The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost –
Scripture Reading: Mark 9:30-37
Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Sermon: “Dense Disciples”
Part of the fun—and, sometimes, the frustration—of going on a family road trip is ending up somewhere you never intended to be. This clip is a good example.
Even if Bugs had known that he took a wrong turn at Albuquerque, do you think he would’ve stopped and asked for directions? Nah…Bugs may be a cartoon character and a rabbit—but, hey, he’s still a guy. And, gentlemen, let’s face it, there’s something hardwired into us that doesn’t like asking for directions, even if we know we’re lost.
A 2010 study found that the average male drives an extra 276 miles every year because he’s lost. That’s about the distance from Cincinnati to Nashville. More than one out of four men waited at least half an hour before asking for directions, and an extra stubborn 12% refused to ask anyone for help, ever.
And as for that suspicion, ladies, that sometimes your man is lost and won’t admit it, you may just be right. Forty-one percent of men have pretended that they knew where they were going when they didn’t, compared to a much more trustworthy 26% of women.
We can be spiritually lost, too—male or female, young or old, rich or poor, all of us. As it happens, though, Jesus’ disciples were the ones lost in today’s Scripture lesson. Thedisciples and Jesus are traveling “on the way,” on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus held nothing back. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they’ll kill him, and three days after being killed, he’ll rise again.”
The disciples, of course, didn’t get it. “They didn’t understand what he was saying,” Mark says, “and were afraid to ask him.”
Maybe they didn’t want to look as confused as they really were. Maybe Jesus had upset them so much predicting his own death that they didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Of course, there’s always the fact that most of us don’t like to look out of touch, confused, or clueless.
And make no mistake about it, the disciples were clueless. Jesus was on his way to die. They were worried about who had the most clout. Maybe it had even occurred to them that, even though they didn’t quite understand what Jesus was saying, if he really did die, someone new would have to be in charge. Each of the twelve had the same thought, “Why not me?”
Of course, they’d never admit it. Still, Jesus knew. It was time to make his point again, hopefully in a way they’d understand.
He 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 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.”
We can’t understand how shocking Jesus’ words were. The ancient near East placed a premium on status, wealth, and honor. This little commercial from a few years back sums it up.
More was better in Jesus’ time, too. The more you had, the more important you were. The more important you were, the more you would be honored, and not just by people, also by God. Jewish commentators believed that God even had a seating chart prepared for the heavenly banquet, and competition was hot for the front row seats. The first, last? It was absurd!
Jesus made it even worse, at least according to the norms of that time, by plopping a child down in the middle of them. The very idea that a male disciple of a semi-famous Rabbi would have anything to do with a child was ridiculous.
We have trouble understanding, you and I, how shocking it was to his contemporaries that Jesus carried out an active ministry with children. Jesus spoke to children, healed children, blessed children, cast out demons from children, welcomed children into his arms, and even raised children from the dead.
In Jesus’ time, children had no status and were little more than property. A minor child was no better than a slave. Only after reaching maturity was he or she a free person who could inherit from the family. In fact, in Jesus’ day, an adult called a “child” or “childish” would consider it a serious insult.
Add to all that the fact that infant mortality rates were as high as 30%. Another 30% of live births were dead by age 6, and 60% were gone by age 16. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and homelessness.
Things are certainly better now, but that’s not to say that we still don’t have a long way to go. In 2017, around 6.3 million children and youth died, most from preventable causes. Eighty-five percent of those deaths took place before children reached the age of five.
Those millions of deaths seldom make the headlines. Suffering, starving children are socially invisible, as are others who are starving, not from lack of food, but from lack of human contact, companionship, and love.
A survey by the Cigna Corporation released in May had some scary numbers:
✓ Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.
✓ Just over one in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
✓ Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships aren’t meaningful, and that they’re cut off from others.
✓ One in five people rarely or never feel close to people, or feel like there are people they can talk to.
✓ Only 53 percent of Americans have every day, meaningful, face to face, conversations with a friend, or spend quality time with family.
The poor and the powerless, the socially invisible and the forgotten, those labeled or shamed, those shoved down so that others can build themselves up—Jesus places them all in our midst and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not just me, but also the one who sent me.”
God doesn’t call us to be like children, but rather to be like Jesus, who embraced not just children, but all the other socially invisible people in his world. The disciples didn’t get it. And, often, neither do we. The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we don’t understand, and when we don’t know.
Through Jesus, God asks us to do for one another what God has done for us, lead people home to God’s grace.
The trail of God’s grace leads through the least, the lost, and the forgotten, and, through them, to Christ. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to label or demean, to gossip or denigrate. It’s only when we welcome the powerless that we welcome the most powerful One of all.