by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
September 19, 2021
The reading from Mark this morning is sure to invoke memories. This story of Jesus pulling a little child into the midst of the arguing disciples is tattooed on our collective brains. At the Patterson Memorial Presbyterian Church where I came to be pastor in 1993, there was a beautiful rose window that pictured Jesus with children, given in memory of a young person from the congregation who died. And many of us learned a song in Sunday School that seems to have come right out of this story. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”
So with that warm fuzzy feeling, we come to our reading from Mark. The first thing I noticed, was that it seemed to be in three parts. 1) was the continued teaching about what it meant to be messiah. 2) was the dialogue/argument about who is the greatest and 3) was Jesus pulling a child into their midst. Let us take a closer look.
The disciples are still having a hard time figuring out who Jesus is. I find this comforting since we often seem to get so confused about it ourselves. The disciples, even though they were there, on the ground, in the flesh, even though they had heard Jesus rebuke Peter when he tried to refashion what Jesus was saying Messiah meant, even though Jesus has been constantly teaching and preaching and they, we hope, have been listening—they still don’t get it. Betrayal, suffering, death, not to mention this “rising again.” It is too much to handle. And worse yet, they are afraid to put their hands up and ask any questions.
It seems to be that this part of the story is a warning for those of us “in the know” about church life. How many people are afraid to ask why we do certain things, or what it is we are doing, or if we are like what they hear on TV? Maybe we need to have a sign that says “there are no stupid questions” when it comes to God/church!, only people who should know better than to make you think you are stupid for asking them.”
Jesus’ talking about who is he and what the future might bring, and the disciples not wanting to believe him is a theme that runs throughout the whole gospel—and draws us in to try to not be like them. And this story certainly reminds us of the first time we hear Jesus talking about his death, when he says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8: 34b-36)
And to make sure that we notice that the disciples are not getting what Jesus is saying, we hear about this argument: who is the greatest. They don’t do this in Jesus’ presence, and in fact they don’t even want to admit to it when he asks (again, afraid to talk, but this time because they KNEW better). This hits pretty close to home. How typical, to let our ego, our need for approval, our pride to get the better of us, even if we know that that is not how we should act. How often have we played that game? about how much money we make, how many followers we have on social media, how many people sit in our pews on a Sunday morning, you add your own…
But imagine standing in front of Jesus, such talk would be embarrassing—because it is petty and not helpful, and it was (if we can believe the accounts about this story in the other gospels)—about the disciples’ imagining who was going to get to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he came to power (another total misunderstanding of what Jesus had come to do).
It was acting out the sentiment of a magnet that always makes me smile that says, “Yes, Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”
Finally, fed up with the disciples not getting the “Who is Jesus” thing—not once (when he was actually explaining it to them) and (then again, when they are fantasizing who is the greatest in the “spoils” part of the game)—Jesus pulls a child into their midst.
It must have been very jarring.
For children were pretty much “non-persons” in ancient times (at least legally). As one commentator put it “they were often the first victims of famine, disease, or war” (seasons, 9/19/21 RCL). They might have been valued within their own families, but not in the society as a whole. In fact, their status might even be seen as analogous to the tiny emerging Christian community that the writer of the gospel of Mark was speaking to. They knew they had worth in God’s eyes, but in Roman/legal terms they didn’t exist, or worse yet, were considered a scourge to be eliminated.
That is what Jesus brings into the center of the argument. Someone who has the least standing in the argument of “who is the greatest.” Seasons of the Spirit reimagines this story as an actual argument between Jesus’ friends. One says, “I think Jesus will want to sit next to me at dinner, because I’m Jesus’ best friend.” “Me too” said the next friend, “I’m most important. Jesus will sit next to me.” Another said, “I’ve been Jesus’ friend the longest.” I’m the oldest.” I’m the biggest.” And when Jesus calls a little child to his side the child says, “I think, I’m Jesus’ littlest best friend”
And Jesus gives the punch line: “Whoever welcomes this child, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me.” Who is Jesus? Not only is he the one who turns our ideas of what God’s plan is upside down, not only is he the one who makes us feel silly about what we consider to be important, but he is the one who constantly asks us to look outside our comfort zone, to lift up those that we don’t normally “see,” and to welcome the vulnerable, the lost, the poor, the least, for in welcoming them, we welcome Jesus.
