Sunday, September 20, 2009

My first sermon at St. John's: A Child Called It

A Child Called It

Today we find Jesus back on his home turf, Galilee, and in his home city, Capernaum. There he teaches the same message that he did last week in Caesarea Philippi. Last week we heard of Peter rebuking him for his description of the coming hardship, betrayal, death, and ultimate vindication of the Son of Man.
This week, it seems that the disciples get it. It seems like the disciples accept his message. It seems like they’ve learned their lesson.
But, it only seems this way. If we go on the way with them to
Capernaum, if we go down that road, we run into an argument. The
argument we find on the way was, “who is the greatest?”
Now, this phrase, “on the way” could be descriptive. In which case it is locating the disciples argument in space and time—they were on a road while arguing. Which is fair enough.
But when I look at this event on the page I note the location of this phrase, twice used, in quick succession. The first “on the way” and the second “on the way” practically rub up against one another like cricket legs. Their close quarters cause my mind to ruminate on this phrase’s significance.
And as I ruminate on this I find a similar phrase found in other
in Luke and Acts. “The Way” is used by other writers as a name for the followers of Jesus—“The Way” in fact was one of the earliest names used for Christians.
So, if we hadn’t noticed that those arguing about greatness were
disciples of Jesus that point is subtly re-enforced.
Simply put Christ’s calling to the cross and Calvary puts fear into the parts of the church that yearn for greatness. Luther once wrote, the cross,
“cures our desire for glory and power not by satisfying it, but by extinguishing it.” The disciples are afraid of their want and need for glory being extinguished!
Just as Jesus did not foretell his death on but one occasion, neither does he make this point but once.
So we move from cross and glory stood next to one another in order for cross to critique and extinguish greatness, to Christ’s words to all twelve of his disciples,
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
And what would this look like?--what does this look like?—when we people of the way reject vying for greatness, reject firsting the first and lasting the last, reject being served. When instead we first the last and serve all?
Do we perhaps become more inclusive? Do we become more ecumenical—no longer being swayed by the glory of denomination?
Do we look past the divisions within the body of the ELCA created at churchwide? Do we look the divisiveness of churchwide straight in the eye?
Do we look outside our walls and quietly, yet with confidence born of our own struggle take our faith to the streets? Do we engage more deeply with those already inside our walls?
As most of you know I’m new here, so I don’t know what firsting the last will and does look like here at St. John’s.
But I do know Jesus goes on and gives us and the rest of his disciples a concrete example of the last—a small child.

