Isaiah 11:6-9; Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16
Jesus and the disciples had been traveling together for weeks, walking through the countryside of Galilee. Jesus’ following was growing, and the disciples were in the middle of it, right next to the one making it all happen. A few days earlier, Jesus had told them, for a second time, that he was going to be killed. So we can maybe understand why the disciples were arguing as they walked, debating which of them was the greatest. It’s possible they were trying to figure out which of them would be the one to step in and take charge if there was trouble, who would be at the top of the hierarchy if quick decisions had to be made. After all, it is important to know whose voice to listen to when there is a crisis.
Perhaps the disciples were walking a little way behind Jesus, having this argument of theirs out of earshot; talking in hushed voices, that grew increasingly louder as they debated the question of who, among them, was the greatest.
They arrived at the house in Capernaum, and as they began to seat themselves around the table, Jesus casually asks, “So what were you arguing about on the way?” There is an awkward silence as the disciples look down at their feet and glance across the table at one another.
They don’t have to say anything, of course. Jesus knows. He speaks into the silence saying,” Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he calls to one of the children who has been playing nearby. As the child bursts into the room he invites the child into the circle, to come close to Jesus. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me,” he says. “And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus uses the word “welcome” four times, did you notice? He shifts the conversation. It’s as if he is saying, “You’re arguing about the wrong thing. What I am doing, what we are doing, is not about power or greatness, it’s about welcome.”
Jesus’ invitation to the child is striking because in that culture children were at the bottom of the totem pole. Hospitality and welcome were offered first to the most important person in the room. In any social setting it was critical to know who had the highest status—who was the greatest--so that everyone knew who to pay the most attention to. Children were welcomed last, if they were welcomed at all. They were on par with the servants--always present, but like the wait staff who quietly bring the food and whisk away the plates, their role was to not be noticed.
Jesus was teaching the disciples a lesson about God’s kingdom. By bringing a child into the center of the room he presented a living picture of what God’s order looks like. But the illustration was lost on the disciples.
As Jesus sent the child back out to play, the disciples immediately changed the subject. In the passage that follows, they begin a new debate about who is authorized to heal in Jesus’ name, returning to their concerns about control, still stuck in their vision of greatness and hierarchy.
When Isaiah spoke the words of God’s vision of peace for the world, the Israelites were living in a time of deep distress and political turmoil. God’s people were awaiting a righteous king, but they were getting the sense that it wouldn’t happen in their lifetime and they had lost hope for the immediate future.
In the midst of their unsettled lives Isaiah prophesied to the people, telling them that the state of disaster they were in wasn’t permanent. Telling them that God has a vision for a different kind of world. It will be a place so safe that children can play securely and unafraid. A place where a child leads a lion around like a kitten, and the wolf and the lamb come running along behind.
A place where Creation is restored, and those within it are no longer combative, divided or competing for power and greatness.
It’s not easy to envision a place where children lead around giant beasts, and where wolves leave lambs alone instead of devouring them. When I hear this description of the peaceable kingdom, I have a hard time imagining a path to the radical transformation of our world that is so full of brokenness, injustice, and despair.
A few weeks ago one of my friends issued a challenge in honor of her birthday. Concerned about all of the plastic that is ending up in the oceans, she asked her friends to join her in a goal of trying to eliminate single use plastic in our homes. One week later she had become very discouraged, because she found this to be an impossible goal. Plastic is everywhere. We are surrounded by plastic and all kinds of other products that are harmful to the environment. It can seem like a futile effort to work at making a positive impact, and it’s pretty discouraging at times.
It’s not just environmental dilemmas that give us reason to be discouraged. We can rightly be concerned about many other things happening around us: ever increasing polarization between people, gun violence, violations of human rights, mistreatment of people in many places who have little power to effect change. There are endless examples of people and systems wielding power and taking advantage of those who are weaker.
And we are tempted by power, too, aren’t we? It’s easy to think that if we were the ones with the power, we would know how to make changes that would solve problems. If the world would just listen to me, to us, to my people . . . . But others have visions and ideas, too, that don’t agree with mine. And so we argue, Who is the greatest? Which voice is the most important one?
We are easily shaped by an underlying idea that in many ways our world is not a safe place to be. Humans have always been faced with danger and threat in the world. That isn’t new.
But it feels like the sense of danger and fear we are experiencing has become heightened.
This fear gets into our psyche, and we pass it on to our children.
The world is in turmoil and it can feel like it’s
Not safe for children to play outside
Not safe to eat for fear of being harmed by pesticides
Not safe to breathe the air, full of pollutants
Not safe to be in creation
The children are like the canary in the coal mine – they sense the anxiety in us and the seriousness of the situation, and it’s why they are speaking up.
It is right for us to be concerned about making the world a safer place and to be focused on the dangers of the physical environment
And we also have reason to be concerned about the emotional welfare of the little ones
To pay attention to the anxiety and fears – not only of children, but of all who are affected by what is happening in the world
How do we respond when someone has anxiety or is experiencing trauma?
Those who work with children know that children need to express their feelings and thoughts when they are insecure
They need someone to listen to what worries them.
They need to be noticed and to be held by loving arms.
They need to experience love that casts out all fear.
In the midst of emotional distress, especially when the problem cannot be quickly or easily fixed,
children need to see glimmers of hope and they need to experience joy,
to see the good in the world even as the chaos continues
I wonder if at times we get so focused on the big things of the world that we
overlook the little ones and their needs
and forget the smallest and the most vulnerable
And perhaps we have even lost hope in God’s vision, and God’s ability to bring about the peaceful kingdom
Where no one will hurt or destroy
in all of God’s holy mountain;
Where the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of God
that is as wide and as deep as the ocean.
The disciples certainly had difficulty understanding that vision. But Jesus kept showing it to them over and over again, by touching the unclean, healing the broken, eating with sinners, and welcoming the little ones of the world, including the children.
When mothers and fathers began bringing their children to see Jesus, the disciples were quick to intercept them and created a boundary to keep them from getting to Jesus.
But Jesus had strong words for the disciples, essentially telling them, “Get out of the way! Let the children come to me. For this is what God’s kingdom is all about.” And as he took the children in his arms and blessed them he said to the disciples.
“If you do not receive the kingdom of God like these children, you won’t enter it.”
They know how to follow, they know how to trust and to depend on the love of a parent; they know how to hold on to hope, and clamber toward the holy one with no inhibitions, ready to receive a blessing.
By opening his arms, Jesus showed how God welcomes all of us
All of us who are little in faith
All of us who are vulnerable
All of us who are hurting or afraid
All of us who are powerless to control the world and all of its frightening turmoil.
At the same time, Jesus showed that greatness comes from moving toward those who are not considered great by the world and becoming people who minister and serve and bless, joining God’s work of restoration.
Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is a minister in the Episcopal church, who has wrestled with questions of how people of faith can offer hope and healing to others when faced with their own feelings of fear and despair. How can we find energy for ministry without panicking or giving up? What can sustain us so that we don’t lose heart?
She offers a model of cultivating three kinds of hearts – an awakened heart, a broken heart and a radiant heart.
A person with an awakened heart is attuned to God’s love, able to see themselves and others and all Creation with eyes of love. A person with an awakened heart sees the beauty and preciousness of the world, and responds with gratitude. This is a heart that can imagine new possibilities for the renewal of creation.
As a teacher, I spent a lot of time with children outside on the playground. Most every spring the Tent caterpillars would show up and take up residence in the trees, building their silky nests and overwhelming the trees with a single-minded goal of consuming their leaves, causing damage to the trees.
But the children loved those caterpillars! The caterpillars were part of God’s creation, why wouldn’t they be worthy of love? Many hours were spent building miniature caterpillar homes and playgrounds, feeding the caterpillars grass and leaves, and running outside at recess to check on the caterpillars to make sure they were ok.
Those children had awakened hearts.
The second is a broken heart. When our hearts have been awakened to God’s love, we feel suffering in the world. When you have a broken heart, you are willing to enter into someone else’s pain and suffering and sit with brokenness. To sit with it until it wraps around your heart and you have no choice but to respond.
Radiant love emerges out of a broken heart. A Radiant heart is fueled by hope that leads to action. Someone with a Radiant heart responds to brokenness by acting in love to plant small seeds, not always knowing when or how the seeds will grow but waiting and hoping for wholeness and new life.
Planting seeds looks different for everyone
It might be spending time with a child from the neighborhood during Kids’ Club,
Or helping out someone who has come upon hard times;
It might be visiting or providing care for someone who is hurting
Or being with someone who is lonely;
It might be getting out into the natural world and becoming reconnected with nature
setting up a bird feeder
Or cleaning up the waste in a stream so that small creatures can thrive.
It includes noticing and welcoming little ones
and being open to receiving something back in return.
Jesus calls us to shift our focus away from the centers of power and greatness and listen to the voices of the little ones.
We are called to open our hearts so that we can find renewed hope in God’s ability to create wholeness, justice and peace in our world
We are called to take action, to plant seeds and join in the work that God has already begun that will lead to a peaceful kingdom where children and caterpillars, lions, wolves, and lambs, are all safe and cared for in God’s beautiful home.
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