September 23 2012, Proper 20B, by Kate Ekrem
Some years ago, at another church, we were having a fair, with pony rides and a dunk tank. The bishop offered to come and take part, and when he arrived, he said, do you want me to go in the dunk tank, and I said, "oh yes, bishop that would be great." So he had brought his bathing suit and he stepped into the rectory to change and when he came out he was no longer wearing his fancy purple shirt, but a T-shirt that said....“Jesus loves everyone, but I’m his favorite.” I don’t know if a bishop can get away with wearing a t-shirt like that very often, but perhaps when in a dunk tank is one of those times.
I remembered that t-shirt when reading today’s Gospel. It seems like all of Jesus’ disciples want that t-shirt. They are walking along the road with Jesus to their next destination, and they’re saying, I’m his favorite, no me! It’s obviously a lot more fun thing to talk about than the subject Jesus brings up which is, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and after three days being killed he will rise again.” They don’t know what to say to that and change the subject. You can just imagine Jesus with his head in his hands, saying, you are not getting it. So, to make his point, when they get to the house they are going to, he takes a child and says, look, it’s not about being the greatest, it’s about being like this child, and welcoming people like this child as if they were me.
This is such a rich story for our own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Twice the disciples are silent and don’t respond to what Jesus is saying. Once when he starts talking about his betrayal and death, they don’t ask him any question because they are afraid. And again when he ask them, what were you talking about on the way, they are silent, maybe embarrassed that they were talking about who was the greatest.
We can hardly blame them. For centuries Christians have struggled to understand who Jesus is, why Jesus had to suffer and die. Early Christianity is full of misguided understandings of this that eventually got declared heresies. There’s Docetism, the idea that Jesus’ human body was just an illusion and therefore he didn’t really suffer and die at all. There’s Gnosticism, which includes the idea that only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part didn’t. They changed Jesus into something easier to understand and live with. But it was because people genuinely wondered, what kind of God lets themselves get hurt? And if he lets himself get hurt, how’s he going to protect me?
These are good questions, questions worth asking. But the disciples are scared to ask them. Maybe scared to find out that God doesn’t always protect us from all the dangers and tragedies of this world. Maybe scared to find out that following Jesus means following him into vulnerability and sacrifice. So they don’t ask. And, as so often when people are afraid to ask the tough questions of life, they instead engage in power politics. Who is the greatest.
We all know power politics – we may have it in our workplace, sometimes even in our family, and sadly it’s alive and well in the church as well. Power politics is about who is who in the pecking order. Who’s the greatest. Jesus, interestingly, does not say “don’t play power politics” He says, “You want to play power politics? I’ll tell you how to play power politics. Here’s how it really works. Here’s a new twist to your game.” And he puts a child in the middle of them, and says, if you want to be the greatest, you need to welcome this child as if it were God’s only son.
It’s wonderful that it’s a child, isn’t it? It’s temping as we being a new year in our children and youth programs to philosophize on how important children are, how they connect us to the values of wonder and innocence and imagination. I would love to preach on that, but unfortunately it has nothing to do with today’s Gospel. Those are all modern ideas of childhood.
In Biblical times, people didn’t think children were cute or innocent. Exactly the opposite. People did not dote on children – the mortality rate for children was 50%, so families had lots of them so some would survive. They had no rights, no power, no respect, and legally and socially the same status as slaves. Jesus put a child in the middle of the disciples because in the power politics of those days, children occupied the very lowest rung. They were the absolute least valued people in society. And he said, if you want to be the greatest, you need to be here with this kind of people.
This raises the same questions as before, right? Questions like, what kind of God is this? Doesn’t he know how to get things done? I mean, if we really want to effect change in society, make a better world, don’t we need to start from the top, convert kings and presidents so we can make God’s kingdom come on earth? Strangely enough, Jesus didn’t seem to have a lot of time for kings and emperors. He spent all his time with a group of really seriously ordinary, exceptionally unexceptional people. Just like you and me.
And he told them, don’t try to climb the ladder. Focus at the bottom, practice letting go and gaining humility, the kind of humility you probably have to have to climb into a dunk tank at a church fair wearing a silly t-shirt. Be with those who have the least power, and learn from them as if they were me, because that’s where I am.
We can come near to God by coming near to the people Jesus put in the middle of our circle. Who are the least valued in our society today? Perhaps still children in some respects, but they may not top the list anymore. What about those who are in prison, perhaps illegal immigrants or refugees around the world? Who is the least valued person that you encounter in your daily life? Who might that be? Maybe spend 5 more minutes with them this week, listening to what’s up with them. You might just find God right there.
This Gospel story says so much about who Jesus is and who Jesus calls us to be. He is asking his followers to be servant leaders, not just in the church but also in the world: in our homes and schools and offices. He says this to us because he loves us. Nobody ever wins a game of power politics. That is not a happy way for anyone to live their life, you know that. But maybe you don’t know, don’t remember, that you have a right to wear that silly t-shirt. You are Jesus’ favorite, we all are. Jesus did all this weird-upside down stuff to show us, to prove to us, that we can only save our life by losing it, that the way of the cross is the way of life. By facing our fears head on, by asking the burning questions, by being willing to give up what seems so important but really we know isn’t, we find truth, meaning, purpose, and most of all love, which is the big piece that’s missing from power politics right? When we come near to God, come near to Jesus, by coming near to the people Jesus put in his own place, the least valued in the world, then God comes near to us, we know the depths of his love for us and for the world, and our hearts overflow with God’s love.