Sunday, 20 September 2015

Downward Mobility (Mark 9:30-37)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Sep 20, 2015)


Grownups Move Up

By all accounts, the disciples of Jesus were grownups. They had already learned how things worked in the ancient world. They knew all about money and taxes: one of them was even a taxman. They knew all about power and politics: one of them was even a revolutionary intent on seeing Rome fall. They knew all about the humdrum routine of adult life: more than one of them got into a boat each day and went fishing for a living.

According to today’s text, these grownups following Jesus had a very grownup conversation on the road to Capernaum. What do grownups talk about? Well, once they get past the weather, and perhaps a bit of politics or scandal, they have a tendency to talk about themselves. They talk about their plans and expectations. And generally these are plans and expectations for moving up in the world: a new house, a raise at work, accomplishing a great achievement, winning an award.

We don’t know exactly what the grownups who followed Jesus were talking about on the road to Capernaum—Mark doesn’t tell us—but we can assume it went along these lines. Jesus was becoming more and more popular, and so his grownup disciples were naturally speculating on their own upward mobility. Who among them would be the greatest?

Jesus Moves Down

Grownups can be a bit silly. Sometimes they get so lost in their own plans and expectations that they do not see the reality in front of them. In the case of these grownup followers of Jesus, they were daydreaming together about their own personal success and greatness just moments after their leader had told them about a very different fate: suffering and death.

And so there is an odd movement to the story. The grownup disciples fantasize about moving up. But everything their leader Jesus says and does is about moving down. First, Jesus is literally moving down: he’s leading the disciples to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, and this would have involved a descent of thousands of feet over the course of two or three miles. Second, when Jesus addresses his disciples, the story offers us a delightful little detail: it doesn’t simply say that Jesus spoke to his disciples, but rather that he first “sat down” and then spoke to them. So they’ve walked down thousands of feet. Then Jesus sits down. And when Jesus speaks, his words are all about a downward turn: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

You can bet that Jesus’ words raised an eyebrow or two among his followers. Remember, these are grownups. They treasure upward mobility: they gravitate toward the biggest, the strongest, the most powerful, the best. Sure, they may say they’re content with a modest living and good health, but their eye is almost invariably directed upward: on whatever extra bit of power or money or security they can obtain.

I imagine that Jesus’ words would raise an eyebrow or two among us too, if we’re listening with honest hearts. “If anything is certain,” it is that at an early age, we have been taught the desire “to be the best, the strongest, and the most powerful. The attitude of ‘We’re number one!’ is nurtured with all diligence and on all levels [in our culture]: in athletics, business, technology, and military power.”[1]

Be last of all? Be a servant to all? To any grownup, which is to say, to anyone who has learned the way of upward mobility, Jesus proclaims an upside-down gospel: the gospel of downward mobility.

And Jesus—having walked down thousands of feet, having sat down amidst his disciples—takes a final step down on the way of downward mobility. He takes into his arms an individual who has yet to be initiated into the world of finance and politics and proper social behavior, an individual who is of little account to the world. He takes into his arms a little child.

A False Welcome?

Which might not seem so revolutionary in itself. If you think about it, even the most powerful or wealthiest among us will take a little child in their arms from time to time. Who would refuse to care for a little child?

But Jesus is talking about more than merely taking a child in one’s arms. He insists on welcoming the little child. Whoever welcomes a little child welcomes God.

And this is precisely where Jesus’ gospel of downward mobility sinks its teeth into real life, precisely where its rubber meets the road of reality. Because how often do grownups actually welcome a child? We’re all familiar with the expression, “to treat [someone] like a child.” To treat someone like a child means to look down on that person, to treat them as though their view of the world and their way of doing things doesn’t matter. And this expression suggests that the way we treat children, the way we welcome them, is often a false welcome. We may look a child in the eye and smile; we may nod as we listen. But in the end, we already have it figured out, and the only real question is whether the children will abandon their ideas and feelings and be initiated into our world, or not. In the end, we grownups have the right of way: we speak before spoken to, we interrupt when the child wanders off on a tangent, we instruct and direct as needed, we reserve the right to the last word.

Now I’m not advocating a rug rat revolution, and I don’t think Jesus was either. But I do think that Jesus is diagnosing a certain illness of our world, a certain grownupitis, of which the primary symptom is a settled and secured and self-enclosed life, a life that is calibrated almost exclusively to one’s own concerns and expectations. When we grownups with grownupitis welcome a child, it is often a false welcome because we welcome the child only insofar as the child becomes like us, only insofar as the child conforms to our image. In the end, we grownups with grownupitis are not welcoming the child at all…we are welcoming ourselves.[2]

Welcoming the Little Children

Moving from a false welcome, where we demand conformity to our world and our way of doing things, to a genuine welcome, means allowing the other to be other. It means allowing a little child to be a little child.

