18TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 23, 2018

18TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Passage: Jeremiah 11:18-20

Throughout the early days of Jesus’ ministry, he was something of a rock star – it seemed he couldn’t do anything wrong (so far as the crowds were concerned). He was healing people, casting out demons, and he was preaching with a kind of authority – real authority – unlike anything they’d ever experienced. Wherever he went, hope was growing. They weren’t sure exactly who he was, but they sure liked what they were seeing.

And Jesus asked the disciples at one point, Who do people say that I am? And they answered him,

Some think you’re Elijah, come back from the dead, or one of the other prophets.

Hmm, said Jesus, But who do you so that I am?

And Peter answered (probably on behalf of all of them), The Messiah.

Well done, said Jesus. You’re right. But here’s the thing, I don’t want you telling anyone else right now, because you’ve only got the half the story.

And then he began to share a whole lot more about who he was, and what the full scope of this ministry would look like. And the things he shared weren’t nearly as appealing as what they’d experienced so far. Jesus was going to be betrayed. He was going to be rejected by the whole religious establishment. He was going to be killed.

For the disciples, I imagine this new insight was similar to what it’s like for kids as they transition into adulthood. The picture they’ve had of their parents is true, it’s just not complete. The love, the care, the will to provide – that’s all still there. But as kids become adults they begin discover the complexity of who their parents are – their vulnerabilities, their struggles. It’s a necessary transition, but it can be unsettling.

So something akin to that has just happened for the disciples – this Jesus they’re following, the Messiah!, well, he’s not the “parent” they thought they had. The future’s suddenly far less secure and now they’re uncomfortable. He’s talking a bunch of craziness about betrayal and being killed and rising again. (Whatever that means!) and the story says, They did not understand…and they were afraid to ask.

Isn’t that just the way we always respond? Something comes up that we don’t understand; it makes us uncomfortable; and in our discomfort, rather than just go and get some clarity (like a grown up!), we get afraid and then… we start to behave badly. For the disciples, they start arguing amongst themselves. They start arguing about which of them was the greatest!

Now, I doubt that was the stated topic of the debate; they were probably more subtle than that. But by the time Mark is writing this story several years later, he just calls it for what it was, Yeah – they were a bunch of insecure little blowhards. They got frightened by what Jesus had said and started jockeying amongst themselves. Each of them was anxious to prove that he had the strength, the wisdom, the charisma, the whatever (!) to fill in this gap they saw emerging in their leader.

But Jesus is no fool. He knows what going on. He doesn’t say anything at the time. He just lets them carry on. But then when they arrive home in Capernaum, he asks them (all innocent-like!) What were you talking about while we were walking?

They were silent.

So he sat down and says, You want to be great? You want to be first? You want God to think you’re awesome? Well, you’ve got it entirely upside-down. If you want to be first, you’ve got to be last. You’ve got to become a servant to everyone.

And there was this child nearby. It didn’t say who it was. They were probably at Peter’s house, so it could have been one of his kids or a niece or nephew. And Jesus takes this kid and the story says, he put it among them.

I wonder what happened at that point. How long did Jesus leave the child there, waiting, watching, looking to see if any of them would do anything. But no one does. So Jesus swoops down and picks her up.

Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes God.

You know what God thinks is great? When you’re at a party and everyone’s hobnobbing with everyone else, but the person you most want to be with, the one who intrigues you and you think is worth knowing, is the child upstairs playing with Legos; when you’re at church and a little kid makes noise in the back and you miss something that’s said up front and the first thought that comes to your mind is, I’m so glad that baby’s here. I’d like to meet her.

Because the spirit that welcomes the child, values the child. She’s not someone to be tolerated until she finally becomes an adult like the rest of us. She’s worthy and desirable right now.

I remember when I was little there was a Christmas Day when my brother got sick. And we all felt really sorry for Mike (there’s nothing so miserable or just plain unjust as being a child sick on Christmas). But the pressing concern was that it was our year to host Christmas; we had 20 extended family members coming to dinner that night who we didn’t want to infect, so the sicko better stay in his room while everyone else cooks and cleans and sprays Lysol on all the doorknobs.

