Last But Not Least

Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 23, 2012
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 20, Year B
Mark 9:30-37

Daisy from Downton Abbey
 
 
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
 
If you have been reading the paper, watching the news, or following any of the legion of political blogs out there, then you know as well as I do, it’s getting kind of crazy.
 
There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about the partisan divide in this country, a lot of ink spilled, hot air expelled, and characters tweeted about how bitterly divided our country has become between Republicans and Democrats, populists and plutocrats, red states and blue states, independents and tea partiers… unless of course those independents are tea partiers.
 
We’ve heard a lot about the 1% vs. the 99%.  This week it’s been all about the 47%.  Perhaps next week we’ll talk a bit more about the remaining 53. Who knows?
 
Unless, of course someone running for president says something embarrassing or incendiary about a whole new percentage of the population, at which point the news cycle will churn out a whole new list of opinions and articles, as well as articles about other’s opinions chock full of opinions about said articles, for us to digest in our effort to figure out who said what when and what they hope we think they meant by it.
 
 Yeah. Is your head spinning yet?  Because mine certainly is.
 
Well, whether or not we are a country as bitterly divided as the pundits, pollsters, and politicians would have you believe, we are certainly a country full of people who love to label and categorize. 
 
In this age of confounding sound bites and information overload, there is something comforting about the idea that a label – a label like liberal or conservative, middle class or blue collar, elitist, capitalist, bleeding heart or socialist, - can help you, if not actually understand another person, at least know what to expect from them.
 
Labels help us place people in categories and categories help us make sense of the chaos. Labels help us figure out who to open up to and who to avoid, who to help and who to hinder, who to praise and who to blame.
 
Is this healthy? Hardly. Are these labels accurate? Rarely. Do they help us manage each other with grace and ease? Not really. But human nature being what it is, we fall back on them anyway.
 
Categorizing people, meanwhile, takes this a step further by giving us a sense of our place in the larger whole. Having people to look up to, down on, or over at, helps us know our place in the midst of it all: who we can trust to have our back, affirm our views, and advance our cause.
 
Trying to define others, then, isn’t just about our perception of them, it is also, very much, about our perception of ourselves: who we are in the scheme of things and who we hope to be before all this is over.
 
Well roughly two thousand years ago, on a dusty road somewhere in the region of Galilee, while Jesus was spilling his guts about his coming suffering and death, the disciples were busy thinking about others things, specifically who they were and who they hoped to be.
 
If Jesus was going down, where did that leave them? If he was determined to throw the game, did they still want to play? Could a new leader emerge from amongst the 12? Should the best amongst them be the first to die with Jesus or the last to go lest the whole effort be destroyed?
 
I think the disciples often get dismissed for being frivolous in this part of the story, but I think their discussion had real serious implications.
 
However, that doesn’t stop them from being embarrassed later on when, upon reaching Capernaum, they entered a house and Jesus confronted them. “What were you arguing about on the way?” he asks.
 
And their response? Well let’s just say it was a silence perhaps best described as awkward, “for on the way,” the gospel tells us, “they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” 
 
Now, I don’t think they are embarrassed because they were being arrogant, self-centered narcissists, as if their conversation had gone something like: “I am the greatest.” “No I am.” “No I Am” “No I am.” I know that’s how this is commonly interpreted, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
 
I think their awkwardness stems from the fact that they are already beginning to treat Jesus as a lame duck, as a leader who doesn’t matter because they already know he won’t last forever. They are making provisions to replace him before he is actually gone with which ever one of them is the best, and that is awkward, because, well, he’s standing right there.
 
The disciples are embarrassed because they are getting ahead of themselves, way ahead, but what really concerns Jesus is that in spite of all he has taught them, not only are they getting ahead of themselves, they are heading in the wrong direction. For whatever reason they still think this whole Kingdom of God thing is about coming out on top.
 
So what does Jesus do? He sits down, which is a small detail but a big deal. Jesus doesn’t sit down very often in the gospels, but when he does you know it is because he has something very important to teach those around him. When Jesus sits, basically the gospel writers are telling us that everyone needs to be quiet because class is in session.
 
Jesus sits down, calls the disciples to come gather round, and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Now the word for servant here is diakonos, the word from which we get the title deacon.  But back in Jesus day, diakonos was no title. 
 
According to Sharon Ringe, “it meant someone who served at meals. The person who was servant of all was the lowest in rank of all the servants – the one who would be allowed to eat only what was left after everyone else had eaten their fill” (Feasting on the Word p 95).
 
Do we have any Downton Abbey fans here? You all know Daisy who serves Mrs. Patmore, the cook, down in the kitchens? Daisy who sends everyone into a tizzy if she’s even seen outside of the servant’s quarters or – Saints preserve us and heaven forefend - above stairs? It’s kind of like that.
 
When Jesus says “servant of all” he’s not talking about just any old servant, because even servants can hold positions of authority and respect. No, Jesus is talking about being the lowest of the low, bottom of the food chain. He’s not talking low like Carson the Butler or Mrs. Hughes the head Housekeeper, but low like Daisy, as low as you can go.
 
