Monday, November 12, 2018

(Almost) Everything You Know (About the Widow's Mite) Is Wrong

'As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”'
--Mark 12: 38-44

Cover art for Weird Al's album Bad Hair Day, which features the song Everything You Know Is Wrong

The great modern singer and philosopher Weird Al Yankovic once had a song called Everything You Know Is Wrong,  where he sang that, “everything you thought was just so important doesn’t matter.” Now, I’m not going to say that EVERYTHING we know about this week's Gospel story—what we often call the Widow’s Mite—is wrong, but in my research over the past week or so new insights and information has come to light, and I started seeing that there is a lot more going on in this story than what we have historically focused upon.

An Eastern Christian mosaic of the story of the Widow's Mite

A classic reading of the story of the Widow’s Mite, where a poor widow gives all of her money to the Temple treasury, portrays the widow as the ideal model for giving, someone who offers everything she has, who gives till it hurts.  This passage always shows up in the fall, meaning that it is often connected with stewardship season—"What is God asking of us?" the preacher might say, and the answer is inevitably, “Look to the poor widow who gives all that she has.”  Moreover, this Gospel gets paired with the story in the First Book of Kings where the prophet Elijah visits another poor widow, whose small amount of meal and oil manages to feed herself, the prophet, and her son.  Put these two together and the message of the day seems obvious:  if even the poor offer what they have faithfully, God will turn it into an abundance.

While there is truth to that statement, especially where the Hebrew Testament story is concerned,  it’s not really what’s going on in the Gospel, and using the story of the Widow’s Mite as an example of what faithful giving looks like is dangerously problematic.  Such an approach is very much aligned with the so-called Prosperity Gospel, which preaches a message that says your favor with God is measured by your success in life, namely your money, your possessions, and your career, all of which are signs of God’s blessings.  For the poor this Gospel preaches that they too can have such abundance if they but plant a seed; that is, give money to a church—or sometimes a pastor—and then watch that seed bloom and grow into blessing upon blessing.  All you have to do is turn on any televangelist and you’ll see folks using the poor widow in this story as an example of someone who gave what she had faithfully, who planted such a seed. "Who knows what blessings came her way!" those preachers say, "And the same can be true for you if you plant that seed!"  My own maternal grandmother, whom I called Mammie, was one such poor person who heard preachers like Jimmy Swaggerd, Pat Robertson, and Benny Hinn ask folks to plant seeds and give to their ministries.  Let’s just say the blessings she was hoping to receive back never arrived.

An example of the Prosperity Gospel in action, courtesy of Pastor Benny Hinn

But poor folks like my Mammie continue to give; in fact, a 2010 New York Times Magazine article entitled The Charitable Giving Divide, points out that that those with smaller incomes continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy.  The poor give more than the rich! Perhaps it is because they have heard the Prosperity Gospel preached so much and have heard sermon after sermon using the poor widow as a model that they think this is what Jesus is asking them to do, to give until it hurts in order that blessings may come there way.  But that’s not what is happening in this Gospel; in fact, Jesus’ reason for even pointing out the poor widow has nothing to do with her giving—if it did surely he would have said some words of praise about her actions like, “Go and do like this poor widow,” or he would have commended her for being so faithful.  Instead, he just states what is literally happening:  “she out of her poverty has given everything she had, all she had to live on.”  This isn't so much  a story about giving but about Jesus’ condemnation of the system that has made this woman have to give all she has, the economic injustice brought on by the religious-political collaboration under which Jesus and his people lived.

We have talked all year about one of the greatest themes of Mark’s Gospel, that the Kingdom of God has come near.  Throughout his ministry Jesus has repeatedly proclaimed that it is the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Man, that reigns supreme.  We might at first think that he is simply condemning the Roman Empire, but there’s more to it than that.  In his book The Last Week Marcus Borg points out that 1st century Palestine was defined by a collaboration between religious and political authorities.  In exchange for obedience and tax money, the Roman Empire effectively let the religious authorities do as they wished, and the religious authorities benefited from their collaboration with the Romans, using their social location to shore up power and wealth at the expense of individuals like the poor widow. Jesus repeatedly calls this behavior out, as he does in the first section of our Gospel text above.  “Beware of the scribes,” he says, those who were the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, a literate class in an illiterate society who, as Jesus puts it, devoured widow’s houses.  How did they do that? Usually by administering loan agreements and then foreclosing on widows’ property when they couldn't repay the loan.  They were meant to care for the most vulnerable, namely widows and orphans, and instead they bleed them dry.  It is this economic, religious, and social structure which the scribes and others were caught in that Jesus comes to deconstruct and call out for its evil treatment of the poor and vulnerable.

