Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 19, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Proverbs 31:10-31)+Psalm 1+James 3:13-4:3, 7-9a+Mark 9:30-37

Beginning in Mark’s 8th chapter, from which we read last week, there is a pivot in Mark’s telling of the Jesus story. Scholars usually divide Mark into five sections, beginning in the 1st chapter with John the Baptist. The 2nd part is the Galilean ministry, roughly chapters 2 through 7, during which Jesus goes around the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, teaching and preaching, healing and casting out demons. From the 8th through the 10th chapters, Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem. It is here that he begins to tell his disciples what lies ahead, and they either can’t or won’t grasp that news. (And if you’re curious, the final two divisions of Mark are from chapter 11 through 15 – everything that happens when they get to Jerusalem, and then chapter 16, which is the resurrection.)

In last week’s reading, Jesus made a first prediction of his death, and Peter got into trouble with him for objecting and telling Jesus to knock it off. Today, all of the disciples hear it and don’t understand it but are afraid to ask. Now, maybe they saw how mad Jesus was at Peter and didn’t want to risk that, or maybe this news was just too unimaginable to even consider. I mean, here they were, this group of friends, who had been traveling around for a few years following this healer and teacher and learning to do some of that healing and teaching themselves, and now the leader of this merry band is saying that it’s all about to come to an ugly end. One can hardly blame them for not getting it but not wanting to demonstrate their lack of understanding.

Even though none of them appear to have understood this, however, they can’t help themselves from having an argument about which one of them was the gold star disciple.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest disciple of all?

And it’s this argument that leads me to believe that they just couldn’t grasp what Jesus was saying, because it would seem to me that whichever one was the greatest would be singled out for the same treatment Jesus was going to get. One would think that they would want to fade into the background, which, in fact, is what actually happened.

In response to this debate amongst the disciples, Jesus first tells them that being first is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and that they should strive to be last, to be servants. To drive home is point, like a good teacher would, he shows them an example of what he’s talking about by taking a child and telling them that they have to welcome a child as if they are welcoming him. In turn, they welcome God into their midst.

In Matthew’s telling of this, Jesus says they must become like a child, but not here. In Mark, Jesus says you must welcome the child. Now, this sounds like a great passage for baptism, and it would be if it were about embracing and loving and raising up a child in our midst, just as we are about to do in the sacrament of baptism. The problem is that children in 1st century Palestine did not have the same status as children in 21st century Hoboken. Yes, parents surely loved their children, but at the same time, children had no standing, no rights or privileges. No family was going to turn their lives upside down to make sure the child had every opportunity. No, children were simply part of the family unit with increasing responsibilities as they grew older. For boys, these responsibilities meant going into the father’s trade, whatever that might have been, and perpetuating the family line by fathering children. For girls, it meant contributing to the household chores and ultimately marrying and having children themselves.

But this child that Jesus pulled into their midst? Jesus was saying that this child is part of us, part of our community. The point could have been made with anyone who was on the margins or of no account, but in this case, Jesus is providing an illustration that the last – a child – will be first, and to welcome a child is to welcome Jesus is to welcome God.

I’m pretty sure the disciples were afraid to ask about this bit, too.

Now, our understanding of the personhood of children with rights all their own is quite different, but the message still holds. We welcome these two today into the household of God and promise to raise them to know and love God and their neighbor. Children need more than food in their bellies and clothes on their bodies. They need to know love, beginning with their parents and radiating out to all of us. Like Jesus, we can place these children in our midst and let the world know that this is what is truly important. That today, this is how we welcome Christ into our lives.

First or last, I pray that we faithfully carry out these responsibilities to the children of All Saints and by doing so, welcome the God of all creation into our midst.

ASEPSermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 19, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas