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But for all the warm, fuzzy things we say about children, the other side of that coin is that children are often a big nuisance. They start out by causing incredible pain to Mom in child birth (not to mention the equally incredible pain to the bank account). They interrupt sleep schedules. They offer strange-smelling discharges from various bodily orifices, and often all over YOU. They cost thousands of dollars to feed and clothe and repay your generosity with a thumb of the nose. They aggravate, irritate, infuriate. Finally, as something in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago suggests, they get married and want a huge reception replete with ice sculptures for $22,000+. Trouble.
Behavior? Much as we find in each of our lessons this morning. Child...ISH! The Epistle of James: "bitter envy and selfish ambition...disorder and every evil practice." The gospel of Mark: Jesus asks the Twelve, "What were you arguing about on the road?" Silence. EMBARRASSED silence. Because "they had argued about who was the greatest." A bit like the old Smothers Brothers routine: "Mom always liked you best!" Laughable. And, of course, childish.
Actually, there is only one we know as "the greatest." Muhammad Ali. (And you thought I was going to say Jesus.) Ali is a fascinating character (despite his current battle with Parkinson's), and has been since his brash days in Louisville when we knew him as Cassius Clay and heard his boastful claim, made over and again through the years, that, "I AM THE GREATEST."
A sportswriter once asked him, "When you say, 'I am the greatest,' do you mean the greatest fighter or the greatest human being?"
Ali replied quickly, "I mean that I am the greatest boxer. I will go down as the greatest boxer of all time."
The writer pressed him further. "But do you think that 50 years from now people will say that you were the greatest?"
Ali responded, "Fifty years from now everybody in this room will be dead. Nobody will remember what a great boxer I was. The only way I will not be forgotten is if I can do something to help and aid my people."(3) Smart man.
I wish, after almost 2,000 years of hearing the gospel story we just read, the world (not to mention the church) was that smart. Jesus says, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." We get an inkling of that truth occasionally in special lives such as the late Mother Teresa, but we notice them precisely because they are so rare. Then after Jesus picks up a little one who happens to be handy (and this child probably more resembles one of those filthy ragamuffins in a "Save the Children" commercial than one of those in our nursery), he says, "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."
The implications of that are more than a bit unsettling. Jesus does not say TOLERATE the child or even PROVIDE FOR the child. The Greek word literally means ACCEPT, but the translation WELCOME is appropriate. To WELCOME someone implies that we gladly extend our hospitality, and, in this case, the implication is that we are greeting an ambassador, an official representative. Who is this we welcome? Those who have no status (children in that day were not thought of as much more than property), those who may well be dirty, even filthy, possibly diseased, and most assuredly those at the bottom of the social ladder.
I would love to be able to report that the condition of children in this world is significantly improved since Jesus' time. After all, one of the few things that churches do NOT debate is that "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world." Then why do we have estimates that thirty-five thousand children under the age of five die daily around the globe, most from preventable poverty conditions? The financial cost to end most of these child deaths, it has been proposed, is about $2.5 billion a year, which is the amount Americans spend on chewing gum.(4) Could we manage that? After all, Jesus himself says that these are the emissaries of the Almighty, "the least of these..."
Well, we try. After all, don't we get down to the Sharing Place to feed the hungry? Don't we support efforts like Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together to provide decent homes for those who would never have them without our help? Don't we blister our feet marching in the Relay for Life every year for the sole purpose of helping find a cure for a horrible disease? Don't we contribute our money to all sorts of worthy causes, both in the church and out? Absolutely! And we do not do badly, if we do say so ourselves.
But before we say anything more, consider this true story:(5) recently a church youth group was on a wilderness back-packing expedition and got lost. It was supposed to be a half-day trip, so they soon ran out of water in the Texas heat. One boy especially became dehydrated and seriously ill. Another hiked miles to get help, then hiked back with rescue team to show them the location. A helicopter came and took him and this now seriously ill friend to a hospital over 100 miles away. The other hikers were provided supplies and were eventually trucked out. Fortunately, the rescue was in time - the young man's life was saved.
Nice story, so far. Right? Here is where it gets dicey. Our young hero is now in the hospital waiting room. He calls home to bring mom and dad up to date. So far, so good. The boy continues his vigil, but soon realizes a predicament - he has no money, the rest of the group is still hours away, he needs food and a place to stay. The hospital staff suggest the local shelter for the night. He calls home again.
Dad goes ballistic. He calls the hospital, gives his credit card number and insists that his son be taken care of. Put him in nearby hotel till the parents can get there in the morning. Forget this Homeless Shelter stuff. Both father and son (who happened to be 17 years old and over 6'4") are convinced that such a suggestion is insane. Why? The lad responds, "Hey, I don't have anything against homeless people. I've done my service projects for church at the shelter at home, but I don't need to stay with them or have them sleeping near me. Yuck!"
What do you think? I do not mean to pick on someone who is certainly a brave and courageous young man. But I will pick on an attitude that says it is all right, even GOOD, to HELP the "riff-raff" but that to actually stay overnight with them, receive the same help as them, be on the same level as they are, is dangerous and disgusting. Somewhere along the line, people hear the message that we are called to help, but then miss the part about Jesus identifying HIMSELF with those in need of that help. Remember Matthew 25? "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to ME!"
Someone has suggested that there are more than enough spare bedrooms in our houses to easily solve the homeless problem. Right! That solution would be as well received as the suggestion that our young friend spend the night in the shelter.
A young rabbinical student asked the rabbi, "Rabbi, why don't people see God today as they did in the olden days?" The wise old man put his hands on the student's shoulders and said, "The answer, my son, is because no one is willing to stoop so low."(6)
An interesting thought: what would our answer be if Jesus came to us and asked, "What were you arguing about on the road?" Well, Lord, we were arguing about whether women should be equal to men in performing church functions. We were arguing about language for God - should we use masculine, feminine, both, neither? We were arguing about sexuality - if folks are homosexual, should they be included in the church? We were arguing about whether to support the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. We were arguing about buying a new hymnal. We were arguing about how much money to pay to support the mission of the church around the world when we have so many needs here at home. Or, with the disciples, we might just admit that our arguments are over who is going to be top dog around here, the decision-maker, the one to whom everyone else will have to listen.
The one thing I want you to notice is Jesus' response. He does not put that ambition down, does not say how awful it is to want to be great...or even THE GREATEST. Instead, he says here is the way to do it. Be a servant. Be a servant.
Then there is that reference about the first being last. We find that several places in the gospels - this utter reversal of the world's norms, this new way of keeping score. It is mind boggling...until we realize that for the first to be last AND the last to be first means that everyone has to cross the finish line together. Possible? Sure. IF...and this is a big IF...IF we decide that is the way we will play life's game.
Sometime back, there was a story that came out of the Special Olympics. It seems that a contestant tripped and fell while running a race. Instead of just charging down the track oblivious to another competitor's distress, the other contestants stopped, went back, picked up their fallen comrade, then all ran together to the finish. First. Last. Who cared? Everyone made it across. That was all that mattered.
That is gospel, my friend. What matters is that we all make it across, even the least among us. That was Jesus' message that day in Capernaum. That is Jesus' message today. And remember, "Whoever welcomes one such...in my name welcomes me..."
1. Eric Marshall & Stuart Hample, comp., (New York: Pocket Books, 1966) and (New York: Essandess Special Editions, 1967)
2. Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17
3. William Schwein, "Preaching on the Lessons," Clergy Journal, July 1997, p. 43
4. John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church, (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1996), p. 218
5. Christine Iverson, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #524
6. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #8593, 9/14/03