 Enter the widow, who literally gives to the Temple treasury—the physical symbol of this corrupt collaboration—everything she has. Such an offering is an illustration of how caught up she is in this web of corruption, herself feeling compelled to give far beyond her means in the hopes that she will receive blessings; after all, she should have kept one of those coins since the Law decreed she only give 10%, not 100%.  It’s the first century version of the Prosperity Gospel! Jesus does not praise her behavior, but rather he decries the corruption and injustice that have created the conditions for such a scene to take place.  The widow serves as a concrete example of how innocent people are victimized by those religious authorities like the scribes.  Jesus’ comments with regard to the widow simply highlight what he has already said about the scribes, continuing his condemnation of their unjust actions as a result of this web of corruption that they're caught in, for rather than caring for this woman as the law had directed them to do, they are robbing her of her last penny.  This denunciation has been going on for nearly the whole Gospel, and it has come to a head here in the Tuesday of Holy Week, the day this scene takes place.  As the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities is reaching its nadir, Jesus points to this poor woman who, in her destitution, perfectly represents those many vulnerable ones who have been devoured by those in power.  To sum it up: Jesus words are not praise for a poor person who gives up all of her money, but a lament for such a person and the unjust system that, through collaboration between corrupt politicians and preachers, allows the rich to keep getting richer and the poor to continually be taken advantage of.

Where, then, is the Good News for us if the point is not to focus on the widow’s giving?  I would offer that the story of the Widow’s Mite is a wake-up call.  We have the chance now to tell this story for what it really is, not an example of holy and sacred giving, but a naming of a corrupt system that benefited the rich and took advantage of the poor.  We still see this today.  The Prosperity Gospel is still preached, and while the wealthy keep giving from their affluence with no consequences the poor keep giving what little they have in the hopes that blessings will somehow come their way.  This is not what Jesus is about!  And so the Good News, the Gospel, for us is that Jesus calls those who would follow him to reject a way of being that would continue to raise up the rich and powerful while trampling on the poor and vulnerable, for it is the most vulnerable among us whom God loves so dear and calls us each to care for.

No, brothers and sisters, everything we know about the Widow's Mite, everything we have heard preached on it over the years, is not wrong! This story does invite all of us to examine the nature of our own giving, that's true,  but it also asks us to think about the webs of corruption and injustice of our own day,  how we sometimes play a role in perpetuating such ways of being, often without realizing it, so strong and old are the webs.  We are then encouraged by this story to wonder what we may do about addressing those webs.  Perhaps we have inadvertently measured worth in terms of how much money one puts into a treasury, offertory plate, or stewardship campaign, for example.  So then we may also ask ourselves:  what might we do to make our faith community, and our society, for that matter, more equitable?  In what ways might we make every effort to see that the most vulnerable among us is cared for without feeling shame or guilt?  Maybe we can start by reminding folks that money and possessions are not actually signs of God's blessing and favor. Maybe we can focus less on how much or how little someone is giving and more on undoing unjust systems that take advantage of the poor. Let’s name the corruption when we see it and stand with the most vulnerable among us.  That was Jesus’ work, after all, and it continues to be our work today.  For it is the work that truly sows the seeds of the Kingdom. Thanks be to God for the widow, for her mite, and for the Good News.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Hope of the Saints

By now I suspect y'all are accustomed to me writing about this little church on every All Saints Day.  Each year when this solemn feast roles around I always think of All Saints Episcopal Church in Norton, VA, which was the wonderful little community that baptized, confirmed, and ordained me.  It was at All Saints, surrounded by all the saints, that I first fell in love with Jesus and his Church. Without saints like Leola Wooten, Frances Herndon, who have gone on to glory, and those still with us like Mike Donathan, and The Rev. Fran McCoy, I would not be writing this blog today because I likely would not even be a priest. There is a connection to that little church that I will always have, especially at this time of year.

In fact, that is really what All Saints Day is about:  connection.  The celebrations we all experienced in churches on Sunday invited each of us to conjur up images of those who have come before us—parents, grandparents, priests, teachers, friends, and loved ones—those whose faithfulness paved the way for us and brought us to this moment.  It is a wonderful multitude, a great cloud of witnesses, who fought and toiled and lived and died for the God they loved and knew and passed on that love and knowledge to us.  On Thursday, November 1 (the actual day of All Saints) we prayed for all those who have died in our church in the past year at our annual All Saints Evensong.  The following evening our collective hearts were heavy with the news of the death of our church's matriarch and longest-tenured member.  So you can imagine how on Sunday it felt as though the saints were closer to us than on any other day.  Truly, brothers and sisters, they were there, and for that I could not help but say, "Thanks be to God!" for their lives, their faith, and their hope that they have passed on to us. 

