First Congregational Church
September 20, 2015
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
“Do We Understand What He Meant?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Our teacher asked what my favorite animal was, and I said, “Fried chicken.” She said I wasn’t funny, but she couldn’t have been right, because everyone else laughed. My parents told me to always tell the truth. I did. Fried chicken is my favorite animal. I told my dad what happened and he said my teach was probably a member of a group that loved animals. I do, too. Especially chicken, pork and beef. Anyway, my teacher sent me to the principal’s office. I told him what happened, and he laughed, too. Then he told me not to do it again.
The next day in class my teacher asked me what my favorite live animal was. I told her it was chicken. She asked me why, so I told her it was because you could make them into fried chicken. She sent me back to the principal’s office. He laughed, and told me not to do again.
I don’t understand. My parents taught me to be honest, but my teacher doesn’t like it when I am. Today, my teacher asked me to tell her what famous person I admired most. I told her, “Colonel Sanders.” Guess where I am now….
Truth is such an interesting thing. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that when two people have an argument - or discussion - which can generally be reduced in some way to the issue of truth or what is true - there are three sides to any story: my truth, your truth, and the real truth - which no one person may ever discover. We all see truth through our own eyes, so even in the quest for such a noble aspiration, we have human complications.
The gospel book of Mark is supposedly famous for its intercalations, which are also known as “sandwiches”. And I thought I wasn’t going to learn anything new this week! The writer of Mark puts stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such juxtaposition. It is sort of like visiting Benzie County on a beautiful sunny day, but knowing how much glorious it is after you’ve been through a dull, grey winter.
So naturally our scripture passage for this morning has one of these such intercalations. Before we get to the reading of it, however, it may be helpful to set the scene with a little insight from Ramsey MacMullen’s book, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. to A.D. 284. (I know it sounds like a terribly dry seminary text book, but do pay attention, because I think it will add a sense of depth that we might not otherwise appreciate - like an intercalation in an intercalation.)
His book describes a sense of class in the ancient world that, although recognizable to us today, was of a scale that we might have a hard time imagining. The ancient world had no middle class. Most of the wealth was accumulated at the very top of the social structure, and the bulk of people found themselves poor.
Within the elite world, honor was incredibly important. The components of honor and shame were common: “The upper classes emphasized, for everyone to notice and acknowledge, the steep, steep social structure that they topped”. The rich wanted to associate only with other rich, they would intentionally insult and demean those who were slightly less rich, and hoped to accumulate favor with those who were above them.
Within the lower class, the hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
Just before this morning’s account, Mark has Jesus and some of the disciples coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, and they see a large group of people arguing with the teachers of the law, i.e., religious upper-classmen.
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Thank you, Ann. Now that you know about intercalations, which is a word recognized by spell-check, by-the-way, it’s interesting how those two pieces of bread are so easy to see. The one side is the first part - where Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection - divine - and the other side is one of the parts that helps us to identify so well with Jesus - human. The inside of the sandwich is meaning.
Part of the reason it’s nice to use the lectionary for scripture passages is that I feel like I get less blame. If I had deliberately chosen this passage, particularly in light of the refugee and immigration issues, all the political heat around Planned Parenthood, and in these exciting days of pre-presidential election emotions, then I would deserve any sticks and stones cast my way. But if I chose from a set number, and make that choice on what I think God would have us wrestle, then I think God gets as much blame as I - as if the issue were about blame at all.
So, getting down to the meat of the story, remembering the status of lower class children of the time, because you know no respectable upper class parent would allow their child to mingle with such riff-raff, create that picture in your mind - of Jesus taking the child into his arms - not in front of the disciples, or behind them, but among them. You know, the kid probably wasn’t wearing designer labels, most likely no shoes or sandals, and there would be no surprise of a dirty face and maybe even a snotty nose. And Jesus holds him, and speaks words to which we are to aspire.
So what if we had such children around us? Actually, there are such children around us, many in adult bodies, so the question is how do we treat them? Do we even look for the light in their eyes or the fear of abandonment? If Jesus takes the lowest of the low into his arms, and gives us the charge to welcome such smelly and squirmy ones like him, do we really understand what he means?
On the other side of the literary sandwich, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for a second time - the first was in the previous chapter (Mark 8:31-33). Although the disciples’ reaction by this point is unsurprising, they still seem to have no idea what he is talking about. The most logical reasons - in my mind - they don’t ask for clarification are most likely 1) fear of asking a stupid question, and/or 2) fear that they still won’t understand. Its is interesting that fear is pervasive in the book of Mark. Characters repeatedly fear Jesus (Mark 4:35-41) or some manifestation of the Kingdom of God associated with him (Mark 5:1-20) - like a ghost or a spirit.
But here is where we start getting to the meat of the subject, and yes, this and the previous pun is intended. Fear, in Mark’s gospel, is the paired opposite of faith. In the calming of the storm, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Jesus’ statement to Jairus about his dead daughter is similar: “Do not fear; just have faith” (Mark 5:36). Faith in Mark is not an intellectual assent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed, but more about what is in your gut.
Arguing about who was the greatest - is not an issue that relative only to four-, five- or six-year-olds. Sometimes our “arguments” don’t have words. When the Apple Watch was released, it was revealed that it came in aluminum, stainless steel, and gold versions. The only conceivable need for a $10,000 gold arm computer that will be obsolete in 2 to 3 years is status, to proclaim to the world that money can be spent with no correlation to value. And please understand, I love life’s conveniences as well as the next person, and I’m just not ready to give up flush toilets for Jesus. I don’t think Jesus is asking anyone to become a pauper. But do I - do you - really understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Adam Thomas writes for an online site called Ministry Matters, and he tells this story - and you need to remember his name - Adam Thomas. “Every day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the queue. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. (There were) No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy — stricken with a name beginning with the letter “Y” — was worse off than I.
Then, on the day my math teacher, Mrs. Hughes, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the queue and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means that the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The stalls of the women’s bathroom still have an opening. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs.
Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean.
Maybe this whole passage really is an intercalation, two parts that are bigger because of each other. This earthly part - about inclusion of the lowest of the low - pairs with this divine part - about an eternal life that is beyond us - and the two paint the picture of not only what eternal home will be like, but of what can can aspire here on earth. Maybe we forget that life is not only about linearity, because sometimes lines are important, but about a circle that is large enough for everyone. Lest any of us lose any more time - to search our hearts about what Jesus really meant here, let us pray.
God of earth and eternity, we thank you for giving us such a greater scope than we often realize. Help us keep one eye to the heavens and one eye on the world around us. Help us to be wise in places where we need to be wise, and more embracing of those that need us. Because you created each of us differently, wired our brains differently, give each of us the understanding of your truth and more insight into different ways of understanding those not like us. For the gift of our minds that can appreciate so much from complexity to simplicity, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.