Reading Mark 9.30-37
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
For the baptism of Freya Firth
I’ve just got back from holiday. As someone who wears a uniform at work, one thing I look for on holiday is the chance to dress down (I particularly like to wear socks as little as I can). I try, though – and I think my dad taught me this – to have just enough stuff with me to look reasonably smart if I have to, just in case, after a week of padding around in shorts and sandals, I get an unexpected invitation from an important person to some posh event. It’s what our family calls the Venezuelan Ambassador Scenario. On no holiday so far have I once been invited for drinks by the accredited representative of any South American government. But You Never Know.
You should look your best for an ambassador, because they are indeed very important people. Talk to one and you are talking not to just one person but to a government, a whole nation. And this seems to be what the disciples are after as they bicker with each other on the road. Jesus has just told them (again) that he must die: that he is going to be handed over to the authorities and belittled by his enemies – and then his disciples start arguing over which of them is the greatest. ‘They didn’t understand’, says the writer (he says that a lot about the disciples); but they understand enough to know they should be embarrassed when Jesus asks them just what the argument was about.
But what do they mean by ‘greatest’? Reading between the lines, we can guess that the dispute is about who is to be Jesus’ ‘ambassador’, the one who is to have the authority of being Jesus’ special representative. So Jesus introduces them to his ambassador. What he does is what David and Esther will do when they bring Freya up to be baptised: he takes a child in his arms. Here, he says, meet Her Excellency, my accredited representative. Talk to her and you’re talking to me, and to the one who sent me.
We are in danger of misunderstanding Jesus here just as much the disciples do, because we don’t really understand children. We talk romantically about childhood as a time of freedom, yet children these days are more supervised, measured, tested and organised than at any time since I don’t know when. As a professional educator, Esther knows all about this. On the one hand, we cocoon children – by keeping them away from family funerals, for instance – while on the other they are as exposed as any adult in the jungles of the web and social media, and prey to the seductive tunes of those Pied Pipers of capitalism, the advertisers. So we may not understand any more than the disciples do just what Jesus means by placing a child in the middle of these obtuse and ambitious adults.
Some background. People in Jesus’ day do not romanticise childhood. Many kids die in their early years – when we meet a child in Mark, it’s usually because he or she is sick – and a Roman family might abandon a baby that is sickly or superfluous, or if they are simply too poor to support it. Jewish society is more humane, but their children still have no status: they are at the bottom of the pecking order in village and home.
And Jesus says, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ He is not inviting his disciples to get in touch with their inner child. This is no warm fuzzy moment but a political moment. If you want to be with me, he is saying, get used to the idea that the people who get my special attention are those who go unnoticed in our world, because they have no strength, no money or status; my special people are those who are sick, who are poor, who are young, and who have nowhere to lay their head. They are his special people not because they are morally superior, but simply because in this gone-wrong world they are belittled, as Jesus himself will be.
And so to us. This is the point in the sermon where a preacher can be really irritating, spraying out calls to Care More about – well – everyone, and then pushing off home for a nice lunch. So let me put some things to myself as well as you. Like the disciples, you and I are here for us. And God expects that. Why do people flock to Jesus in the gospels? Isn’t it because they want what he has? And he doesn’t turn them away. He heals them, feeds them, forgives them; and – perhaps for the first time in their lives – they feel joy.
Most of the people who receive Jesus’ joy seem to go their way, and never see him again; but for those who stay and follow – and that’s us, I hope – there is more. Joy is a story in two parts – and we need to hear both. That joy of knowing that you do matter and you are loved, the strength and the confidence that flow from this, these are wonderful things. If they are still new and fresh for you, just enjoy them for a while and thank God for them.
They quickly become yesterday’s goodness, however. The living water of Jesus, which we are about to pour over Freya as we welcome her into Jesus’ people, this water becomes stale if it doesn’t soon begin to flow into the lives of others, who need to know joy too. Parents and godparents, it is your task to show Freya that by the way you live.
Where are these other people? They are where they always are, on the edge, easy to miss. Just occasionally they are propelled into the centre of attention – it took the picture of a child, Ayland Kurdi, a refugee drowned at sea, to do that most recently – but the public’s span of attention is rather short. That’s where Jesus always is, however, and that is where you and I have to look if we are to know him better.
We get it wrong, of course. We don’t hear the second part to the story, or choose not to. We hear the bit that says that that all this is for us and forget that it is all for us so that we can be for others, especially the ones who get belittled. But Jesus is used to that, ever since he chose that first group of vain idiots he called the disciples. And he knows what to do with us. First, he invites us to join his people – as he invites Freya today – through a simple splash of water, so easy to make light of. And then, today and every Sunday, he invites us to his table, as he did with those who first joined him. He meets us there in a way that is also easy to belittle, in a wisp of a wafer and a drop of wine. And it is through these subtle signs of joy that he teaches us to meet him in ignored people and unlikely places.