The text for this sermon is Mark 9:30-37. Please note that the names have been changed of the clients at HEART mentioned in my sermon.
I was rushing out of Mt Carmel East Hospital last spring, wearing what I always wear, jeans and a casual shirt. I had just visited one of our members in the emergency room. It was Wednesday, an especially busy day for me. I had to get back to the church to finish up my lesson for Messiah Night. I mean it wasn’t as if I was rushing off to a bar or anything. I was doing God’s work. I bolted through the Emergency Room sliding doors, helping them move a little faster as I do when I am especially anxious about time. Then, before I even saw her, I heard her. Excuse me. Excuse me, sir.
I didn’t turn my head to look at her. I didn’t acknowledge her. I knew the tone of her inquiry. It was someone who wanted something from me. Time I did not have to give or money that I was sure, though I knew nothing about her, she would just use on drugs or alcohol. I didn’t have to look at her. I knew her story just by those few words. Excuse me. Excuse me, sir. I kept walking right past her. I pretended as though she were invisible.
When Jesus gathered his disciples for the lesson we read today, he could have been gathering me, too. “Okay, knuckleheads, let me try to run through this one more time.” He had just for the second time predicted that he was going to be turned over to the authorities to be tortured and executed and what conversation does he overhear from them moments later? Which one of them is going to replace him when he is gone. Talk about not getting it.
So Jesus sits down and tells them what he has told them before and what he will tell them again, what he is likely just as tired of telling me, 51 years into my baptized life of faith. The greatest one in the Kingdom of God is the one willing to care for the least among us. The highest one in the Kingdom of God will be the one who is on his knees serving those on the lowest rungs of our society. Being first in the Kingdom of God is being willing to put your priorities, your desires, your agenda last and make first the needs, desires and agendas of others. Their eyes were glassing over, just as some of your eyes might be now. We have all heard this before. First will be last, yadda, yadda, yadda.
So he did what good teachers do. He used a prop. He grabbed a kid that was running around the house of Peter where they were gathered. Kids in Jesus’ day were not the beloved figures that we delight in today. They were invisible. With all of the Roman writing that has been left behind, there is very little that even mentions children. Children had the potential to be great gifts to a family, but until they reached adolescence and could contribute, they were simply a burden. It was not enough that they should be seen and not heard. They were not to be seen or heard. That a child was even running around, within arm’s reach of the great teacher while he was talking to his male disciples was probably a breach that some woman in Peter’s household was going to hear about. Children, their needs and concerns, were invisible in the days of Jesus, just like that woman at the hospital was invisible to me.
And Jesus embraces a child to make his point. And he tells them, that my disciples will welcome a lowly child like this little girl as if they were welcoming me. Serving her as if they were serving me. Showing concern for her as if they were concerned about me. Embracing her as if they were embracing me. Doing so will not give you status, win you respect or give you honor among your family or friends, but it will lead you to get to know God, God’s self. And isn’t that why you are following me anyways?
I serve on the third Wednesday of the month at HEART Food Pantry and once a month Eleanor comes in. She reminds me of my grandmother. She is 88 years old, always dressed properly as if she were going to church rather than a food pantry, with jewelry, a light cardigan, a pretty dress, her hair up, with pins holding it in place. She is sweet and kind, but willing to speak her mind, too. Eric brings her to the pantry once a month. He also takes her to her doctor’s appointments, the pharmacy, to lunch sometimes and to whatever other errands she has to get done in order to stay in her home.
Eric is about forty, I guess. I had thought he was Eleanor’s son, but this week he told me he was at a Krogers about four years ago when she approached him and asked if she could have a ride home. Somehow there had been a miscommunication and the friend that was supposed to come back and get her hadn’t returned. She had waited an hour, when she walked up to a stranger and asked him to take her home. Excuse me, sir. He took her home and gave her his number, telling her to call if she needed anything else. And, she called. And she still calls…often. He gets overwhelmed at times. He is trying to balance the needs of his family, work and his own, and Eleanor makes that balancing tough. Whenever he is ready to quit, his wife says who has she got Eric? Thinking of this lesson, I told Eric, if we can’t see Jesus in the invisible people around us, we will never know God. Then I thought of that day I walked past an invisible woman at the hospital and missed my opportunity to know God.
If we can’t see Jesus in the people this world has no use for, who are takers rather than makers as a presidential candidate once said, who burden us with their needs, who swamp us with their desires, than none of us will ever know God. As I watch the streams of refugees on TV and I hear another politician say we just don’t have any room for them here, we’ve got our own people to take care of, I think of this lesson from the exasperated Jesus. As I drive through troubled neighborhoods in Columbus, locking my doors, not making eye contact with the teen agers loitering on the sidewalks, I think of that child on Jesus’ lap who Jesus asked me to not only notice, but welcome. As I warmly greet attractive families visiting Messiah and don’t quite make it to the poorly, dressed single guy visiting I think about Jesus hope that I welcome those who aren’t on my agenda for growth. What does it mean that the first shall be last? It means followers of Jesus are willing to love the least, not because it will give us status or make us heroes among our friends, but simply because that is how we get to know God. May I continue to be blessed by God’s grace as I have learn this lesson over and over again. Amen