No! That’s not what I’m saying at all!”
Sometimes one member of a couple will say something to this effect.
You see, for every couple I marry, like any Lutheran minister,
I offer several sessions of pre-marriage counseling.
In the months leading up to their marriage ceremony
I meet with these couples to offer the wisdom of the church
on how to live into the promises that they will make to each other
on their wedding day.
And one of the activities I ask them to take part in
is an exercise called “active listening.”
This is the act of listening closely to your partner,
and listening not to rebut or refute
or while thinking of what you will say,
but listening to understand.
I ask the couples to each think of something
that they would like their partner to do differently
and then, with me in the room, I ask them, one at a time,
to share that request.
One partner shares,
and the other listens actively without interruptions,
and then responds,
“What I heard you saying is that…”
and then, in their own words,
they’re to share what they understand
the nature of their partner’s request to be.
“No! That’s not what I’m saying at all”….is sometimes the response.
Other times, really listening gives birth to a new understanding.
Sometimes we don’t understand one another because when one person is speaking,
the other person is thinking of other things,
or formulating a response,
or we think we know what the other person is going to say…
To really hear, to really understand, we have to really listen.
Jesus tells his disciples for the second time now that his mission
is to come into the world to suffer and die.
To be crucified, and to rise again.
With plain speech, Jesus, speaks about what he is set to accomplish.
But it becomes clear that the disciples haven’t really listened
to his teaching and they don’t understand
Because, ironically, at the very moment Jesus is opening up to the them
about this most crucial of his life-events:
they are thinking instead about what they want to say, which is:
Jesus, when you come in your glory and are king of Israel
and restore our fortunes and prestige and wealth and popularity,
you’re gonna need a wing man, a second in command,
and really Jesus….who is the guy?
Who among us is the greatest?
Which one of us is it?
No! That’s not what Jesus is saying at all. If fact, it is exactly the opposite.
He is saying that he will be betrayed into human hands.
Jesus will allow himself to be stripped of all dignity,
humiliated, spit upon, and hoisted high
to be derided
and laughed at as he is executed as a criminal.
He will empty himself of everything on the cross.
He will place himself in our hands:
Hands that can’t be trusted with preserving and caring for anything we’re given.
Human hands pollute the creation God has given to us
and leave piles of plastic as big as continents in the ocean,
oil spills in the arctic,
holes in the atmosphere,
millions of tons of space junk orbiting our plant.
Human hands molest and malign innocent people
causing trauma and hurt that spill into
all the relationships of the lives of those who are abused.
Human hands kill and steal.
Human hands can’t be trusted but Jesus places himself in our hands.
He is unafraid of the worst we can do – he is even unafraid of death –
because he will also rise on the third day.
Ironically, to save the very ones who kill him.
To save you and to save me.
And in his life and death and resurrection we see
That we are also saved and healed by human hands
but they are the human hands
that are scared by the nails that prove God’s love for us.
And Jesus also extends his hand to us to invite us into greatness with him.
Jesus shows us how to be great by serving
and giving up everything out of love for another.
To serve means to give up your own hope and desire
for your neighbor’s well-being.
And it’s a kind of death.
But that’s so hard to understand,
and so Jesus calls a small child to come in the midst
of the gathering of his disciples
and he says that whoever wants to be first
– that is whoever wants to be great –
must be last of all and servant of all.
Often we teach children with an object lesson
but here the child becomes the object lesson.
Of course, something is lost in translation for us,
because in the 21st century in the western world
youth culture is culture,
but in 1st century Galilee a child was a non-person.
Of course, the child’s family loved her or him,
children were seen as insignificant and weak,
useless and unimportant –
perhaps more like a few generations ago
when some felt children were to be seen but not heard.
Perhaps the closest thing we have as a touchpoint
is when we say as an insult,
“You’re acting like a child!” or
“you’re acting like a baby!”
which is almost always said with contempt for the person
and by extension contemptuous of what it means to be a child.
It sees being a child as having no agency, as helpless,
as a drain on those who are stronger.
And yet Jesus offers the child’s as an example of who were called to serve it means to take care of the weakest and least significant.
Of course, we hope and believe we do take Jesus up on this:
We literally welcome children –
here in worship with a children’s sermon that’s just for them.
We do love to hear them talk and laugh,
even if its not in churchy whispers.
