Sometimes it's easy to miss the point. When I was in seminary I noticed a flyer on the wall of our cafeteria that advertised a preaching competition. I was taking a preaching class at the time, and had newly discovered that I had a bit of a talent for it. I was also flat broke, and the competition offered a $300 prize. Needless to say, I was intrigued. I picked up the flyer and looked it over and thought about entering. I thought about how I could probably win it, how it’d be fun to win it, how I could celebrate my win and my winnings with Shannon. Fortunately, I was busy with my other classes and with work and I actually had to think about if entering the competition was worth my time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t. Preaching isn’t about being the greatest. You preach to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, not to win a contest. You preach to a congregation of sisters and brothers not to a panel of judges. Preaching is meant to uplift the people of God, not merely yourself. One might think that humility comes easily to clergy, it does not. We like all other human beings enjoy being good at something. We share that human tendency to make things all about us, to center ourselves and our need for importance. We also need to be reminded that life is not about how great we are.
When we encounter Jesus and the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark, He has already told them once that he is to be betrayed and executed. Jesus tells the disciples on three separate occasions in Mark’s Gospel that he is going to be killed, and yet they are still shocked when it comes to pass. Some biblical scholars have taken the disciple’s surprise at Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion as reason to believe that perhaps he was not as explicit in his predictions of his death as Mark makes him out to be. Yet, that need not be the case. No special reason is needed to explain why the disciples struggled so mightily to understand that Jesus was to die. They believed that they had found the messiah, the one God had chosen to redeem Israel. As far as greatness was concerned, he was tops. He was to restore the kingdom of David, to reign over God’s people, death was simply incompatible with their understanding of his greatness. He was to bring about the glory of God and they expected plenty of greatness for themselves riding on his coatails. So Jesus 2nd prediction of his suffering and death went right over the heads just as the first had done. They did not understand and they were too afraid to ask, so they chose to ignore, to pretend he hadn’t said it at all. They continued thinking that greatness was the destiny of their leader and themselves.
As much as they wanted to ignore his odd predictions of his own humiliating death, the disciples’ must have known that Jesus’ own conception of greatness differed from their own. For when Jesus asked them what they had been discussing amongst themselves on the walk to Capernaum, they were silent. They did not wish to tell him that they had been arguing over which one of them was greatest. So Jesus, seeing that they were still holding to worldly measures of greatness, tries once again to instruct them on how greatness is to be measured in the kingdom of God. He stops walking there on the path. He sits down. He calls all the twelve to sit beside him. He says, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” As if to demonstrate the meaning of his words, Jesus took a child and put him in the midst of them. He took the child in his arms and he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
What does this mean to receive a child in the name of Christ? Certainly it means welcoming children into our communal lives. Certainly it means valuing them as individuals, meeting their needs, extending to them love and grace. But there is more to it than that, more humility to be learned from receiving a child in the name of Christ.
This Monday evening I witnessed the miracle of my son’s birth. This is round two for Shannon and myself and so this time I had some expectations about what was to occur. All seemed to be going well up until we got to the labor and delivery room. One of our nurses noticed that the baby’s heart rate had dropped substantially and she was trying to calmly deal with the situation that clearly disturbed her. She called in another two nurses and they helped Shannon to roll over, gave her oxygen, and soon the baby’s heart rate returned to normal. The nurses assured us that this was perfectly normal and everything was fine. However, about 15 minutes later it happened again. This time the nurse seemed a little more worried, and she called for the doctor. Once the doctor arrived their frenetic movements and curt hushed tones, told me that not everything was fine. The doctor announced that she would check to see how dialated Shannon was, and to her great surprise she had gone from 3 cm to 10 cm in less than an hour. The baby’s heart was down because he was coming out. He was being born right then, before any of us had expected. A great flurry of activity and three pushes later and out came baby Samuel.
In the unexpected rush I had begun to worry that things were not going well. And when Samuel came out he didn’t look like Ruthie had looked. He was all purple, almost blue. And for maybe two seconds he was silent. That moment was a long moment for me. My whole being, my whole life was completely invested in this moment. More than anything in the world I wanted that little baby boy to breathe, to make a noise, to be alive. I would have given my life and anything else that I could give for that breathe without a moments hesitation. In those two seconds it became clear to me how little I mattered. It became clear to me that this tiny, helpless, infant, was infinitely more important than I.
At the end of the two seconds, Samuel cried. A great relief, followed by immense joy washed over me. My son was alive and I could let go of that worry. I hope, however, that I will not as easily let go of that moment of clarity, that moment when it was so stark and obvious to me that I was not what mattered, that there was nothing more important than life and well being of this child. That I believe is the deeper meaning of recieving a child in the name of Christ; accepting so fully that how we treat the vulnerable is the measure of our greatness that we are willing to give our very lives for that of a tiny, helpless, infant.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, as a way of judging the justice of our society, often asks the question, “How are the children?” This is the gospel standard for the greatness of any society: How are the children? The children are those who are most vulnerable, those with the greatest need, those with the least to offer us. “If any would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” If we are to be great people, a great church, or a great nation, by the standard of the gospel we must be willing to accept that children are more important than any of us, and we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for our children.
How are we doing with this standard, with this measurement of greatness? In the United States, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, over 21% of all children live in poverty. Nearly one in four. When children come to this country with their parents seeking asylum and an escape from violence and poverty, do we receive them in Christ’s name? Is our greatest concern how we can sacrifice for their well being? When children have their homes and their families destroyed by wars in which our nation fights do we welcome them as refugees, granting them safe haven and new opportunities? By any Christian calculation the answers to these questions are far more important data points than our GDP or our military budget.
Unfortunately, the question of How are the children in our churches is a difficult and painful one to ask at present. The very instituition which preserved and passed along the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its unique standard for greatness has been guilty of living by human standards of greatness with horrific results. The sinsickness and evil that leads one to abuse a child are beyond the scope of this sermon. But the impulse to cover it up, to protect the reputation of men and the reputation of the institution, before the well being of countless children, this is the perverse desire to care more for one’s worldly greatness than life of a child of God. This is a whole hearted abandonment of the gospel and its standard for greatness. Although it has been systemic within the Catholic Church, we must not be so arrogant and naive to assume such atrocities are not committed throughout all denominations. Any clergy and any church which practices ministry in the name of Jesus Christ must be willing to constantly and honestly ask themselves, “How are the Children?”
We have chosen to make ministry to children the focus of our work here at St. Paul’s UCC. Its an honorable commitment and one that, should would adhere to it, can keep us focused on doing the will of God. Let us always remember that our care for children is not merely a feature, or a strategy for church growth, but is rather the purpose for our being in the world, and the standard of greatness which our loving God has given us. Let us seek to welcome all children in the name of Christ and let us live our lives together as though there were nothing in the world more important than so doing. Amen.