The hope of the saints is not some flimsy, cheap grace that is meant to just help us feel better, but it is an everlasting hope in a promise that God first established through the prophets of old and gave full expression in Jesus.  It is the hope for the victory of God, who will wipe away every tear (says Isaiah), who will liberate all captive peoples, and who will raise even the dead to life everlasting.  On Sunday we heard the familiar story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, an act that  reminds us of that great hope and the power of God to transform unspeakable grief into overwhelming joy, as Mary & Martha’s pain over the death of their brother is transformed into jubilation, signifying God’s power even over death itself.  Where is thy sting, O death?  It ain't here!  Not in Bethany of Galilee, not in Asheboro of North Carolina, and not in any place where the children of God gather!  For through the power of God all of the saints have triumphed over fear and death.

One thing I love about this story is the hope that Mary shows even before her brother is raised.  She says to Jesus that she knows Lazarus will be raised on the Day of Resurrection, a hope shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, alike.  But Jesus does not let her simply rest on this hope for the future, instead he beckons Lazarus out of his grave to show that the power of God can make the future to break through even into the present. Thus, hope is not something Mary and Martha need to hold on to for the future alone, but it is there in that moment as their brother is raised.  In the same way All Saints Day offers us hope not only for a future where God’s love and light will destroy the powers of darkness and we will see our loved ones again, but also hope that victory is ours even now in the present moment, that God triumphs over the regular forces of darkness that we encounter on a daily basis:  racism, economic injustice, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia & transphobia, and every other evil that plagues our world.  This is not just some far-off hope, but it is for all of us now.  The great multitude of saints is uncountable because it not only includes those ancestors who have gone before, but it includes us as well, regular, everyday, imperfect saints of God, for whom God's power breaks through every single day.

It is into that multitude of saints, into that great household of God, that churches everywhere welcomed new members through the waters of baptism on Sunday.  We were one of them.  Each of us renewed our baptismal promises to love God and our neighbor and to uphold this little baby in his new life in Christ, pledging to encourage and care for him as he joined this family whose connections run so very deep.  On Friday we lost someone near and dear to us.  Sunday we baptized a new member of the family of God.  Death and life, both held together by Jesus, who conquered death on the cross, who comforts us with hope for our future, and who is continually raising us up over our worldly fears day after day after day,  That's All Saints for ya!  That's our faith:  the connections between life and death, between the saints over yonder and the saints right here.

In the Revelation to St. John the Divine we hear Jesus exclaim that he is the beginning and the end, using the imagery of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega.  But you know what, he's not just the beginning and end, but he is the middle, too.  He's just as much alive now as he ever has been or will be.  He is conquering death and fear now as he always has and will, and he sits enthroned on high today, yesterday, and for all time.  He's not just alpha and omega, but he's lambda--the Greek version of the letter L, which falls right in the middle of the Greek alphabet.  The hope of the saints is not just something that someone promised in the past, nor something for us to simply look forward to in the future, but it is a present reality for us even now.  Christ is alive!  The saints are alive in Christ!  And as the household of God has grown a little this All Saints we are all reminded that we are numbered among those saints, and that our hope is in the same God who raised them, who will raise us, and who offers us love and light over our everyday fear and darkness.  Blessed feast, my brothers and sisters, and may all the saints, past, present, and yet to come, pray for us.

All Saints Day by Terry Ratliff

Monday, October 15, 2018

What We Really Need

On Sunday, October 14 the fine folks of Good Shepherd in Asheboro held church as usual.  What made the day different, however, was that they did so without any electricity at all.  There may have been a time when we would've simply canceled our liturgies, given that our church building gets very little natural light, so both the chapel and the sanctuary are ridiculously dark, even in the daylight.  Still, we gathered as our ancestors did in the catacombs, in the dark, huddled together by the light of candles.  Say what you will about how a church with carpet everywhere shouldn't use hand-held candles, but on this day it was perfect!  With the light of Christ in our hands we gathered to worship, to sing in the ancient call-and-response style, and to break bread.  And wouldn't you know it, but Jesus showed up!

Good Shepherd, Asheboro worshipping in the dark this past Sunday morning.

