The collect and readings for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20B, may be found here. The following sermon is based on Mark 9:30-37.
“They had argued with one another who was the greatest.” We shouldn’t be too surprised. We’ve probably been a part of such arguments. From sibling rivalry to be mom and dad’s favorite, to the Syrian civil war, and everything in between greatness is a question with which we all live. It is one of the primary questions at the heart of our conflicts, injustices, anxieties, and insecurities. Whether we ask it aloud or silently to ourselves, we want to know, “Who is the greatest?”
Behind this question is a deeper issue. It is a question of space and place. Is there a place for me in this family? In this church? In this business? Is there a place for my religion, my politics, my race, my lifestyle in this society and culture? Is there a place for my people, tradition, and history in this land? Is their room for me?
Individuals and groups alike struggle to establish and find a place. We live in a world in which we are expected, taught, and encouraged to make a place for ourselves. If you want to survive you have to be a place-maker. Historically, the ones who have had a place are the ones who were greatest.
Who are the greatest? How does the world measure greatness? Look at history, watch the news, study advertisements. The great ones are usually well educated, wealthy, and powerful. They have status, reputation, position, and possessions. They are the influential, popular, and beautiful. For most of history great ones have also been light skinned, male, and heterosexual. Finally, they are most always adults.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, until there is: until we use them to occupy a place to the exclusion of another, until we turn our gaze inward and no longer see our neighbor, until we, and not God, are at the center of our life and world. When those things happen, comparison and competition with and judgement of others become a way of life. Discrimination and violence become the means of dealing with difference. Those who might trespass, take our place, and invade our space are oppressed, marginalized, and evicted. We become needy, defensive, and anxious, wondering where, or even if, we fit in.
The conflicts in our lives and in the world show us to be a people of place-makers arguing about who is the greatest. Despite our best efforts and despite what we might think, however, we never really make our own place in this world. We discover it as we create a place for others. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he is teaching in today’s gospel.
Christ himself is a place-maker but in a different way. He enters this world not seeking to make a space and place for himself, but for us. His place-making is for others and not himself. Christ’s way of place-making is the story of the cross. It’s the meaning of being “last of all and servant of all.” It’s the reason he took a little child into his arms.
That little child represents the least, the last, and the lost. That little child is not the representation of purity, innocence, perfection, or humility. Those are our modern projections, sweet sentimentalities mostly. In Jesus’ day children were insignificant, at the bottom of the social and economic structures. They were usually powerless and poor, and often hungry and sick. They had no standing or value until they were old enough to work, bring honor to the family, and care for their aging parents. The child in Jesus’ arms is the very opposite of greatness. That’s the point.
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus opens himself to the children of the world, the least of the least. He shuns greatness and chooses to be last of all, servant of all. He claims nothing for himself and offers everything for others. Jesus hides amongst the children. He makes himself the least of the least, like a little child, so that when we welcome and receive into our arms the children of this world we receive him. As we make space and place for others we open ourselves not just to the other but to Christ and the Father.
The truth is we are all place-makers. There’s just one question. Are we working to make a place for ourselves or are we creating a place for others? It’s a choice between the world’s greatness and the children of God. That question is answered everyday in our homes and businesses, in our schools, during our errands around town, and in our conversations about others.
If you want a place in this life, create one for another. If you wonder whether you fit in, help another fit in. If you want to know if there is room for you, begin by making space for another. Open yourself to a child, receive Christ, receive the Father, and discover there is already space and place enough for everyone. That space and place is called the heart of God.