What does it mean to welcome Jesus? What does it mean to try to see the vulnerable and the least of these and welcome them? “Welcoming” has a specific meaning for me. It has been a code word for years for religious communities who opened their arms to their LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters (made visible in 1990 by Scott Alexander’s book “The Welcoming Congregation”). But as I think about that “welcoming”—I begin to see that there are levels of welcome. Some welcomed by putting out a rainbow flag. Some welcomed by signing a pledge. Some went deeper and included “welcomed” people to all types of participation in the church, to all the ministries of the church. Welcoming was a process. It meant listening to people’s stories and sharing fellowship and becoming “known” to one another.
So as I look at “welcoming” Jesus, as I think about what Jesus is asking of me as I welcome others, I know it is not easy or quick. And it takes being humble about who we are. I was struck by an article I read by Sixto Cancel the founder of Think of Us, a nonprofit addressing the crisis in foster care. Sixto, who lived in many foster homes since he was 11 months old, opened my eyes to how vulnerable these kids are. Did you know that we don’t make it a priority to try to place kids first with those with kinship ties? That many states have red tape that makes it almost impossible to help them stay at least within communities that are familiar? That we have created a group home situation that is institutional at its worst? That as Sixto puts it “My foster care placements failed not because I didn’t belong in a family but because the system failed to identify kinship placements for me and lacked enough culturally competent, community-based services to keep me in a home that had a chance at success.” (NYTimes Sept. 17, 2021)
In other words, welcoming might mean turning our thinking around. It might mean, letting go of our “we know better” attitude, to listen to those who are living the reality. I remember the same illumination when hearing about the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. They talked about learning that welcoming, serving, doesn’t come from a lofty place.
It is walking alongside of—learning that what the community needed was training for jobs, and a place to get their haircut, or to shower, (since many of the downtown people were living on the streets), or to receive their mail. It was only when the church stopped trying to “serve” and sat down and together (not they and us, but all of us) talked about what the community needed, and how they all could help meet that need, only then was the ministry, the church, moving toward being welcoming, toward what we are really called to be and do.
Last week, we started, again, to ask ourselves: Who is Jesus? Today, I see Jesus is someone who is incredibly patient, telling us again and again and again who he is—and what God wants us to do in our world. In Mark we see Jesus telling the disciples at least three times what his ministry will lead them to—and it is hard for them to hear—and if we are honest, it is hard for us to hear as well.
Who is Jesus? Today, I see Jesus as someone who although he seems singularly focused on what God wants us to be and do, still sees who we really are—and calls us out, “What were you talking about?”, and gives us the opportunity to change our ways. Do we avail ourselves of the times when we are “caught out” about our self-centeredness? I see Jesus saying, like mother having eyes in the back of her head, “I see you. I see what you are doing. Don’t think you are pulling anything on me.” It is time for us to look at what we are making front and center in our lives—would we be proud to present it to Jesus?
Who is Jesus? Today, I see Jesus trying to have us reorient ourselves. To the vulnerable, to the dispossessed, to those who might have less of a voice, to the poor, to those not like us. Not to try to outdo each other in the race to the “I’ve been the last so now I ought to be the first” but to make our own circles, and to pull our own vulnerable people into the center. To reimagine what welcoming might look like. Maybe it isn’t something that happens in a sanctuary. Maybe it isn’t in a religious context. Maybe we can’t yet understand what welcoming might ask of us.
As I think of all these thoughts swirling around in my brain, it brings me back to that stained glass window, “Jesus and the Children.” And the song that I learned and taught to so many others: “Jesus Loves Me.” In light of all that Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us), that song now feels a little off. There is a lot of Jesus loving ME. And children being weak, while he (and maybe in our minds we) are strong. I cringe a little that we might get into the “I’m the greatest” mentality as well as thinking that we know best how to serve others. So, today, I'm going to do an update. An update that focuses on what I hear from Jesus this morning. Here goes …
“Jesus loves us this we know,
for the Bible tells us so.
Little ones to him belong,
they’re not weak, that is so wrong.
Yes, Jesus loves us.
Yes, Jesus loves us.
Yes, Jesus loves us,
and says “Go pass it on.”
May we continue to press to know Who Jesus is to us and our time.
And may God help us welcome everyone to join in our quest.