I found it poetic and lovely that THIS was our Gospel text that day.  As Episcopalians, we are often held captive by a lectionary that sometimes does not give us much with which to work.  Not so on this day!  As if by divine providence, on a day when we were sitting in the dark with no electricity, no air conditioner, and no organ, we heard a Gospel proclaimed that called us to let go of all of our stuff.  As I said to our folks that day, we may not have had electricity, but thanks to this Gospel, we were reminded that we definitely had power!

'As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”'
Mark 10: 17-31

As most of y'all know I am a big comic book fan, and one of my favorite stories is a graphic novel called Marked by Steve Ross.  There are a lot of comic book versions of the Bible out there, but what makes this one different is that it is focused on one specific book, the Gospel of Mark, and rather than a bunch of bright colors and your usual, run of the mill images of a caucasian, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, Marked is done in black and white and features a Jesus that is not quite black, not quite white,and just a tad androgynous.  It's a great read, and I highly recommend it.

You can order a copy of Marked here. 

One of my favorite moments in Marked is its version of this story of Jesus and a man whom later gospels will describe as both rich and young.  The graphic novel version plays out the same way with the  man asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus responds that all he lacks is to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.  At this point the image in the book pans out and up, and the reader sees that the man has been carrying all of his possessions on his back.  As the weight of Jesus' words hit him, the weight of all those possessions gets greater, until it all finally collapses on top of him.

Our culture tells us we need more and more stuff: more power, more prestige, and more possessions. It was true in Jesus' day as much as it is for us now, and then, as now, the culture preaches a gospel that tells us all of those things will fix our problems and make us happy.  What the culture does not tell us is that there is a tremendous burden that comes with all of those things, a burden that weighs us down like the man in the graphic novel version of this story, until one day it all collapses on us. This man has become so attached to his stuff that it has become his master, resulting in him walking away grieving when Jesus presents him with the opportunity to follow him.  Sadly, he is the only person in the Gospels to reject Jesus' call to follow along the way because he is held in the grip of true master.

It's worth pointing out just how perplexing this moment is for the disciples.  For weeks now we have seen them struggle with this notion that what Jesus offers is nothing like the power and greatness of the world.  They, like many folks today, saw wealth as a sign of God's providence and favor.  No one used the term back then, but nowadays we would call this the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that our money and possessions are a sign that God has blessed us, and if we are poor, well then, that means God's not happy with the lives we've been living.  Wealth is the measuring stick for how much God loves us, says the Prosperity Gospel, and truth be told, the disciples and most of the people in Jesus' time believed this as well.  Times haven't changed that much. This is why Peter, having finally lost all patience with Jesus, asks point blank:  What's in it for us?!  We've given up everything to follow you? So what do we get in return if it's not power, prestige, or possessions?

Human culture has been preaching such a message as long as there has been human culture.  What power, prestige, and possessions allow us to do is take control of our lives.  We wield our power over others, yes, but even if we are simple, poor folks this message tells us that we can have power over our own lives, if nothing else.  Prestige then becomes important in order that others may know who we are and validate our worth, while our possessions become signs and symbols of our importance and the level of power and prestige we wield.  Our culture tells us we need these things because if we place all our trust and hope in God then we will be let down.  Jesus, on the other hand, comes along and preaches something completely different.  True life, he says, is not found in any of these things, but in God alone.  God is the one with the power, true, but God is also the one that gave up all power, prestige, and possessions when coming into the world.  In doing so, God (in the person of Jesus) has come to redefine what a kingdom really looks like.

We talk a lot about the Kingdom of God, but do we really understand that God's Kingdom, the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed was both coming and already here, is not a kingdom like Rome or even a republic like the United States?  In those contexts, the rich are the ones wielding their power of others, thus in order to be somebody we must adhere to the culture's message of accumulating all of that stuff. Yet the Kingdom of God, as Saint Jerome said, is a kingdom which desires for its citizens a soul that soars aloft, free from all ties and hindrances, including our power, prestige, and possessions. What's more, Jesus' command to the rich young man is to sell, not part, but all of his possessions, and then give the money, not to his wife or his children or his friends, but to the poor.  If we are to inherit the Kingdom we must be willing to let go of everything we fear to lose, especially our possessions; after all, ain't a one of us leaving this world with any of them!  Another of those ancient church teachers, Saint Augustine, put it this way:  "Riches," he said, "are gained with toil and kept with fear.  They are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief.  It is hard to be saved if we have them, and impossible if we love them."

Augustine of Hippo (left) and Jerome (right).

