Text: Mark 9:30-37
Jennell and I have an extremely cute newborn nephew by the name of Jackson. And, in November, we will welcome the arrival of Sean and Maddie’s baby, who, I am sure will be equally cute. I love children. They can be so adorable, so cute. That said, I wonder if the child that Jesus held in his arms among the inner circle of his disciples was cute. We will never know. Mark tells us absolutely nothing about this child – not their name, not their favorite food, not their favorite bedtime book. Jesus pulls the child into the inner circle of adults not because the child is cute, but because Jesus wants to make a point that no one in his time could have missed.
In my lifetime and long before, the church has read this story with a string of saccharine sentiments: “Jesus wants us to be innocent and child-like.” Well, that may be true, but that is not why this child is pulled center stage. “Jesus wants us to be like that child – helpless, dependent, humble.” Well, that too may be true, but those sentiments have nothing to do with this story. Jesus holds a child close among his inner circle of disciples to teach some squabbling and obtuse disciples, and sometimes a squabbling and obtuse church, what it really means to be “great.”
About this child, Jesus says: “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me is not receiving me but the one who sent me.” Just seconds earlier, Jesus charged his disciples to be servant leaders. New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe reminds us: “Mark’s audience would have heard the word ‘child’ as referring to someone like the servant . . . a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 97).
A “child,” in this visual sermon by Jesus, is shorthand for those who belong “out there” and who do not belong “in here.” In Mark, a “child” is someone of any age who is on the outside looking in, dispossessed, voiceless, powerless, anonymous. The prevailing sentiment of Jesus’ time was that a “child” would not know how to live “in here,” therefore, the “child” belongs “out there.”
In this story and throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus preaches that “great” is the church that welcomes every “child” – “in here” and “out there.” Written in a time of tremendous social upheaval in the Roman world, the temptation for Mark’s church was to view “out there” as a threat, because it was a threat. So, any wise church and any wise Christian would keep a low profile and only look within. Jesus knows that when you and I live in fear of everything, live in fear of all those “out there,” our faith shrivels before our eyes and we can barely hear our own heartbeat, much less the cry of God’s “child” being left behind.
Almost twenty years ago now, I said goodbye to a beloved congregation in Old Town, Alexandria. Though established in the early 1770s with a vibrant ministry to the city of Alexandria, its mission and vision started to shrink soon after the Civil War. When you read through the post-war Session minutes, you hear almost nothing about ministry in the city. Rather, you read page after anxious page about everything that is happening “out there” and far too many pages are laden with fearful looks within. Surrounded by a city that needed the witness of God’s love and God’s call to do justice after the Civil War, this once dynamic and faithful church slipped into the sea of irrelevance and closed its doors by the close of the 19th century. It was not reborn until 1949. In hindsight, clearly the enemy for that church was not “out there” but “in here.”
The obvious problem with viewing the church as a safe-unchanging-sanctuary, a place to hide from everything and from all those “out there” is that God does not divide the world the way we do. Just as Jesus refused to stay any one place for long, but kept leading his disciples to bring hope in long forbidden places and healing to long despised people, so too the risen Jesus calls us out of our safe sanctuaries, out from our most frightening fears, to love and bring justice to a world that God so loves.
One of my first images of Cove is when many of you stood at the front of this sanctuary, holding high, handmade signs that spelled out: “WE CHOOSE WELCOME.” I soon learned that that was not just a pious moment or an empty sign. You are a community of Christians who refuse to exclude any “child” of God from your compassion and love, whether that “child” is an infant or nearly turning one hundred. I know that even more today than when I had to leave you in early June. You are a “great” body of Christ.
Throughout my ministry, I have served and visited other “great” congregations here and abroad. What is true of “great” congregations is that they know that to love God and to follow Jesus requires moving out of safe and familiar confines, looking to love and to do justice not just “in here” but also “out there.”
Another mark of greatness in this text may seem somewhat unrelated, at first, but is actually its twin. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus serve as walking examples of what is not “great.” They speak when they should keep silent and they are silent when they should speak. “Great,” then, is the church that knows when to speak and when to keep silent. Living amid the daily terror of the south Bronx twenty years ago, Lutheran pastor, Heidi Neumark writes about keeping a holy silence. She asks: “Why does silence matter? I went on a retreat, and the moment that the leader gave us permission to be silent, I walked to the woods and dissolved in tears of gratitude for the quiet, which has so often been unattainable . . . I overestimated myself. I can’t survive without some silence. I need it like I need air to clear out my mind and restore my heart” (Breathing Space, p. 58). “Great” is the church that knows when and how to speak out boldly for justice and mercy and also knows when to keep a holy silence, so that it can hear the voice of God above all the commotion of life and can hear all the cries from the “child” out there.
“Great,” in the preaching of Jesus, are those who know when to speak and all those who know when to honor silence. For Jesus, “great” are often those that we never notice or are surprised when we learn that they did this or said that.
Those who worship at Cove may know something about Nick Morgan, who died too soon a few weeks ago. Did you know that Nick was a Presbyterian pastor and attended the same Seminary that Jane and I attended? Did you know that Nick was one of the first people to say, “Gary, sign me up” when I looked for Cove recruits to tutor at the Red Hill Elementary School? Did you know that Nick was a major force in Virginia Voice, a non-profit that provides readings of various publications for those who are vision impaired? Did you know that Nick loved God, loved Katie, loved his children and Katie’s children, and their grandchildren with unstoppable love? Jesus tells his disciples, scrambling around to be “great” that “whoever wants to be ‘great’ must be last of all and servant of all” (author’s paraphrase). By those standards, in my book, Nick Morgan was “great.”
“Great” people, “great” churches gather to worship and they get up from worship to go where suffering is too common and despair reigns like a heavy weight. “Great” people, “great” churches do not give up on those who have given up on the church, because too many people “out there,” and even some “in here,” have only experienced a church that keeps the “child” silent or is silent when the “child” is left behind.
The Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel invites us to hold close every “child” and to celebrate that in God’s communion calculus there is no “in here” and “out there.” Jesus invites us to follow him in holy silence and in courageous speech. He invites the church to follow his servant lead; he invites us to be “great.”