Friday, September 25, 2009

In the name of Jesus....come!

Some people brought children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples scolded the people. When Jesus noticed this, he was angry and said to his disciples, "Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, because the Kingdom f God belongs to such as these. I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it." Then he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on each of them, and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16

Here is Jesus deep in teaching his disciples. This is serious stuff. Then along come some people who have brought their children to Jesus so that he can “place his hands on them”. Mark does not tell us more than this so we are not really sure what these parents were doing bringing their children to Jesus. Was it healing for illness? A blessing? Or simply the touch of a holy person on their child? One thing we do know is that they are taking a big risk here.

Children were invisible. Non-persons until they reached the age of 7 or 8 years of age. They had no voice. No place. The old adage “Children should be seen and not heard” went a step further in that ‘children should not be seen or heard’ and most certainly they should not intrude into the work of an illustrious Rabbi/teacher such as Jesus who is busy teaching his disciples.

We are told that the disciples ‘scolded’ the parents. They told them off. You can just picture the disciples telling these parents with their broods of children to ‘Nick off’. And rightfully so. How dare they transgress social boundaries in this way! How dare they take up Jesus’ time with these children! Jesus is much too important for this.

Now notice how Jesus reacts. I wonder if he was thinking something along the line ‘Haven’t these disciples heard anything I have just said?” as it is recorded only a few verses early that Jesus said to receive children was to receive him (Jesus) and the one who sent him (God). So he scolds the disciples. “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them….” Strong words. He provides open access to himself for these invisible silenced ones. But he doesn't stop there. Why should the disciples let the children come? Is it because Jesus simply wants them to come? No, it is something greater than that.

“Let the children come….because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” These children are the keepers of the Kingdom of God. They are once again held up as a role model for the disciples. Do you want to know what it is to be in the Kingdom…then look at these children. Do you want to know what it is to be a disciple of Jesus…then look at these children. Then Jesus turns on the disciples even more. “I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” This point is not open to further discussion or debate. Jesus simply states a fact. Let’s think about this a bit.

Have you ever paid close attention to a child as they receive a present from someone? There is an intensity, a focus that seems to consume them. They cannot sit still for a minute and usually in the background you will hear the adult voices of parents or grandparents or some responsible person telling them to just “Wait” or “Be Patient”. But they cannot wait. The excitement spills over into physical energy. There is much joy. Anticipation.

If we think of receiving the Kingdom of God like a child then how is it then that we, as Christians, seem so uninspired by the Kingdom that is now ours through faith in Jesus? Where is our joy? Our excitement? Our sense of anticipation? Is it any wonder that people outside the church…outside the faith…do not see Jesus or our relationship with him as anything special. They look into our lives…they listen to our voices…they see our faces…and do they see or hear anything of the joy, the excitement, the hope, the confidence that comes from having Jesus as our personal Saviour?

There is also the fact that a child cannot earn the gift. They cannot work to earn and save money. They have no political or bargaining power. They have no physical presence as far as the society of the day is concerned. Remember this was a time when a parent could kill a rebellious child or nail them by the ear to a door or sell them into child welfare officers and certainly no bill of children's rights. It is powerlessness in the extreme. Yet this is where the kingdom of God exists. Among the powerless. The invisible. The silenced.

What this means for you and me is that we don't have to have our lives all sorted out and together to get into the kingdom of God. It means that we don't have to be 'holy' people or 'spiritual' people to get into the kingdom of God. What it does mean is that we can live in childlike faith and come to our loving God and Father knowing that he will give us all that we need. Jesus said, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)

At the same time when we think about this text as a community of faith it raises issues of accessibility and approachability for others. Think about our building for the moment. Can people find us and find their way into our building? Is it a place that looks welcoming? Cared for? Have we taken steps to ensure that people of disability can access all parts of our building? And what about our visitors? Are there signs to help them locate the toilets? Are our buildings and grounds welcoming and encouraging?
Then think about our congregation...How can people join our congregation? Is it easy to become part of our community of faith and are newcomers welcomed and accepted? Can people feel safe here? Do we live and work as a community? Do we clearly say to everyone, "In the name of Jesus, Come"?
The words of Jesus remind that we need to be accessible and welcoming. We need to let people in. We need to reach out to people with welcoming compassion and love and acceptance. For then as we welcome others we are welcomed in turn and, like the children in this reading today, blessed by Jesus.