"So who can be saved?"the disciples asked.  If there's no hope for the rich and powerful, what hope is there for anyone?  Oh but there is hope!  There is hope in Jesus!  There is hope in the crucified one who calls us to be crucified ourselves to all of the vanities of this world that hold us back from truly embracing and loving him.  There is hope in the one who calls sinners of all shapes and sizes, rich and poor alike, to be healed of all that plagues us.  There is hope in the homeless preacher who came daring to preach to those who are poor and calling it Good News.  There is hope, brothers and sisters, in Jesus, for just as he surrendered all of himself to God, he calls each of us to do the same, for it is in God alone that we find our worth, not any of the vanities of this world.  While time and rust will consume and destroy all of our possessions and kingdoms and republics will rise and fall, Jesus endures, and his grace makes it possible for us to be free from the bondage of our need for power, prestige, and possessions.

The rich young man did not know he was being held in such bondage.  He comes to Jesus humbly on his knees and raises a serious existential question about eternal life.  Furthermore, Jesus in no way challenges or mocks this man's integrity in doing so.  He's a good guy, but he is held captive by his wealth, and he doesn't even know it.  So many of us who follow Jesus are held captive and don't even know it.  He thought it was enough to keep the commandments.  We often think it's enough to come to church on Sunday, say our communal confession, get our Eucharist, and head home.  When Jesus invited him to see things differently and challenged his thinking by pointing out that no, in fact, that wasn't enough, his response is grief.  I'd be willing to bet that if I asked each of you if you would give up all of your possessions were Jesus to ask you to do so right here and now, I'd wager each of you would say yes.  I know I would.  But who among you and your friends has ever willingly done that?  Nobody that I know of, save for a few monks and nuns.  It's a nice thought, but actually doing it is nearly impossible, so long as the culture preaches such a message to us that if we gave all of that stuff up we would be lost, hopeless, and terrified.  Nevertheless, Jesus is still there inviting us into a relationship with him that tears through that false gospel.

Perhaps Jesus is not literally inviting you to sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, but it's worth asking:  would you be willing to do it if he did ask?  Would any of us?  Sitting in a church in the dark, worshipping as our ancestors did, we were reminded that we don't need all of the stuff that we think we need.  Jesus continues to invite us all daily to consider what the things are that we think we need but which we really don't.  The culture may still shout to us that we really do need the stuff, but we Christians can be the ones that model something different for the culture until, very slowly, we shift the whole paradigm.  We can and we will, with God's help!  Until that day, let us ponder what it is that Jesus is calling us to let go of, and let us be willing to surrender completely and utterly to the majesty and love of God in Jesus.  Do that, my brothers and sisters, and you will truly have treasure in heaven!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Children of the Kingdom

'Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.'
--Mark 10: 2-16

I would be remiss if I did not comment on how difficult this Gospel is, as Jesus unpacks the Levitical law regarding divorce.  Three years ago I wrote on this part of the Gospel, but this year the Spirit was leading me to focus more on that last paragraph, on a part of the text that I left untouched for y’all the last time around.  So if you’d like to know my thoughts on the divorce piece, I invite you to check out my blog post from October 5, 2015, which you can find here    My wife Kristen also has written an excellent piece on the divorce for the blog Modern Metanoia .  As for today, I’d like to invite us to unpack what Jesus means when he talks about children and the Kingdom of God.

A typical storybook image of Jesus and little children.

For the last three weeks Jesus has used small children as part of his teachings.  Two weeks ago it was a child that he took in his arms and placed among those gathered, saying, :  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  Last week, as he reminded folks that whoever is not against us is for us, he pointed to the children in the crowd and said:  “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  Clearly, Jesus wants people to honor the children among them as full and equal members and co-recipients of the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps this is why the actions of the disciples, who instinctively brush the children aside, seems so harsh.

We have to remember that, as usual, the disciples are not entirely wrong when they try to prohibit the children from coming to Jesus.  They are merely enforcing their social norms.  No parent would let a child interrupt a rabbi when he was speaking; after all, it's just plain rude.  What's more, it was a poor reflection on the parents themselves, much more so than the children. So by trying to stop the children the disciples do what they always do: they act in accordance with how their society would expect folks to act.  And once again their behavior illustrates that the disciples just don’t get it.  They fail once more to understand that one of the major points of Jesus’ ministry is the inclusion of everyone, especially those on the margins.  And it isn't just about children.  To welcome the children means also welcoming their mothers, who, let’s not forget, would not have been offered the same privilege as men to sit and listen to this great rabbi  Thus, Jesus' action flings the doors of the Kingdom wide open!  It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.

