Sunday, September 23, 2018
(Much of this sermon borrows from a sermon preached by Dr. Matthew Tennant, Charlbury Baptist Church, England, 3/1/09)
Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” What does he mean when he says “welcomes a child?” What does that entail in my life? How do I welcome children? In Jesus’ day children were very low on society’s ranking of importance. Every family wanted children, but once born, they were expected to defer to their elders and to be quiet and respectful. They did not hold a central place in communal life.
However, in verse 36 we see Jesus, very intentionally, take a child and set that child among them. Toward the child, Jesus had an air of tenderness, affection, and great care. He valued the child. At the same time, he used the moment to demonstrate how much God valued this one who was pushed to the margin by the cultural elite. On other occasions, Jesus made time for blind people that the crowds passed by. Jesus touched the lepers that temple goers fastidiously avoided. Jesus listened to the women that men ignored. Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes; a group shunned by polite society. His demonstrative love of children and esteem of children is one more example of our Lord and Savior telling us we’ve got it all wrong in how we value people.
Anyone who appears undesirable or unimportant in our circles gets to sit at the head table at Jesus’ banquet. So, if we want to be with Jesus, we have to take on humility that demands that we see ourselves on equal footing with all others. This is not self-hate. We should love ourselves. We should be confident. And we should strive for excellence in all that we do. But in our valuing of people, we do not set ourselves above anyone, not if we want to be with Jesus.
As I proceed, a question to ponder is do you want to be with Jesus. Do you truly want follow him, be his disciple, and live your life totally submitted to His word and to the Holy Spirit? We all might say we want to be filled with the power of the Spirit and the Love of God. Who wouldn’t want that? But, do you, do I, want to submit Jesus? Do we want to live life on his terms?
My brother, also pastor, wrote a sermon in which he compared this passage from Mark to one of Leo Tolstoy’s stories, The death of Ivan Ilych. I’m going to share my brother’s analysis as a way of looking into the posture Jesus wants us to take with others.
Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilých is a high court judge in 19th-century Russia. He is a miserable husband, a proud father, and an upwardly-mobile member of Russia's professional class. Setting aside his dreadful relationship with his wife, Ivan has a good life. He has an important position with the Department of Justice, and a house that indicates his affluence. He is very proud of that house and of how prestigious he is. Ivan consistently strives to magnify his reputation as an important man. Tolstoy writes that Ivan is “attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.” He’s like Jesus’ disciples walking along the road, arguing about who among them is the greatest. Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Such a thought would be foreign to Ivan who works so hard to appear rich and important. Working on his house to maximize its eloquence, he falls off a ladder he had climbed while showing the decorator how he wants some new curtains to be placed. In the fall, he bumps his side on the latch on the window, leaving a bruise. After a few weeks, the pain in his side does not go away. Sometime later, he develops a strange taste in his mouth. After seeing expensive, celebrity doctors, no one can explain or treat his condition, but it soon becomes clear that he is dying.
The frustrating thing about seeing a man like Ivan Ilých go through the pain and struggle of facing his own death is that he is not a bad person. He is an ethical attorney, a good citizen, an enjoyable friend, an adequate provider, and a fair and loyal employer of his household staff. He never abuses his power, although he is completely aware that he could. The life that he built is one of surface value. No matter what, Ivan keeps up appearances and does not allow anyone into that intimate place of sharing his burdens.
After he gets sick, the life of surface value that he has built does not include anyone to share the journey through ill-health toward death with him. His wife and daughter are in their social world and are basically unaware of his struggles. His friends are shallow relations that are not there for him when he faces his own mortality. There is no one to minister to his needs in his time of travail. Some of his colleagues, people who he would have counted warmly as part of his circle, begin looking at Ivan as a man whose job will soon be vacant.
This lack of pity and compassion from his family, his friends, and his colleagues begins to torment him. No one will give him the care he desperately wants. His whole life he wanted to be first. In a sense, he received what he wanted. He had a high position, married well, had children, and so on. “At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied.” Yet, he had built the kind of life for himself where there was no one around to do so. Except, there was one person, the young butler’s assistant Gerásim.
Gerásim brought Ivan his food. This was his job. Gerásim took away Ivan’s chamber pot; this too was his job. Gerásim did it with humility and a cheerful, life-giving disposition, which was not part of his job. Gerásim would also lift up Ivan’s leg, sometimes into the night. This was an activity that relieved some of Ivan’s pain and discomfort, and this was not part of Gerásim’s job. The really beautiful part is the way Gerásim did what he did. It was his disposition. It was the expression on his face. Ivan apologized for his condition and his needs, and Gerásim smiled, saying, “Why shouldn’t I help you? You are a sick man.”
Ivan had his position, his house, his reputation, but when facing his own mortality, he discovered that power and prestige gave no comfort. Now, consider Ivan’s misplaced priorities and the disciples. They argued about who was the greatest. Ivan wanted to be known as great. In our honest moments, do we want that too? Do we wish people who know us would say how wonderful we are?
I do. I would be thought of as erudite, a speaker of flowing, inspired words, and a caregiver who possesses a deep well of wisdom and compassion. I don’t know if you think about such things. I do.
Facing his own death, Ivan found that love, compassion and comfort, not greatness and prestige, were what he really wanted. In his story, a boy named Gerásim, a peasant with no prospects, delivered the Messianic goods. He did the mundane tasks, like bringing food. He went above and beyond the call of duty, by holding Ivan’s legs, and he was there. Gerásim carried out his tasks giving his full attention to Ivan. This is the ministry of presence.
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a child,” a nobody, one kicked to the curb by society, whoever welcomes that one “welcomes me.” Do we want to welcome Jesus? Because if we welcome him and spend time listening to him, we end becoming his followers. If we decide to, in the name of Jesus, welcome the one society has rejected, help the needy, encourage the broken hearted, and move the outcast and marginalized to the very center of our family, our circle of concern; we do that and we do it in the name of Jesus, we’ll look the way he wants his disciple to look.
Follow the story a few verses back from where we began reading. Before Jesus predicted his betrayal and crucifixion, he had been on the Mount of Transfiguration while with James, John, and Peter. The other 9 were in a village at the foot of the mountain when a desperate man came running to them. His son had epilepsy. The violent Tonic-clonic seizures (9:18) threatened his son’s life. So, he brought his boy to the disciples of the miracle worker. And those 9 followers of Jesus, part of his hand-select 12 disciples, were powerless to face down this evil that wreaked this child. Jesus came and healed the boy (v.25-27).
Fresh off this failure and their inability to understand Jesus’ prediction of his own death and their fear in asking him about it, they proceeded to posture and preen and brag of their own greatness. Immediately after being humbled, they puffed their chests out in swaggering false confidence.
And look past our reading to the very next story. One of the 12, John, sees someone he doesn’t know doing what they disciples couldn’t do: healing and driving out demons. They were utterly powerless to face the epilepsy demon. Now, someone else is acting in Jesus’ name, and John wants to stop him.
Mark’s gospel goes to great lengths not only to highlight the disciples’ failure of faith and failure to learn, but also to show the absurdity of anyone who is not humble. Before human pain, we must be humble. Facing demons and disease, we must be humble. In light of Jesus’ holiness and our sinfulness and weakness, we must be humble because we can only truly welcome Jesus in a posture of humility. And we can only truly adopt they posture by going out of our way to uplift, respect, honor, and help the most vulnerable and rejected people in our world. In short, we must truly befriend those who have trouble fitting in and those who have been stepped on over and over in life. This isn’t charity. It is relationship.
There was no miracle in Tolstoy’s story. Ivan Ilých died. His wife was more concerned with the state of their financial affairs than with the loss of her husband. His friends bemoaned that they had to find a new partner for their card games. His colleagues saw an opportunity to fill a prestigious vacancy.
Only the servant boy Gerásim was sad that he was gone. He had become Ivan’s friend. Ivan Ilych saw the face of God in the servant who lifted his legs to ease his pain.
We don’t help the needy to end poverty. Fighting poverty is clearly a worthy goal, one to which we should commit. That’s true. It’s just not the final note this morning. The final note this morning is life-transforming friendship. When Jesus welcomes the child, he’s telling his disciple and us, you welcome these who are cast out. Diseased? Disabled? An ethnic minority? A criminal record? Morbidly obese? A personality disorder? Mentally ill? An addiction? We are called not just to help but to love, and not just to love, but to befriend all of these. And when our welcome includes true friendship, then we understand what it is to welcome Jesus.
 Leo Tolstoy, Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude (New York: Perennial Classics, 1967), 245-302.
 Tolstoy, Short Works, 256.
 Mark 9:35b NRSV
 Tolstoy, Short Works, 286.