The ninth chapter of Mark began with a glorious vision--Jesus shining in dazzling light on the mountain top. What a sight that was! Peter, James and John shaded their eyes and saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Then a cloud descended on the mountain, just like in the days of Moses, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him." Those three disciples must have been dying to tell the others about that vision and that voice--but Jesus had strictly ordered them to say nothing to anyone. If they had been able to talk about that mountain-top experience, surely they would have convinced the others that they were the greatest. Why were the disciples even arguing about greatness while they walked on the way? Jesus had just told them about betrayal and death. This was the second time he had said this. Maybe some of them finally heard the last line about rising again. Once they got past the betraying and the dying, well, a few of them began to dream of being in high places with Jesus.
When they got home to Capernaum, the chapter that began on the mountain top comes crashing down to earth. "What were you arguing about on the way?" Jesus asked them (even though he clearly knew). Then Jesus sat down and tried again to get through to his disciples: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." They had argued about who was greatest of all and Jesus called them to be last of all. No wonder they were silent. Their eyes started to glaze over for they'd heard these opposites before--to save life/lose life, to be first you have to be last, to be great be a servant. Jesus was always talking this way. But Jesus could see that they didn't get it. So he took a little child in his arms and put the child in the midst of them. Whose child was this? Perhaps the child of one of the women who was part of Jesus' community. Perhaps the child of one of the disciples or a relative of Jesus, because Jesus was now at home. Whoever the child was, Jesus saw the child. This child was as important to Jesus as the vision on the mountain. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Peter, James and John must have remembered the voice from the cloud. They knew who sent Jesus. While they were thinking about heavenly visions, they saw Jesus holding a child on his lap.
Jesus wanted them to see the child. He wants us to see the child, too--and welcome the child. Not because the child is innocent or perfect or pure or cute or curious or naturally religious. Jesus wanted them to welcome the child because the child was at the bottom of the social heap. In Mark children are often sick or disabled: Jairus' daughter is near death when her father kneels before Jesus; the Syrophoenician woman's little daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit; and just before today's text, a man brings his son to Jesus. The boy had experienced terrible convulsions since childhood and the disciples weren't able to heal him. But Jesus commanded the spirit to leave the boy, then lifted him to new life. Children in Mark are not symbols of holiness or innocence, but more often they are the victims of poverty and disease. Jesus brings the child from the margins into the very center. This child is not a symbol but a person, a little person easily overlooked, often unseen and unheard.
But surely we are different. We value children in church and in society. Church growth strategies often include children: "What do people look for in a church?" Right up at the top, before or after "adequate parking" is "Childcare space is cheerful and well-supervised." But if we listen to Christian voices in the public square, there is far more passion about unborn children than the well-being of children once they are born. Marion Wright Edelman, founder and director of the Children's Defense Fund, pleads with us to see the children. She wants us to know how budget cuts affect children's lives. The budget passed by the House of Representatives would repeal the Affordable Care Act, eliminating Medicaid expansion to lower income Americans including many families with children. This budget would also decrease funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by nearly $29 billion in two years alone. It seems that the worst thing that can happen to children is getting born. Before birth they are cherished, but after birth they're on their own. Jesus wants us to see the children, to bring them from the margins and hold them on our laps.
Children are sometimes at the bottom of the heap in Christian circles, too. Before I was ordained, I was a youth director in Minnesota. During those years there was a very popular program called "Basic Youth Conflicts." Huge crowds gathered in sports stadiums to hear how Christian families should be structured. Participants received a fat notebook with take-home tests and parental strategies. One diagram was particularly memorable: GOD was written at the top of the page. Beneath God's name was the father symbolized by a hammer, then a chisel symbolizing the mother and at the bottom, unshaped stones representing the children. The plan was clear: God directed the hammer-father to tap on the chisel-mother who would then shape the uncut stones into beautiful children, jewels for the kingdom of God. The name of that program has been changed; hopefully they've also changed that diagram.
"Do you see this child?" Jesus is asking his disciples and us. "Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." This sounds lovely, but by the next chapter, the disciples have forgotten the child! When people bring little children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples speak sternly to them. Perhaps their scolding sounds a bit like our protests when children make too much noise during worship. They fidget. They play video games in the pews. How many screaming children can people tolerate while they're trying to pray or sing or listen to the sermon? But do we welcome children? Do we intentionally include at least one song that children can sing even if they don't know how to read? There's a wonderful moment in our congregation when the children collect the offering and bring the offering plates up to the front. They sometimes get all mixed up. They often run back down the aisle after they've delivered the plates. But any loss of decorum is fully compensated by seeing these children in the sanctuary. If we see them in worship, perhaps we'll remember them when Congress debates bills about the Children's Health Insurance and Head Start and food stamps.
Was Jesus a hopeless romantic when he set a little child in the midst of the disciples that day in Capernaum? No, Jesus was not a hopeless romantic--he was a hopeful fanatic! Jesus was fanatic about opening up the commonwealth of God to those nobody wanted to see; he was fanatic about extending hospitality to those considered no more than property. Jesus didn't follow the rubrics or the rules. He healed when he wasn't supposed to, touched people he shouldn't have touched and talked about suffering after a wonderful moment of glory on the mountain top. Jesus taught us that the commonwealth of God is not up but down. All our arguments about greatness mean nothing if we don't stoop down low enough to see the invisible ones in our midst. That day in Capernaum Jesus held a little child in his arms and brought the words of heaven down to earth. I can imagine Jesus whispering in the child's ear: "You are God's Beloved Child."
Then Jesus looked over the child's shoulder at his disciples and even farther off, Jesus is looking at us. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." This is not as simple as it sounds. It means caring for children even if we have none of our own. It means being committed to children's health programs as we are to Medicare or AARP. Jesus wants us to see not only our children and grandchildren but children of migrant workers sleeping in the field and the child who moves from shelter to shelter every night. This means bending down low enough to see the child who can't see any higher than our knees. We may not be able to do that at all--unless we're willing to become hopeful fanatics.
Let us pray. Holy and Everliving God, you have named us as your beloved children. Move within our hearts so that we will bend down low enough to see the children in our midst and care for them as though they are part of our family. Amen.