Psalm 54; Mark 9:30-37
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 20, 2015
In the first century of the Common Era, fathers in the Roman Empire had absolute power. The term ‘paterfamilias’ entailed more than just head of the family. Only the father could own property; sons would receive an allowance for their own household until their father died. Fathers could decide whether a child lived or died or was to be sold into slavery, even if the child only angered their father. When a child was born, the midwife would place the baby on the ground. If the father picked up the newborn, then the child was formally accepted into the family. The father could also choose not to pick up the baby for any reason: deformity, female gender, or unwanted children for lack of support. The child would then be placed outside in a particular place and abandoned. Some of these children survived as slaves; others died of exposure.
When Jesus took a little child and placed it amongst his disciples, no doubt they knew of this barbaric practice of the Roman Empire. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest, right after Jesus predicted his death. Which amounts to no more than a you-know-what contest. In today’s lingo we might have heard the words “Who’s your Daddy?”
Jesus pulls the focus off the disciples and places it squarely where it belongs. In Judaism the purpose of one’s life was (and still is) to pass the Torah and its teachings on to one’s children. There is no higher calling, no greater pride. But with Jesus we know it’s not just one’s own children, not just the children of Israel. By picking up this child and inviting the disciples to welcome such a child and thus Jesus as well, Jesus is doing something really quite radical. He is telling his disciples that they are to welcome the abandoned, the lost, those on the margins, and to claim them as one of their own; and that when they do so, they welcome him—the slave and servant of all.
During the terrible Hindu/Muslim riots that occurred after India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike to end the violence. As he lay closer to death than life, a Hindu man stormed into his presence, crazed with anger and grief. He told Gandhi that a Muslim man had killed his son; he was only about so high. The Hindu man, the boy’s father, in his anger and grief, killed a Muslim boy in retaliation. He shouted at Gandhi that he was going to hell. How could he find a way out of hell? Gandhi said he knew a way. He told the Hindu man to find a boy without parents, about so high, the same age as his dead son, but he must be a Muslim boy and he must raise him as a Muslim. This was how he could find a way out of hell.
Most, if not all, salvation stories have children as agents of change, redemption, and peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11: 6) Yet children are not only our future but our right now, this minute, can’t wait any longer. Children have the power to save us each day of our lives, if we’re lucky to live with them or pass by them in our daily routine. They can save us from being self-absorbed, greedy, depressed, angry, and lonely, just by being themselves. Children remind us that we are all worthy of love, simply because we draw breath.
The Syrian refugee crisis became more real to us in the West when photos of a small boy washed up on a beach appeared on social media and news outlets. We felt more keenly the sheer desperation and powerlessness of Syrian families fleeing their country to find safety and a new life on other shores. How many of our own grandparents, great-grandparents, great-greats brought their children to this country for the same reasons?
How many of us, moved and outraged as we are, are ready to receive ones such as these into our own homes and claim them as one of our own? I struggle with this in my own heart. I have more than enough room in my house. But then I think of my own family, of college bills, and my own children’s futures. I think of homeless folks right here in Newark and wonder how it is we cannot work together to find a way for them to have a safe, decent place to live. Every day, in varying degrees, people are placed in our midst—the abandoned, the lost, those on the margins—and we don’t know how it is we should claim them as our own. Or we feel powerless to do so. How are we who are first in so many ways to be last and servant of all?
This isn’t a message with answers or even some cold comfort. I don’t know yet what the answer is. But I do know that it all comes back to vulnerability. Children are the most vulnerable among us and they remind us of our own vulnerability, of our interdependence on one another, of our responsibility to one another. Or they ought to. Children remind us that we are all somebody’s child. Humanity behaves as though we no longer need a parent, but that is precisely when we need a power greater than ourselves. And a God who loves unconditionally is the most vulnerable of all.
This is what the story of that child in the manger, of the incarnation, is all about. It’s a story of a refugee family, of a child born in with the animals because someone who owned property wouldn’t make room for him and his parents. It’s the story of every child whose parents had to choose unsafe passage to another country because remaining where they were was unthinkable. It’s the story of the divine seeking a connection, a relationship with us so intimate, that it’s willing to be weak and vulnerable to claim each of us as God’s child.
How can we, an Open and Affirming church, open our welcome even more? Lord Jesus, show us how to be slave and servant of all. Amen.