Rev. Roger Butts
Scripture: Mark 9:30-37
Then they came to Capernaum; and he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?"
They were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
He sat down and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,
"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
I could not believe what I was reading.
The most aggressive, hostile, dehumanizing rants imaginable. All over a speech, a speech by the President of the United States to be given to the nation’s school children. Since the speech had been announced, certain conservatives had worked themselves into a tizzy over whether the speech would invite the children to become little socialists. Talk radio was on fire. Names were called. Incendiary language swirled.
Nicholas, my five year old son, attends a public Montessori school in Colorado Springs. There, the principal had decided on a compromise: at 2:30 p.m., on the speech day, the children would gather and watch the president’s speech. If parents were somehow offended and wanted to excuse their children, they could do so.
Some liberal parents responded with rage. A listserv serving the school’s PTA was buzzing with letters from liberal parents about Mr. Brilliant’s compromise. The language to protest the principal’s decision was cruel. It stripped the principal of his humanity.
For days, conservatives had lessened public discourse with scare tactics, had appealed to the very worst of our nature. And now, at my kids’ school, some liberal parents were doing the same—attacking, crossing lines of decency, calling names. I could not believe what I was reading. These were parents of children with whom my children were attending school and they were acting like schoolyard bullies. What in the world was going on?
Finally on speech day, my son sat with his classmates and watched the president speak. For fifteen minutes the president told the children to do as well as they could. Nicholas sat transfixed. His eyes barely left the screen. When the president was done, along with his classmates, he clapped wildly and giggled with joy. I don't think it would have mattered at that moment if the president was liberal or conservative, black or white, tall or short; his message--not his politics--had touched the children. Nicholas looked at his mother and said: How did he know that we would all be sitting here?
In that moment, all of the posturing, all of the bullying, all of the “arguing on the way” melted away in the simple, delighted, wonder-filled response of that five year old child, sitting in a downtown classroom in the shadow of Pike’s Peak.
Nicholas seemed to be saying, “That guy treated me like I mattered, like I was important, talked to me about hope—I know he is important and he spoke just to me and my class. He noticed me. Me.” I could not believe what I was hearing—all of the cynical posturing gave way to a moment of pure goodness--an adult reaching out to children with care and compassion in his voice and a child’s simple, awe-filled response.
Whoever wants to lead, needs to serve. Whoever wants to be great needs to be present with and hospitable to the most vulnerable among us—for example, the child.
In discussing this passage, Father John Dear says: What does Jesus say to us as we argue among ourselves. Let it all go. Let go of your ego, of your pride, your pursuit of honor and fame. Let go of your selfish demands upon others that they must serve you. Let go of control and domination of others. Let go of your problems, ambitions, career, greed, and need for achievement and accomplishment. Instead, serve one another. Serve the poor and the disenfranchised. Serve the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, the young, the elderly, the dying. Let go of your need to argue and follow me through humble, loving, unconditional service of suffering humanity. (The Questions of Jesus, John Dear, 2004).
I remember Rev. Meg Riley telling me about going to a meeting involving a group of gay Christians and a group of Christians who were working to heal gay people of the disease of homosexuality. They had asked Meg to come and observe their meeting. Finally, after arguing about who was right—that is to say who is greatest—they became exhausted. They turned to Meg, “Have you anything to say?” Meg, in the wisdom spoken of in all the great scriptures, said simply, “If you are gay, God loves you. If you are ex-gay, God loves you.” And she sat down.
“Why are you arguing?” Meg seemed to ask. God’s love embraces the whole human race—something worth celebrating, something that calls us into solidarity with our brothers and our sisters—into relationship, into awe and wonder and delight.
In many scenarios, when things get tough, we turn to arguments, control, domination. Jesus, in this passage, with the help of a little child, says: let it go. Turn to wonder, instead.
Let us then turn our hearts to prayer. God, whose love calls us to service, remind us of the goodness that overcomes our cynicism, our power plays, our arguments, our rationality, our book-smarts, our ego, our desire to be great. Remind us of the time we served and grew, when we moved beyond where we thought we were able to go. Remind us of the times we have felt that we mattered to someone, sometime we felt acknowledged and lifted up, because someone met us right where we were. Remind us of the solidarity that comes out of such experiences. And when we forget, o God, set before us a child, so that we might welcome what we can know of amazement and wonder and goodness.