September 20, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37

Bryan Cones

One of the things that I learned fairly quickly when I came to St. Augustine’s is that the window behind me of Jesus welcoming children, is particularly beloved. I have especially heard from parents that this icon has been a great source of comfort in times of worry about children, or even when parenting itself seems too difficult. It’s always nice to that Jesus has our and our children’s backs. I doubt our own love for this image is unique in churches: This picture of Jesus caring for and protecting children has inspired Christians across the centuries to treasure not only their own children but everyone else’s as well.

I wonder if today, however, we might use our imaginations to break the glass of this particular Victorian image—I promise we’ll try to put it back together again. But putting this image of Jesus and the children back in its context might give us another view of what it’s trying to say to us. After all, the saying about the children comes at the end of a passage in which Jesus has been predicting his death, and has just had to straighten out the disciples again, who have been arguing about who is the greatest.

I imagine when the disciples saw Jesus picking up this child, who probably was not as clean and well cared for as our children in the window, they were a little less moved than we might be. The idea that following Jesus might mean babysitting—the very essence of women’s work in the ancient world, which probably hasn’t changed all that much—probably threw a bit of cold water on these male disciples’ aspirations to greatness.

Being great in the ancient world, after all, meant being rich, and having relationships that could help keep you that way. It meant being invited to dinner and inviting others, so that the web of relationships around you grew stronger, a community of patrons and clients with clout who might protect you and help you ascend the social ladder. Jesus, on the other hand, was placing at the center a child, barely a person, with no real social value at all, much less clout. It wasn’t even highly likely that the child would make it to adulthood. Children were socially useless, at least until they could start working in the household. And yet it is to such as these that Jesus calls his disciples, that Jesus calls us, to welcome.

Given the way children are treasured now and in this church, it might be helpful for us to imagine the folks Jesus might take into his arms today, those “socially useless” human beings who don’t bring anything to the table of greatness. Of all things, our slow-moving state budget crisis came to my mind: I have found it interesting to note how quickly, even without a budget, folks with connections, who exist in that beneficial web of relationships, who have “clout,” managed to keep on getting paid: unions could muscle out the payroll for state workers, parents could demand the funding for the schools, those with access to the courts or who can pay good lobbyists, they are mostly still getting paid.

Which leaves only a small pot of money to fight over, 10 percent of the total. That last $3.5 billion held hostage to politics is mostly money used for people outside all those webs of power: people with cognitive differences and developmental disabilities, people living with chronic mental illness, adults experiencing homelessness, women and children in danger of violence at home, teens with heroin addictions, and education for the youngest and poorest children. Not the sort of people who can do much for anyone, and yet surely among those whom Jesus calls us to place at the center of our ministry.

I don’t think that’s an easy thing, any more than it was an easy thing for those first disciples to see Jesus cuddling a small child as an example of “greatness” in the reign of God. So how do we cultivate that welcome Jesus is calling us to? A friend who is preaching on this same text today decided to make the heart of her homily a simple invitation to imagine ourselves for a moment as the child in the story, not with all the talents and relationships, experiences and degrees, that contribute to “greatness” in this world, but at our most “useless,” especially with those parts of ourselves that we hide or deny because they are not welcome in our world of "greatness." She then invites us to experience ourselves as welcomed by Jesus exactly as we are, in our wholeness rather than our usefulness, and to welcome ourselves with that same fullness, and to really believe that to do so is to take part in the divine pattern of welcoming that reveals the reign of God.

My friend Kara said she believes that until we can do that, until we can believe that it is we who are being welcomed, it will be hard, maybe impossible, to welcome those to whom God is sending us. Returning to our window, that may mean looking through it again, and seeing not clean, anonymous Victorian children, but ourselves whom Jesus is welcoming, that we may also welcome all those whose images are never etched in stained glass.