30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
”In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
One of the first sermons I ever preached, before I even started university was on the text of Jesus blessing children. The feedback was mainly polite and positive. But one parent said to me -it's clear that you have no children. At that time I was an aunt who could always hand back the children when they got cranky!
In suggesting why Jesus had blessed the children, I had talked only about all the positive aspects of childhood in a somewhat idealistic way.
Now, being older if not necessarily wiser, I view children that bit differently.
I celebrate the spontaneity and enthusiasm of children but recognise too those less desirable elements of childhood, the bits that "only a mother could love" as we say.
And perhaps I appreciate better the extreme vulnerability of children.
In our gospel this morning we find another example of Jesus holding up a child to make his point and to teach his disciples something important.
Once again in this reading from Marks gospel, the disciples aren't being portrayed in their best light.
Jesus tries to keep it simple, explaining things to them in great detail - about how he must suffer and die and then rise again.
The trouble is, as we discovered in last weeks gospel reading, that this is so far outside the disciples notion of what Jesus should be - as the Son of God, the one sent to save Gods people.
They don't really get Jesus' description of the kind of Messiah he is: one who serves out of love.
One who suffers, who dies and who rises again.
Jesus' dying is so far beyond their imagining that they are consistently unable to grasp what he painstakingly tries to describe to them.
It's a case of "too much information already."
And, what's more, they don't even know the right questions to ask of him.
Possibly because they are too afraid of showing their ignorance or looking foolish in the eyes of their peers.
But when something is beyond our imagining it IS hard to know what to ask.
Perhaps that's why they end up discussing something as inane as " who is the greatest?"
That struck me as being a very common ailment in life, in so many areas:
When we are faced with things we don't understand, we don't want to look any more foolish than we already feel.
So, rather than stick our head above the parapet by asking difficult questions, we resort to the unimportant.
We try to keep it simple.
Then we won't get too involved or look too foolish.
It's particularly common in our church life.
If we don't delve too deep, we won't get bogged down.
And so we end up discussing, at great length, things that aren't really important.
Things that keep us from admitting that we don't understand.
Things that keep us safe from either controversy or looking foolish.
Things that keep us from admitting that there are so many questions we cannot answer.
Why DO bad things happen to good people?
Why does evil so often triumph?
Why is the world so unfair?
And why does God allow things to be this way?
Those are the kind of questions we keep quiet about.
They are also the kind of questions which are impossible to answer.
But we must not shy away from them.
They won't go away just because we don't acknowledge them.
Sharing those kind of dilemmas leads to openness and honesty with each other, to the deepening of relationships as, together, we struggle with difficult questions., as together we really get our teeth into things that matter, not just to us but to the world we serve.
Jesus discovered the disciples squabbling over things that don't really matter - but, rather than dismiss their concerns, he addresses them
He uses the opportunity to teach them some more about the nature of Gods kingdom.
So you want to be great?
Well, here's how:
And that's when Jesus used a child as an illustration of greatness.
A child, in Jesus day, was of very lowly status, seen as a liability rather than an effective contributor to society.
Yet again, Jesus was turning contemporary wisdom on its head.
As with so much of Jesus' teaching.
To become great, What qualities, present in children might we emulate?
Perhaps rediscovering imagination would be a good place to start.
The ability to conceive of things we don't understand, allowing for the in-explainable.
Maybe tenacity would be another desirable quality:
Children are rarely easily distracted from their goal but persist in attempting to achieve.
And what about wonder?
Children continue to be surprised and amazed, with the capacity to be enchanted and to wonder, not satisfied with easy explanations, always thirsting for knowledge.
But children are also vulnerable.
God calls us to,look out for the vulnerable and not to be afraid of our own vulnerability.
And what about when children get a bit wearing , when they try our patience and test our endurance.
Jesus calls us to love such people, be they children or not.
The vulnerable, those who are hard to love.
That's the kind of greatness to which we are called.
Can you imagine how different our fellowship here would be if we embraced the kind of greatness to which Jesus pointed?
A fellowship where folk aren't afraid to display vulnerability.
A fellowship where folk are happy to struggle together with difficult questions with no easy answers.
A fellowship where we love one another, even those who are difficult to love.
Jesus was calling his disciples out of their embarrassment at not understanding and inviting them on a journey that would demand more involvement, more curiosity, more daring and risk, more love.
In using a child as an example, Jesus was encouraging us to embrace vulnerability and to seek justice where that is exploited in others.
To love beyond our imagining.
Involvement, curiosity, daring, risk, protectors of the vulnerable, doing all this in love.
Are those paths we want to travel?
There’s always one,
that miss the point.
Sometimes it gets lost in translation.
We’re not all interpreters
of heavenly jargon
or experts in the code of love.
Sometimes it gets knotted with fear.
We’re not so quick with questions
when our arguments are mired in silence.
Sometimes it gets confused with power.
And we’re the first to elbow our way
past the last
to the front of the queue.
It takes only
one innocent life,
one act of love
to make the point.
Jesus said: Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.