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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC


Let The Little Ones Come Unto Me

Mark 10:2-16

Proper 22 - Year B

October 04, 2009

He came home late that January evening.  The traffic from the city had been terrible.  As he made his way up the walk from the driveway into the house, he was surprised to see only one light on, the light shining from the kitchen.  So he opened the door.  As soon as he did, one of the children yelled, "Daddy!  Daddy's home!"

He hugged the children.  Glancing into the kitchen, he could easily see bags and bottles opened, all in disarray.  Things were in a mess.

"Where is your Mom?" he asked.

"She is upstairs taking a nap," Sara said.  "And we got hungry, so we decided to fix supper for ourselves."

"Taking a nap?" he asked.  He felt himself gripped by dread.

Tommy added, "Sara put water into the mix, when the recipe said milk.  I told her it wouldn't work!"

"You two have a seat in the kitchen, and I'll go up and check on Mom," he said.  They bounded back into the kitchen and he ascended the stairs in the darkness.  He called out Sue's name.  He thought he heard a muffled moan.  He entered the bedroom and there she was, sprawled across the bed, on her back, one arm over her head.  He moved toward her on the bed, and he could smell the alcohol as he bent toward her. 

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I, I was just worn out after the day that I've had.  I wanted to take a little nap," she said. 

"A nap?  It's seven o'clock at night!  Sue, how could you?"

"I'm not allowed to take a nap when I'm sleepy?" she said groggily.

But he didn't answer.  He went back downstairs and started to make something for supper.  He opened up a couple of cans of soup.  And then he and the two children sat down as he asked them about their day. 

After they ate, they helped him clean up some of the mess in the kitchen.  There was Sue making her way groggily down the stairs.  She looked in the kitchen and she said, "Why didn't you call me?  Why didn't you wake me up?  I suppose now I'm going to get a lecture," she said.

As the children made their way upstairs, she continued, "I know you don't believe me.  I haven't been feeling well."  Her speech was slurred.

"Sue, you are drunk again," he gritted his teeth and mumbled back at her.  "How could you?"  She began to cry.  And he could now predict exactly how she would react on these occasions.  The move to Des Moines had been tough on her.  She was happy back in Kansas City, back near her relatives.  But he had gotten a promotion, and they had moved. And then her drinking started. 

He tried to say something about it to her, but she reacted defensively.  Then there was the night that she had fallen, while walking up the stairs, holding one of the children in her arms, just before bedtime.  Sara had received a cut over her right eye, and he had really blown it.  He screamed at Sue, telling her that she was becoming a drunk, that she needed to get hold of herself.  She responded angrily and with tears.

She promised that it would never happen again, and, oh, for a month or so she really seemed to keep her promise.  But then he found a bag out back in the garbage full of empty crème de menthe bottles. 

Of course, he pled with her to go for counseling.  He said that he would go with her.  She always acted angrily to this suggestion.  The days between these bouts of drinking grew shorter.  His patience was growing short, too.  He said that he was concerned about the safety of the children, but how did he know that he was mainly miserable himself? 

Well, one thing was sure: He was reaching his limit.  He knew that alcoholism was a "sickness," and he understood that Sue ought to be pitied in her situation, rather than condemned.  But, still, he had his limits.

You can figure out how this story ends.  He came to me as his pastor; he told me that he was leaving Sue.  He was planning to get custody of the children.  If Sue fought him, he would expose her alcoholism, and he'd fight her in court if needed.  He said that he had tried everything, but that he had reached his limit.

And, you know, I can understand.  Those of you who have loved someone suffering from alcohol addiction, you know of what I speak.

I remember someone in Alcoholics Anonymous saying to me that one of the truths that she learned was, "You may not be able to save the alcoholic whom you love, but you can certainly save yourself."  She told me that when it comes to alcohol addiction, you can't expect the alcoholic to define the limit.  And we all have limits. 

And yet, here's the thing:  Jesus says God is different.  There appear to be no limits to the love of God.

Is this not a message that is behind today's scripture?  Today, Jesus' disciples ask him about divorce.  They remind Jesus that Moses allowed for divorce.  Hebrew law permitted a man to divorce his wife for all sorts of reasons. 

And Jesus simply says, "From the beginning it wasn't so."  This was not the way God intended things to be.  And then Jesus harshly condemns divorce. 

And right then the gospel moves to the scene with Jesus receiving the little children.  Little children, whom the disciples perceive as a nuisance, are to be sent away.  But Jesus refused to send the little children away.  Instead, Jesus received the children, he hugged them, and he blessed them.  Furthermore, Jesus says that in all of this, the kingdom of God is made manifest.

Well, what is God like?  God brings people together.  God desires that people who, having been once brought together, ought to stay together.  God is the one who refuses to send these "little ones" away.  Instead, God is the one who receives and embraces the little ones.

We read this passage as applying to us: that is, we ought not to divorce; we ought to welcome little children.  But maybe we are seeing here the great difference between God and ourselves.  Maybe this is a scripture about God.

We have our limits.  We make promises, and with all good intentions we plan to stay together forever.  But people get sick, people disappoint, people become trapped, addicted, distant, and estranged.  Nobody I know wants divorce.  But we have our limits.  Sometimes we find it impossible to keep our promises.  Sometimes promises are broken for all sorts of "good" reasons. 

And we love our children.  But children are demanding.  To bring children into the world is to severely limit our adult freedom.  Children are utterly dependent on others to do things for them they can't do for themselves.  So many elect not to receive children. 

But in today's gospel, Jesus makes clear that God is not like that.  God is the one who, from the very beginning, makes union, fosters communion and togetherness.  God is the one who brings individuals together into community.  That's how we got the church.  God took us as different individuals, many of us quite unlike one another, and brought us together into communion in the church. 

Furthermore, God is the one who enables us not only to bring "little ones" into the world but also to expend our lives in caring for the least of these.  In every congregation there are people who take responsibility for children who are not their biological children, but are theirs as an assignment, as a gift of God. 

We are of course "only human."  There are limits upon our love--limits upon our ability to stay with other people, particularly people in great need, and to keep our lives bound to theirs.  But this truth must be sent alongside a counter truth--the love of God does not have such limits.  We can attempt to separate ourselves from God, but Jesus implies here God does not separate from us.  We can come to the limits of our ability to love and to persevere in love with others.  But God does not come to the same limits.

I remind you that here in the Gospel of Mark, we are on our way to seeing just how far God in Christ will go for us--all the way to death on a cross.

And on his way to death of a cross, Jesus takes a moment to teach us.  Once again, Jesus has set the bar rather high.  The disciples of Jesus are to marry and not to divorce.  The disciples of Jesus are to have love, compassion, and mercy for the needs of the "little ones" whether they be children or the poor or the severely mentally disabled or the sick and infirmed.  And in so many ways we will fail to live up to the Kingdom's demands.  'Cause, after all, we have our limits.

But spread like a banner over all that is an affirmation that God loves us limited human beings in a limitless divine way.  Oh, we fail in love; after all, we are "only human."  But we have a God who forgives our failures, who loves us in spite of our limits to love in return. 

So I am saying that today's gospel is not that severe, bad news of setting the moral standards so high that there is no way that we can ever reach the bar.  I am saying that today's gospel is the good news that in spite our inabilities, our limits and failures, God is limitlessly loving and always faithful.  Let us cling to that in our limits to love, in our broken promises, let us cling to that.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, keep loving us in our limits, keep loving us in a way that is better than the way we love you.  We cling to the faith in your limitless love.  Amen.

 


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