Do you remember how big everything was when you were little? Do you remember having to reach up to touch the door knob? Do you remember that kitchen stool you had to climb like some piece of playground equipment if you wanted to sit on it? And that moment when you were finally tall enough to simply sit down on it without any effort? Do you remember the room full of adults who were all standing tall as trees and chatting way up there while you were trying to find your way across the room through a forest of legs?
I remember sitting at the children’s table with my siblings and cousins at every family gathering. It was great fun, usually. We had a wonderful time eating and drinking, joking and laughing amongst ourselves while the grown-ups were at the big table. We did have a wonderful time, but I remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had to put one of the firm pillows on my chair to bring me up a couple of inches, but I had made it. I was still short, but I was no longer one of the little ones. That day, I grew at least a couple of inches inside.
We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to sit at the grown-up table is easy, it’s just a matter of time, all you have to do is get older. Getting to hang out with the people you really want to hang out with at school is a lot tougher. And getting a seat and voice at the tables that define our communities and shape our life together – that is both a measure of our human dignity and a struggle.
From a very young age, people around us encourage us to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves and pursue them, to work hard, to meet the right people, to make something of ourselves. The disciples had met Jesus. They had met the one who would set all things right. He had talked about going to Jerusalem, and they were ready for the challenge. They were still in Galilee, still preparing for the great journey south.
Jesus was teaching them, talking again about being betrayed into human hands and being killed and after three days rising again. They did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask?
Well, we kinda know how it is. You don’t want to appear too slow for the big race to the top. Even when you’re confused and clueless, you still want to project confidence and make everybody else believe that you have it all together. You fake it till you make it.
In Mark’s story, instead of asking questions, the disciples were jockeying for cabinet positions in Jesus’s government. We also know how that goes. Two of them had been talking about sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. One of them probably never missed an opportunity to mention that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer. And while one touted his revolutionary zeal, another bragged about his connections in the business community. They were afraid to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about what would happen to him in the city, but they had no trouble imagining their seats at the big table and their names and titles on the letterhead.
Jesus, we know, is never afraid to ask. When they got to the house, he said, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Why the sudden silence?
Well, we kinda know how it is. Had he asked them in private, individually, several of them probably would have told him about Theophilus who “thinks he’s the greatest” or about Bartholomew who is “dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”
Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death, being killed and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because being a disciple of Jesus is so tied up with that particular path. We don’t understand and we’re afraid to ask not just because we want to keep up the appearance of our intellectual brilliance and deep knowledge. We’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid he’s going to turn our world upside down. Because we want Jesus very much to be part of our world, but we hesitate to let ourselves be part of his.
He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, those at the top of the ladder lord it over those at the bottom. But in the world of God’s reign, earth and heaven do not touch at the top, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all. On the way of Christ, greatness is defined in terms of service, and the path doesn’t lead up to thrones and cabinet chairs, but remains at ground level and leads to us, always to us.
We all start out little. We all start out needing to be welcomed. We all need somebody to see us and speak our name, somebody to hold us and care for us, because we all start out little, needy and helpless. How much of our drive for greatness, do you think has to do with that deep need to be seen, to be noticed and recognized, and finally, finally welcomed?
Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Who knew there was a child? Who noticed? We were engaged in important matters, making sure our voice would be heard, our opinion registered, and our contribution recognized in its significance. And Jesus puts a little child among us. Mark doesn’t tell us if it’s a precious, cuddly little sunshine or one of the rascals from Capernaum Elementary who is sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week and whose parents dread opening the home folder, afraid there might be another note from a teacher who is at her wits’ end.
Politicians pick up little children all the time, it looks good on television and it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does all his work at ground level to draw our attention away from our high-altitude power pursuits.
“If you want to be great, notice the little ones and bring them in.” You want to be great and so you make yourself as big as possible just to be seen, recognized and welcomed. But in the world of God’s reign you’re not welcomed because you’re great. You are welcomed because you belong; you are loved for who you are. So don’t be afraid to shift your attention. Notice the ones that habitually go unnoticed. Welcome those who are not great by any common measure, and bring them in.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Welcome is woven through this teaching unlike any other verse of scripture. Welcome, welcome, welcome, as steady as the holy, holy, holy sung in heaven. Welcoming those who are so easily overlooked at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God.
Much of our religious tradition has taught us to wonder, “What must I do, who do I have to be, who do I have to become in order to be worthy of welcome by the holy God? How can I work my way up?” But Jesus works at ground level. He looks us in the eye and says, “I see you. I know you. I love you.” He invites us to live in the world of God’s reign, where even our religious tradition is turned on its head. He turns our attention away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status, and turns our attention toward each other. He stops our lonely ascend to the top that is our quest for fulfillment, recognition and control and he guides our feet into the path that leads us to see and embrace the little neighbor. He teaches us to see that the little ones who are constantly rendered invisible by our arrangements of power, are indeed the embodiment of the invisible God. Welcoming one such child in his name, says Jesus, we welcome the Creator of heaven and earth.
Jesus works to redirect our attention to ground level, and much of discipleship is about new habits of seeing and acting. Peter was the first to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, and the first to wrestle with the implications of that confession for his life. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is incredibly embarrassing and slow. Mark was wise to frame the long section around Peter’s confession with two accounts of blind people who are given sight (Mark 8:22-26 and 10:46-52).
The gift of sight comes gradually. We can’t quite see who Jesus is; we can’t quite see what it means to follow him, but we receive the gift of sight on the way, gradually. We learn and grow, like all little ones – and why would we be afraid to ask our questions and share our curiosity? We learn and grow together, welcoming each other in the name of Christ.