I’m reminded of a scene I recently saw on television. An estranged parent reconciles with her young son for an evening together. She sits at her son’s shoulder as he colors a picture. After a period of silence, she compliments him, “Hey, nice drawing. You’re even staying inside the lines.” Silence. Another attempt: “Hey, you want to do something? Why don’t we go get some ice cream? Wouldn’t you like some ice cream?” The son pauses, and an eyebrow arches momentarily, but he soon resumes coloring. No. It’s as if he knows that his mother, despite her good intentions, is patronizing him. Her comments betray a different world, the grownup world, a world where staying inside the lines is good, where goodwill can be bought at the price of an ice cream cone.

Moments later, the mother picks up a toy figurine, holds it close to her ear, opens her eyes real big…and says, “What’s that? You don’t have a house? Every hero needs a house.” Hearing this, the son giggles, drops his crayons, and picks up some surrounding legos to begin building a house. It’s at this moment, I think, that the mother has truly welcomed her son. She’s relinquished her concerns and expectations, and allowed her son’s world—a world of play and imagination, of the unknown and the impossible—to become her own.[3]

“As One Unknown”

Welcoming little children changes the way we see and live in our world. As grownups, our natural trajectory is upward. And the more we move up, the smaller things look below, the more we have a sense of control over everything. But the more we move down, the bigger the world becomes, the more daunting and inscrutable and open-ended. The world becomes a place full of secret treasures waiting to be discovered.

My third or fourth Sunday here, during the prelude, Corinne wandered with wide-eyed curiosity up the steps and ran around the altar and the lectern. I can only imagine what her inquisitive eyes took in…the bread, the cup, the stained glass windows and the empty space of the baptismal beneath, the big Bible up on the lectern, all the attentive faces staring back at her from below. I can only imagine what she saw and what she thought. But I have a good hunch—judging by her wide-open eyes—that she saw all these things as strange and wonderful, as mysterious and full of unknown power. And I’d like to think that that’s part of what Jesus admires and praises in little children. If we welcome little ones such as these, he says, if we move down and allow their world to become ours, then we will be taking one step closer to God. We will be taking one step closer to a special faith that looks for God in uncharted territory, that appreciates God especially in new and unfamiliar faces, that anticipates marvels and miracles emerging behind each and every corner.

To truly welcome little children, to move down and live in the uncertain and wonder-filled world of the littlest, is, as Jesus says, a true mark of greatness. For instead of merely welcoming ourselves—instead of reducing the world to what we already know and what we expect—we are welcoming God. We are welcoming the unknown, the unforeseeable, the unthinkable, the impossible.

Just as Corinne will discover God in the bread and the cup, in some of the special words that we say, in the love of her family, and in many other ways that none of us could imagine, so we too can discover God. Every time we welcome little children, we welcome a God of surprises and new adventures, a God whose promise of new life means that mornings cannot come fast enough. We become born again. As it was for Corinne that morning when she wandered around the altar and the sacraments, so it becomes for us as we wander throughout the mysteries of love and grace and forgiveness and hope—the fingerprints of God in our world. We enter a world where Christ calls us anew, breaks open our stale, self-enclosed view of the things, disrupts us with the unimaginable. By truly welcoming little children and their world of the unknown and mysterious, we meet Christ as the disciples in today’s text met him: not as the God whom they already knew, but as the God whom they could have never imagined.[4]


Lord Jesus, when you said
that to welcome a little child
is to welcome God,
what did you mean?

Are we to be naïve or to ask questions?
To be innocent or to be trusting?
To be shy or to sing?
To be docile or to be open-eyed?

Show us how to welcome and become
not the ideal child we imagine
but the real child you took in your arms and blessed.

Teach us,
if we have done too much growing up,
how to grow down. Amen.[5]


[1] Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (orig. serialized in Sojourners, 1981; Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis, 2007), loc. 153. 

[2] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), loc. 5485-5490: “[H]ospitality…means to make the other welcome, which is very much the opposite of what hospitality means in the world. Outside the kingdom, hospitality means welcoming the same, even though it pays lip service to welcoming the other. The world’s hospitality, which is carefully calculated and practiced under strict conditions, is extended only to those who are on the list of invited guests, which is made up of selected friends and neighbors who can be counted on to reciprocate. But that is precisely not the…welcoming of the other, but rather staying precisely within the circle of the same.”

[3] Adapted from Season 5, Episode 4 of The Wire: “Alliances.” Beginning at 47:45.

[4] Cf. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (trans. W. Montgomery; New York: MacMillan 1956), 403: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’”

[5] Adapted from Present on Earth (Wild Goose Worship Group; Glasgow: Wildgoose, 2002), 86.

No comments:

Post a Comment