Friday, September 18, 2009

If you want to be first, you need to be last...

33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."

36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37"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."
Mark 9:33-37

Jesus and his disciples are still on the road, travelling through Galilee. He is seeking time on his own with the disciples so he is trying to remain out of sight of the crowds. In this time together Jesus is continuing to teach them about his work as Messiah and how he must be betrayed, suffer and die, but with the promise of hope, the resurrection. Verse 32 highlights the difficult task that Jesus faced in teaching them as we read:

“But they did not understand what this teaching meant, and they were afraid to ask him.”

Lack of understanding. Fear of looking silly. A lethal combination particularly when applied to your faith. The disciples compounded the difficulty by not asking Jesus. Do not ever hesitate to ask questions about faith, doctrine, teaching or Scripture. One of the best examples we can follow is that of the Bereans Christians who;

“...listened to the message (from Paul) with great eagerness, and every day they studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true.”

They were not afraid to listen, to study, to question, and neither should we.

What is a great irony here, is that these very disciples who do not understand what Jesus is talking about and who are so afraid to question him about the teaching then begin to argue among themselves about who is the greatest. They are like students comparing test scores and end of term reports. They are like pastors discussing how many they worship each week, as in "We worship about 430 at both services." They are anyone who has ever written a memo containing the words "measurable outcomes." Which of the disciples is the star pupil? Who is the greatest?

Jesus catches them out and asks them what they were arguing about knowing full well what their topic was. The disciples are too afraid, too ashamed, too embarrassed to admit it. They act like little children caught in the act of doing something wrong. Whatever you do, don’t say anything that might incriminate yourself.

So Jesus demonstrates that even though the disciples are not admitting anything, he knows full well what they have been arguing about and its implications. For greatness is about power, superiority, authority. Greatness is about being one step up on everyone else. It is about who looks up to whom and who gets to look down on everyone else. This is so much a human way of thinking. It helps us feel good about ourselves when we are able to see ourselves as superior to others. To be the one in authority. To be standing on the higher ground spiritually, morally, personally. But Jesus turns that all upside down. To be ‘first’ in his kingdom is to be ‘last’ and to be a ‘servant’. He is once again trying to get the disciples and us to understand just what his coming is/was all about. He came not in power, but in humble servanthood to take up the debt of our sin and serve both God and us through his willingness to suffer and die for our sins. But then he takes his explanation a step further and quite a radical step for the disciples in his time.

The disciples want to know who is the greatest. The disciples want to know who is the best at following Jesus. Jesus says, "Do you see this child?’ (v36-7) and he presents this child, who was socially invisible in that 1st century culture, as the stand-in for himself. For children had no status. They were subject to the authority of their fathers, viewed as little more than property. In fact until they reached the age of 6-7 years old children were disposable so high were the levels of infant and young child mortality. Now Jesus says that membership within the community of the faithful will involve giving status to those who have none. Accepting such an unimportant member of society in Jesus' name is equivalent to accepting Jesus. And accepting Jesus is equivalent to accepting God. Hospitality, a major aspect of life in the ancient world, is to be extended to the most unlikely, thus challenging traditional notions of status. Hospitality to the unimportant will be a hallmark of the circle of Jesus' followers, as it was in Jesus' own ministry. And this has everything to do with faithfulness to the one whose rejection and death mark the way to glory.

Jesus is telling you and me to start seeing the invisible because to receive the invisible one is to receive Jesus, and to receive Jesus is to receive the one who sent him. In our sacramental theology of Holy Communion it is hearing from the young child who tells you she thinks she is ready to receive communion because, simply, "I can eat." It is recognizing the ministry that every individual of our faith community is carrying out as they seek to live their lives for Christ. It is treating the very people our society would describe as bludgers or outcasts with the same respect we would accord Jesus were he to be standing before us.

It raises an interesting question.

What would our lives look like if we really believed and acted on these words of Jesus?

True greatness is to be like Jesus, a truly powerful person, but who valued himself not because of power but because of his being and his doing the will of God, which meant lowliness, in his case including following the path to the cross. That is all implied in the context of Mark’s story. Jesus in Mark subverts the standard values. He is a king, but wearing a crown of thorns. He is the Christ, but broken on the cross.

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."