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
 
But then, as if realizing that even the servant to the servants isn’t quite low enough, Jesus says something even more unthinkable. He takes a little child – where he got this child I do not know, (though a recent papyrus discovery may shed some light on this…but I digress). Anyway, apparently there was just one hanging around.  Jesus takes this child and places it before them.
 
And again, I have to pause here, because in our modern minds children are precious treasures we would do anything to protect, right? Nowadays, at least here in this community, we invest a tremendous amount in our children.
 
We love and care for them to such an extent that it would be very natural for us to think that Jesus is being kind of sweet and maybe even a little sentimental in this part of the story. But he’s not. He’s about to go from saying something merely counterintuitive to saying something that makes absolutely no sense at all.
 
Because, you see, in Jesus’ day, children were really not even legally considered to be people yet.  They were more like potential people. Perhaps because fewer than 50% of children made it to adulthood back then, children were not something in which people invested a great deal of hope or resources.
 
They were so vulnerable and without status that, unlike slaves, they could not even inherit property. 
 
This will sound horribly cruel to you, but children were pretty much seen as disposable. If there was a famine, children ate last and starved first. If there was a war or a plague, the children were the least likely to make it through and therefore the last ones anyone would go out of their way to help.
 
Even as late as the 10th century, no less than a Saint like Anselm instructed a father - in the case of a raging fire - to save his parents first, then his wife, and then, if it was still possible, the little children who were too small to save themselves (Kate Huey Weekly Seeds).
 
That sounds appalling to us, but that’s how it was back then. Children were at the very bottom of the food chain: small, helpless, and weak. They lived at the mercy of others, a mercy they depended upon from day one.
 
In fact – one more item of historical note for you - in Roman times when a baby was born the father of the child would be called in to pick up the baby and claim it as his own.
 
It was an ancient ritual with which the disciples would have been familiar. Lifting the baby up was a sign that the father would support and raise the child till such time as the child could support itself.
 
However, if the baby was not to the father’s liking for any number of reasons, he had the right to turn away from the child and leave. At which point the baby would be taken from its mother and left outside to be either picked up and raised by someone else or die of exposure (“Counting Diamonds” by Joel Marcus, from Living by The Word in The Christian Century: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1995).
 
That’s the sort of thing I just can’t imagine, but I mention this because I want you to notice something. In the text, Jesus not only places a child in front of his disciples – this  completely marginalized little being of no account to anyone but its mother – he not only places this child in front of his disciples, he lifts this child up - mirroring the Roman ritual - claiming this child as his own.
 
He lifts the child up and says to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
 
“Whoever welcome one such child”
 
- meaning whoever welcomes a person of no account,
a person who has nothing to do with you,
a person who is not your responsibility in any way, shape, or form,
a person who can only take from you because they have nothing yet to give –
“whoever welcomes one such as this in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.”
 
If you would be first, says Jesus, then you need to learn to treat the lowest of the low, the very least of these, the one’s you were absolutely sure you really didn’t have to concern yourself, not just as a beloved member of God’s household, but as if they were God himself. 
 
Friends, there is nothing sentimental or sweet about Jesus lifting up that little child.
 
He was telling his disciples then, and his disciples now, that God doesn’t just care about the 1% or the 99, the 47% or the 53. He was telling them that God cares about us all.
 
Jesus is telling those of us who would be first amongst his disciples that there is no one beneath God’s notice.
 
He is telling those of us who would be first amongst his disciples that that there is no one beyond God’s love.
 
He is instructing us to roll out the red carpet, set the table with the good china, throw open the doors and shout it in the streets. For as his disciples we are called to do all we can to welcome into our lives and into our homes and into our churches all those people who have been pushed to the margins, all those people who have fallen through the cracks, all those people who no one else thinks it makes any sense to love…because it doesn’t.
 
Dear ones, we may live in a world that craves categories and depends over much on labels, a world where we think we need nobodies to help us identify the real somebodies, a world where people think little of using and abusing one another in their race to the top.
 
We may live in a country where people will continue to argue, no matter who is elected, about who deserves what.  But if we would call ourselves Christians then I think the choice is pretty clear.
 
When Jesus lifted up that child he let his disciples know that all our labels and categories fail in the light of God’s love. When Jesus lifted up that child he let his disciples know that no one is disposable in the kingdom of God. 
 
This is the good news. Thanks be to God.
 
Let us pray:  Dearest Lord, gentlest of fathers and wisest of mothers, we gather together now, conscious of our need of you, and our need for each other. You have created us to be members of one family, indeed even one body, but all too often we choose to go off on our own and serve ourselves first.  Lord we confess this morning our desire to pull away, to hide from your light, to choose another path then the one of your love.  Remind us of your purpose for our lives. Help us to see that there is a greater design and eternal purpose for the lives of all those you have made.  You call us to restore relationships, heal what has been broken and to be mindful of the interconnectedness of all beings.  But we confess, creator, that we pull away from such a vision, that in our weakness we continually seek to be with those who like us and who are like us. Open our eyes, Lord, and open our hearts. Give us the strength of will to welcome every child we meet in your name that in doing so we might better welcome you. Amen.