The Challenge of Welcoming Little Ones
Sep 26, 2021
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Mark 9:38-50
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
This is one of THOSE Gospel lessons. You know the ones I mean; no matter how many times you’ve heard it (or preached it) the question of what it is really about is raised. That was the case for me (again) this week. Once one gets past the verses that might be preceded by the “not suitable for some listeners” warning, putting it all together in a meaningful whole is not so simple.
Let’s begin with those verses: “If you hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed that to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if you foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if you eye causes you to sin, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell….”
Pastor and Commentator Barbara Brown Taylor writes that one good thing about this text is that it defines the limits of Biblical literalism. I’ll quote her: “Walk into the most ‘Bible-believing’ church that you can find – where women do not wear trousers or speak in church, where men to do not swear oaths or mow their lawns on Sunday – go into a place as strict as that and I bet you won’t find people with eye patches and wrapped stumps, because even the most literal Christians balk at this passage.” (1)
The fact is that while it is obvious that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, which is exaggeration for effect that is not intended to be take literally, it may not be so clear why he is doing so. That’s our focus today.
First, we should note that these are among Jesus’ last words to his followers in their native territory around the Galilean Sea. Soon they will begin their journey to Jerusalem and the challenges that face them there. Jesus is trying to impress on his disciples (and us) what matters. So, what matters?
In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, Jesus described the role of a disciple, which, as is the case for Jesus himself, is not to be in a position of power, but to reorder their lives, take up the cross and sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel. Evidently, the message bounced off them because in last week’s Gospel Jesus interrupted his followers as the argued about who was the greatest, reminding them that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Taking a child in his lap – one who represented the most vulnerable and discounted people in that society – Jesus made it clear that those who welcome the vulnerable and discounted welcome Jesus, and whoever welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.
Evidently the lesson still did not sink in, because in today’s reading this tendency toward seeking status is revealed again. When John reports the person who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, the one who is not following US (not Jesus, you’ll note) he is essentially saying, “He’s no included, is he? He is not one of us.” Afterall, he is not part of the crew that Jesus commissioned earlier, so he does not have the right credentials. In response, commentator Chelsey Harmon notes that Jesus basically says, “I’ll take care of it, as necessary. But if they are doing good for people and heal people, don’t stand in their way.” In other words, do not exclude him; whoever is not against us, is for us. To use Jesus’ name and then to be used by the Lord will have a positive impact on that person. (2)
All this points to the big picture, which is that disciples of Jesus are to serve and to welcome others, particularly the least, the vulnerable and the discounted. I like how the Rev. Roy Almquist describes this: “Again and again, Jesus is clear that, as members of the Church on earth, we need to see our role as the congenial host or hostess at a great dinner party. Jesus wants no bouncers at the door of this party … no strict adherence to someone’s else’s guest list … but rather he wants all people welcomed and enfolded into the society. He has harsh words for those who would seek to create limits or barriers….” (3)
Those words include: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck, and you were thrown into the sea.” In the context of this reading the little one is the child Jesus still has on his lap from last week’s reading.
But remember who this child represents – anyone who is treated as least, or as unworthy, anyone who is vulnerable to exclusion or rejection. These “little ones” are so important that Jesus makes statements that will grab his listeners’ attention and shake them loose. If your hand, your foot, your eye are causing you to stumble as you take up the cross, get rid of them. The message is this: being a disciple is worth any sacrifice of that which gets in the way, especially if whatever gets in the way harms or excludes the “little ones”.
As I was preparing to write this sermon, the news was filled with reports of Haitian migrants on the Texas Border. Thousands of people for Haiti are sleeping under a border bridge in South Texas. They are waiting to be taken into custody where they hope to apply for asylum, although many are being transported back to Haiti where conditions are horrendous and many have not lived for years. They go back into Mexico to get food, but then return. The situation entered the national (and political) spotlight due to photos of Border Patrol agents on horses chasing Haitian migrants, which was a disconcerting sight.
One of my questions was why is it that people from Haiti, thousands of them, are showing up in Texas? It is because their home country is in upheaval following the assassination of the president and a deadly earthquake, which follows an even more horrific one in 2010. That earthquake is the root cause of most of these migrants going first to South America, where conditions are worsening, and then to Texas.
Let me pause here and say that I am not going to get into a political discussion about borders and whether or not these people should be allowed into the United States. Instead, I want us to consider the challenge of thousands of people who, by Jesus’ standards, are among the “little ones.” How should we view them? What are we to do? The scripture is clear about that: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcome me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” There is no doubt about what our attitude should be; it’s determining the best way to respond, to offer the hope Jesus insists on, that is the challenge. It is certainly not evident in a man on a horse shouting an obscenity at a child he was trying to clear away.
The question of Christ-like attitude, and how to respond faithfully, is an ever-present challenge of our lives. If we take a cue from Jesus in today’s Gospel, it is clear that the “little ones”, those who are treated as least, or as unworthy, anyone who is vulnerable to exclusion or rejection are so valuable in Jesus’ eyes that extreme sacrifice on their behalf is warranted. This, my friends, is a significant challenge for us, with no easy answers, other than to turn to the Holy Spirit and ask for guidance. AMEN
(1) “Who is on God’s Side: Mark 9:38-50” by the Rev. Roy Almquist, September 26-27, 2009, www.wmchapel.org
(2) “The Lectionary Gospel: Mark 9:38-51” by Chelsey Harmon, September 20, 2021, Center for Excellence in Preaching.”
(3) Same as #1