Sermon for Pentecost 15, Year B
Based on Mk. 9:30-37
Jesus was a radical! A great deal of his teachings and actions were radical. So often Jesus was busy making waves, rocking the boat, and turning the world upside down. Today, in our gospel, he is doing it again! Someone once said that a little understanding makes a person arrogant and a lot of understanding makes a person humble. This is certainly the case in our gospel today.
The disciples are clued right out when Jesus speaks to them a second time about his future suffering, death and resurrection. For the disciples this just did not compute! Or, if it did compute, it was simply far too overwhelming for them to digest.
Notice how the disciples deal with it ~ or, it is more accurate to say ~ how they avoid it! They quickly change the subject by arguing amongst themselves who was the greatest. Does this sound familiar to us? We, like the disciples, understand so little and then respond out of arrogance. How easy it is ~ like the disciples ~ to argue with one another about greatness.
True greatness, according to Jesus is the exact opposite of the disciples’ and most peoples’ understanding of greatness. For Jesus, true greatness is found in the most unusual place, namely, in a little child. Little children are the greatest citizens of God’s kingdom. It is one of the easiest things in the world to forget or underestimate the greatness of children. People unfortunately do it every day! That is precisely why every human civilization is judged or measured by its children. Most civilizations, when judged or measured by this standard fall far short of God’s kingdom.
The ancient Hebrews, although they considered children a blessing from God; nevertheless could be rather rigid and even cruel in their discipline of children. In the Roman Empire, children were not treated very well. The status of children during the industrial revolution was horrible: child labour with poor working conditions, long hours, low wages and seven-day workweeks were sinful and certainly unchristian. Even today an alarming number of stories about child neglect and abuse make us realize how far away our civilization is from God’s realm.
In a far more positive light, and much closer to the true spirit of Jesus, I remember reading somewhere about a group of people from a so-called “primitive culture” that highly valued their children. Indeed, so great were the children in this group of people that all major decisions were made by asking: ‘How will this affect the next five generations of our people?’ Obviously children were very great in that culture for the people to make plans that far into the future.
Jesus said children were the greatest in God’s realm because he was able to see a future for them ~ he knew they had great potential. In the spirit of Jesus, the following story also points out how important it is for us adults to see the future potential of children.
Henry was the seventh of the eight children of a miner. He lived in Castleford, Yorkshire, and like most children in those days he went to Sunday School.
One Sunday afternoon, the superintendent at the school told the children a story about Michelangelo. He told it so well and with such enthusiasm that it seized the imagination of young Henry. He hurried home to read all that he could find about the sculptor. A seed had been sown.
That little boy was Henry Moore, who became one of the greatest of our modern sculptors. Today his work is known and admired throughout the world ~ and it all started one day in Sunday School.[i]
Jesus also said children were great because of their humility. To be humble goes against nearly every type of human striving. Our lives as adults become so preoccupied with striving for success, wealth, power and influence that we lose our humility. Yet, as much as we fight it, we are always humbled in one way or another. Eventually we always meet people who are: more successful, more affluent, more powerful, more influential than ourselves.
I’ve always appreciated the story of Albert Schweitzer, who was a very accomplished and gifted person, yet he remained very humble in an authentic way. He could have had the life of success, wealth, power, influence and fame in Europe, had he pursued his academic or musical careers there. However, he chose to leave that behind for a humble life as a medical missionary doctor in the jungles of Africa.
The child is a humble person because their greatness does not depend upon their own strivings or accomplishments. Their greatness is dependent upon the love, care, and nurture of their parents and of God. In humility we come to realize how dependent we really are upon God’s grace for everything. For without God’s grace all of our strivings and accomplishments are in vain.
Another mark of child-like greatness according to Jesus is the capacity to trust. It is very difficult for many adults to trust other people. Our daughter, Anna, never ceases to amaze me as I have observed her level of trust in us as parents and in other people too, over the years. Often when we have been in public places, she has been quite willing to greet and talk with complete strangers.
As adults we often lose this innocent, child-like trust. Our thinking patterns and value judgments become so narrow and routine that we leave no room for trust ~ especially if it involves someone or something that is new or different than what is old or familiar. Jesus knew that at the heart of every relationship with each other and with God it is necessary to have trust.
An army officer was sent to Tibet on a dangerous mission. Two things he carried along with him gave him strength. The first was the knowledge that he had not undertaken the journey on his own but had been sent by a great power for a sound reason. The second was that if he got into a tight place, his government would use all its resources to see him through safely. These are the same assurances God gives us all. He has placed us here for a good reason and promises to use all his resources to aid us. God is ready to see us through if we will only trust him.[ii]
As followers of Jesus, may we come to accept true greatness in little children. May God grant us the child-like greatness of potential to see a better future; to live more in humility and trust.