We have a nursery, but even if your child is having a tantrum, they can stay.
God accepts all our tantrums as worship.
Where else would we take them
when only our God has the power to heal us.
So we do literally welcome children –
but we also welcome the weakest and most vulnerable of humankind
which is who the child in Jesus’ lap represents.
We are praying for and reaching out to help Afghan refugees
And especially those living 18 miles from here at Ft Lee.
Our congregation has been very generous in giving clothes and supplies and money.
On a zoom call with Commonwealth Catholic Charities
I learned this week that 65,000 refugees are now in our country,
with more waiting overseas to come here for the resettlement process
that does not currently allow these individuals and families
access to the normal resettlement state programs.
Ultimately, the hope is that 1200 individuals
will be able to make a permanent home in Virginia,
but it will take churches, congregations, and communities
offering up rental houses, getting kids registered for school,
offering our new Afghan neighbors rides to the social security office,
getting them job certification and training,
English tutors, drivers licenses,
access to emotional support groups as they try to heal
from the trauma of coming to a foreign land.
These Afghan children won’t be able to go to school in person for a long time –
they will be in virtual school.
And eventually they will need computers, backpacks, and school supplies.
What will the church do to welcome these children?
All these vulnerable ones?
How many tears have they cried?
What difference does it make that we have heard
and understand Jesus
when he says that to welcome them
is to welcome him
and not only to welcome him but to also actually encounter God?
Its pretty clear the two are linked:
Welcoming children and the weak…and welcoming God
Because in fact we know that in Jesus,
God became the vulnerable child,
born of a woman, to be like us and with us
in our struggle and suffering
AND that he in fact was a refugee, on the run from his homeland, looking for welcome and safety and friendship and a community.
Maybe that’s part of why he has such a big heart for the vulnerable
And why he loves them so fiercely…and so intimately.
The text of Mark’s gospel today says that Jesus
called a child a placed it in his disciples’ midst and it says,
literally in the Greek, Jesus
hugged the child.
He put his arms around her with a hug.
Those don’t happen that much these days do they?
I don’t know how long its been now,
but some time ago facebook introduced a few new emojis –
not just the like and love button –
but the wow, the sad, the angry, the haha,
and the care buttons.
And the care button is especially useful.
It’s the one with the little yellow guy hugging a heart.
It means you send a virtual hug to someone.
It’s for when you want to connect with someone
but the like button isn’t really sufficient.
When you want to say “I don’t like what has happened to you –
but I want you to know I care.”
Like when a friend has a loved one
who died in a tragic accident,
when a spouse recalls for us
that September is suicide prevention awareness month
with a post of her deceased husband,
when friends report those people they have known
who died from Covid.
Sometimes words fail.
And we all know the ways were distanced from one another.
On social media – at least on facebook –
At least there is the little hug emoji.
But Jesus looks at this child in Galilee by the sea,
overlooked by everyone else,
seen by everyone else as unvaluable and insignificant.
And Jesus actually touches her… he hugs her.
He wraps his arms around her and embraces this child.
Not because of what she has to offer him
Not because she is great or best or first of all,
But because God chooses to lift up the weak
To give attention to those whom everyone else ignores.
To embrace those that others would exclude.
And, friends, he embraces you too.
God wraps his arms around you.
And our message to the world
is that God offers this same physical, real, embrace to all.
And if someone thinks we mean God hugs us
and embraces us
in a spiritual way, or a metaphorical way only,
we have to stop them and say:
No! That’s not what we’re saying at all.
We’re saying God literally embraces us
in a flesh and blood way that you can feel…
When you embrace the child.
When you embrace the refugee.
When we embrace the outcast.
The unpopular, the friendless, the poor.
Jesus promises that in our embrace
of the least, the last, the lost, the lonely, and the overlooked
we welcome him,
and not only him but the one who sent him.
May we be blessed to receive Christ
Not only in bread and wine, not only in water, not only in the word…
But also in our neighbor
May we be unafraid to reach out to
the one who is weak, the child, the one in need,
trusting that God meets us there.
May we believe that the words of the prophet are true:
Anyone can be great
Because anyone can listen.
Anyone can be great
because anyone can welcome.
Anyone can be great
because anyone can serve.
And in our listening, and welcoming, and serving
May we be blessed.