Sermon on Lectionary for 25th Ordinary, B, Mark 9:30-37, Sept. 20, 2009

Mark 9:30-37

Being the child, wrapped up

The main highway through Galilee from Egypt to Mesopotamia
The main highway through Galilee from Egypt to Mesopotamia

Today’s text is all about places; lots of places are mentioned – the open road, the town of Capernaum, the house, the place in the middle of the gathering of disciples, and finally the place right in the arms of the Lord Jesus himself.

The text starts with a question that has to do with a conversation in one of those places; Jesus asks his followers what they were talking about as they were walking on that road in Galilee.  It was no backroad that led to the town of Capernaum – in fact, for the ancient world, it was the equivalent of a major highway.  It was the road everyone took: every businessman, every trader, every government person and every soldier going anywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

A good family on Main Street

Peter lived in Capernaum which, as I learned on my recent trip to Israel, sits on that main highway,  and was right on the shores of the fresh water lake that we call the Sea of Galilee – so Peter lived in a prominent town on main street.  In fact Peter’s house sat between the synagogue in the center of town and the nearby shore where he worked as a small businessman – a fisherman.  Peter was not a poor person – his family had enough means to have a house in town and a boat, which was a substantial purchase.  There are no trees that grow in that region whose wood is suitable for making boats – olive trees are of no use at all, and anyway, before modern irrigation, there were precious few trees of any kind.  Lumber had to be purchased from Lebanon and imported – so the cost was  high.  Fishing boats were expensive.

Peter's House: between the Synagogue and the shoreline in Capernaum center
Peter's House: between the Synagogue and the shoreline in Capernaum center

Jesus himself took that main road as he left his little hamlet of Nazareth and walked the 20 miles to Capernaum where he met Peter. Peter knew that before he came to make Capernaum his headquarters Jesus started out in the tiny no-account town of only 400 people called Nazareth.  It was so small and insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Old Testament – none of the prophets predicted that anyone important would come from Nazareth.  There was little work there for people in the building trades like Jesus’ father Joseph.  They probably hiked the four miles down into the valley, up over the hill, into the next valley and finally up to a new city under construction in those days called Sepphoris.

For Jewish builders to go work on Sepphoris, though it provided badly needed employment for builders, must have brought up mixed feelings.  The reason it was being built was that it had been intentionally razed to the ground about the time Jesus was born.  A Jewish man from Sepphoris named Judas or, in Hebrew, Judah led a revolt against Rome which Rome quickly, violently and completely crushed.  Now it was under construction as a Roman city complete with amphitheater, Roman baths, and all things pagan.

Sepphoris theater for the best in Greek and Roman drama
Sepphoris theater for the best in Greek and Roman drama

Somehow, Peter was willing to leave his thriving business to follow this man from Nazareth, when Jesus called him.  What Peter thought this would mean for him is a mystery that the gospels never reveal – but the question is intriguing.  Who did he think this man from Nazareth was and what was that going to mean for him in the future?

Did Peter imagine that Jesus, the builder turned preacher and healer from Nazareth who spent maybe 20 years of his life working on the reconstruction a pagan Roman city on the site of a massacre of Jewish patriots might possibly have in mind a solution?  How would that solution involve Peter?  Maybe it was worth leaving the family business on main street to find out.  Of course Peter would have expected that Jesus would have to be cryptic with his language in the mean time, or risk raising Rome’s suspicions and ending up a victim like Judah before him.

So, walking down super-highway number one to the city where his family was prominent and established, is it any wonder that Peter and the others were discussing the expected roles they might have when the new administration finally came to power after the revolution.  Maybe a man with business experience who lived on the main highway like Peter would be minister of foreign trade, or perhaps he would be responsible for collecting the toll-tax that every traveler had to pay.  Anyway, surely his position would be enough to compensate him for what he gave up to join the preacher.

So it was undoubtably confusing to hear Jesus talk about his impending death – even if he did introduce the caveat that he expected not to stay dead.  Clearly this was confusing for the disciples, but no one wanted to ask for clarification.

We would never do that – right?

I think the story should pause here, because it is way too easy to continue it like this: poor, pathetic, misunderstanding and frankly selfish disciples are only with Jesus for the benefit they think will come to them when he wins the war they mistakenly believe he is going to start.  We would never make that mistake.

