By The Right Reverend Kevin Robertson
Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29 Ps 19: 7-14 James 5: 13-20 Mark 9: 30-37
What a joy it is to finally be back with you again. I’ve missed you all very much and I’ve missed being here! I remember my last visit was February 29, 2020 for a Lenten Quiet Day – just eleven days before the global pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization. You have been in my prayers as you’ve weathered this storm over the past eighteen months, and I pray that the worst of this ordeal is now behind us.
Yesterday, I swam in the swimming pool in the backyard of my mother’s house in Thornhill. There’s nothing remarkable about that. Except that my parents bought that house fifty years ago this month, installed the pool forty years ago this summer, and now my Mom is about to sell that house and move to an apartment nearby. I can’t imagine how many times I have swum in that pool over the past forty years, but yesterday was my last time, and I got to take that final dip with my own kids, and my Mom, and my twin sister.
That pool brings back so many childhood memories for me. They came flooding back to me yesterday: my first dive off the diving board, the first time I made it to the bottom of the deep-end, countless games of Marco Polo and hide and seek. As I watch our kids doing those same things, I am reminded how remarkable childhood is. So many new experiences and adventures every day. So much energy and laughter. The intensity of human development during the childhood years is such that the Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” (Apologies for the gender-specific language.)
So, no wonder that it is a child that Jesus takes into his arms to show his disciples something about the Kingdom of God. Jesus wanted them to see the child – not because the child was innocent or perfect or naturally religious, and not even because they are sponges for new experiences as Aristotle rightly observed. I think Jesus wanted them to see and welcome the child because, in his time, the child was at the bottom of the heap.
In Mark’s Gospel in particular, children were vulnerable because they were often sick or disabled. Just look at some of the stories of children recounted by Mark in his Gospel: Jairus’ daughter is near death when her father kneels before Jesus; the Syrophoenician woman’s little daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit; and just before today’s text, a man brings his son to Jesus. The boy had experienced terrible convulsions since childhood and the disciples weren’t able to heal him. But Jesus commanded the spirit to leave the boy, and then he lifted him to new life.
Children in Mark are often the victims of exclusion, and Jesus brings the child from the margins of society into the very center. This child is not a symbol but a person, a little person that can be so easily overlooked, unseen, unheard. And their “childlike-ness” needed to emulated, not cast aside.
I suspect that was not an easy lesson for those first disciples to hear. The Gospel reading we’ve just heard comes to us from the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And this chapter begins with a glorious vision – Jesus shining in dazzling light on the mountaintop at his Transfiguration. What a sight that was! Peter, James and John shaded their eyes and saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Then a cloud descended on the mountain, just like in the days of Moses, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him.”
Those three disciples must have been dying to tell the others about that big vision and that booming voice–but Jesus had strictly ordered them to say nothing to anyone. If those three disciples had been allowed to talk about that mountaintop experience, surely they would have convinced the others that they were the greatest. They had been given this great insight because they were smart enough, trusted enough, mature enough to “get it”, and certainly not because they were in any way like little children!
When they got home to Capernaum, the chapter that began ethereally up on the mountaintop comes crashing down to earth. “What were you arguing about on the way?”, Jesus asked them (even though he clearly knew). Then Jesus sat down and tried again to get through to his disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” They had argued about who was greatest of all and Jesus called them to be last of all. No wonder they were silent. I wonder if their eyes started to glaze over because they’d heard these opposites from Jesus before–to save life/lose life, to be first you have to be last, to be great be a servant. Jesus was always talking this way. But Jesus could see that they didn’t get it.
So, this is when he took that little child in his arms and put in the midst of them. Whose child was this? Perhaps the child of one of the women who was part of Jesus’ community. Perhaps the child of one of the disciples or a relative of Jesus, because Jesus was now at home in Capernaum. Whoever the child was, Jesus saw the child. This child was as important to Jesus as the vision on the mountain. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Peter, James and John must have remembered the voice from the cloud. They knew who sent Jesus. And while they were still thinking about heavenly visions, they saw Jesus holding a child on his lap. The disciples were so obtuse that by the very next chapter, they had forgotten the child again – when people brought little children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples spoke sternly to them.
Perhaps we think we’ve learned something in two thousand years. We talk about valuing children in the church. In church growth strategies, well-supervised childcare with a quality curriculum is right up there with adequate parking, convenient service times and decent coffee.
But still, I wonder if that scolding of children by the disciples sounds a bit like our protests when children make too much noise during worship. They fidget. They play in the pews. How many screaming children can people tolerate while they’re trying to pray or sing or listen to the sermon? But do we welcome children? Do we intentionally include at least a song or hymn that children can sing even if they don’t know how to read? I once served a parish where the children collected the offering and brought the plates up to the front. Sometimes they got all mixed up. They often ran back down the aisle after they’d done their job. But any loss of decorum was fully compensated by seeing those children involved.
And what about the place of children in wider society? Over the past few months, we have learned with horror about the uncovering of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at various sites across Canada. Already pushed to the margins of society because they were Indigenous, these children were taken from their homes, robbed of their culture and language, and then at least some of them died as children, and their bodies were disposed of without dignity or even a name. Jesus takes these children into his arms too. He holds them, cherishes them, and says that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus is saying to us in his own way: “Every child matters.”
So was Jesus just a hopeless romantic when he set a little child in the midst of the disciples that day in Capernaum, and put the focus all on them? I don’t think Jesus was not a hopeless romantic. One of my favourite preachers – the Lutheran, Barbara Lundblad – refers to him instead as a hopeful fanatic! Jesus was fanatic about opening up the reign of God to those nobody wanted to see; he was fanatic about extending hospitality to those considered no more than property. Jesus didn’t follow the rubrics or the rules. He healed when he wasn’t supposed to, touched people he shouldn’t have touched, and talked about suffering after a wonderful moment of glory on the mountain top. Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is not up but down. All our arguments about greatness mean nothing if we don’t stoop down low enough to see the invisible ones in our midst. That day in Capernaum Jesus held a little child in his arms and brought the words of heaven down to earth. I can imagine Jesus whispering in the child’s ear: “You are God’s Beloved Child.”
Then Jesus looked over the child’s shoulder at his disciples and even farther off, Jesus is looking at us. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This is not as simple as it sounds. It means caring for children even if we have none of our own. It means being committed to children’s health and education as we head to the ballot box across this country tomorrow. Jesus wants us to see not only our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, but children of migrant workers sleeping in the field, the child who moves from shelter to shelter every night, and the grave of the child who would otherwise would have been forgotten in Kamloops and elsewhere. All this means bending down low enough to see the child. We may not be able to do that at all, unless we’re willing to become hopeful fanatics, as Jesus was.
Today, may we look for the emerging reign of God through the children in our own lives, in our Church, and in our world. Amen.