Who Is the Greatest?

by | Jul 12, 2021 | Beloved Community, Sermons | 0 comments

July 11, 2021

SCRIPTURE READING:  Mark 9:33-37

Some time ago now, I sat down and began to reflect on some focal points that I thought were emerging here at St. John’s and that deserved some attention.  One is the needs of the children both already in our congregation and also those who are just on the outside thinking about us. 

When I first arrived 3 years ago now, I asked you what I should know about St. John’s and I heard you saying some things about yourselves that I think are quite common in smaller churches:  “We don’t have any children.”  Actually, I think it was at that meeting where I first heard that either Becky Pierce or Traci Kropp was seen as the youngest person in the congregation. 

It’s hard to not have any children around.  I think without children it is easy to feel sort of incomplete somehow.  And then it’s easy to feel like there is something wrong with us – maybe we are even sort of defective, which is not a good feeling at all.

Churches are like families and large families always seem to have a whole range of people from kids running around needing fed to seniors needing help up the stairs!  It’s part of what makes the family feel complete.  And that’s the kind of place that seems to teach us the most. 

So, we started our journey together, you and I, with only the last part of the range covered.  But you can either see that as a sign something is wrong, or you could see St. John’s as a place that is especially good at drawing Seniors together.  And we have some very fine examples on the upper end of the age scale!  We should be proud! 

And then came Jacob and Maddie!  And their moms and dads.  And some grandmas and grandpas, and a couple of aunts and uncles.  They have been such a blessing!  I hope I’m not being greedy, but I’d like to see a few more around, wouldn’t you? 

Now the situation with the 12 disciples in that first century wasn’t exactly like ours but maybe it has something to teach us.  It wasn’t a case  that they couldn’t get any children in the group.  They were actually guilty of pushing them away when the kids and their parents wanted to come to see Jesus!  Can you imagine? 

Not only were they rude to the kids, something else was going on at the same time.  The whole group was wandering around the Sea of Galilee while Jesus was teaching them. They came to Capernaum, which Jesus had adopted as his home after the people of Nazarus rejected him.  Jesus noticed that the 12 had gotten into some sort of heated discussion on the way.  He asked them about it.  They didn’t want to talk about it, because they were arguing and I think they actually were ashamed of themselves.

Jesus sort of pushed them a little.  “What were you talking about?”  There is no record that any of the 12 ever owned up to the fact that they were actually arguing about who was the greatest!  But Jesus knew and you know parents know when their kids are into such a squabble, don’t they?  In fact,  it’s one of the favorite topics for brothers!  We just spent a week with 2 boys (10 & 11).  They often talk about that very thing in one way or another. Mohammad Ali never stopped talking about it and kept beating up on people to emphasize the point until he died a few years ago.

So how did Jesus respond to these childish adults? He did a most amazing thing – it was a teacher-sort-of-thing!  He didn’t say anything at first, just reached over and gathered a little one (maybe from her Momma’s arms) and held her and only then did he speak.  First of all, he said:  “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  And then, about the children, he said this:  “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.”

Now that is a powerful statement, but the author of the book of Luke recounts the story just a tad differently.  He has Jesus being even more ominous:  J.B. Phillips translates Jesus’ remarks in Luke this way:  “You must let little children come to me, and you must never prevent their coming. The kingdom of God belongs to little children like these. I tell you, the man who will not accept the kingdom of God like a little child will never get into it at all.”

What was Jesus saying to those 12 grown men anyway?  That we shouldn’t be spending our time arguing?  Perhaps.  But I think a bigger message was that we are not totally complete in ourselves and alone. We need others in order to experience the fullness of God.  People of different sorts and ages round us out and show us / teach us things we could not know otherwise.  

So the kingdom / reign of God isn’t just about a bunch of sweaty men!  You men, you adults, you need to listen to the children.   You should never catch yourself pushing them away – or “hindering them.”  Why?  Because “the kingdom belongs to them!”  Now that changes things, doesn’t it?  I’m not sure I know all of what that means, but I know it is important! Our question is:  “What do those little ones know that we need to know about God and about God’s reign?”

Do you understand why we have been sprucing up the children’s rooms these last couple of weeks?   Do you know why we have put so much energy into the playground behind the Gathering Place in the last couple of years?  Do you know why The Gathering Place is even in existence?  BECAUSE THOSE PLACES ARE CONNECTING PLACES.  They are not JUST places where little ones have fun and learn.  They are also places where we older ones learn and grow.  We who have been accustomed to only our ways, our habits, and our preferences can encounter more of those children and others from whom we need to hear and from whom we need to learn! 

This is big work we do here on the corner of Canal and Walnut!  The whole place is an intersection – a crossroads where our lives are changed and we grow because we have seen the kingdom in the words of the scripture, in the hearts of each other, and in the eyes of the children and the stranger and the broken.

So today, Jesus says to us like he said to his disciples: don’t waste your time arguing about who is the greatest.  Invest your time in making sure that these little ones are truly WELCOME among you!  Open your doors, open your hearts, open your ears to them.  Treat them as if they have at least a share of the keys to the kingdom!  May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear.  Amen.