Reflecting on Syria and Mark 9: 30-37.
By Thomas Kleinert
Abdullah Kurdi and his family had fled the violence in Syria two years ago. By the end of August they had made their way to the Aegean coast of Turkey. The smugglers had promised Abdullah Kurdi a motorboat for the trip from Turkey to Greece, a step on the way to a new life in Canada. Instead, they showed up with a 15-foot rubber raft that flipped in high waves, dumping Mr. Kurdi, his wife and their two small sons into the sea. Only Mr. Kurdi survived. His wife, Rehan and their two sons, Aylan and Ghalib, drowned. You may have seen the imgage of a lifeless child in a red shirt and dark shorts face down on a Turkish beach. It was 3-year-old Aylan, his round cheek pressed to the sand as if he were sleeping, except for the waves lapping his face. “Now I don’t want anything,” Mr. Kurdi said a day later, from Mugla, Turkey, after filling out forms at a morgue to claim the bodies of his family. “Even if you give me all the countries in the world,” he said, “I don’t want them. What was precious is gone.”
Nearly 12 million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the fighting – that’s the equivalent of the population of Ohio. Half are children. An entire generation of children have been forced to quit school. They are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Most of them live in improvised camps in Syria, in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Many families try to make their way to Europe. You have heard the news. This past week, Hungarian police at the Serbian border drove migrants back with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons.
There’s so much fear. So much helplessness. So much political maneuvering.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” says Jesus, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We have heard the word how some have entertained angels unawares by showing hospitality to strangers. I can’t help but visualize the scene at the border fence with razor wire, tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and the angels of heaven. And Jesus didn’t say, angels. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus has identified himself with the littlest ones among us, those of little or no status, and he tells us that welcoming one of them in his name we welcome the Maker of heaven and earth.
Jesus knows about our fears and our ambitions and our helplessness. The scene Mark describes for us takes place in Galilee. Jesus and the disciples are on the way, which is to say they’re on the way to Jerusalem; but it goes beyond geography, because they are on the way to the kingdom of God, and we are on the way with them. We believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the one who sets all things right, and like his first followers we are learning to trust him with our whole hearts. He’s been teaching us about what lies ahead for him. “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.” Mark makes room for us in the story by telling us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask? For the same reasons, I imagine, you and I are afraid to ask questions. We don’t want to look stupid in front of everybody. Even when we’re scared, confused and clueless, we still want to project confidence and make everybody else believe that we have it all together. We fake it till we make it.
Jesus, of course, doesn’t hesitate to ask us questions. “What were you talking about on the way?” And he asks not because he doesn’t know, but because he does. It appears that when we’re afraid to ask the difficult questions about the way of Jesus Christ, we end up talking about the usual stuff like who’s the greatest. We’re ambitious people, we strife for excellence, we study hard, we work hard, we’re competitive; we quickly absorb the unwritten rules of what adds to our status and what doesn’t, and we learn to act accordingly.
If we don’t ask questions about the way of Jesus Christ, we talk about seating arrangements at the great banquet and who’ll be at the head table, and who’s been with Jesus the longest, and who can recite from memory every word of the sermon on the mount, and who got to go up the mountain with Jesus, and who’ll be sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory.
“What were you talking about on the way?” he asks us, and there’s a long silence. The moment he talks with us, we know that the things that preoccupy our thoughts, our conversations and our work have little to do with him and his way in the world. We are very familiar with the ways of the world, whether we like it or not, and the old habits of acting and thinking are resilient. Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being rejected and betrayed, about being handed over, condemned, and killed, and about rising again after three days. Three times, not just because these difficult words don’t sink in easily; but because our life as disciples of Jesus is so profoundly shaped by following him on the way of loving surrender of self for the sake of God’s reign. Three times he tells us and we’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid he’s going to turn our world upside down. “Whoever wants to be first,” he says, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, the ones at the top lord it over those at the bottom. But in the kingdom of God, earth and heaven do not touch at the top of the ladder, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all.
We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Politicians pick up little children all the time, their PR people tell them 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 it to draw our attention away from our anxious obsession with status. He picks up a child to teach us the kingdom way.
In 1999, John Baptist Odama became the archbishop of Gulu, in northern Uganda. For years, a group calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army had been waging war against the Ugandan government; it also terrorized the civilian population, burning villages, killing and maiming civilians, and abducting children, tens of thousands of children, to replenish their fighting ranks. It was at the height of this violent eruption that Odama was installed as archbishop of Gulu.
Now the installation of an archbishop is very serious business. Talk about climbing up the ladder! Talk about status! Talk about authority! Not to mention the carefully laid out seating arrangements in the cathedral and at the reception following the service. Many powerful dignitaries were in attendance: a papal representative from Rome, the president of Uganda, various bishops, ministers and a host of others. All serious stuff. The symbols of the high office were laid out in the chancel, the ring, the mitre, the staff, and the pallium – all the regalia, all serious stuff.
But the new Archbishop had more important things on his mind. He took a child in his arms and asked her, “Do you like war?” The girl turned her head from side to side; no, she didn’t like war or anything about it. He then asked her, “Do you like peace?” and she nodded enthusiastically. The Archbishop, still holding the child in his arms, turned to the congregation and said, “This child has defined for us our pastoral ministry. I commit myself to work for the future that this child has defined, to eliminate war, build peace for the sake of this child, … so that the full humanity of this child might grow and flourish.”
The kingdom of God is not about getting the best seat in the cathedral; it’s about noticing the little ones and welcoming them and letting them define our vision and work.
We all start out little, every single one of us. We all start out needing to be welcomed and held and loved, every single one of us. As we welcome the little and most vulnerable ones at our borders and in our communities, we also learn to welcome the vulnerable core of our own soul; we learn to embrace the little one within us.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” says Jesus, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Welcome, welcome, welcome is woven into the fabric of this teaching like the holy, holy, holy sung by the angels in heaven.
Welcoming those who are not counted at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God to dwell among us.
Footnotes and more sermons by Thomas Kleinert are available on his blog.