Mark 9: 30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31because 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.” 32But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35Sitting 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.”
Its been a tough summer, and not just for the heat. The sheer amount of shocking, high-profile gun-related violence has also set this summer apart, from North Minneapolis, to Chicago, where almost five hundred people have died in gangland crossfire, to mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin. The heightened level of fear that all this gun violence has introduced into society feels almost like this summer’s high heat and humidity. And the more guns people carry around because of their fear, the more the fear grows. It gets to where, if the traffic light turns green and the car ahead of you doesn’t move, you hesitate to honk, especially if the car has a bumper sticker like the one that says, “This truck protected by Smith and Wesson,” or “Keep honking, I’m reloading.” Or “Honk if you don’t like my driving; then duck.” Once upon a time those might have been funny, but not this summer.
So to do my part, and to keep from feeling like a helpless victim, I walked around this week with a white ribbon pinned to my shirt or my jacket, hoping that a few people would ask me about it. And a few did, but disappointingly few. That’s how afraid we are to interact anymore. I told the few who asked that it is a symbol of my commitment, as a Christian, to nonviolence and disarmament. Its a sign to say that I am disarmed, that you won’t find a lethal weapon on me. And they said things like, “Thank you,” or “good idea.” I guess they must be feeling the fear too.
Yet I found that disarmament and peaceableness are more difficult than just choosing not to carry a loaded weapon. Throughout the week I found myself carrying other weapons, invisible, internal weapons, in the form of fears, attitudes, judgments and stereotypes. I found that I am sometimes going through life just as vigilant, defensive, reactive and self-protective as if I were walking through a war zone or a bad neighborhood with a pistol in my pocket. Vigilant, that is, to any slights, disagreement or disapproval from others; vigilant about who in a crowd is most esteemed and who is not; vigilant for what just might be negative thoughts and intentions toward me, ready to respond to perceived slights and dishonor with self-justification, with counter-criticism, or a cutting quip. At the end of the day, its amazing how much mental and emotional skill and energy one can invest in defending one’s ego, one’s status and honor in this world, how often we are monitoring other people, their faces, their attitudes, their politics and principles, even their clothing, for threats to our own honor and self-esteem, real or perceived. And if people say something, or wear something that says we’re not on the same page politically or religiously, or not on the same social level, or professional or educational level, then we may pigeon-hole them, or stereotype them as threats or foes, friends or strangers. As scary as that is, it seems like sometimes people need to find enemies, inferiors and scapegoats in order to define themselves, and to feel better about themselves.
And its not like we have never been hurt before. Its not like we don’t all carry some scars and wounds to the spirit and the soul, as well as the body. Its not like we have never been on the receiving end of abuse, even if it was just a quip or a criticism that was meant to put us “in our place.” Its not like we never received the glance that sized us up to see if we were worth someone’s time or not, not like we never went to junior high school, when we and our peers had lived just long enough to figure out how social rank and status worked, and had grown just big enough to enforce them, but did not yet have the emotional maturity to put them in perspective or know how to deal with them.
I felt a bit like I was back in seventh grade early this week, one afternoon when I was waiting for a chance to cross 26th Street at Columbus Ave., at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Traffic at that time, on that one way street, can be steady and packed, bumper to bumper. Just when the light turns red down at Chicago and Columbus you might have a chance to cross, but then cars start peeling out of the parking ramps; they’ve been waiting their turns a while, too. You can wait as long as five to ten minutes for a chance to cross, if you don’t walk down the street to where there’s a stoplight.
So this day I was waiting for some time, stepping out a few times but having to go back in as cars sped out of the parking lot or from a right turn on red down at Chicago, with no one stopping, everyone accelerating,….. until a young woman walked up Columbus Avenue from the other side, a very young and very professional looking woman in high heels and knee-length skirt. Did I mention that I was coming from the garden in dirty jeans and t-shirt? She wasn’t standing at the other corner for even twenty seconds before– Bingo- car in lane number one stops for her. She steps off the curb, and—Bingo–car in lane number two stops. That was my chance to cross from the other side, which I did. And while I was glad she came and that traffic stopped for her, I was sobered by where I, as a slightly pudgy middle-aged man with a graying hair and beard, stand in the social totem pole of these drivers.
I thought of asking her how often she comes here, and at what time, so I could cross the street too, but somehow I don’t think she’d take that the way I meant it.
