A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 19 September 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Mark 9.30-37
Picture the scene. Jesus and the disciples turn around the top of the Sea of Galilee and start heading South. Jesus is out in front leading the way but the rest of the pack are bickering. They are arguing about who will be the greatest when they take over the world… Jesus stops and tells them off. “Whoever wants to be the first must be the last and the servant of all.”
We often think of today’s gospel as a morality tale. The silly disciples didn’t get that the REAL way to greatness is to clean the toilets. But let’s look a bit closer. There’s something more raw, more physical more primeval, more pre-moral about this story.
A pack of antelope are resting at a watering hole on the Savana. They huddle serene, young and old, reviving their sun baked mouths with cool water and fresh, green grasses. Sudden movement in far grassland. One antelope spots a hyena, then another, then another. The antelope herd darts up and almost in one movement starting to run. There’s a movement within the pack, the young and old jostling for position away from the edges. But the youngest fall to the back unable to keep up. Closer and closer the hyenas get the youngest and oldest and sick and recently injured antelope are straining to stay with the pack, until one weaker antelope trips, and the hyenas descend.
The disciples, and Mark’s readers have just been told twice that Jesus is now heading to his death. They’ve turned south, heading sheepishly towards Jerusalem. And Jesus tells them in plain Aramaic that he is about to be handed over into human hands to be killed but will rise again after 3 days.
Imagine you’ve never heard this story before. This is quite an ominous turn.
After three years of preaching from the mountain tops, they’re still on a high. They’ve been on tour as local celebrities, healing the sick and casting out demons. And Jesus suddenly wants them to keep their voices down?
Maybe we should be more sympathetic. In situations of scarcity, where you are in the pack can be a matter of life and death.
A friend who grew up in rural India once explained to me why there are more girls who die as children than boys. “It’s not that we love our girls less” she said “it’s just that there’s only so much money to go around. If a boy is sick we call the doctor immediately. The cost of calling the doctor means that the family may go hungry that week, but we don’t mind because if he dies, we may all starve because there will be no one to bring in the harvest in in a few years. If the boychild dies who will carry on our family name? Whereas if a girl is sick we say ‘she’ll probably be fine’ and we only call the doctor if she gets really unwell.”
Where resources seem scarce, love is secondary to survival.
This mindset would have been familiar to the disciples, most of whom grew up villages like my friend’s. If your family is riding high, everyone in it will be fine. But if your family is low in the village pecking order (something that could turn on a button with the patriarch being taken out) then you’d better make sure you’re up in the top few family members. The quest for greatness is rarely about hatred of others, it’s usually about needing not to be the last antelope in the pack.
But this isn’t just about them. Mark arranges his Gospel to speak to us too. You’ve got this far in hearing the story of Jesus and it’s time to tell you what it’s all about.
Survival instinct is in our culture as much as theirs. As a child perhaps you knew it mattered that you were in the top set of your class. Perhaps you have a parent who cared that you made friends with the sophisticated children from “nice” homes. Perhaps it wasn’t said explicitly but you knew it mattered that you were up with the top kids. Or perhaps you became determined to escape the apathy of your parents, or to prove something else to the world. It’s perhaps surprising that there are a far higher proportion of MPs who are gay
than in the general population. 21% of the Scottish National Party. Maybe it’s about wanting to make the world a more just society, but I wonder if it’s something else too.
It’s rare to meet someone who is ruthless about advancement where there isn’t a story of scarcity in their background. We or our parent have experienced the world as one where there might not be enough to go around, where they better be at the front of the pack, not for glory but for survival.
This isn’t a primary school assembly morality tail of how we should line up nicely after breaktime and not be pushy about status. It’s useless to give morality tales to people raised on a survival mindset.
Jesus is talking about survival, but in a new way. He invites them and us not to avoid death but to face death and weakness and insignificance with him. But because we’re with him, they’re not the end of the story.
They don’t understand. He says he’s about to suffer and consciously or unconsciously, their first instinct is “OK, thanks for the tip off Jesus, I’d better make sure I firm up my position. I don’t want to be caught up in all that.”
But instead of being hurt that his friends didn’t care about his suffering, Jesus has yet another go.
He’s told them geographically, he’s told them in plain language. Now he sits down.
Remember what sitting down meant in that culture? When you wanted to learn wisdom in that culture you went to one of the elders of the village who sit down to teach.
From sitting in the position of the revered elder of the village, he takes a child.
