"Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world." Don't we get all mushy gushy when we read of Jesus' interaction with little ones? They're so cute and innocent. How we wish we had more of them here at church.
Today, our gospel is about the second of Jesus' three predictions about his approaching suffering and death. There is an identical pattern in each of the three predictions. First, Jesus teaches that he will suffer and die. Second, the disciples are confused and misunderstand Jesus' meaning. Third, Jesus spends more time teaching his disciples.
In today's gospel, the whole point of the secrecy about Jesus and the disciples passing through Galilee until they got to Capernaum, was so that Jesus could spend some uninterrupted time teaching the disciples. Along the way Jesus taught about his betrayal, death and resurrection.
The disciples once again don't get it and they really mess up. They don't understand what Jesus was saying and they were too scared to ask him. Haven't we found ourselves in this position? We hear what God is teaching us, but we don't understand and we don't ask for clarification. What should we do?
We should quiet ourselves so we can hear God's voice through scripture. We should spend time in prayer. We should study scripture and read commentaries and books on the particular topic we're having trouble with. After that we may want to speak with other Christians to confirm if we are on the right path or even meet with our pastor.
Isn't it the supreme irony that after Jesus tells the disciples about his approaching passion, the disciples argued about what the pecking order would be? We can identify with the disciples. Probably we wouldn't do any better.
Sometimes we are too hard on the disciples. The disciples' discussion of rank was not an ego trip, but reflected the society in which they lived. Status and honor were very important. It was assumed that people would be concerned about their rank on the social ladder. They may have heard the resurrection part and figured there would be a happy ending. They anticipated the beginning of the reign of Jesus and couldn't help but imagine what their roles would be in the new age. Which of them would be the representative of Jesus in his absence? The disciples were not going to volunteer the contents of their argument, so Jesus asked them point blank. It was painfully obvious that they didn't understand the implications of Jesus' crucifixion.
Words did not seem to get through, so Jesus illustrates his point by acting out a parable with a living example--a child. We often think that Jesus' use of the child as his illustration is because of their innocence and how trusting children are. However, in Jesus' day, children were considered lower in status than than animals. A farm animal could at least give you something, but what good was a child until he or she was old enough to help out with chores? Children were not even considered people until they were old enough to work. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students. In this illustration, Jesus was not teaching about being childlike, but speaking to the issue of status.
Jesus did not use the child as a prop or visual aid. Jesus put the child in the midst of the disciples because children belong in the middle of the gathering and in the middle of the congregation.
If the disciples receive the child, they receive Jesus. If they receive Jesus, then they receive the One who sent him. The child was to be received not only because of its inherent value, but for the sake of Jesus himself, whose presence and representative is recognized in the child. The disciples had argued about greatness and power and Jesus directs them to open their arms to the powerless.
Embracing children, even though they were considered non-persons with no rights was characteristic of Jesus and the early Christians. They accepted the least and the lowly without asking what they could get from them.
The early Christian communities identified children as the "little people" of the church. Jesus was represented by the official apostles, but also by the most vulnerable, insignificant members of the community of faith. They too mediate the presence of Christ.
How does this apply to today's church? We love having children around. Our society is completely different from that of Jesus' time. We care for our children, sometimes putting them on a pedestal so that our lives and family revolve around the wants of the children. Sometimes we get carried away with putting our kids on a pedestal.
But at the same time, we hear of awful things that are done to children-beatings, death, being left alone in a car that's like an oven. Ideally, we need to strike a balance between treating our children like royalty and treating them like rugs.
The point is that we are not so different from those who were a part of the early church. We have issues too. Rather than serving in Jesus' name, don't we sometimes get annoyed at yet another phone call from a particular person? There are some people we try to avoid. Seeing them in a store--we duck down a different aisle.
Who are those that are invisible to us? For some, it may be the refugees fleeing Syria. For some it may be the homeless. For some it may be the elderly and for some it may be the disabled. For some it may be people of a different race. What would we do if they settle near us?
Perhaps, a little closer to home, it is those who are unable to attend worship because they're experiencing physical limitations, like those living in nursing homes. We are not purposely avoiding them, but we might as well be. We do not make the effort to visit, even if we drive by their residence numerous times during the week. They might as well be invisible. I am as guilty as anyone else in this room.
We are all so busy. What if we scheduled just one half hour a month to visit with one person who is homebound? Of course there are those who faithfully visit with our shut-ins on a regular basis, for which we give thanks.
Who would Jesus put in our midst to illustrate the point of humble service in his name? We don't know who God will bring our way that may be outside of our comfort zone. Whoever God brings us, it is done out of love and for the sake of his kingdom. God is calling us to more than niceness, but to radical God-centered hospitality.
One of my favorite contemporary Christian groups is Casting Crowns. Their lyrics are always powerful. Listen to the words of the refrain of "Does Anybody Hear Her?"
Does anybody hear her?
Does anybody see?
Does anybody even know she's going down today?
Under the shadow of our steeples
With all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that's tucked away in you and me
Does anybody hear her?
Does anybody see?
If judgment looms under every steeple
If lofty glances from lofty people
can't see past her scarlet letter
and we never even met her.
Ray loves to discuss bumper stickers. This gospel text could have a bumper sticker all its own. It would be, "Start seeing the invisible." Start seeing the invisible, not so that we can feel good about ourselves and pat ourselves on the back. Start seeing the invisible because to receive the invisible one is to receive Jesus and to receive Jesus is to receive the One who sent him. (Mary Hinkle Shore).