September 23, 2012 Homily
Season after Pentecost; proper 20.
Grace Church, Massapequa
For the second time now, as he did in the Gospel proclaimed last Sunday as well, Jesus pours out to his closest followers the truth of who he is, and of what this identity means regarding his fate: that he will be betrayed, suffer, die, and three days later rise again.
This teaching, even said right out loud and clear, cannot seem yet to break through their ears into their heads. The disciples cannot conceive of a Messiah who suffers, a Christ who dies, a God who empties himself completely to the point of death. It just does not make any sense. To make it worse, instead of asking Jesus what this means, what he is trying to tell them; instead of engaging him in conversation about this terrible and amazing teaching; instead of trusting him enough to raise the questions that are in them, they remain silent about it.
But not entirely silent. It sounds in Mark’s Gospel as if Jesus, after sharing this solemn word with his friends again, had separated a bit from them then along the road. Maybe he went on ahead, walking just a bit faster as he led the way. Or maybe he fell behind them a few yards in order to allow himself some time to contemplate, to take this truth of his mission deeply into himself, or perhaps to commune with his Father, his Abba, in prayer.
Wherever he was, Jesus apparently heard the disciples talking with one another with great animation. It sounded like an argument. Maybe Jesus hoped that the word he had just given them about himself had really struck them forcibly, had reached their hearts and engaged their minds: so that now as they walked along they were with energy discussing various understandings of how all this that Jesus had said could be true.
So it may have been with hope that his very slow followers had finally caught on that Jesus asked them after they reached the house: “What were you all talking about as we came along?” The truth, which they must have admitted with embarrassment, was that having just heard their beloved Rabbi tell them of his impending suffering and death, they strode along fighting over which of them was, or would be, the greatest in the Kingdom they expected their Messiah to inaugurate.
That must have hurt! They didn’t understand. They didn’t ask for explanation. Instead they turned in on themselves to fight like children might over who is the king of the hill. But Jesus takes his disappointment and turns it to something helpful. He patiently sits down with this ragtag bunch, and explains to them what real leadership looks like in God’s Kingdom. It is nothing like lording it over others. It is nothing like having the power to compel others to obey. It is, instead, choosing freely to be the last of all and the least of all. It is having the strength to let every one else pass on their way first and gain what they need, and then to follow along to guide and guard and love from an unexpected place behind.
That is what Jesus is doing for them, what he had done for them that very day, and what he was telling them he was going to do – despite the pain – for everyone in the days to come. He was showing them in his own flesh as well as his words, what it means to be the greatest.
To make this real for them, in an attempt to make this truth, at least, stick in their heads and take root in their hearts, he brings a little child into the midst of their group. Who was this child? Was it a boy or a girl? The son or daughter of one of the disciples maybe? Or a child from the neighborhood who was visiting in the house? We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. The fact that we do not know let’s us – invites us – to picture this child as one whom we know and love. Picture there one of your own children, now or when they were small. Picture yourself there as a child. Picture there one of the hungering children of the world whom we see pictured all around us, waiting for our hearts to open in love.
Jesus brings this powerless little child into this circle of grown men hungering to know which of them will win the biggest prize and possess the greatest power. He puts his hands gently on this child’s shoulders. He smiles and looks into those new eyes as he says to his friends: “Whoever welcomes a child such as this welcomes me and the One who sent me.”
Jesus’ closest failed to understand him and were afraid to ask him anything to make it clearer. Now, he demonstrates that the one who is greatest in the kingdom is the one who, like this child, like most any child, is ready and willing to ask questions: “Where did I come from? Who is God? What is death? Why does the sunset have all those colors? If the world is turning so fast how come we don’t fly off it, or at least fall down? Why not? Why? … Will you always love me, no matter what?” These and a million other questions a child is able, without embarrassment, to raise to us, and through us to Jesus. That trust, that voice raised in trust, opens the gate of heaven.
For any of us, no matter how long we’ve been a member of Christ’s Body, no matter how often or not we come to church, no matter how many educational events we attend or not – we all have unanswered questions about God, about his Christ, about faith, about suffering, about dying, about rising again.
Do me a favor. Promise me that this week every one of you will take one of your own questions – one that is real for you, that you have been holding in your heart since you were a child maybe – and speak that question with trust to someone you love. Ask what you need or yearn to know, and talk about it in trust. And then receive with respect the question your loved one will raise to you in return. In doing so, quietly and gently you will raise a corner of the curtain behind which shines God’s Kingdom.
Oh … and because it is good to hear the power and the truth and the laughter behind the questions children dare to ask, listen to this. Jeffrey, 6 years old, was standing at the back of the church one Sunday morning, intently studying a bronze plaque on the wall, inscribed all with names. Seeing Jeff there for several minutes, the minister approached and stood next to him. Looking up the boy pointed and asked, “Reverend, what is this?” His pastor responded, “These are the names of all the men and women who died in the service.” Thoughtfully, Jeffrey looked back up at the plaque for another half a minute. He then looked up again at the pastor and asked, “At the 8:00 or the 10:00?”
John P. McGinty
September 22, 2012