And so poor Mike spent Christmas Day in bed, feeling miserable. He could hear the guests arriving – talking and laughing, the clink of cutlery on twenty-odd plates, as they feasted on that once-a-year perfect meal. But then, later in the evening, Uncle Roger heard that Mike was sick, sequestered in his bedroom. And so he walked down the hallway, knocked on the door, and went into his room to sit and talk and wish him a Merry Christmas.

I’ve always remembered that. In our family, avoiding a sick person was an unquestioned virtue; you do whatever’s necessary to avoid being infected. But along comes Roger, who’s never claimed to be a Christian of any sort. He certainly wasn’t “welcoming one such child in Jesus’ name” (if you want to be a purist). But it seems to me, on that Christmas Day, there was just one person in that whole house who actually greeted the Christ Child in his manger, for whoever welcomes such a child welcomes Jesus.

For, if this is our posture, if this is the way we’re drawn to care for those around us, it means we’ve discovered the Secret of the Kingdom of Heaven – that everyone is worthy, everyone is beautiful, everyone is worth knowing and honoring, because everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. Like C. S. Lewis once observed, if we were actually able to see the distinctive, untarnished glory that resides in each of our neighbors, we would be tempted to worship them.

We might be tarnished. We might behave in ways that are anything but godly. But nothing we do can eclipse the fact that we are made as image bearers of God. And blessed be the one who has discovered that to be true.

A few years ago I helped chaperone a group of 7th graders on a three day trip to the Oregon coast. It was unseasonably warm, but still, it was only May. And we’d hiked about a mile or so to get to some beach. And I watched these seventh graders playing on the edge of the surf, bit by bit letting the waves get them wetter and wetter. Now, mind you, they weren’t wearing swimsuits. They were in jeans and sweatshirts. And as I sat watching them, I knew what would happen next. I knew that it was only a matter of time before they’d be totally wet.

And I thought to myself, Fools. They’re going to have to hike back up that trail, over a mile, in their wet, salty, sandy jeans, chafing at the thighs. Bleh. Fools.

But the longer I sat there, smug in my adult superiority to able to foresee the consequences of our actions, I began to realize, But look how much joy they’re having right now. And look at you, you boring, judgmental, middle-aged man.  Look at their ability to delight in this world, right now, to live in the moment without fear of what may come.

You see, just as each of us is uniquely made in the image of God, so I believe each stage of our lives is uniquely gifted to discern and embody a distinct aspect of the God we resemble. And one of the ways God is revealed in scripture is as always being fully present to the moment. Not in the past. Not in the future. But right now. After all, consider then name God chooses: “I Am.” Who is God? but a verb in the present tense: I am who I am.

So whether they were cognizant of it or not, in their joy and watery abandon, these 7th graders were entering into the wonder and aliveness of God – an aliveness that became blessing to me only once I was able to see them, in that moment, as my superiors.

When we welcome the child, we welcome the very presence of God among us.

But when we reject the child, the same principle applies, and we are rejecting God.

We learned this past week that Mahmoud’s visa application was denied. Mahmoud is the Iraqi orphan whose legs were blown off in a battle with ISIS. St. John’s was sponsoring him to visit Gig Harbor where he’d be fitted with custom-made prosthetic legs. But apparently the state department has determined that Iraqi Muslims are too threatening to our country. A legless, 16 year old boy is unwelcome here. So all his hope is dashed. But our borders are secure. And in our fear, we’ve managed to keep God out, God who was to visit us in the form of Iraqi orphan.

When the nations argue about who is the greatest, the poor and the weak and the orphaned and the children have no place in the debate.

But we are followers of Jesus. We follow a different voice, a voice that proclaims that true greatness is found, not in power and strength and self-preservation, but in laying our lives down to serve the child.

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

For whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcome not me but the one who sent me.

If we want to find God, let us welcome the child among us.