Today’s Gospel story shows us that Jesus’ disciples had not yet made it through seventh grade in their lifelong school of discipleship. All the terrible things some of us may remember from school, like bullying, mockery, hostility, and jockeying for position, had likely been happening along that road in Galilee, because the word that Mark uses is not the one for “discussion” or even “argument,” but “dispute,” a “fight,” everything verbal and emotional, short of fists, kicks and headbutts.
This was serious. For Jesus, this was like when the Israelites rioted and contended with Moses in the wilderness, and God said to Moses, “Moses, how about I find you some new Hebrews?” This is one moment of several in which the First Church of Jesus Christ almost died and disappeared of its own doing, of its own internal failures. And that’s usually what does nations, communities and, yes, churches in. Not their external enemies but when they are their own worst enemies. The times that invaders from the West made it through the Great Wall of China have this in common: someone inside that wall let them in. Either someone who was corrupt, or someone who was dissatisfied and mistreated, or both. So these invisible, internal, emotional weapons people carry around are just as much a threat to themselves, as to others.
When we add to these emotional and spiritual weapons real weapons of steel, metal, wood and lead, its like adding gasoline to a fire. Yes, I would like society to rid our streets of weapons and ammunition like those used in recent mass shootings, or like the ones I occasionally hear banging away in this neighborhood. Yes, I want the nations of the world to eliminate or at least reduce the stockpiles of weapons, big or small, from nuclear weapons down to land mines and cluster bombs. I think that kind of disarmament is inherent to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus Christ and the gospel of grace also come to disarm us from spiritual, emotional and relational warfare and weapons, the internal, invisible ones that even ardent pacifists can carry. I say that because I’ve gone to peace rallies and activist gatherings and events and I have seen the same social jockeying and one up-manship that you see among some people in their high school reunions, locker rooms, and corporate boardrooms. So no person, no group, no ideology, no political or religious group is entirely pure or free of these internal, invisible weapons.
But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is working to disarm his disciples of their invisible, internal weaponry, not once, not twice, but three times. The first time is when he teaches his disciples that he is going to be handed over to men and to die. He is disarming his disciples of their rampant, runaway craving for self-preservation, whatever the cost to others. For they were expecting a Messiah who would do the conquering, dominating and killing, a Messiah whose enemies would do the dying. Of course they’d be glad to help out with a little bit of conquering, killing and dominating, too.
He reaches to disarm the disciples a second time when he challenges them with this question, “What were you arguing about on the road?” and then tells them “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” So he’s disarming them of their craving for status and hierarchy. And they’d been fighting over who would be first, who would rule over the rest.
The third effort at disarmament is when Jesus embraces a child and tells his disciples, “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.” And they were envisioning a community in which everybody would do them the honor of welcoming them, like kings and queens. But Jesus is disarming them of their conventional way of calculating power, honor and worth, at each other’s expense. Welcome the last and the least among you, Jesus says, and you’ll be welcoming God.
For in Jesus are fulfilled the promises of the prophets, that the lion will lie down with the lamb, the bear with the baby goat. Jesus Christ is the first fruit of that world in which every mountain shall be brought low and every valley lifted up, to paraphrase the prophet. The swords that shall be beaten into plowshares are those of the heart and the mouth, as well as of the hand. Instead of a community in which people tear each other down with fear, like in most of the paid political ads we’re hearing of late, Jesus is building a community that will exhibit the prophets’ peaceable kingdom. His City on a Hill is to be “God’s holy mountain on which no one shall hurt or harm another.”
The Apostle Paul caught the vision of this community, one in which people “build each other up in love.” And instead of jockeying and climbing over each other to get honor, its one in which we, “compete to show each other honor,” according to Romans 12: 10.
In effect, what Jesus is working for here is a community free of status, hierarchy and all the ways and weapons by which people try to lift themselves up by pulling others down. Games are great ways of building relationships and community, but not the zero sum games that people play when we fear that our worth and their dignity can only come at the expense of someone else. That’s the emotional and spiritual violence at the heart of all physical violence.
And if a community like that sounds impossible, God has gone ahead of us to show us that it can be done, and how it is done. Anyone’s God can be big and scary and do mind-blowing huge things like scattering galaxies across the infinite reaches of space, through billions of light years in space and time, and then recycle them through the inconceivably dense gravity of black holes. But to make himself as small as a baby, in the manger of Bethlehem, is a power greater than any weapon. To make himself as low-down, no account, invisible and vulnerable as the child that Jesus took into his arms before the disciples, is a force with greater power to do good than any bomb or bullet.