Reading this example plainly our imaginations conjure up images of gentle Jesus welcoming a child.
Oh yes, a child—unfettered by fear, lopping through the Swiss Alps, blond hair tossed by a gentle wind, maybe a yak bleating in the background—a distant yodeler calling to say all is well, all is okay.
That ain’t what Jesus is talking about. This idealistic and idealized “Sound of Music” expression of youth that has permeated much of western culture—is a very new image of children—an image foisted upon modern minds by the Philosopher Jean Jaque Rouseau when, in 1762, he published his book Emile. In this book he recommended that everyone should move to a farm, unswaddle their children, and let them run around naked.
Yet Rouseau himself could not live up to his own ideal standards. Instead of raising his five children he had them all committed to an insane asylum so that he could get back to philosophizing.
I’m sure this insane asylum was a brutal playground for Rouseau’s children. I also feel that the image of a child in an insane asylum more accurately portrays the life of the child who Christ embraced.
Look with me at verse 36 in todays gospel. You will notice the child is not referred to as he or she. Instead the child is an it. An object, not a person but a child called it.
In the ancient world infant mortality was a constant—kids died all the time. So there was no sense in assigning name or gender to a child until you were sure it would live.
Further, within Roman culture the first year of a child’s life was… sort of a trial run. The child lived at the whim of the family patriarch—the pater familias.
It is for this reason that there are so many ancient stories about “foundlings”—children taken from their home by their father… or more often by their father’s servant, and left out in the wilderness to starve or succumb to the elements. Oedipus—that famous man who killed his father and married his mother did so because he had been left out in the wild, but survived, and therefore knew neither his mother nor his father. The founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were said to have survived their abandonment by being taken in by a she-wolf.
And I think anyone who has gone through high school PE knows that even today there is still as much “insane asylum” involved in being a child as there is Rouseau’s nude yodeling in the alps.
I know that growing up with a heart condition childhood wasn’t a bed of roses. I felt like I was the doctor’s personal pincushion. When the doctors would rattle off statistics about my likelihood of survival I often felt like Han Solo from the movie Star Wars—stuck in some impossible situation as C-3P0 announced, “The odds of survival are 725 to 1.”
I don’t think this anxious, existential, insane asylum aspect of childhood is unique to me.
I think about my first walk around the neighborhood. Mother Glenna, Deaconess Jane, and I were hanging out with the men who throw horseshoes after work and a young man darted by us all. Then a police helicopter appeared in the sky. Then police cars and a paddy wagon zoomed up Pimlico Road.
By the time the three of us got to where the commotion was the cops had one of the young men Mother Glenna knows well subdued on the sidewalk—because he had been fiddling with the motorcycle abandoned by the shooter. I imagine being on the receiving end of the cops like that makes you feel like an it.
Even today there is an essential itness to childhood.
And Jesus embraces the its of the ancient world on many occasions. Jesus is really serious about interacting with and helping children. In Mark’s gospel alone Jesus—Told Jairus’ little girl, thought dead, to “get up.” Jesus threw the Syrophonician woman a crumb by ridding her child of a demon. And in the verses just previous to today’s exchange about welcoming “one such child” Jesus, to a father’s cry of “I believe, help my unbelief” makes a son to stop seizuring, to speak, and to stand up!
And this is something his disciples continued. We were known in the ancient world for our ethic toward the least of these—the orphan, the widow, the sick, the lame, and the child. We were known for our stand against infanticide. In fact, this Christian tendency to be tender toward children, was noted by of all people Karl Marx, who analyzed religion in general and concluded it was simply poor people responding to their oppression, once wrote, “We can forgive Christians much, for they taught us to love our children.”
And even today this ethic of service to the least of these is still alive in Christ’s body, the church. It is manifest in the Roman Catholic position on abortion and the Unitarian’s OWL program. It is found in Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries. The ELCA’s Malaria initiative and the hunger appeal.
And even here in this church, here at St. John’s, we follow Jesus. Between the programs run across the street at the Pimlico Road Arts and Community Center and the Pimlico Road Youth Program down the street next to Holy Nativity over 200 children from the community are being cared for—are being embraced by this Christian community.
For that matter I’d imagine being hungry, and being addicted, both can carry a certain stigma—and can lead to a certain amount of it-ness. And we are ministering to that reality too, with our food pantry and the NA meetings that go on in our basement daily.
Isn’t this a wonderful expression of the ELCA’s motto, “God’s work, our hands.”
In serving the “its” the stigmatized and disempowered, “a child such at this,” we are doing a great thing. But let us press a little deeper, maybe connecting Jesus’ words about how in doing this type of welcome we are in fact welcoming him, and in welcoming him welcoming God—connecting them to his words about his own death.
Jesus is saying we find God in the it! This is the very definition of “Theology of the Cross.” Finding God in the last place we would look! The eternal subject, the creator of all objects, is found as, and in, an it!
God is found in the tentative, weak, fleshy, person of a child—a child called it, it the son of Mary. It, this son who points to his coming death. It this man dead on a cross!
Oh yes, the itness of Christ, “cures the desire for glory” extinguishing it that he may “exult us in his mercy, giving us a home.”
In the cross we are stripped of any pretention and this image of God as it, as child, is flipped as it is revealed to us. At the foot of the cross we are moved from despair about our own itness into confidence in God’s mercy and solidarity with us.
Not only am I entertaining God by welcoming a child called it—I also become that child—taken in by God, held in the weakness of his mighty grace, embraced not because I earned it, not because of any merit of my own, but because that is the thrust of God’s heart!
And because of this I can not help but sing:
He’s done so much for me, I can not tell it all.
He washed my sin away, I can not tell it all.
He walks and talks with me, I can not tell it all
He gave me victory, I can not tell it all
I can not tell it all, I can not tell it all
Amen and Alleluia.