Welcoming the little ones home

SERMON

Proverbs 31.10-31

Psalm 1

James 3.1-12

Mark 9.30-37

 Welcoming the little ones home                                      ©Suzanne Grimmett

You have a story growing inside you, but it is a story with a definite beginning, and you probably have a birth certificate to prove it. This may be how we document our existence to the relevant authorities, but it doesn’t tell us who we are and why the person we were ten years ago and the person we are now are still the same. And while the facts of your birth may help you identify the soil in which you were planted on a particular moment and part of the globe, it doesn’t reveal where you are growing to and what you are becoming.

We are often over-ready to grab identities for ourselves, constructed from our fears and desires and projected as a mask we show the world. We attach to identities such as wife, husband, father, mother, successful professional, creative entrepreneur, philanthropist, artist, dreamer or social butterfly.  These may be identities we would like to live into, or the roles culture or religion have imposed on us across a lifetime. The reading from Proverbs 31 gives us a great list apparently of what a good wife might look like, but it may sound to us like an impossible standard. However, it is not instructions to every woman about how they should get married, rise before dawn, plant vineyards and make her own clothes. Rather it is an acrostic poem that celebrates what wisdom could look like in action, including the joy that can be found in the tasks of every day. It is also a song that was traditionally memorised and sung not by Jewish women but by the men learning the language of appreciation – not a list or identity for women to try to emulate in order to achieve an impossibly high standard.

How often we get that wrong. We strive for building a successful identity that others may admire instead of finding the language of appreciation of others and of ourselves, just as we are. Instead of coming home to ourselves, we so often seek to be seen to be successful and influential, worthy of notice and attention. If you have ever noticed anything like that in yourself, it may be of some encouragement that the disciples who had spent the most time with Jesus seem to be still caught up in the perennial human need to compete, compare and strive for greatness. Maybe we might relate to the silent discomfiture of the disciples on being found out arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest.

There are two uncomfortable silences in today’s Gospel text. One is this rather shame-filled silence when Jesus asks them about their argument. Earlier there is a silence when Jesus tells them quite clearly that he is going to die at the hands of others but will rise again. The disciples maybe didn’t understand what Jesus meant by predicting his resurrection, but they could surely not have missed his meaning when he talked about his death. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of talking to someone about something difficult and had them act like they never heard it? I suspect something like that is going on here…the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. They were afraid of facing the truth of where this was all going.

When we are children and our story is just beginning, we spend time learning to differentiate our own identity from that of our parents. As we grow, with the help of traditions, laws, family and social culture, a sense of corporate values and an understanding of goodness, self-identity has a safe place to grow. However for many, this foundation is lacking. Richard Rohr explains it like this;

So we need boundaries, identity, safety, and some degree of order and consistency to get started personally and culturally. We also need to feel “special”…..we need some successes, response, and positive feedback early in life, or we will spend the rest of our lives demanding it, or bemoaning its lack, from others. …You have to first have an ego structure to then let go of it and move beyond it.[1]

This ‘moving beyond’ is what Jesus enacts powerfully in his life, death and resurrection. The call to die…to take up our cross and follow Jesus where he has led the way is not a call to self-annihilation but rather an invitation to let die all that is false in us – all of our manufactured identities and masks we wear…all of our needs for self-importance and power of others…all must be surrendered that our true self can live. Instead of identifying with our woundedness, we can rest in God and allow our wounds to be transformed in the sacred space of unconditional love. Only then are we free. It is the freedom of embracing the downward path and losing our terror of finding ourselves the last in line. Sometimes the surrender of the known way of being in the world can cause many fears to arise in us, keeping us silent and, worse still, stuck.

Perhaps this silence was the reason Jesus chose to bring the physical presence of the child into the circle of conversation. When our fears keep us stuck, a good symbol…the more physical the better…can release us to a new understanding.

This story is not the story of Jesus blessing the children, although the two are sometimes conflated. Here Jesus is making a very specific point. We know a lot about the structure of 1st century Jewish society, and the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed a picture of religious communities where everyone had a particular status within the group. We read this in a section from The Rule of the Community from Qumran;

The priests will sit in the first seats, the elders in the second, and then the rest of all the people shall sit, each according to his rank. In the same order they shall be asked for judgement or concerning any counsel or matter which has to do with the many, each man offering his knowledge to the council of the community…’ (1QS 6.8–11)[2]

As we hear that, maybe we can sense the import of what Jesus is saying when he takes a child into his arms, nestling them into the crook of his elbow[3] and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

The child represents the lowest order on the social scale, with no authority and no social value. To become like a child is to accept the lowest place. It means loosening our grip on our own way of telling our story and relinquishing our attachments to certain cultural roles or well-crafted identities. It is to cease desiring confirmation that we are special and competing with others out of our own need for that affirmation, and resting in the love of God for us, just as we are. It is to finally know the freedom of not having to prove ourselves worthy. This is true humility – not the hand-wringing, obsequious Uriah Heep kind found in Dicken’s novel David Copperfield, but a gentle loving acceptance and appreciation of our whole self, acknowledging both our strengths and our weaknesses, and allowing this self to be seen- by God and by others.

N.T Wright has said, “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realise a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful and the unscrupulous do not have the last word.” Hope is what is born when we see that who we are and the story growing inside us is not driven by the same spirit of graceless competition that dominates so powerfully. As Jesus gathers this little one in his arms, I believe hope is what the disciples may have glimpsed. Instead of shaming them for their desperate posturing, Jesus shows them they don’t have to earn their welcome in the kingdom of God. It is a truth that cannot be gainsaid by anything they have done or left undone. Against all the social and religious hierarchies and scales of worth that we are so fond of constructing, Jesus sits with the one who had no value and offers all the dignity of a divine welcome. It is a welcome Jesus extends unconditionally to you and to me. And it is a welcome Jesus calls us to emulate as we are invited to honour all those who are least amongst us, even as we honour that which is least in our selves….the little one who is longing to leave behind the striving and come home to love.

+Amen.


[1] Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (pp. 4-5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.  

[2] Michael A Knibb, The Qumran Community, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p117.

[3] As part of this enacted chreia, Jesus ‘takes a child into his arms’. The verb ἐναγκαλίζομαι occurs only here and in the parallel action in Mark 10.16 within the New Testament. It draws on the term ἀγκάλη, meaning the angle formed by the crook of the arm  It is perhaps another sign of eye-witness testimony in the source Mark is drawing on, as we can picture Jesus’ arms around the child. Ian Paul https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-radical-inversion-of-community-values-in-mark-9/?fbclid=IwAR3DWGQPk4eSQ5_xbH_UAWbjB-P44ID5SjUX2qvKgAdb6kjPEZX6ieup3mI

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