Imagine that all of us here this morning were standing in a circle. And Jesus comes. And he places in the middle of the circle a child. What would it mean?
In the time when Jesus lived on earth, children were the “last of all” in society. They were property. They had no voice. They were not thought to be fully human yet.
In today’s gospel, Jesus does something radical in an attempt to re-wire the disciples. He places a child in the midst of them. The lesson for the disciples is clear. Give up your social climbing, your power-grabbing, your sense that being associated with the fanciest people gains you something valuable. Stop arguing about who is the greatest. Real greatness is found in service, especially caring for the least, the last, the lost.
This, of course, is a core message of the gospel. “Jesus redefines greatness and Godness” (Mark Davis, Left Behind and Loving It blog), and so in pouring ourselves out for others we are like Christ. But I wrestled mightily this week with what to do with this passage and it’s message. Here’s the thing: I don’t think this congregation needs convincing of this. I don’t think you need anecdotes about service and self-giving. I think you get it and I see you live it every day.
When clergy get together, it’s common to hear frustration about parishioners’ focus on small-minded things. “I wish people would stop sending me emails and calling me to complain about little things, like why wasn’t the altar guild listed ahead of the crucifer in the bulletin? Or ‘why didn’t you acknowledge my contribution of a watermelon to refreshments in the dispatches?’” My colleagues then give the rest of us a knowing glance, like “We all deal with this, don’t we?”
But here’s the thing: I don’t get those calls or emails. Instead, here’s what I get:
- Links to beautiful poems by young Londoners that speak to the refugee experience.
- Podcasts about the spirituality of folk music.
- Questions like: What are we doing about gun violence? What about veterans? Can’t we do more for those struggling with addiction?
- I get links to articles about Gaza and Sudan and the opioid crisis in Watertown. (I hope you know there’s an opioid crisis in Watertown).
- I get nine members of this congregation spending most of this weekend here learning how to offer prayers of intercession and healing for those who are in crisis or physical or emotional need.
- I get informed that some of you are showing up at a group home last night to sing with the residents.
All of this shows me that this congregation keeps the main thing the main thing, which is serving the child – that is, the most vulnerable and powerless in our society.
Instead of the sermon being preached in most churches today, I’m going to preach about how to live in a world where we cannot fix everything. How do we remain hopeful in a world where problems are so big and we are so small? Where we feel surrounded by voices like the one in today’s reading from Wisdom: “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us. Let us test him with insult so that we may make a trial of his forbearance.”
How do we live in such a world?
First: Bring your fears to God. Your fear of failure, your fear of being overwhelmed, or fear that all that is, is what we see — that the promises of God are not true. Bring your fear to God and lay it out there. God can handle it. Speak your questions to God, rail at God, ask for help, admit your need.
In today’s gospel, the disciples fail to do this – twice. Mark tells us that after Jesus explained to them that he would suffer and die, they didn’t get it but were afraid to ask him about it. Late, the disciples are arguing with one another about who among them will be greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus asks the, “What were you talking about on the road?” But they were afraid to answer.
Fear, in Mark’s gospel, is the paired opposite of faith. For example, in the calming of the storm, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Jesus’ statement to Jairus about his dead daughter is similar: “Do not fear; just have faith” (Mark 5:36). “Faith in Mark is not intellectual assent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed. Faith is more about what is in your gut, fortitude.” (Micah Kiel, workingpreacher.org)
Jesus does not condemn people for being afraid. But he gets impatient when people hide their fear because until that fear is in admitted it cannot be healed. And we see that in today’s gospel: “We often think of Jesus and the disciples as cozy buds, traveling together, eating together, and generally getting along rather well.” But this is not “a cozy buds road trip, but a time of real tension between teacher and students,” (Mark Davis). Jesus loves them anyway. He stays with them. Jesus will stay with us. God is not primarily concerned about having his power affirmed but in keeping these disciples on the road. They too are children.
So that’s the first thing: Bring your fear to God – Let God hold it with you and heal it.
Second: Focus on the child in front of you – Jesus put one child in their midst, not representatives of every group in need. He could have placed there a child and a leper and a tax collector and a Samaritan and a blind person. But he chose one child. I think that’s important. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. But it was Jesus who said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” And it was Jesus who, in the midst of a crowd swarming around him felt his power healing the woman with a hemorrhage, looked her in the eye and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” And it is Jesus who sees Zaccheus the tax collector in the sycamore tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Be fully present to the need, the one need, in front of you. You cannot do everything, and to do anything well you must be fully present to it, as Jesus was.
Finally, let yourself be fed by God. In Christ, we see a God who is servant of all, who gave everything to serve us. The word Jesus uses in this passage for servant is diakonos: in Mark’s day it meant a person who served meals – who would only be allowed to eat once everyone else had eaten. Let yourself be fed by Christ, here at this altar every week. Let yourself be fed by Christ in reading scripture, in prayer, in community. If you are not fed in this way, then when you go to feed others, to serve others, you will be like a starving person handing out donuts.
Bring your fear to God. Focus on the child in front of you. Let yourself be fed by God. And after you’ve done all these good things, it will still be hard to live in a world where you cannot fix everything. So over and over again, you will need to let admit that to God and let go – if only for the night – in order to rest and prepare to resume your labors on the morrow.
If you attend our Hidden Brook service on Thursdays, then you may know by heart the Night Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book. There is no other prayer that helps me more to do this releasing. And I come back to it over and again, as it is my true prayer. I’ll end with it now.
it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
In your name we pray.