TO RECEIVE // Sara Wolbrecht // September 20, 2015 // Mark 9:33-37
God, we thank you that we can bring our secrets, our scars, our glory, all we are – that you are our God who invites us into an authentic, abundant life, and that here at Salt House is a place where all people can come as they are into community, and together we unpack our hearts into the life of God, into you, knowing that as we dump it all out on the floor, that you can make beautiful things out of us, and do amazing work through us for the sake of the world. Thank you for that. Amen.
And with that lens of unpacking our hearts and looking to the life of Jesus as an example for us, we have been reading, slowly, through the gospel of Mark since April. And so we continue that today, inviting God to speak to us through the Bible, through the words and reflections we share. You ready?
To set it up: Jesus and his disciples are walking along the road and apparently, the disciples have a heated conversation – and Jesus asks about it once they arrive in Capernaum and are gathered in a house:
Mark 9:33-37 Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
(Totally busted for trying to one up each other as to who is the greatest. Can we just name the irony that we read this text at half time while we’re cheering for the Seahawks to be the greatest? Right. But let’s also name that there is a cultural reality that the disciples were privy too and we are, as well. We live in a culture that nurtures in us a competitive spirit. Yeah, I would like to be the greatest. And many of us are competitive people – there is nothing wrong with that. Who here would say they have an above-average competitive nature? I know I do. Just give me a soccer ball and I’ll show you… So we can kind of GET the disciples, who have seen what Jesus can do, have just named him as the Messiah, and so have great visions of Jesus overthrowing Rome and how they will surely be a part of that glory.
But that’s not where this is headed, and that’s not what Jesus has been trying to show them. So he goes on).
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Wait. What, Jesus? …And Jesus goes on to make his point this way:
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (End of our reading)
A child. At that time and in that culture, a child had no rights, no power, was at the bottom of the hierarchy of society. They were property belonging to their parents. And so Jesus is taking a vulnerable, powerless person and saying – do you want to talk about greatness? It starts with someone like this, right here.
And Jesus uses the word welcome FOUR times. Four times in one sentence! A little pro tip: Whenever there is repetition in the Bible, we go – hang on! That must be important! Now notice with me – the Greek word used here for “welcome” actually means to receive. The word WELCOME makes it sound like it’s about actions that we do. But to receive makes it sound like you are getting a gift. Like you are receiving something goooood. “Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me.” Fascinating, yes?
So what does this have to do with us today, here and now? We are surrounded by, swimming around in a competitive culture. We are told to be the greatest – and yet it is all a lie. An impossible goal. Because the demands of our culture will never be satisfied by our efforts – no matter how hard we work. There is no such thing as the greatest. Instead, what our culture actually tells us is that we’re never enough. Never. We will never have enough money. We will never be popular enough. Good enough. Smart enough. Thin enough. Stylish enough. A good enough parent. We will always be told to work harder, prove ourselves more, to not be satisfied with what we’ve done. And to look around and as much as possible, and point out how we’re better than the person next to us, or the person who looks different than us. That’s what our culture nurtures in us, and it is an exhausting, terrifying way to live.
And Jesus is calling it out. Throwing up his hands and saying – that’s enough. That’s not the way it really is. There is another reality you can live in. Jesus redefines how we become great. And it is about receiving. To see and receive the people next to us, across the street, at our work, in our schools, at our borders – to see people as a gift to be received. And not because they’re cool, or have power or influence that we want access to, not because we want to impress them or benefit from them. But to see the gift in the vulnerable, powerless, outcast people among us. We receive them – and to do it in Jesus’ name means that we point toward the way of love and life and grace that Jesus shows us. And in doing that – Jesus says so clearly – this is how you access and live into the life of God. That is the gift you receive. …You can still be a competitive person – even as you make room to receive the gift that all people are to us.
There is another tangible gift that Jesus extends to us again and again – it is the gift of Holy Communion – often called the Eucharist, and word Eucharist actually means “the good gift.” We come back again and again to bread on a table. And we do that today, too.