I’m not so sure.  I think there are lots of reasons to take up Jesus’ banner and ride on main street with it flying overhead for the sake of the advantage it brings.  Lots of people speak for Jesus these days; he seems to get connected to all kinds of causes and agendas out on the road.

But our question must always be, what cause and what agenda is authentically Jesus’ own?  How do we know?

Going indoors

Jesus brings us in off the busy highway and leads us in to the house – probably Peter’s house.  This is not a setting of power and commerce, it is the setting of family where relationships are not defined by political force nor by economics, but by family blood and marriage.  In this setting it is already embarrassing to be asked about what we were talking about out on the road to power.  He asked – they were silent as fish in a net.

So, taking the position of a teacher, sitting down, Jesus said,

35 “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Follow the movement from outside open space to increasingly close, inside space.  From the road, to the house, to the center of the gathered community, the circle gets closer and more intimate:

36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Welcome” sounds like what the hostess at the restaurant says; but the word is much stronger; more like “takes in and receives” as in the angels’ speech to Joseph: don’t be afraid to take in and receive Mary as your wife” (using the synonym).

Where are we?

all the way in
all the way in

The question we face is this: in which place are we in this story?  Are we out on the road to power and influence where the concern is with positions of authority?  Or are we in the house – part of a family, brothers, sisters, parents and children who are connected with each other at level that is far deeper and lasting than political agendas or common causes?

Let’s say we are in the house – or at least we can say that we want to be in the  house. We want to understand our place in the world as part of God’s family, at home and at peace with him and with our brothers and sisters.  This is a good first step, but if we are still in the place of adults in that group, we are not inside far enough.  There is more.  Importantly more – because an adult’s world comes and goes from the house back out to that highway.

So Jesus takes a member of the house whose life has nothing to do with that highway,  nothing to do with relationships based on power interests or economics – a child.  He brings that child to the center of that group of adults and makes the child the model of what his agenda is about.  It is about weakness, not strength; about vulnerability, not force; about needing the people in that house, not about being independent of them.

So how will a person leave behind the strong inner drive for protection and security that consumes us as we walk on the highway between empires and among the commercial caravans and menacing legion convoys?  How can we possibly assume the role of the unprotected child?

From in-the-house to in-the-arms

Only by moving to the final destination – not just in the house, not just in the center of that group of family, but closer still – all the way into the strong, protective arms of the Lord can we manage the threatening world without resorting to its power and control agendas.

36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,

Where do you want to be in this story?  We are invited to come all the way from the road into the very arms of Jesus, our Lord, where we are secure, protected, and loved without condition.

King of the Universe – security enough to be children

Jewish people have a whole set of prayers for blessings that they pray which start with a common phrase:

“Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam,” which means,

“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe”

M$DlwøoDh JKRl∞Rm …wny`EhølTa hGÎwh◊y h¶D;tAa JK…wërD;b

It is powerfully true that the God we worship is the king of the universe, or, to say it another way, “He’s got the whole world, in his hands.”  It is important to begin each day saying, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed is your name.”  The universe is not a random place of accidents in which we are left to fend for ourselves.  We are in God’s world, under God’s Kingly power.

But we are much more than merely citizens of a benevolent king.  Though this is a good place to start, it is far too impersonal and distant.  In order to have the strength we need to resist being seduced into the power agendas of the highway, in order to feel secure enough to be willing to be like children without the need for titles and leverage over each other, we must take our place in that house, in the center of that family, and be the child in the loving, protective arms of our Lord himself.  Come all the way in: be the child, wrapped up in those arms.

From those arms, the street’s caravans and entourages do not tempt us; the marching boots do not intimidate us; the toll taxes being collected do not concern us.  From those arms we feel secure enough to call everyone family and sit at table with them.

From those arms we have the security to open the door to the house to let more people in off the streets; we know that the love in those arms is inexhaustible – in fact the more the family grows, the more love fills that house.

Our task is to spread the love – to invite others into those arms – to embrace more and more people with the message that the King of the Universe is a Loving Father: this is the God that Jesus came to open our eyes to so that we could come all the way in – into the arms, and be the children, wrapped up, secure.


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