At the age of ten, I made the decision I wanted to go to overnight camp at the Episcopal Camp associated with the Diocese of Dallas, where my family was living at the time. As anyone knows, who has either gone to camp or prepared a child for camp, there is always a long list of things to bring. In this case, every camper was required to bring a Bible. The only problem, in my house we didn’t have any Bibles. So my mother bought a children’s Bible for me to bring. I am not sure why this particular Bible was dubbed a “children’s Bible.” The text was King James, the print pin sized, and yes, the words of Jesus were written in red. In fact, the only thing this particular Bible had to do with children was its cover. On the cover was a wonderful painting of Jesus sitting under a great Oak tree surrounded by cherubic, Caucasian children in togas. To be honest, the scene was beautiful, and whenever I think of Jesus and children this picture always comes to mind.
Unfortunately, while the painting was peaceful and pastoral, it was and is anything but historically accurate. It was, as one person wrote, “the domestication of Jesus.” where through the centuries, we have taken the radical message of Jesus and tamed it to our needs.
In today’s reading from Mark, the child is brought into the Gospel story, not to give the reader a sense of warm fuzziness, but to make a profound, if not radical, point as tohow drastically different the Reign of God is in comparison to the Roman Empire. This
discussion is about power and authority. It seems somewhere along the way the disciples got into an argument over who was the greatest among them. In essence, what they were really trying to determine was who Jesus considered to be his number two, i.e. who would take over the movement if anything happened to Jesus.
I guess back then, even among Jesus’ disciples the pecking order was important. It appears, no matter how small or poor the movement may have been, from the disciples perspective, with rank, comes privileges, or at least a release from the most mundane of responsibilities.
Jesus, however, had a different take on this. As our writer tells us this morning, according to Jesus, authority does not lead to power and prestige, instead authority leads to humility and responsibility. To illustrate his point, Jesus takes a little child into his arms and tells the disciples “whoever welcomes the child, welcomes Him.” The lesson Jesus is teaching his disciples in today’s Gospel is the same lesson he demonstrates at the Last Supper when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.
Foot washing and small children in ancient Palestine went hand-in-hand. Foot washing was considered the most menial and demeaning of tasks reserved for the lowest member of a household. In most households, this job would have been reserved for the youngest child of the servant class as there was no such thing as child labor laws back then. Nor were there laws as we have today protecting the rights of children. Children were viewed as the property of the father. And those children who were members of the servant class were truly the lowliest and most powerless of the low. They were also the servant to all. Their plight, whether it was hunger, neglect or abuse, would have been largely ignored by the Roman Empire.
What Jesus is ultimately trying to convey to his disciples, and the writer to us, is the mission or ministry of the church is not to itself, or for the powerful. Instead, our mission is to be servants to those whom no one else is willing to serve.
As I read this passage, I had to ask myself, if Jesus were standing in the pulpit today, who he would embrace today and tell us to serve.
Several years ago, while on a youth mission trip to Toronto, participants were taken on a tour of the downtown area at sunset. We were instructed to look for the invisible not the visible. To look for the homeless, for young male prostitutes being picked up by johns in expensive sports cars and not look at the buildings and other land marks. I was amazed at how much we saw that evening as our eyes were opened to what is so easily overlooked by those of us who easily choose to turn a blind eye. I wonder, how we would respond if Jesus embraced a street person while in our midst and told us we welcome him when we welcome the street person. How uncomfortable would we be if a street person walked into St. Luke’s, dirty and smelling of the streets, not looking for anything more from us than to worship with us?
Several years ago, Bishop Adams shared with a group of clergy a story of how he brought this question from hypothetical to reality. While serving in one of his previous parishes, a friend of his, who happened to be an actress, offered to come to his church dressed as a street person. They agreed this would happen on a day when there was a community meal taking place.
When the day arrived, the woman arrived at the event well past the start time as many were beginning to take their seats. Skip commented that it was amazing to watch. Nobody was outwardly rude, because Episcopalians are never rude. Instead, she was simply ignored, as if invisible when she walked through the room looking to be invited to sit down. As the evening was ending, Skip revealed who this woman really was, and explained why she had come the way she had. I am sure many in attendance were embarrassed and red faced by the event. But this really was not the intent of the experiment. It was simply to provide an opportunity to build an awareness of how we all fall short of truly living the Gospel.
Intellectually it is easy to agree and support the teachings of Christ as it is only natural to interpret and justify the Gospel based on our own assumptions and prejudices. We all want to believe that we are compassionate people . . willing to serve the poorest of the poor. But when the Gospel message begins to challenge our assumptions and world view, then our relationship with Christ is shaken as our self – perceptions are questioned.
I can imagine all of the disciples wanted to challenge Jesus’ insistence on serving the child in the same way Peter balked when Jesus insisted on washing his feet at the Last Supper. They all believed they were good followers, who truly understood his message. They were all surprised by Jesus command to serve a child in the same way they had chosen to serve him. And, I am sure they all struggled to understand what it meant to serve in order to lead.
Ultimately, however, I believe what Jesus did for his disciples was to make them aware of how blind they were in regard to their own level of compassion. To remind them, that the mission of the church is not to one group of people over another, but to all. And to remind us, that as servants of Christ, no matter what our presumptions or prejudices may tell us, there is no one, not a soul . . who can be deemed unworthy or too lowly to experience the redemptive love of Christ through us.