Welcome the Child (a lesson in arrogance)

Mark 9:30-37

There’s a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy called The Three Hermits.  He tells about a bishop who was sailing from Archangel to Solovotsk with a group of pilgrims when he overheard a fisherman telling them about three hermits who lived in an earthen hut on an island that was at that moment just barely visible at the horizon.  According to the fisherman, these three hermits were very holy men who spent their days praying for the salvation of their souls and for the needs of the world.  The fisherman had met them the previous year when his boat was damaged and he put in to their island to repair it.

‘One is a small man and his back is bent,” said the fisherman. “He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey color. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.”

The bishop was intrigued, and, because this small unnamed island fell within the territory of his authority, he convinced the ship’s captain to bring him to the island.  The captain brought the ship as close to the rocky shore of the island as he dared, and the bishop was able land on the island in the ship’s boat.  As he stepped ashore, the three hermits came to greet him.  The old men bowed to him and he made the sign of the cross and blessed them, at which they bowed even lower.

“I have heard,’ said the bishop, “that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.”

The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.

“Tell me,’ said the Bishop, ‘what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.”

The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:  “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”

“But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”  And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!”

The Bishop smiled as he told them they were praying incorrectly.  With that he launched into a brief lecture on theology and how God had been revealed in the world and in the scriptures.  And then, because it was the prayer Jesus had taught his disciples and because it is written in the scriptures, he began to teach them the Lord’s Prayer.  

The three hermits, who had spent years mostly in silence, struggled as they tried to learn the prayer the bishop was teaching them, but eventually, after several hours and much repetition, they seemed to have learned it.

It was getting dark and the moon was rising over the sea as the bishop returned to the boat.  As he bid them farewell, the old hermits bowed down to the ground.  The bishop raised them up and kissed them, then reminded them to keep praying in the way he had taught them.  As the ship made for the open water, the bishop could still see the three old men standing by the shore, their voices floating across the water as they practiced saying the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them.  The bishop sat in the stern, contented, as the ship sailed on and the island disappeared below the horizon.

It was a pleasant night, so the bishop continued to sit in the stern, thinking and gazing out across the sea as the moonlight sparkled and danced across the waves.  Suddenly he saw something white and shining on the pathway the moon was casting upon the sea.  Was it a gull, or perhaps the sail of another ship?  The bishop realized that it was moving toward them very rapidly.

The bishop called to the helmsman, “What is that, my friend?  What is it?”  the 

Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was—the three hermits were running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining.  They were approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not moving.  

The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror. “Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!” 

The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. 

Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

“Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”

The Bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.[1]

Sometimes a lack of humility—or worse, our own arrogant assumptions—can keep us from seeing and hearing what’s right in front of us.  We can be blinded by our own agendas or preconceptions or sense of self-importance so that we fail to see that the people around us are children of God, created in the divine image and likeness of God.  We forget our common humanity.  It’s just part of human nature. 

One day, after a long day on the road, Jesus asked his disciples what they had been arguing about as they made their way back to Capernaum.  They didn’t answer his question because they were ashamed that they had been arguing about who was the greatest.  

After all this time travelling with Jesus as he taught about the equity and equality that were the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, after listening to him talk about his own pending crucifixion and humiliation, it seems that they still had it in their heads that the kingdom Jesus was ushering in would be something like a conventional kingdom.  They were imagining themselves in some future positions of influence and power.  But Jesus had been trying to teach them that God’s kingdom wasn’t like that at all.  

Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton, points out that here in chapter nine of Mark we see a pattern repeated from chapter eight.  The pattern goes like this: a) Jesus predicts his suffering, execution and resurrection;  b) the disciples either fail to grasp or refuse to accept what he’s teaching them;  then c) Jesus leads them through a teaching moment and expands the definition of discipleship.

“Why this repetition?” asks Dr. Black. “Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them.”[2] 

It’s easy for us to feel a little smug about the disciples being so slow on the uptake, but then we would  be committing the same sin of arrogance that they were as they jockeyed for status.  We need to remember that we know how the story turns out, but they were living in the middle of it.

When Peter opposed Jesus’ destiny in chapter eight, Jesus responded by roundly chastising him. Here in chapter nine, though, Jesus very quietly teaches them about humility without humiliating them.  

