has always been a constant and normal as different and even strange. Understanding and perceptions can be drastically altered. And that is what is happening to the disciples as they journey with Jesus as he redefines their understating of power and greatness. The irony of the trip they are taking lies in that, while the disciples are physically traveling to towns and places of great familiarity, their spiritual astuteness, or lack thereof, makes them appear lost along the way.
We don’t know the exact details of the argument they have along the way, except that it had to deal with who was the greatest of the disciples. When Jesus asks them about their squabbling, they are silent. They may be silent because they already know, based on what Jesus has been teaching them along the way on this journey, that their arguing is problematic. Jesus has been teaching about losing oneself for the sake of the gospel and taking up a cross and following him, teachings that lead to a “God-centered” existence. Now Jesus begins to teach a new way of understanding greatness, of an “other-centered” existence, using the images of servants and children.
First, Jesus points out that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In the cultural world of the disciples, households were ranked according to gender, class, and age. There were masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. The masters, husbands, and fathers had power, while servants, wives, and children were to be obedient to those in power. Servants were at the very bottom of this hierarchy of power, closely followed by children. Children were viewed as socially inferior and thus could be largely invisible to the more powerful groups. More often then not, the powerful oppressed the subordinate groups or at least made sure the status quo didn’t change.
Now, Jesus does something interesting with the disciples’ craving for power. He doesn’t discourage that craving but redefines what their understanding of greatness looks like in God’s kingdom. His followers must not understand greatness as the art of occupying a seat of power that allows them to be served in the typical fashion they had come to know. He redefines greatness as servanthood to others and allowing others to define themselves first, before exerting power over them. Greatness should be about occupying the space of serving others to realize fully their potential by taking the position of being last. That’s the power that Jesus wants his disciples to desire.
And to help them imagine this understanding of greatness, Jesus takes a child up in his arms. He welcomes a child in their midst, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” The image of Jesus, a man and religious leader, holding a child in his arms and talking to at least twelve men, maybe more, is subversive. Here, Jesus makes this child not only visible, but the center of attention. He challenges dominate cultural understanding that disassociates child minding from men. It flips on the head the cultural understanding of invisible children to children that are welcomed as part of glorifying God. Here Jesus employs a social reversal that welcomes, not discounts, even the littlest of the human family.
Do you remember those people that helped you in your life of faith and what they did to and for you? In many ways those people were taking Jesus’ teaching to heart. It would be as if Jesus was lifting you in front of your church and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” And that person who taught Sunday school or let you pick hymns said “Yes” to Jesus’ invitation to welcoming you.
And I’d be willing to bet that you had as big an impact on that person as they had on you. Maybe even bigger! Here is why I know that. I’ve worked with kids and youth and know how they transformed and deepened my faith. Twenty years ago I was asked to help with a middle school youth group in Laramie, Wyoming. And if it hadn’t been for that group of rowdy, crazy youth and their questions, their searching, their energy, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.
But I also know that taking that chance and saying yes to Christ’s invitation to welcoming youth has had an impact on many of you, too. When we did the Appreciative Inquiry process last year, one of the question asked was, “Reflecting on your entire experience at our church, remember a time when you felt the most engaged, alive, and motivated. Who was involved? What did you do? How did it feel?” Many of answers involved youth and children, “Teaching Bridge to Worship”, “Events involving youth”, “Teaching Crusaders Youth Group”, “Working in the nursery”, “teaching the kindergarten Sunday school class.” Over and over again, your welcoming the child or youth in your midst opened the door to experiencing something, or Someone, bigger than you realized.
Now, I do believe our view and understanding of children and youth has changed since Jesus’ day. Mostly for the good, but not always. This group of teens growing up today is the most advertized-to generation. Basically they are seen as consumers and not people by the greater culture. But I do believe what Jesus is inviting us into is also what the children and youth of today want: Welcoming, genuine relationships where they can be themselves, ask questions of their faith, and journey with adults who will walk with them as learn and grow.
So, I give you all an invitation. Discern and pray how you can welcome the children and youth of the church and the community into a loving, caring, genuine relationship with yourself. No one in this room is too old or too busy to say no to that invitation. Discern and pray.
A couple of ways that the Holy Spirit might nudge you would be to help with the Bridge to Worship Sunday School that will be starting in a couple of weeks for our K-5th graders. My hope is to have enough people that the younger kids and older kids can split up and that it is organized in such a way that no matter your schedule, you can help with a couple Sundays each semester. The other thing that is happening is I’m meeting tonight with the middle school youth to talk about a youth discipleship class. Some of these youth are really excited about doing something and I want you to be a part of it, no matter what it looks like. If that means helping with a meal, providing transportation to places, helping remodel the youth room, or even coming in and sharing your faith story, it has to involve you welcoming the youth as part of the church today. Become a part of their faith journey as they become a part of yours.
Friends, we are all on a journey together. Young and old, grandchild and grandparent. And Jesus invites us to welcome each other into our personal journeys. His teaching brings us to a new place that ultimately teaches us how to welcome God into our lives and a new way of relating to each other. Amen.