By taking a child into his arms and making of him an honored example, Jesus is demonstrating that his community is not to be organized around the strong and the powerful, as are most human societies, but around the weak and the needy; that its members eyes are not to be looking up the social ladder in envy, imitation and adoration, but down the social ladder in compassion and care. I remember how Virgil Wiebe made this point quite clear, during a church council retreat some years ago, when he mentioned this particular passage. Then he named a particular child in our pre-school Christian Education class. He said of her, “According to what Jesus says, she is the most important member of this church.” Well put.
But someone of her age, height and social power is so easy to overlook. Again, when Jesus took into his arms one of society’s most invisible and vulnerable people, a child, before those quarreling disciples, he could not have made his point more shockingly clear, about what kind of community he was creating: one in which there are no invisible, expendable, extraneous people. The strong serve the weak as protectors and advocates, rather than the weak serving the strong as slaves, sacrifices and scapegoats.
But its not enough for Jesus just to disarm his disciples of all those fears, cravings and hostilities. Our hands will not remain idle nor empty for long. There are tools he wishes to put in the place of weapons. Furthermore, Jesus knows that we will want to be first, that we will want to count for something, that we will want honor, respect and recognition. Of course we want ourselves and our lives to matter. God made us that way. And God even wants to give his children and servants honor, respect and recognition. We all matter more greatly to God than we can think or imagine right now.
Jesus is not saying, “Don’t seek to be first, to lead or to count.” Jesus says, in effect, “If you want to be first,” or “Since you want to be first,” here’s how you do it: by giving honor, love and service when you can, with what you can, even if its only a cup of cold water, and to whomever you can, especially to those who cannot return the favor and honor you back, like this child in my arms. Do that and you’ll find that its not like God made only so much love, honor and dignity in the world, and its up to us to fight each other for our share. Share the honor, power, love and worth with others, and they’ll grow in everybody’s account. For they come from the infinite storehouse of God’s own nature.
That’s the first thing a disciple needs to replace the invisible, internal weapons of fear that keep showing up in our emotional pockets: a faith that believes that God has such unbelievably big stores of love, honor and worth to give, that the more I share, the more I receive. Another thing we need is a different image of ourselves, other than the one we often carry, that of a lone struggler, making our way fearfully through a hostile world, having to fight each other tooth and nail for what little dignity, meaning and worth we can get. The world often feels that way; people often act that way. But let me ask us, Who was that child whom Jesus took in his arms?
The gospel doesn’t give him or her a name. So let me suggest a name:
(You all listening?) Your name.
Let’s call that child, Maggie, or Claire or Jim (both of them) or Mary (both of them again) or Tsehai or Susan or Toffer or Rebecca (again, both)……substitute your own name, and imagine yourself there in Christ’s embrace. Then stay there and dwell in that embrace. Frankly, I cannot think of a safer place in which to protect our egos, our sense of self, of worth, of value, meaning and dignity, than in the grip of those mighty, everlasting arms. So that whenever the world feels like that seventh grade locker room again, just imagine those strong carpenter’s arms around you, holding the eternal, indestructible part of you, the part made in God’s image, safe and secure.
There in that divine embrace, I guarantee that we will not only find that our internal, invisible weapons are unnecessary, they are hindrances and impediments, dead weights holding us down. There we will find that these internal, invisible weapons cause us more fear than they solve. There we will find love, honor, dignity and worth greater than anything we might try to take from others.
From within the embrace of those arms, we will also discover something else: that those mighty, everlasting arms of God are embracing every other person, even those whom we would fear and avoid, that they too are precious children in God’s sight, even if they are the last to know it, or to act like it. Just thinking of that, just imagining it, I can feel the fear draining out of me. I hope it does the same for you.
Now in a world like this, and after a summer like this, I don’t know if the disciple of Jesus will ever stop finding the kinds of internal, emotional weapons I’ve been talking about in the pockets of his or her soul. But hopefully we come to recognize them for what they are, and hand them over to Jesus every time we figure it out, before we use them on someone else’s soul. And in the place of these internal, emotional weapons, I hope we learn to fill our hands with tools that repair, tools that heal, that reconcile, especially the faith that trusts God for more love, dignity and honor than we can imagine, and a vision for everyone as a beloved child in God’s arms, including ourselves.