Such as what, exactly?  Modern readers have a tendency to romanticize Jesus’ words about children; we look at a child and we use words like ‘innocent’ or ‘loving’ or ‘sweet’ to describe their behavior. The Kingdom must then belong to folks who exhibit these qualities, we might say, but ancient societies, including that of Jesus, lacked such romantic notions of childhood.  We must understand that children were not considered people.  Not yet, anyway.  Women and children both were treated as property belonging to the pater families.  When the disciples dismiss the children they are not, in their view or the views of others, dismissing cute little innocent people, but rather they're dismissing non-people.  The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the parent, even more so than a child today might be; in fact, the father often decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family, which is why it was not uncommon for deformed children to be dismissed from their homes altogether.  Children belonged to their father and remained so even into early adulthood, especially if they were female, in which case she belonged to the father until being given away to her her husband, at which point she became his property.  The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, to those who are considered non-people, who have no rights and privileges of their own and are completely dependent upon others for their needs.

This is the great teaching for the disciples.  They are being challenged by Jesus's words about receiving the Kingdom as a child to identify with a group of non-people, to turn their attention to such folks and realize that these are the ones with whom God has most associated the Kingdom, which means that these are the folks with whom the disciples themselves must associate.  This is hard for them, as we heard the disciples two weeks ago complaining about who is the greatest.  Last week they tore down the freelance exorcist to make themselves look better.  Mark’s Gospel is filled with constant imagery of the disciples trying to build themselves up over and over again—and the trend will continue next week—but Jesus offers a radical alternative.  What if, instead of using their own social norms and constructs and talking about greatness in a worldly sense, the disciples focused more on identifying with the very individuals that they would consider not-so-great?  What would happen if they really saw such folks, and instead of treating them as if they didn’t exist or as charity cases for them to throw a nickel at, they began to identify with such folks spending time with them, welcoming them into their social circles, maybe even into their worship spaces?  What would happen to them and their community if they acted in such a manner?

In short, Jesus’ language about receiving the Kingdom as a child, means that hose who hear it are to identify with the powerless persons, with those weak and vulnerable ones who have no claims to stake out and no demands to make, and to be as one such person, in order to truly be recipients of the Kingdom.  Yes, God’s grace has made it possible for all of to be inheritors of the Kingdom, but what if folks focused less on getting into the Kingdom when they die and more on building the Kingdom while they are alive?  After all, that is what Jesus’ teachings focused on, not the Kingdom that is to come but the Kingdom that is right here and now.  Remember his first words from the Gospel of Mark:  "The Kingdom of God is at hand!"  So if we who are the Body of Christ are to be the ones proclaiming that Good News—with a capital G and N—then these words today are for us as much as they were for those bull-headed disciples.  They kept wanting to look at the Kingdom of God like it was a Kingdom of Humanity.  They wanted God’s greatness and power to look like the kind human beings seek, but it’s not.  It looks like the most vulnerable, the powerless, and those who are utterly dependent on others for their own survival.  Like the disciples, we too must redefine for ourselves what true greatness and power look like, and not only reach out to, but identify with the people on the very margins of our communities, those who have historically been ignored, treated as though they were non-people.  Can you imagine what our world might look like if we who are powerful identified with the powerful, if we are who are loud identified with the voiceless, if we who are privileged identified with the unprivileged?  Jesus has already welcomed ones such as these, and as his Body in the world today it is our baptismal call to be Christ-like in everything that we do.

Perhaps no one embodied this call better than St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this past Thursday and whom we will honor with our Blessing of the Animals next week.  A man born with great privilege, Francis gave it all up to not only minister to but identify with the most vulnerable of God’s children.  His example, which has inspired everyone from the current Bishop of Rome to a little farming community in Siler City, both of whom took his name as their own, that example stands as an invitation for us all to redefine what greatness and power really look like; for as Francis himself once said, “Let it be your privilege to know no privilege.”

This guy got it!

So we must ask ourselves:   Who is the vulnerable one?  Who is the one who, like a child, has been silenced, ignored, and brushed aside?  Who are the unprivileged whom our societal norms keep telling us we should not listen to or care about?  You know such a person.  We all do. The next time you see them, remember Jesus’ words.  The Kingdom of God belongs to such a one.  And may you have the compassion and grace to embody the spirit of Francis, to not only address their need but to step into a relationship with that person and together, as co-recipients, build up the Kingdom here and now.