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  

He doesn’t criticize them for wanting to be first, to have the highest ranking.  Instead, he tells them what it takes to accomplish that.  If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.

To prove his point, Jesus takes a little child in his arms.  It’s easy for us to miss the point of what he’s doing here, and there’s a temptation to over-sentimentalize it.  But he’s giving them a very clear object lesson—at least it was clear to them in their culture.  

The word we translate as “little child,” paidion, was also another way to say “slave.”  Think in terms of, “tell the boy to get me a drink,” or “tell the girl to clear the table.”  The “boy” or the “girl” might be full-grown adults, but they’re not seen that way.  The double meaning worked because in the ancient world of the disciples, a child, like a slave, had the least status of anyone.  As Professor Black explains, “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. But in Jesus’ presence a little child literally has ‘standing’.” 

  “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,”  said Jesus.  The disciples had almost certainly overlooked that child before Jesus picked her up and took her in his lap.  They probably couldn’t imagine that they might learn something from that child, any more than the bishop in Tolstoy’s story could imagine that he might learn something from three old hermits on a remote island.  In their pride, the disciples probably just saw a kid, maybe even one who was kind of in the way, a distraction from their lesson in spirituality.  Who would have thought that the child would be their lesson in spirituality?  

If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.  If you want to embrace Christ, you need to embrace everyone, even people with no status whatsoever.  Even a child.  You might be surprised.  You might discover that they can run across the water and shine like the moon.

[1] The Three Hermits, Leo Tolstoy; The Literacy Network, http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2896/

[2] Commentary on Mark 9:30-37, C. Clifton Black; WorkingPreacher.org, 9/19/21

Catch the Wind

But some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:5

Sometimes it takes the Church a while to get in sync with what the Spirit is doing. That’s nothing new. You don’t have to read too deeply into the Book of Acts to see that this has been the story of the Church from the very beginning. The Holy Spirit keeps surprising the members and leaders of the nascent Church by inviting, inspiring and embracing persons they would never have thought to invite into their movement. The apostles keep trying to do the right thing as they see it, but the Spirit often has other plans.

Take the appointment of Matthias, for instance. In the first chapter of Acts the disciples decide that they need to replace Judas. Apparently they’re just uncomfortable with a core leadership of eleven. Twelve is a better number—much better mojo than eleven. So they find two men who meet the job qualifications, Justus and Matthias. They roll the dice and Matthias wins the job. And then he promptly disappears from the pages of the New Testament. The Spirit, it seems, had other ideas about who the new 12th Apostle should be. We’ll come back to that.

It takes the Church a while to work things out, to figure out who they are, to figure out that the Spirit is radically inclusive in ways that push their buttons and stretch their boundaries. It takes them a while, for instance, to accept that the Holy Spirit is embracing both Hebrews and Hellenists, two Jewish groups who were pretty good at finding reasons to dislike each other, into Jesus’ family of faith. You can find hints that it’s not all peaches and cream between these two groups in chapters 6, 9 and 11.

Imagine how startled they all are when Philip baptizes a Samaritan sorcerer named Simon (chapter 8). Is new life in Christ available for Samaritans? How can it be possible that a magician is acceptable? Doesn’t Deuteronomy 18 clearly say that we’re to have nothing to do with magicians? Doesn’t Leviticus 20 say that they should be put to death? But Philip just goes and baptizes him because the Spirit moved Simon Magus to believe in Jesus!

Oh, and then there’s the Ethiopian eunuch. Talk about a guy who’s cut off! This is a guy who had to stand outside the temple to pray (Leviticus 21, Deuteronomy 23). But the Holy Spirit hand delivers Philip to the side of his chariot so he can lead the Ethiopian through a Bible study in Isaiah and explain that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophesy he’s reading. And once again, thanks to a handy pool at the side of the road, Philip goes ahead and baptizes him—makes him part of the Church! He’s not allowed in the temple, but Philip brings him immediately into the company of Jesus whether the company likes it or not.

This is the repeating thread of the Book of Acts. The boundaries are stretched. The door is pressed open a little wider every time. The Spirit pushes aside their preconceptions of just who can be part of the movement, just who can belong in the Church of Jesus. And apparently the invitation is open to people you would least suspect or ever imagine.

