When my boys were young, we had boxes of superheroes and super villains, all sorted by story line: He-man, GI Joe, Star Wars, and Dick Tracy. Even though there were a dozen characters in each box, there were sure to be arguments, especially if there were more than two children playing. With 2, one could have all the good guys and one all the bad guys, but with three, someone got neither the most powerful superhero nor the most powerful super villain. Nothing has changed in the last two thousand years.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is addressing power struggles. To begin with, he is trying to explain to his closest companions that he is about the turn the current world power struggle up-side down. The world, at least the part of it known to the disciples, is under the influence of the Roman Empire. This is not all bad. Under the Romans, roads and great water systems were built. If you were a Roman citizen, obeyed Roman law, and did not get too heavily involved in Roman politics, you lived a comfortable and safe life. But the price was very heavy against those who disturbed the peace.
For the Jews living in Palestine, this could be good or bad news. The current ruler, Herod Antipas, was quite happy living as a puppet to the Roman Emperor. For many of the religious leaders, Rome was not such a bad despot. Rome was tolerant of the Jews rather odd religious practices provided they behaved like good Roman citizens: paid their taxes, didn’t cause any trouble, etc. But other Jews believed that only when Israel was an independent nation with full political as well as religious control of Palestine would they be living the promise of God to Abraham, Jacob, and David. Their vision of the Messiah is one that will make that happen.
Jesus has tried many times to explain to the disciples that before he rules, he will die on a Roman cross, but they just don’t get it. When Jesus goes before Pilate, Jesus tells him you think you are in control, but you are not, God is. (John 19:11) Crucifixion was a way of demonstrating complete control over an individual. You couldn’t even kill yourself when the pain became more than you could bear because your hands and feet were nailed to a cross. Your family and friends could come and stare at you but could not give you any comfort because you were beyond their ability to help you. Yet Jesus claimed by the power of God, he was going to take this demonstration of Roman power and prove it to be powerless. By allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus was able to demonstrate that he was more powerful than death, and the Roman Empire.
Somehow the lesson does not sink in because the minute Jesus’ back is turned, the disciples go back to playing superheroes. “I’ve got super powerful web shooters and I can climb tall buildings.” “Well, I’ve got this really neat power saber and I can cut off your powerful web shooters.” “Jesus is going to pick me to be Secretary of State.” “Well he’s going to pick me to be Vice President.” It’s almost like an episode of Big Bang Theory, intelligent grown men acting like little boys. When Jesus asks them what they have been talking about, they are silent. They probably realize how ridicules they sound, but they have no clue what they are asking for. In Matthew’s version of this story, the mother of James and John is even involved, asking that her boys might sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory, visualizing a three seated throne room. Jesus visualizes three crosses on a hill and tells her she does not know what she is asking. (Matt. 20:20-23)
Jesus then presents to the disciples two illustrations of what it means to be first in his kingdom. “If you would be first, you must be last, you must be diakonos.” (Mark 9:35) This term diakonos indicted one who executed the commands of another, in particular, a king. Jesus is that king, and his command is that we love God and our neighbor, not just in theory, but by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and caring for the sick. Diakonos was also used of those who waited on tables. Servants whose job it was to wait tables did not eat until everyone else had had their fill. It is the term from which we get the order of deacon. The first deacons made sure everyone at the table got fed. In either case, you were serving another and putting aside your own needs until the needs of others had been met.
Then Jesus picks up a little child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9: 37) This was before Disney, McDonalds, and Mattel altered the power structure and put children at the top of the power pyramid, at least in terms of advertising and marketing dollars. In Jesus’ day a child had no status. They had no rights and were not capable of caring for themselves. They were dependent upon others for their existence.
I was at a baptism once and heard the bishop make an odd statement but one that seemed so appropriate to this text. He commented that one of the blessings of children is that they are so inconvenient. Now blessings and inconvenient are not words that are typically used together. But his point was that children draw us out of our selfishness by virtue of their neediness. Infants and toddlers require adult assistance for their most basic of needs. All children need adults to teach them, to take them places, to pay for things. I raised two generations of children, that was 40 consecutive years, and I can tell you for a fact, you cannot be completely selfish and live with a child. They will force you to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own and in that sense, they are good for the soul.
As a parish, it is important that we have children in our midst. Without children there is no future, and where there is no future there is no hope. But just having them in the building is not enough; we must not be content to treat the children as though they were not quite human. Jesus reminds us that children give us the opportunity to function as God intended, as servants one to another. When the Israelites first entered the promised land, Moses tells the people, “You must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might… and you shall teach these commandments diligently to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, when you are walking down the road, when you lie down at night and when you get up in the morning. “(Deut. 6:5-7)
My prayer for this parish is that we can live together as servants, one to another, putting the needs of the those who are least able to help themselves at the top of our to do list, and trusting God to see that our own needs will be met. I also want us to have a vision and a plan for something that does not exist today but is so important. We need a plan to engage the children and youth in our families and in our neighborhood. This includes a plan that attends to their safety and honors what they bring. It means preparing before they come. If this is a vision you also have, please come talk to me so we can make it happen.