A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 20, 2015
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent…
They were silent.
Not so much different from that silence that a parent hears when the young kids are in that other room playing, and instead of the sounds of playing, there is … quiet. You know that there is something going on, and it is probably not good. You know, we love these kids and they are actually cute when they first start doing this, but it is the first sign of the loss of innocence—they are quiet because they know that they are doing something they shouldn’t.
So these disciples were silent, and not in some deep, meditative, tranquil way. They had been arguing, and they weren’t even arguing about being allowed to pick up the check for the others. They were arguing over who was the greatest. It doesn’t say the greatest what. Was it the best accountant? The best leader? The one who could hold his breath underwater the longest? The one who was the most generous and Christlike? It doesn’t actually matter. The world rewards the best leader. The Roman Empire rewarded the best leader. About a year ago, Paula and I went to Rome and we walked around the ruins of the palace of the Roman emperors—it was huge by any standards, ancient or modern, bigger than the residences of any of the wealthy and powerful today. None of these disciples ever saw that palace, but they knew about palaces and how the Great men who owned them received deference from everyone, and had all sorts of privilege. So that’s one kind of kingdom, and if we’re coming into the Kingdom of God, it might be different, but it’s a pretty good model right? Especially if I get to be—not the king or the emperor—but maybe the Grand Duke or the Archbishop? I think that’s what they were arguing about. Who gets to be Jesus’ top assistant and maybe chief of staff, who gets the honor and the privilege in the Kingdom of God?
But when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they were silent. They knew, they could tell, that Jesus didn’t work that way. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Privilege and respect don’t even compute for Jesus. Be the servant, that’s what counts. There is nothing about following Jesus that involves achieving distinction, certainly not about power or privilege. It is about being who you are, not some status you aspire to.
The next step is Jesus bringing the child into the circle. I love little kids and so do a lot of us here. It’s a great joy to see them enjoy life, and learn, and develop and play. Kids are wonderful to have around. But I don’t think that’s what is going on in this particular passage. It is not the charm, or the affection, or even the promise of the little children that caused Jesus to bring this child into the circle of disciples. Everyone there knew that a child had no power or influence. The child did what it was told and its opinions didn’t count. The disciples had been discussing who was the biggest and Jesus showed them someone entirely different. “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but God.” The privilege and the respect are for the powerless, those who are not respected. That argument—who’s the greatest, who’s the biggest, who’s the one who’s entitled to the most; that discussion and those whoevers are not even relevant to Jesus or the Kingdom of God. Who suffers? Who needs healing? Who has not been listened to? That is where the Kingdom is—that is whom Jesus welcomes.
One thing that I want to say here is one of those questions is really important, and we all over the Church just let it pass by, not just too often, but all the time: Who has not been listened to? The smart and the experienced think they can figure out everything, and so for years the Episcopal Church, and other churches, have been in decline. We don’t actually listen to the opinions and the desires of our youth and our young adults. And it’s not so surprising that they drift away. I am not going to oversimplify or solve these issues in one brief sermon, but we might be surprised by the Christianity that emerges from those who are younger, and are not interested in being the church like us. I doubt that it will be what we think we already know. I doubt that the youth and young adults want to be pandered to, or that they want a Christianity that is easier or less challenging.
The challenge is Jesus. Jesus in the rest of this century, how do we listen to him?
Whoever welcomes one such as this, the last, the least, the most ignored, welcomes me, he says. Welcoming God is welcoming those we want to ignore. That is the challenge for the church.
God guides us into a life of confident humility, and in thus welcoming God, we have the joy of the presence of Christ.