Let’s go back to Matthias. The Spirit certainly put Matthias to good use. Tradition says he preached in Judea, Cappadocia, Aethiopia and, eventually Georgia (the one next to Russia, not the one next to Alabama). But useful, honorable and productive as he was, God had someone else in mind to be the designated hitter and it turned out to be someone that the other 11 would never have thought of in a million years.

If you had told the apostles on that chapter one day as they rolled the dice for Matthias that Jesus was going to make a guy who was viciously persecuting the church, a guy who would stand approvingly as the official witness as one of their own was stoned to death—if you had told them that a guy they feared more than anyone would end up being tagged by the Spirit to become the most enthusiastic and productive of all the apostles, they would have thought you were possessed. And not in a good Holy Spirit kind of way. But resurrected Jesus, himself, appeared to Saul of Tarsus and set him on a path that would convert him from Persecutor Saul into the Apostle Paul. Jesus invited the Church’s worst enemy to become one of its greatest leaders. You’d better believe it took the Church a while to get used to having him around and to accept that he really was one of them. See Acts 9 for details.

And then came the most difficult transition of all. In chapter 10, Peter has a vision where God shows him every kind of animal and invites him to “kill and eat.” Peter protests that he has always kept kosher and, gosh, thank you, but “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” says God, and repeats the lesson a couple of times just to be sure Peter gets it. Then the Spirit sends Peter to the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. An Italian. A gentile.

I don’t think we can adequately grasp in our day and age just what a huge leap this was and just how difficult it was for the Church, which still understood itself as a Jewish movement, indeed, saw itself as the fulfillment of all that it meant to be Jewish—how difficult it was for them to accept that Gentiles were being invited to join the fold. We can get a hint, of course. In chapter 11, Peter is called to task and has to defend his decision to baptize Cornelius and all his household. In chapter 15 the apostles all assemble in Jerusalem in the first Council of the Church to decide if gentile believers have to be circumcised and keep Jewish dietary laws. And even after the Council makes its decision the issue isn’t entirely put to bed—it continues to rear its head in Galatians, Ephesians and Romans. And that’s part of the problem. Instead of seeing them as persons whom Jesus loves and the Spirit has called, some believers, especially the Pharisees, continue to see them as an issue. But the Spirit blows where it wills (John 3), and the door gets opened ever wider.

This is the history of the Church: the Spirit opens the door ever wider. It takes time, sometimes, for the Church to catch up. It takes time for people to realize that women and men can sit together in worship. It takes time for people to accept that worship doesn’t have to be conducted in the language the grandparents brought from the old country. It takes some getting used to the idea that Germans and Swedes and Danes and Norwegians can all be part of the same denomination or even the same congregation. It takes time to agree that women don’t have to wear hats. Or gloves. It takes time to accept that persons of all races and ethnic backgrounds can sing together in the same choir and sit together in the same pews. It takes time to agree that divorce is no reason to exclude someone from Christ’s table. It takes time to realize that 1950 has come and gone and that’s not a bad thing–good riddance to it. It takes time to realize that these other people who puzzle us or make us wary are also called by Christ and moved by the Spirit to participate fully in our family of faith. It takes time to stop thinking of them as an issue and start to see them as persons. And yet the story of our faith from the Book of Acts to the present day is a story of God opening the door ever wider no matter how often we try to close it.

In my own congregation we are taking steps toward becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. That means that we would make a positive statement of invitation to our LGBTQ neighbors and actively invite them to join us at the Little Church With A Big Heart. I wonder, though, if we aren’t being too careful in our process, in our efforts to give our members a chance to ask questions and state opinions and voice their anxieties. As I read the Book of Acts I note that God did not call a congregational meeting or present a series of articles on Evangelizing the Stranger before sending Philip to Simon Magus and the Ethiopian eunuch. Jesus didn’t take the church through a Bible Study on Conversion before yanking Saul off the Damascus Road and drop-kicking him into leadership in the movement he once tried to destroy. The Spirit did not prepare a series of instructive sermons on inclusiveness before sending him to the Gentile Roman Commander with the words “You must not call profane what I have made clean” still ringing in his ears.

We must not call profane what God has made clean. I must not think of anyone as an “outsider” if God is inviting everyone inside. And most of all, I need to remember that in this strange and wonderful organism called the Body of Christ there is room even for me. A gentile.