Christ Episcopal Church

Hear the Word. Eat the Bread. Change the World.

September 23, 2018

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I spent a lot of time on the road this week, traveling around northern Maine to conduct some interviews as part of the Diocese of Maine’s Living Local, Joining God venture. I enjoyed hearing what congregations had learned from this process of listening to their neighbors and responding to what they heard. I particularly appreciate that the whole process begins by becoming steeped in The Word, listening again and again to how God is speaking to them through what becomes a very familiar passage of Scripture. In learning to really listen, deeply, in that Bible study, they learned to listen, deeply, in the conversations with their neighbors. And their concept of what a “successful” church looks like is beginning to shift. It’s not about how many people show up on a Sunday morning. Instead it’s about offering an authentic experience of the love of Christ to everyone they encounter.

But in the miles of driving in between those conversations, I also had a lot of time to ponder a topic a friend had raised last week. She has taken a new position in an international church organization, and she has been trying to find a fresher framework for the conversation about what they do. The language they have used is a theology of “presence,” the idea that we change the dynamic of a situation simply by showing up. This can be a great approach to missions work as it eases up the pressure to ‘convert’ people. But it can also get a little lazy, as if just walking among people will always be enough. She wants to press the people involved to realize that even the poorest American lives a privileged life compared to other places on the planet, and that we have a responsibility to use our privilege for the good of others. I began to think about Paul’s description of us as “ambassadors for Christ,” representing the values of the Kingdom of God to a world very caught up in the self-serving, violent values of Empire.

Jesus is trying to teach the disciples something about the difference between Empire values and Kingdom values in today’s Gospel reading. Some of the disciples got caught arguing about who was the greatest—using Empire values of course, although Mark doesn’t detail what they meant by that. They wanted worldly acclaim. When the Messiah marched into town, beat down the oppressor and took power, they wanted to be at his side. In our day, they would be the ones lining up for a Selfie-with-King-Jesus.

They clearly hadn’t figured out what he was trying to tell them in all that “betrayed and killed” stuff he’d been saying. Perhaps they’d simply ignored it; perhaps they were trying to figure out who would be the best choice to take over once he was dead and gone. Whatever their reasons, when Jesus asked them to talk to him about it, they wouldn’t say a word. I imagine a very uncomfortable, embarrassed silence!

In response, Jesus does something very surprising, even a bit scandalous for their time. He picks up a child—assumedly the offspring of someone in the house where they’re staying—and says those enigmatic words, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

So making space for a child is like welcoming Jesus, except even more than Jesus?

I don’t want us to get all gooey and sentimental. This isn’t a “Jesus loves the little children” moment—although Jesus absolutely does love the little children! This isn’t about extolling their innocence or purity as a goal toward which we should all strive. And even as tempting as it is to use it this way, this isn’t about learning to be more tolerant of children in church, making space for them even when they are exuberantly noisy or wiggly—at least not directly, not in the way we tend to use it.

This is about powerlessness. Children in that society had no status, no power. They were, as one commentator puts it, “ultimate in vulnerability.” There is even some wordplay involved—the word for child was similar to the word servant. To see God at work in the face of a little child in our midst is to see Jesus—a Jesus who is not a powerful warrior king who will smite down his enemies, but a Jesus who chooses complete vulnerability and powerlessness, who defeats the power of sin and death by going through it and coming out the other side.

This morning (at Christ Church) we will baptize Malaikah and Kioko, two of the children who bring great delight to our congregation, but have also had their moments of challenge! Today, we claim them as citizens of the Kingdom of God and set them on a path of discipleship that will last a lifetime. Today they get their invisible cross on their forehead. In a conversation earlier this week their mother talked about her hopes for them, her dreams that they will be people who grow up to change the world.  It was really quite moving to see her face as she pictured her children as responsible, compassionate powerful adults who will make a difference.

I refrained from pointing out that the early church saw baptism as a re-enactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is not just some ritual bath; it is a ritual death. We are claiming them for the Kingdom of God, but with that comes a renunciation of their earthly citizenship. There is a cost to following Christ, a cost that sometimes puts us very much at odds with the status quo.

Part of what we are supposed to take from baptism is that the person is set free from the power of sin and death, a power that is grounded in fear. Baptism is a reminder that while we will certainly sin again, and our bodies will eventually grow old and die, we do not have to be afraid of it. The power that comes with complete vulnerability is a paradoxical freedom from fear. It is the power to trust that God is bringing life out of death. The power to trust that we need only resist, and the devil will flee. That even as we are starting to draw near to God, God is already drawing near to us.

I want to say one thing more, because this idea of powerlessness can take us down the wrong path. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about the responsibility of those who have privilege or advantage. 20 or 25 years ago, I first noticed what happens when people who have a responsibility for leadership naively abdicate the power that comes with that, in an attempt to “be like Jesus.” Too often, instead of everyone living into a new model of shared leadership and accountability to one another, a less-than-scrupulous person sees the vacuum and steps forward to fill it, pulling everyone in the wrong direction, causing harm to those vulnerable people instead of protecting them. Every denomination has had a clergy abuse scandal, not just the Roman Catholics or the Willow Creek evangelists. Every part of the church must be honest about the ways in which we have failed to protect the most vulnerable among us and seek to do a better job in the future.

We have a responsibility to those who have no power themselves; a responsibility to use the gifts we have been given—the power, privilege, status, voice, material goods—to seek the well-being of the neighbor we are called upon to love.

When we are baptized, we give up all the power and privilege that comes as citizens of Empire. But we become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and receive the peculiar power of grace. Grace that assures us there is hope beyond despair, life beyond death. Grace that teaches us not to boast, “See how God loves me!” but to proclaim, “See how God loves you!”


Christ Episcopal Church, Norway, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion