I can’t remember if I’ve told you before about my real ordination. It was January of my second year in seminary, and at that point in Columbia’s curriculum we took something called ‘Alternative Context.’ Groups of a dozen or so took off for 3 weeks to explore what the church was doing in places like Mexico, Central Europe, or Northern Ireland. There was also an urban Atlanta track, which I chose. The first chilly morning we visited the Atlanta Regional Commission. The Commission is responsible for allocating federal transportation dollars, and do land- and water-use planning for the 10 county Metro-region. We got an extraordinary briefing on demographics, and major transportation and economic issues, with full technology and some fantastic maps. Afterwards, downstairs, as we waited for the van to pick us up along Peachtree, a gentleman without a coat and carrying a couple of big bags came up and asked us what the people in the building we just came from did. I, kind of smugly, replied that we had just been in there for two hours, and I wasn’t sure. I told him that it seemed like they sat around and had a lot of nice ideas. He then asked me if I was aware that in the city of Atlanta there were no shelters for men and children together. He was a single father with a child, and had nowhere to stay. He offered numbers to call and confirm that, but I told him I believed him. Just then, the van pulled up and the rest of the group climbed in. I feebly wished him good luck. As he stepped back he looked at me, pointed, and said, "Remember this when YOU get to be the one with the ideas." Remember, he said. Do not forget.
The contrast couldn’t have been clearer. After the traveling, the healing and casting out of demons, Jesus begins to make his way from the north down towards Jerusalem. It is then he decides to tell them what is going to happen – that He must suffer, be rejected, die. Mark underlines this reality with the miracle of the Transfiguration, with Peter, James, John, then Moses and Elijah, on top of the mountain, shining. After another miracle Jesus, in today’s text, invites the disciples to lean in and he says – like he did in the chapter before, and will again in chapter 10, that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands and will be killed. They will break Him, and 3 days later He will rise again. And they don’t understand. Before, in the text Taylor preached on last week, Peter jumped in with questions. Today they are afraid to ask.
But Jesus keeps watching. Once in Capernaum He asks, What were you guys talking about back as we walked? Their shame leads to silence, Mark says, for they were arguing about who was the greatest. The disconnect here is astounding. He had just been talking about how he was to DIE and, immediately, they start arguing about who was the greatest. A critical reading leads us to certainty about the disciple’s narcissism. Must it really be all about them? We, surely, would not do that. A more sympathetic reading sees them as having a really hard time wrapping their head around all of this. They must be exhausted with these last few chapters, sprinting from healing to healing, four thousand fed, blind man’s vision restored. Up on a mountain for the transfiguration, then down for Jesus to cast out a spirit from a young boy. After the exorcism the crowd thinks the boy is dead, and Jesus helps him stand – a combined exorcism and resurrection! They are overwhelmed with the work of the Spirit around them, yet Jesus gathers them close. I need you all to know that I am going to die. I can sympathize with their confusion.
That doesn’t excuse their petty arguing about status, which is still ridiculous. But even more important is what Jesus does. A deep breath. Come here, guys: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Of all. Then He reaches for an object lesson. He points to a wonderful child, maybe a little girl from across the room. Come here for a moment, dear. He picks her up and sets her on his lap: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
I have heard this passage used as a way to talk about the value of children. Not children as little adults, but as beautiful creations – each and every one -to be cherished and nurtured. As we work to keep the promises the church makes at baptism, in the nursery and SS and youth group, but even more to know their names, to know what they care about, to have enough relationship with them that when we sit them down and look them in the eye and tell them how much God loves them, that it means something. That we listen to children for the compassion they offer, for all they have to teach us adults about relationships.
And that is great, but I think what Jesus is doing here is more radical. Pheme Perkins writes, "the child in antiquity was a non-person. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students."1 This is not a soft, sweet, let’s love on our children, moment. "Holding a child before him," Gary Charles writes, "Jesus speaks about a category of existence. He speaks about those in society, no matter their age, who are always last in line and are valued the least by society."2 Those that are forgotten. Jesus is asking his disciples to set aside their egos and resumes, all of those goals we set, and instead to serve those at the bottom, live with those society discards. There, Christ says, He will be found.
Elena Cleary, one of our elders, spent a few moments at last week’s session meeting on this text. If we assume ‘children’ to mean something more like ‘non-person,’ she said, who are those people today? Sometimes those forgotten are actual children, with behavioral or developmental problems, children that can be hard to love. Twenty-seven percent of children in Durham are poor, 5.8 million nationwide under age 6 in families with income below the poverty level.3 Maybe, next time we are at the grocery store, we could remember them. Maybe we could remember families in waiting rooms at Duke Hospital who will never be able to pay the bills to keep their daughter alive. Maybe we could remember teenagers who are gay who have been led to believe that the church won’t love them for who they are. Maybe we could remember folks in poverty across the globe, that we have the privilege of coming to pack meals for on October 7. Maybe we could remember adults slipping through the massive crevices in our mental health system, camping in the woods, sleeping in shelters, veterans back from war exhausted and alone. But it is there, with those folks, as those people, that Jesus stands. Whoever welcomes a schizophrenic adult at the bus stop or a drug addict downtown in my name, Jesus says, welcomes me. And he sits there, looking as His disciples, full of love, waiting to see who among us will remember.
Sounding like a twenty-first century Mark, Will Campbell – a Baptist pastor and author best know for his work during the civil-rights movement – challenges the church to pay attention to this enacted parable of Jesus. About the homeless on our city streets, he writes:
For the past few weeks, I’ve been our peddling books…In every city I visited I inquired as to the number of people living on the streets. Then I asked how many churches, synagogues, and mosques there were. I was not too surprised to learn that in most cities there are about the same number of homeless people as there are congregations.
Quite often when I make a speech to a church group…someone will say, "You complain a lot about the faithlessness of the steeples, but you never tell us what we can do to make the world better."
Well, how about this: Let every congregation adopt one person who lives on the streets. Ask no questions as to the worthiness of these people. Who among us is worthy? Just find them lodging, a job, friends – give them hope. "But how would you afford it?" The same way you afford your tall steeples, rich edifices, preachers’ salaries, and all the rest. With tithes and offerings.4
I was taken with Campbell’s provocative idea, so I checked. In January of this year Durham recorded 698 total homeless individuals.5 The Visitor’s Bureau says that Durham County has 313 houses of worship.6 So it might be 2 people for us, instead of 1.
"Whoever welcomes one such child – or in our case 2 – in my name welcomes me." Whoever welcomes a schizophrenic adult at the bus stop or a drug addict downtown in my name, Jesus says, welcomes me. And He sits there, looking as His disciples, full of love, waiting to see who among us will remember.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. NIB, 637.
2. Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), 182.
3. Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011
4. Will Campbell, Soul among Lions, 1999, p 15-16. From Blount and Charles, 182-183.
5. 2012 Point-in-Time Count of Homeless Persons, by Durham City, Durham County, Durham Continuum of Care.
6. Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau