Rev. Cheryl Collins Patterson
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
July 12, 2009
THE DAWN OF A NEW DAY
Mark 9:33-37, 10:15; Romans 8:15
It is amazing to me that when we step into the gospel, we find ourselves on some amazing journeys. Many years ago I was asked to officiate at a wedding in a bar---the Coney Island Bar and Grill in Reno, Nevada. Today, I am going to proclaim the gospel from a barstool. The Spirit dances with humor!
I accepted Dr. Shoemaker’s gracious invitation to preach this day back in the Spring, long before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m a bit puny today after my chemo treatment a few days ago, thus, the need for the barstool. But the joy of being with you deflects any discomfort. (Along with a few anti-nausea medications!) I am able to be here for many reasons, including the manner of care you have showered upon me and my family these last three weeks. You have bolstered my hope with stories of courage and survival from your own life; you have fed my family, driving into the far reaches of suburbia; you have sent good hope and laughter through every format of communications available; you have kept me in your prayers. In short, and in no small way, you have offered healing. One of the other reasons that I’m able to be here is because I made an agreement with my oncologist, Dr. Foulke. My immune system is in a state of compromise this week, and he has requested that I not greet you at the end of our worship together. So, I have asked Garrett to bring our last good word and to be present at the narthex doors as you leave this place and carrying with you the love of God. I will look forward to being you in Heaton Hall for TalkBack.
“When you have done this to the least of these, you have done it unto me” is ingrained in our collective understanding of the teachings of Jesus. We are so familiar with this teaching. It is in all the synoptic gospels, Mathew, Mark and Luke.
On the surface, our scripture is about the concerns of being great. Yet, when we scratch that surface we find a richness in the themes of service, humility, belonging within the realm of God, being adopted, and walking along side the suffering Christ. When Dr. Elizabeth Barrett Montgomery, ordained by the Rochester Lake Avenue Baptist Church in 1894, translated the bible from the Greek into English, she provided a subheading for this passage in Mark, name it, The Dawn of a New Day for the Child. I believe that it is a new day for us all.
Jesus was forever capturing a teachable moment, not wasting an opportunity to proclaim the love of God.
Today we find Jesus traveling with his twelve closest friends, through Galilee, speaking of his upcoming death, the suffering that he will need to endure. The disciples are silent, perhaps afraid to entertain these morose thoughts of death. As they come upon the road from Capernaum, Jesus walks ahead, claiming the role of teacher, while behind him the twelve men are arguing, ironically, like children---declaring who is the greatest. Can’t you hear it: “I’m better than you.” “Well, I can fish better than you.” “I make a better tent.” “Jesus chose me first, therefore, I’m the greatest”
When they turn in for the night, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about. And then it hits them. They are too embarrassed to tell. Ever feel like that? In the heat of an argument you are so certain that being right is crucial, but when given an opportunity to reflect on what you said, you realize that it was just trash, not even worth repeating. Oh, the shame of it!
Dorothy Day, the Catholic woman who worked tirelessly for the rights of women and children, was fond of saying, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It's a quote from the elderly monk, Staretz Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Brother Zosima councils a women who longs to serve the poor but is plagued with her preconceived notions of how they might respond with ingratitude to her so she does nothing. “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Perhaps such similar preconceived thoughts created a roadblock for the twelve disciples to welcome children into their midst. Maybe they just couldn't get past the messiness of children, their constant neediness, their demands for attention, their lack of returning thanks. Or perhaps it was the entire ordinariness of being around children that kept their feet from moving toward them.
Many of you know this ordinary, sometimes monotonous routine of caring for children. Some days you rise out of bed and before you have planted your feet on the floor your mind wanders toward the day; it LOOMS ahead of you with the tedious task of changing diapers, preparing meals, making beds, toilet training, sibling spats, dirty dishes, day care. If you're lucky you might get a shower or a few minutes to enjoy an entire cup of coffee before the demands of parenting invade you serenity. Real parenting love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to the love perpetuated in the dreams of advertisers that promote nirvana with $700 strollers or Baby Einstein CD's to increase your baby's IQ, or phonics tapes that teach your child to read before she is two, or purchase the latest Game Boy, so you're child will not be left behind in the cultural nuances of his generation.
So what good word do we take away from these ancient texts that speak of greatness, children, suffering and adoption? Let's jump into them!
Jesus says, if you want to be great, you must serve the least of these. In a gesture of remembrance and scandal he takes a little child and places her in very midst of the disciples. With one silent action Jesus calls the disciples, and us to remember the Jewish heritage that emphasizes that children are a blessing from God and to God they will return. The gestures speaks volumes: remember now how the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, protected the Hebrew boy babies that the Egyptian Pharaoh wanted killed; remember now how God brought blessing to Abraham and Sarah who laughed at the thought of conceiving a child; remember now how Hannah's prayers were answered with the birth of Samuel.
Jesus picking up the child is the call to heritage; placing the child in their midst is an act of scandal against the Roman law that declared children had no rights. Roman fathers had absolute authority over their children, including the decision if they lived or died. Females were especially vulnerable to infanticide and exposition, a practice of leaving an infant exposed to the elements to die. In a letter, from that era, written by a husband to his pregnant wife was penned this authority that made this outlandish but legal pronouncement: “If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out.”1
Jesus does just the opposite. He lifts the child in…into their midst. The word in the gospel of Luke indicates that Jesus lifts the child alongside the disciples, giving the child, and every child, equal status, not just a place in the middle, which would lend itself to a place of temptation , of idolatry, a position where one is to be worshipped.
This lifting gesture with a child is not repeated in the language of the New Testament, but it is found in Hellenistic writings of the same period. And it always is in reference to how a woman cares for a child. I suspect that one of the other scandalous suggestions that Jesus was promoting with this teachable moment was this: if you want to be great, you will need to do woman's work.2 Jesus’ action of touching and embracing a person of such great need, shouts out, “This is what you do if you want to be great. You take a child in your arms. You do a woman’s work.” In this one action, Jesus shatters any preconceived limitations that the disciples may have about what they will not do as followers! You will need to become not just like a child, but you will need to care for the child, feed the child, cleanse the child, clean-up after the child, protect the child.
But the disciples don't get it. Or choose to ignore the instruction. When it came time to apply what they gleaned from Jesus' teachable moment, they failed. In the next chapter, the writer of Mark tells us that the disciples rebuked the adults who were bringing their children to Jesus, so that he might touch them. This verb, touch, is the same verb used in the miracle of the woman who hemorrhaged with blood for twelve years. She knew that if she just touched the hem of Jesus' garments she would be healed.
Our images of this scene with Jesus are based on pictures from Sunday School where he is sitting on a shaded rock, welcoming children who are running to meet him. There are no infirmed children, cranky children, children crying out in those sweet and mild paintings.
Yet, given the text, the children trying to make their way to Jesus were most likely those who suffering from illness, mental challenges, physical needs. Their protectors, the guardians, their parents, grandparents, had a sense of faith that if Jesus touched them they would be healed. These children were the least of the least and they were being prevented from reaching Jesus.
Jesus watched his friends rebuke the children, the parents. And a fire burned in his belly. He became indignant. There is only one other time in the NT that the word indignant is used in describing Jesus' emotions. I thought it would have been when he turned over the tables of the money changers in the synagogue. And while his actions may have indicated anger, the word for anger is not there. Instead, it is used when the Pharisees approach him for healing on the Sabbath. He was so indignant, so righteously angry at their policing the realm of God, that he healed a man's withered hand on the spot, on the Sabbath. His indignation in both places is full of justice, for a longing to advance the boundaries of God's realm.
In short, Jesus is finished with the kindness of the teachable moments, of gently instructing the disciples that they will need to become servants if they are to be great. Now is the time for direct, straight talk. He issued two imperatives to the disciples, and, in turn, to us, the church, when he voiced his anger: Let the children come to me and do not let the children suffer as they come. Don't stand in the way of Kingdom Building, for these little ones have a job, a responsibility, to fulfill. Children are agents of God's love just as much as you and me! Children stand alongside us, in our midst, no matter their needs.
The history of Christian perspectives regarding children has changed often through the long centuries. Mostly, children were seen for their potential, rather than for their essence. In recent years, a new wave of feminist theologians have begun to address the vitality of children being alongside us. Dr. Judith Gundry-Volf, professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, puts it this way: "…the most significant challenge before us it to recapture in our own particular contexts the radicalness of Jesus' teaching on children. Children are not only subordinate but sharers with adults in the life of faith; they are not only to be formed but to be imitated; they are not only ignorant but capable of receiving spiritual insight; they are not "just" children but representatives of Christ…Jesus invited the children to come to him not so that he might initiate them into the adult realm but so that they might receive what is properly theirs---the reign of God."3
T.A. Baron, the children's writer of The Lost Merlin series and other tales of moral and spiritual journeys has penned a brilliant non-fiction book entitled The Hero's Trail. In it he has chronicled story after story of how children, unlikely heroes, have changed our lives and our world. A few that he mentions are famous: Ruby Bridges who, at just six-years old, was the first black child to enter an all-white public school and pave the way for desegregation; Alexander Graham Bell, who began inventing things at the age of sixteen, including an instrument to assist his mother with her deafness; Itzhak Perlman, the international musician who did not let his childhood polio interrupt his dream to create music. But most of the children mentioned are not famous in this sense. Do you remember Julia DeVita and Caroline White? Mr. Barron writes about these two daring 9-year old Charlatteons who heard about the tragedy at the World Trade Center on September 11 and wanted to help.4 They set up a curbside stand in their neighborhood and solicitated money for the Red Cross. In just two days they had collected two thousand dollars.
Children lead us into adventures of sacred purpose and joy. Who can forget our own Alexander and Olivia Jones, brother and sister, who for two years in a row have organized the musical talents of children in Charlotte in an effort to raise funds that will end poverty in our city.
The Sunday after Dr. Shoemaker sent out the letter to you concerning my diagnosis of cancer, a Kindergartner came into my classroom, looked up at me and said, "Do you still have cancer?" "Yes", I told her, as I held her gaze. Her face communicated a depth that let me know this was not a question of curiosity only, but a statement of faith. When I spoke with her mother later, I learned that the child, upon being told that I was ill, said, "At Me Maw's house I read a book about a 7 year-old boy who had cancer. His whole class prayed for him every night and the cancer went away. Maybe if we pray for Miss Cheryl every night her cancer will go away, too."
And a little child shall lead us…
Children are capable of being spiritual agents, of being responsible, of being models for how we move through this journey called life.
If we are willing, how then do we become like little children, the least of these?
When Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian of the 20th century wrote his 14 volumes of Church Dogmatics, he gave little room to the theology of children. But what he did write, was astounding. I want to highlight three points that he wrote concerning what it means to be a child, or how to become a child:
1. Children are beginners. Aren't we all! We are all "inept, inexperienced, unskilled, immature" but as such we bow with humility and assume, as Barth wrote, "our sheer readiness to learn." It is God's deep desire that the whole life of God's dear children, from the youngest to the oldest, comes as an invocation aiming towards an intimate relationship of joy and reconciliation.
2. Being a child is characteristically to be at play. Karl Barth had a love for the music of Mozart. He believed that Mozart's music was play. Mozart, could, just like a child, "immerse himself in the activity at hand---which is no less than witnessing and celebrating the glory of God." Think of how a child can watch ants for hours or sit back and name shapes in the clouds. What a celebration of creation and the Creator!
3. Being a child is finding a freedom in light of the human limitations we possess. No matter our age, or our ability, we are called to respond to God's requirements for us as if we were just setting out. We are all beginners in our response to grace, again and again and again. To older adults, Barth declares that we are to venture forth as a child at play, be an explorer. You may be mature, but now is the time for bold ventures and good works to begin!
