Sermon - 17 Pentecost
You probably have seen the picture - Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee child, drowned, lying face-down on a Turkish beach. It was easy to ignore the Syrian refugee crisis over the past months, even though the press has been filled with pictures of camps and crowds trying to escape by crossing the Mediterranean. But this photo, the boy on the beach, shocked European nations into action.
I looked at the picture and I knew why. That is my grandson, I thought. That’s Henry, almost 4, with whom I played in Maine all summer. That could be him. That IS him.
A child, especially when seen in this heartbreaking image, opens us to truth, to reality, to what is important.
So, when Jesus was faced with the disciples’ worldly arguing, their silence and their fear, he turned to a child to open their eyes. He took a child in his arms to show the breadth and dimensions of God’s love.
Children in Jesus’ time were viewed differently than they are now. So, we should be careful not to sentimentalize this scene. Children for us are treasured and loved, but we miss Jesus’ point if we see just a loving Jesus with a sweet child.
In Jesus’ world, children were of low priority, seen only for their potential value, lower than servants, marginalized and on the fringes of society. We might think times are different now; we see children differently. Yes - but, even now, in many ways, children continue to be unimportant. They can’t vote, they can’t pay taxes, they have no political power, no physical strength, can’t defend themselves; they are dependent emotionally and physically. So, school budgets are barebones and often cut, childcare workers are underpaid, and all too frequently children and neglected and abused.
But - Jesus takes the child in his arms and says, in effect – “Welcome and love this child, and in so doing, you welcome and love me, you welcome and love God.” The disciples, for sure, and maybe we too if we are honest, see Jesus with the child and realize that he is rocking the boat, he is challenging all our customary, social, worldly values and assumptions, our ideas of how the world works, about what we value in the world. A child is worth little – why is Jesus bothering with a child!?
The disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest, how they would rate in society. After so many months of hearing Jesus’ teaching, witnessing his healings and miracles, proclaiming him to be the Messiah, hearing him announce his way of suffering and crucifixion and then resurrection, the way of the cross – they were still seeing their lives from the point of view of the world: who is the greatest, who has status, wealth, importance? If we are honest with ourselves, much of our time is spent doing the same.
But Jesus’ good news is that the reign of God reverses the order of expectations and assumptions of the world. God turns the values of the world upside down. Jesus’ betrayal, death, and resurrection will reveal the reality of God’s love, not power and wealth and influence and status. Welcome and acceptance of God’s values, seeing the world from God’s point of view – that is what is important.
Embracing a child, in all his or her innocence and helplessness, is an announcement of the gospel. It is seeing the world from God’s point of view. It is the good news of God’s love. The Christian life is not a life of striving to be first, wealthy, or powerful; the Christian life is to live a life of welcoming and loving a child and all the child represents – loving the helpless, the powerless, even the marginalized and outcasts, even enemies. There is nothing to be gained from embracing a child – except the love and presence of God.
The disciples are afraid to say anything when Jesus asks them what they were arguing about as they walked along behind them. They knew that discussing the positions of power and status was off the track, ignoring the way of life that Jesus had taught, and certainly not in tune with Jesus’ prediction that he would be killed. They are still thinking of the future in worldly terms, not in the reality of the reign of God. They still don’t know the Messiah.
What are they afraid of? Why won’t they answer Jesus? They are afraid that, if they told Jesus the truth, their lack of faith, their commitment to the values of the world rather than the reign of God, would become clear. They are afraid that they would disappoint Jesus. They would be embarrassed. They were afraid that what Jesus said about himself might also happen to them – the way of the Cross.
It is a dangerous thing to proclaim and live the values of God in the world.
We too – like the disciples – often don’t answer Jesus. We too are afraid. We think we know the answers about our lives, we think questioning is stupid, we fear the answers we might discover when we ask.
Discipleship puts claims on us. It has a cost. When we commit to a life of discipleship, our money, our time, our interests and actions all are put under the discipline of Jesus. When we follow Jesus our lives are changed. The Christian life is a way of transformation. Hearing Jesus words, watching Jesus with the child, even seeing the picture of the drowned refugee boy on the beach – all these things call us deeper into the mystery of faith, and call us also to Christian action.
What is our ministry with children? Why is that important? But more widely, what is our ministry with all who are like children: the innocent, the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, refugees, the powerless? There are no more important questions than these. To welcome and love and treasure all God’s children, no matter who they are, is the essence of following Christ. To discipline our lives to love each person, even the most innocent and powerless, is to become a disciple.
Church membership, personal faith, spiritual practices – all those are important. But to welcome the little ones – little ones of all sorts: children, the poor and powerless, those seen in that drowned refugee on the beach - that is most important. For, as Jesus says, in welcoming them, we welcome God, and then we are welcomed into the heart of God.
“Who is the greatest? Not any of the disciples – not us. The greatest is a little child.”