Children didn’t have value in first century society. Forget the Upper-class Victorian romanticism that says women and children are so divinely innocent that they are a gift to the home by their very existence. They are not the first people onto the lifeboats here. Sure, parents loved their children, you probably loved your siblings, but other children in general were just a drain on society. A person of high status wouldn’t give attention to a child they weren’t related to.
In fact, in first century Palestine the word for children was often used for servants. It was common practice to refer to your servants of any age as well as your children as just “my little ones”. They’re all the small lives in your household. When food was scarce, these are the people who ate last. They would rarely taste meat. These are the lives at the end of the line.
The Psalmist says “I would rather be a door keeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” Door keeping was the job you gave to the 5 or 6 year old… this was the Psalmist saying “I’d even be this low status to be near to God”.
Jesus takes it a step further, he says “If you want to be great in my kingdom you have to be the servant [the small one] of all.”
That all sounds good, it’s the type of thing you’d expect to hear in church, but how does that work? Jesus illustrates.
He puts his arms around the child… the Greek highlights the crook of the elbow. This is not just inviting a child to stand nearer to them as Exhibit A. “Consider the child. Be more like the child.” This is an embrace. A hug.
Jesus is binding himself to the child. He holds the child close. As the child looks out at the disciples from within Jesus’ arms, you can’t see the child without seeing Jesus, you can’t see Jesus without seeing the child.
Do you get it?
This is teaching us what is happening in the crucifixion and resurrection.
“If you welcome this small one you welcome me.” This is the deal. The insignificant person, the “small one” and Jesus are so entwined, you can’t have one without the other.
Jesus commits to being with the small one in the pack.
Who is the most insignificant person in your world? The work colleague who has humiliated themselves, the person who is dirty, the person who has done the worst thing you can imagine; imagine Jesus with them. He won’t let go so that you can’t see Christ without seeing this person and you can’t see this person without seeing Christ.
But I’m not going to suggest that we all sign up for the Sunday International Group, though it’s a great thing to do. I’m not going to suggest that we all sign up for the rota to help with our new Children’s Church, though this will also be great (and there’s still time to sign up!).
Some folk try to follow this passage and wear themselves out doing menial tasks, telling themselves that this will make them great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But this is going back to the disciples attitude on the road. Jesus is trying to tell us something deeper.
The one difference between a child and a slave is that everyone has been a child. This may be difficult to believe with some members of our clergy but I’ve seen pictures… they were young once.
We’ve just heard Jesus say he’s to be ‘handed over’. The word here can mean either active betrayal, like Judas does, or passive letting go, like The Trinity, letting him go from their embrace of a community of life as he binds himself to us in our death. Either way, Jesus is dropped. Jesus is about to know opposite of embrace.
But the point isn’t crucifixion. There is also resurrection.
In death, Jesus holds humanity in our most insignificant form to himself in an embrace so committed that it is now permanent. Not even death can break it. God is so committed to this embrace that God the Son is still human, God is your species, still now in 2021. I remember seeing a picture of a small African-American boy feeling President Obamas hair. No one could claim being of African or Caribbean origin was low status now. There’s a human in God now. Someone like us is at the top. And there’s no excluding yourself because you feel like the weakest human in the pack. Jesus went for that place already. Whether you know it or not, you’ve got royal blood now.
Jesus embraced you in your weakness. So if you’re facing weakness now, Christ is with you.
Jesus embraced you in that moment when people thought you were insignificant. So if you are facing insignificance now, Christ is where you are so changes how significance is measured.
Jesus embraced you in your smallest possible form. If you are facing rejection and loneliness now, Christ will not leave you.
When you embrace one of these little ones you embrace Christ.
When you embrace the small-value experiences of your life, you feel the embrace of Christ coming back at you.
This is the story of the Cross and Resurrection. If you didn’t understand it before, here it is acted out in physical form. Jesus has resorted to mime to get his message across. Jesus is God bound to our weakness (the Cross) and Jesus is our weakness bound to God (the resurrection).
There’s no need to jostle, the great threat of life has already been faced, the hyenas have already been satisfied. There’s nothing to run from. Jesus was let go of by the Trinity so we can know eternal embrace. And from that embrace there is nothing good that can be taken away from us… forever.
The secret of the passage that can only be whispered, conveyed with mime if needed is this.
The great movement of God is not THIS (point forwards) but this (embrace).