Some of you may have noticed that we’ve had a little bit of a baby boom at St. James. Willard, Annabelle, Virginia, Walden Mae, Calvin and Percy Elizabeth were all born in the past year, and the Scarisbricks are expecting their second child soon. They are all beautiful babies and a wonder to behold! There is something about the birth of a child that renews the energy of the entire community. They make us feel alive again, full of possibility.
Watching my own son applying to colleges this fall, I’m reminded, too, of how quickly they grow up. Some of you have just dropped-off your own college freshmen at various schools around the country, I’m sure with a mixture of pride, grief – and relief! The relief comes in no small part from our recognition of the fragility of life, how vulnerable and dependent we all are – especially kids – and how much can go wrong along the way. Getting a kid to college is no small triumph. You have to dodge a lot of bullets along the way.
Whether or not we are parents, we get it that children evoke in us a sense of both hope and vulnerability. We are hardly surprised then, that Jesus should embrace children and make of them an object lesson for our edification. Jesus welcomes children? Big deal, we think, who doesn’t? Only curmudgeons and misanthropes are put out by the cries of children interrupting our solemnity. But there is an edginess to Jesus’ welcome of children. He isn’t doing it just to make us feel warm and fuzzy. This isn’t about “oohing” and “ahhing” over babies (not that there is anything wrong with that).
Jesus is inviting us to consider what kind of people we want to be. He is reminding us of the knife edge we walk between vulnerability and hope. And he is challenging us to be a community in which vulnerability is protected rather than exploited, so that our hope is not in vain.
Notice that Jesus offers this lesson in response to an argument that his disciples were having about which of them was the “greatest.” Recall that Jesus was traveling with his disciples through Galilee on their way to the city of Capernaum. As they walked, Jesus was teaching them that the Son of Man will be betrayed and killed, and that three days later he will rise again. This is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus proclaims this teaching and still the disciples don’t understand what he is talking about. And they are afraid to ask.
Jesus is talking here about his own vulnerability and the vulnerability that we all share as human beings. He will suffer, be rejected, and die. So will we. And yet, Jesus trusts the power of God’s love to raise him up and hold him in being in a way that we can not imagine or anticipate, transcending suffering and death. Jesus lives his life with full awareness of his vulnerability, but always encompassed by this horizon of hope which empowers him for service to others.
The disciples do not understand and they are afraid. They don’t want to acknowledge their vulnerability. They retreat into an idea of “greatness” that distances them from the pain of the world, defending themselves with the armor of success. Their image of greatness is about being the “big man” upon whom others depend, while never having to depend upon anyone else.
While we are not told this, it seems to me that we can infer the disciples’ idea of greatness from the counter-example that Jesus offers. Jesus’ defines greatness very differently, as being a “servant of all.” Then he takes a child and sets her in the midst of the disciples. (And I’m convinced it was a girl child, because they are the most vulnerable people in the world.) He embraces her in his arms 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.”
What is the meaning of this object-lesson? Children are the most dependent, most vulnerable members of society. They are the least of the least. Jesus takes the most vulnerable person and places her in the center of the community. True greatness lies not in our self-sufficiency and invulnerability, but rather in our capacity to accept our mutual dependence and be of service to each other in our need. Nothing reveals more about the kind of person we are – the kind of community we are – than how we respond to human vulnerability.
Why is this so important? Accepting our vulnerability is the means whereby we touch into the wellspring of compassion. In acknowledging our own need, we develop the empathy necessary to respond with compassion to the vulnerability of others. In welcoming the vulnerable, we welcome God, opening the door to the divine compassion that heals and makes new. It is only by accepting our vulnerability that we become transparent to the divine love that raises us up beyond our fear of suffering and death, and allows us to live in the horizon of hope.
This is a very counter-cultural teaching, offering a very different image of mature adulthood. We tend to raise our children to take care of themselves, to become independent. The goal is for them to become self-sufficient. Awareness of vulnerability in ourselves is something to repress, and a weakness in others that we are encouraged to exploit to our advantage, pushing them to the margins of the community. That is what it means to be successful – to be “great.”
Jesus is suggesting something quite different. He would have us raise our children to take care of each other, to recognize their mutual need. The goal is for them to become servants who recognize their own vulnerability and so respond to the vulnerability of others with compassion. Mature adulthood is marked by the capacity to ask for help and respond creatively to human need in service to each other. Jesus envisions the kingdom of God as a community in which vulnerability is acknowledged, and vulnerable people are placed in the center of the community rather than the margins.
As we gather around our vulnerability with tenderness and care, we create the horizon of hope that empowers us all for service. The church is that community which places the most vulnerable at the center of its common life, and thereby welcomes God into our midst. Later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, against the protests of his disciples, will gather children to him and bless them, saying “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” We receive the kingdom of God by acknowledging our vulnerability and living with hope.
Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. In an attempt to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile and began digging.
“What are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked.
“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere.”
How else could we bear the absolute dependence of childhood – and all the manure that life throws at us - without an absolute trust that we will be provided with everything we need? And maybe a pony too!
Jesus offers us an image of the community of his followers with a little child at the center of their common life and says, “This is what the kingdom of God looks like. Welcome vulnerability. Be of service to others if you want to be great.”
For the past few weeks I’ve been carrying the image of another child, Aylan Kurdi: a three year-old, alone, washed up on beach in Turkey, having died along with his older brother Galip and his mother, Rahem, in their attempt to flee the horror of the civil war in Syria. They had hoped to escape to join relatives in Canada. But there was no community gathered around Aylan and his family. They were not at the center, but as far on the margins as one can imagine, lost among the four million Syrian refugees encamped in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Pope Francis, in calling for each of the congregations of Europe to welcome and sponsor a refugee family, and doing so himself in the Vatican, provides us with an object-lesson much like that of Jesus. He is reminding us of what it means to be great. He is challenging the church to actually be the church: the community of disciples that places the vulnerable at the center of its common life, rather than at the margins.
I feel convicted by the Pope’s response, but also encouraged. As we welcome Willard, Annabelle, Virginia, Walden Mae, Calvin and Percy Elizabeth, perhaps they will remind us of our own vulnerability, and inspire us to find creative ways to place the most vulnerable people, the Aylan’s of the world, at the center of our common life. They are depending on us to teach them what it means to be truly great.