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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Holley B. Slauson, II
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 20, 2009

Here we are with Jesus and the Disciples again. Last week the question was, “Who do you say I am.” This time we are on the road to Capernaum. Jesus wants this trip to go unnoticed so he can do some teaching. We would call it “quality time” today. He understands that this journey will ultimately lead to Jerusalem and his death. Jesus needs this time because he is wearying of the narrow vision with which he is viewed by many, including some of his own rag tag band. Some see him as simply a healer. Others see him as a great teacher. Still others view him as a new and great prophet. And while these are all true, they are most true as one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Today the question is: “What are you discussing, or, why are you arguing?”

I imagine you find this passage as amusing as do I. Here we are in Palestine, two thousand or so years ago, on a dirt road, walking to the next town. You might think the question would be, “do we have enough water and/or food for the journey?” “Should we perhaps send word ahead that when we arrive we will be tired, and dusty, and will need water for bathing and a place to rest.”

Nope. The burning question is one that is as prominent in our culture as much as then. Because they didn’t, and couldn’t understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about his coming crucifixion, they were obviously engaged in pursuit of another agenda. Clearly by the time we get to the second part of the Gospel passage for today, wherein Jesus uses a child as a teaching example, we get the impression that what the Disciples had been discussing was the post Jesus pecking order, if you will. They were clearly more concerned with who would be the most prominent, here and when they reach Heaven.

I find it ironic that status and position were as important to the Disciples on that dirt road in Galilee, as status and prominence are important to so many in our society. I’m not sure about today, though I imagine it hasn’t changed in many places, but when I was a child it mattered what Church you attended. It mattered then and it matters now where you went, or where you go, to school. Many colleges would only accept new students from certain segments of the population – and I’m not so sure that isn’t true of some colleges to this day. It mattered if you belonged to a club, a beach club, a golf club or a country club. Which it didn’t matter, but you should belong in order to be a person or family of status, of position. Isn’t it ironic that human kind, human nature is as stuck on itself today as it was obviously stuck on itself in Jesus’ time?

Then when Jesus realizes what has been the hot, burning topic of conversation, he stops, gathers them around and takes a child from the midst and does some more teaching. The disciples found Jesus’ talk of his death unbelievable and were in denial. Speaking of unbelievable here’s a amazing story. ‘Nine year old Joey was asked by this mother what he had learned in Sunday School. We’ll, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge, and all the people walked across safely. He used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters and call in an air strike. They sent in bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved. “Now, Joey, is that REALLY what your teacher taught you?” his mother asked. Well, no, Mom, but if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!’ This tale sounds something like the reaction of the Disciples to Jesus’ teaching. Oh the lot of the teacher. Have you ever been in a position where you were told a story that was too fantastic as to be believable? Have you ever been in a position of being expected to respond to someone who had asked if what you were talking about could be shared with the group? I have. In this short piece of Mark, ambition and desire are confronted by Jesus with his usual long suffering, patient teaching. He wasn’t always a patient teacher and some here know that I’m not patient, period. Be glad that I wasn’t teaching this lesson on the road to Capernaum. I do understand, however, that when ambition and desire are confronted by Jesus, something wonderful comes from that.

‘A little girl became restless as the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on. Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Mommy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?”

Children. In Jesus time they didn’t count for much. They were a drag on the family economy, taking and not contributing. They had no status. They were even lower in the pecking order than were women who were divorced, not that married women often fared much better. Here again, Jesus takes the known world and turns it upside down and inside out. We could call Jesus a radical over this and we could call this a radical welcome.

Sharon Ely Pearson, daughter of Grace Episcopal Church here in Norwalk says: “Seeing the blank looks on their faces, Jesus fetched a child, a kid from the streets. He placed this little toddler, an ordinary child, in the midst of the circle of his disciples. An “object lesson” for the adults.

Why a child? We don’t know if the child was a girl or a boy. The Greek word for child is gender neutral, which gives us a hint of the culture’s view of children. To almost all adults, and certainly to the adult male Disciples focused on their alpha male teacher, children were of no consequence.” She then goes on very eloquently to share more thoughts and examples of children as the invisible (my word) of society. She states the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas on the order in which who gets saved from a raging fire. Guess who is last? She then confronts us with some real truth time. She states, “We like to believe that a child in our culture today is much more valued and is put first in our priorities. But there are many who continue to be invisible amongst us…….” Several things come to my mind: the starving and dying children of Africa; the child soldiers of the world’s fanatical armies of liberation, so called; the innocent victims of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and numerous other places. There are still places and cultures on this planet who do not value children.

An anonymous story is told of a wealthy man who owned a priceless art collection, including a number of old masters that were the envy of many art connoisseurs. This same man also had a much-loved son, and the two often used to enjoy their art treasures together.

However, war broke out, and the son was called up, and went off to fight. One day a telegram arrived informing the father that his son had been killed in action. The old man was devastated. He grieved silently, alone, and unremittingly.

A few months went by, and one day there was a knock at the door. A young man stood there with a small package under his arm. “You don’t know me,” he said, “but I knew your son very well. We were in the same unit, and I was with him when he died. I am the soldier he gave his life for. He saved many lives that day, and he was carrying me to safety when the bullet struck him. We had become close friends, and before he died, I drew this little picture of him. I’m not a great artist, but I want you to have this sketch.”

The father was silent for a long time, gazing into the eyes of his son that looked out from the soldier’s sketch, his own eyes filling with tears. Then he thanked the soldier and offered to pay for the picture. “Oh, no, Sir. It’s a gift. I can never repay what your son did for me; but I want you to have the sketch. It’s all I have to give.”

The father hung the sketched portrait above the mantelpiece for everyone to see. He treasured it for far more than all his other paintings together, and he showed visitors this rendering of his son first before anything else in the house.

Not long after, the old man dies himself, and his art collection was put up for auction. Art collectors came from all over the world, thrilled at the possibility of buying one of the many treasure. The auctioneer began the bidding. The first picture to come up was the unknown soldier’s sketch of the father’s son. “What am I bid for this first picture in the collection…?” he implored.

There was silence. No one seemed interested in the amateurish sketch. The auctioneer then explained that “the deceased insisted that the first item in the sale had to be the picture of his son. Now who will make the first bid?” Tentatively, a hand was raised at the back of the room. It was the gardener. He had worked for years for the old man, and he had loved the son. He made a modest bid that had no counters. Everyone else looked bored.

“Sold!” called the auctioneer after counting to three. “To the man at the back, for ______.” There was relief all around. Now the buyers could get their hands on the truly valuable pieces of the collection! But the auctioneer laid down his gavel. “The auction is over,” he declared. “My instructions from the deceased are that whoever takes the son receives the entire estate, including the whole art collection. The man at the back who took the son receives everything.”

Status and position? Bah. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and who receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Now what’s important?

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