Saturday, September 19, 2009

Slumdog Savior

Gran, Park and Rollag Lutheran Churches—Hawley, MN
September 20, 2009
Mark 9:30-37

“Two steps forward, three steps backward…”

I wonder whether Jesus felt that way while trying to school his followers in the Way of the Cross: two steps forward, three steps backward.

Jesus was trying to spell it out—to get his disciples ready for what was to come—betrayal, execution and resurrection—and the disciples kept misunderstanding, walking in the fog, missing the point entirely.
And, it would seem they weren’t all that interested in understanding what Jesus was saying, either. “They were afraid to ask him…” (v. 32).

Were they dumb or just plain “in denial?” I suspect the latter…because as this text unfolds, one has the distinct impression that they were catching on to at least some of what Jesus was telling them. But they didn’t want to see what Jesus was asking them to see. They were avoiding painful reality, as we all are wont to do!

And when we’re in denial, we think about more pleasant things, don’t we? I sure do. Get your mind off whatever’s bugging you….think happy thoughts….which in the case of these doofus disciples concerned the question of greatness. When they thought Jesus was far enough ahead of them, out of earshot, they argued with one another “who was the greatest.” (v. 34)

Talk about missing the boat! Jesus was laying out his way, the give-yourself-away-way….and his followers were wallowing in their way, our way, the I’m-better-than-you-way.

But Jesus wasn’t really out of earshot—and by the way, that is a word for you and me to hold onto: Jesus is never out of earshot!

Jesus wasn’t oblivious to their argument over one-upmanship—not at all. And yet, rather than hectoring them for their block-headedness, he tries another way of saying what he was already saying. “You want to know about greatness, friends?” Jesus asks them. “Here’s the scoop on greatness: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ I’m here to turn everything upside down, to upset all your ways of ranking yourselves and each other. Go to the back of the line…because that’s where the line begins, my friends.”

And then, because Jesus knew that words by themselves are never enough, he offered an object lesson, a visual image they would not soon forget. He took a little child—perhaps one of the street kids who may have been following them along the way, a ragamuffin whom these Alpha Males rarely noticed!  Jesus took a child, placed a child in their “circle of excellence,” and said of the child: ““Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (v. 37).

Now it’s at this point that we need to pause and set aside all the ways we usually think about children in our time and place. For we live in an age that dotes on children, especially our own of course. We like to think that among us children are prized and treasured. We become very sentimental where our children are concerned.

And in that respect, ours is so very different from the age when Jesus our Lord walked the earth.  In the first century, children were not the center of attention. They were more like “background noise.”
People did not fret as we do about the child mortality rate. Children would come and go—and parents, especially fathers, had more latitude when it came to raising or abandoning children.

Child abandonment, in fact, was in the first century, a common form of post-natal “birth control.” If a baby was unwanted, if an infant was one too many mouth to feed….it could be left some place—tossed away.
As grim as that sounds, it’s likely that many of these abandoned babies were taken in by others—parents who couldn’t bear children of their own, families that needed some extra hands to do the chores. But still—children “came and went” in Jesus day in ways that make us shudder.

This, my friends--this colder, harsher world is the one in which Jesus took a child, placed it center-stage, embraced this child and said of this child: “If you welcome such a one—dirty, smelly, unruly, abandoned—if you welcome such a child you welcome me, and when you welcome me you welcome God who sent me.”

Jesus’ words, when we hear them in that light, are more jarring than we thought they’d be. Jesus invites us to see this first century child as someone like a leper, or a prostitute, or a tax collector, or any one of the no-accounts Jesus was always drawing into the circle of his new family of followers. Jesus asks us to see in whomever we are inclined to miss or ignore or write off—Jesus asks us to see him in this abandoned one we’d otherwise avoid.

Last year’s best movie was Slumdog Millionaire--the tale of an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of India’s largest city, Mumbai. Jamal Malik lost his parents when he was five, grew up as a “slumdog” with his brother Salim and a little girl name Latika….and survived all sorts of hurdles and challenges to find his way to India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Jamal’s whole tortured life prepares him to answer the increasingly-harder questions on the show…but the authorities arrest him on the suspicion of cheating. “How could a slumdog know all of this?” they wonder.

That’s a question to bring to this morning’s gospel text. How could Jesus so closely identify himself and his mission with a slumdog child in a backwater village like Capernaum? Is it that Jesus was and is our Slumdog Savior—who stoops to meet us in the lowest of the lowly, always and forever?

Notice the little one…see this child! Jesus tells us. When you meet this child, you gaze into my face and into the face of God.

See the child!

Whether or not the disciples caught on that day in Capernaum so long ago, eventually they and we did “get it,” more or less.

When the early church was being birthed, when the gospel of Jesus was spreading across the ancient world….concern for children, including children cruelly abandoned by their parents….care for children became a hallmark of its ministry. Noticing, picking up and caring for abandoned children became part-and-parcel of the mission of Christ through his church.

And that is still the case today. Jesus’ body in the world—the church—has had a place for babies, children and youth. When we have been most in touch with this part of our mission we have spoken up for children in the womb, children on the edges, children others have cast away, and children already in our midst.

Following Christ’s lead, we disciples of Jesus have trained up baptized babies, cared for orphans, sponsored schools, founded institutions of caring for all the “little ones” who might otherwise have no place to go.
In our own time we’re embracing again the notion that parents are the primary faith-nurturers of children.   We’re shifting our attention away from seeing the church building as a drop-off place where kids might pick up a little God-talk. Rather, we’re re-envisioning churches as seedbeds—hothouse nurseries--for growing in parents and other caring adults a passion and ability to form faith in the next generation.

In fact, mark your calendars for our synod’s next Passing on Vibrant Faith conference on October 22nd, with Drs. David Anderson and Paul Hill of the Youth and Family Institute in the Twin Cities. (End of commercial!)

The point, I guess, is that Jesus wasn’t a failure with his disciples or with us. Schooling us in the way of the cross might seem like a “two steps forward, three steps backward” ordeal….but we are teachable, and we have learned some things from our Slumdog Savior.

We realize that the greatest thing about our children isn’t that they’re cute or oh-so-innocent…but the greatest thing about each child is that she’s a window to heaven, his face is a mirror in which we see Jesus’ own face—indeed, the face of God.

We’re “getting it” that we ignore folks at our peril. Whoever we’re tempted to sidestep—because they’re poor or awkward or a little weird or just plain embarrassing—whoever we try not to see is the very one we must see, lest we miss Jesus.

And, taking our Lord at his word, we’re taking responsibility for children. Each and every child among us is OUR child, dear friends! Taking Jesus at his word we behold in each and every child, especially in our faith-families, a child for whom we bear awesome responsibility.

That, dear friends, is why we all—yes, ALL of us, make awesome promises to tiny children they’re baptized, when we say: “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” (ELW, p. 231)

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