But how else do we get at this notion of becoming like a child, of serving the least of these? Paul writes, in Romans, "for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God….You have received a spirit of adoption." We are all children of God through adoption. Adoption means that we have done nothing to belong other than to be. It means that we are open to all, closed to none: gay and straight, light skin and dark skin, female and male, Jew and Gentile, child and adult.
In the African-American church there is a form of adoption called "Othermother"…one word. Children can point to non-parenting adults, and say, "She's my othermother, or he's my othermother."5
Do you know what an awesome work of Adoption you offer to this community of faith?
You are an Othermother when you bring in 2009 cereal boxes so other children might eat breakfast this summer. And add half-of-a-thousand more boxes to the goal!
You are an Othermother every time you make and deliver a meal to new parents or when you teach a class to our preschoolers, elementary children and youth.
You are an Othermother when you agree to be a mentor for an 8th grader during their Discipleship class; when you plant flowers at Sedgefield Middle School and bring refreshments for the teachers. You are an Othermother when you chaperone during Beach Week, BYC, Mission Trip or a Choir Retreat.
You are an Othermother when you fold someone else’s child into your own family, providing respite, shelter, hope, love, a life.
You are an Othermother when you offer your excitement of math to a child who is struggling with the subject….when you call a child by name and say, “I’m glad you came to church today.” …when you smile at a child who comes skipping down the center aisle making ready for hearing the ringing of the angelus bell.
And you are an Othermother every time you pledge yourself to a child during a Family Dedication and Blessing. "Never let us neglect children, but help us to delight in them, showing them the welcome you have shown us all through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN."
Let me tell you about a place full of Othermothers, just like us.
Since 1977 Raphael House in San Francisco has assisted 17,000 families in its shelter for homeless families. Begun by the Brothers of Christ the Savior, an Orthodox Christian community, and Mrs. Ella Rigsby, who was 72 years old, Raphael House has a nightly tradition of storytelling.6
When the children have been bathed, teeth brushed, jammies on, they gather with their parents for story time. A volunteer reads a the chosen book while the children are snuggled in laps or sprawled on the floor. When the story is over, the volunteer takes a candleholder that is in the shape of a running angel, lights the candle and begins to sing, “See the little candle burning bright, How I love to see its light.” Parents and children join in and a procession to the bedrooms begins. At the first room a family enters and everyone sings, "See the little candle burning bright, How I love to see its light"; and then proceed down the hall, depositing families into the rooms, closing a day of uncertainty, pain, anger and despair with love, nurture, security and peace.”
Next month we have an opportunity to light a candle and sing such a song when 3 to 4 families will make our church their shelter for a week. It will take 100 Othermothers to nurture these families. I wonder what books we will read?
I don’t know if the disciples ever caught on to this idea that Jesus defined greatness by the manner in which one served the least of these. The discipleship chapters of 9 and 10 in Mark indicate that Jesus did a lot of teaching on the subject. Yet, when it came the time of Jesus' own suffering, the twelve disciples were not there, in the midst of the grieving; it was the women, doing what was traditionally and culturally woman's work.
But then an amazing event occurred after the Resurrection. A body of leaders was formed to care for the children and the widows. To adopt them into the circle of grace and care for their needs. Down through the ages these leaders have kept that tradition in the diaconate, the Deacons, always caring for the least of these.
Madeline L'engle once wrote, if you look to the stars and yawn, you are missing wonder in your life. The one who stooped low enough to become the least among us, calls us to stand alongside each other. Come, follow the One who brings wonder to all of us. The one who began among us as an Adopted Child.
1 I was aided in this concept by Judith M. Gundry-Volf's essay, "The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament", found in The Child in Christian Thought, edited by Marcia J. Bunge; Eerdmans, 2001; p. 33.
2 Ibid, p. 43.
4 Barron, T. A., The Hero's Trail: A Guide for the Heroic Life, Philomel, 2002, pg. 96.
5 Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J., Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective, John Wiley and Son, 2003, p. 165
6 Chaffee, Patricia, "The Angel of Raphael House: Providing Refuge for Homeless Families", Sojourner's Magazine, December 1994