Her name was Emily, she was six years old, and she was a visitor at our church that Sunday morning. Well, not exactly a visitor, as she and her family were long time members of our congregation, but they’d moved away to Atlanta the year before, and this was their first time back with us since they’d left. So at the fellowship hour after worship, we’d all crowded around these old friends to visit and get caught up.
I have to confess, at first I didn’t even realize that Emily was standing there, so involved was I in all the small talk flying around. But Emily was there, patiently but quite persistently trying to get my attention. First it was, “Mr. Lowry …Mr. Lowry …Mr. Lowry!” with the increasing sense of urgency and intensity that kids can do so well! But such was the clamor of voices in the room and my lack of attentiveness that this wasn’t working, so then she moved on to repeatedly yanking on the ministerial robe! Now this I noticed; but how did I respond? I gave her the official grown-up “wait a minute and shh! Finger” and went back to my “grown-up” conversation.
But Emily was undaunted, and a minute or three later, when the crowd had dispersed, I finally looked down to find that Emily’s eyes were completely fixed on any sign she might now be granted an audience with her former pastor. At this point, I’m finally starting to get it, and bending close so I could see and hear her, I say “And how are you, Emily?”
And Emily, bless her, started to tell me – about her new school, her teacher, her classmates, how hot Atlanta is, about what she had for breakfast that morning and other matters crucial in the life of a first grader. The conversation didn’t really last all that long – she got bored with me pretty quickly – and when she was done, Emily gave me this big hug and ran off to be with the other kids of the church. It made me laugh, and I’ve never forgotten that particular pastoral conversation – but not so much because of how incredibly important it was to her to tell me about all her adventures, but how much more important it was that I stooped down to really listen!
Wouldn’t you agree that in any true act of caring and love, you’re going to find someone “stooping down” in some way or another? For instance, if you’re in a serious conversation with someone, one of the non-verbal signals that that person is truly listening to you is that they’ll lean in just a little bit, as if to say, “I’m coming a little closer, because I want to make sure I get every word.” Likewise, if you’ve ever visited someone in the hospital, then you know how awkward it can be standing by the hospital bed and towering over this person who is feeling weak and sick – so what do you do? You lean over, or you kneel down, or you pull up a chair so you can be at their level!
It might seem like a small thing, but within such relatively small considerations is found a spirit of caring and love! Robert Browning, the great 19th century poet, says this beautifully in a verse we hear a lot at Christmastime: “Such ever was love’s way – to rise, it stoops.” And according to Jesus, such is the kingdom of God.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus and his disciples have journeyed through Galilee to the village of Capernaum. They’ve reached the house where they’re staying, and this is when Jesus turns to the disciples and asks, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Another simple question from Jesus without an easy answer, and another one that’s met with embarrassed silence – because what they’d been doing out there on the road was arguing about their legacy; specifically, who among them would be eventually be remembered as the best and greatest of disciples! And even they know how inappropriate that was, not to mention ironic – after all, here was Jesus, who in every aspect of his life was the least, lowest, and servant of all; who’d just barely explained to them that this pilgrimage they were on would eventually and inevitably lead to betrayal and his death, a death that would become this incredible sacrifice for the sake of a sinful humanity – and yet, here were these disciples all bickering over their own greatness!
Jesus’ response to this is swift and decisive: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and to illustrate this point, he takes a child who’s there in the house and “puts it among them” as a living parable. Cradling this little one in his arms, Jesus says to them, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me – God who sent me.” (The Message)
It’s a beautiful and familiar image; but we need to understand that this was no small gesture on Jesus’ part. When we modern Christians read this passage, no doubt we think of children like our own – you know, cute and personable, little bundles of energy and personality. But in Jesus’ time, children were not always viewed that way; but rather considered to be unbridled bundles of chaos of little worth to the world; many children in those days were sold into slavery, and that’s if they hadn’t already been cast out of society or killed at the time of birth, especially if they happened to be born female. Sadly, at best in those times, children were to be seen and not heard, and then, not seen very much.
In Mark, when Jesus speaks of “welcoming” a child, the Greek word that’s used is “decomai” which translates to mean “to receive or fully accept.” What this means is that we have this child who in the scheme of Palestinian life, power and culture means …little or nothing at all. Jesus, however, embraces that child with love and affection and then says to the others, when you fully receive and accept this little one who’s weak, powerless, unappreciated and unworthy, you’re accepting me. Now there’s a powerful image: Jesus is saying, this is how you become the greatest of all.” For you see, the Kingdom of God is entered through a very small door: in order to get in, you have to stoop to the level of a child!
Two thousand years later, of course, it’s safe to say that we do view the place of children differently and in a more enlightened fashion – in fact, for the most part, in our society today we place a high value on welcoming children, as well as on their welfare and nurture – understanding, of course, that the rising numbers of hurt, abused, abandoned and poverty-stricken children ought to be enough to remind us that as a people, we still have a ways to stoop to reach the level of a child and alleviate that pain.
But that having been said, friends, I want to suggest to you this morning that for us to focus this text solely on children, as is very tempting to do, is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying. The fact is, the child that Jesus is holding in his arms could be that homeless man who stands with his sign “Will work for food” down on the intersection of Louden Street and I-93. Or it could be that teenager who’s out on the street, abused, forgotten and pregnant, quite literally with no one to go home to. Or for that matter, it could be your neighbor who has faced such a barrage of tests and needles and chemotherapy that they are physically, emotionally and spiritually beaten down, to the point of feeling as though they don’t even really exist any longer. Look in the arms of Jesus, and you’ll see that he’s cradling in his loving embrace those who are weak and hurting and powerless, the outsiders and the nobodies. Welcome these, Jesus says, receive these who are the least of all, and you’ll be receiving me. And whoever receives me, dear one, receives the one who sent me.
It’s still an important lesson, friends, because in truth, rather than living with the kind of faith that focuses on others, it’s all too easy for us as Christians to glory at who we are instead! I mean, don’t misunderstand me here; I don’t want to overstate this, because I know that most of us don’t run around with an “holier than thou” attitude! But it’s also true that in the empowerment our faith gives us, in our joy of being with and serving God, there is always a danger of our standing so tall we’ll miss those below.
And that’s why we need Jesus, friends; and in this instance, not so much the “Jesus, Friend, Kind and Gentle” we love to sing about but rather the Jesus of Hard Truth who challenges us to live with a Servant’s heart. If you’re going to follow me, he says, it begins by reaching out and reaching down into the places of hurt and suffering, stooping down as you go, so that you might be at the same level as those who have been beaten down by life and living, and love them as I have loved you.
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, friends – and it’s a gospel that applies globally and societally (that’s part and parcel why we do things like the CROP Walk!). But also remember it’s a gospel that applies to you and me, here and now; simply put, sometimes the best thing you and I ever do for others is to simply be with them where they are.
One of the questions I get asked a lot as a pastor is what one is supposed to say to someone who’s just had a death in the family. We’ve all been there, haven’t we: we’ve gone to the visiting hours, and we wonder how we can possibly get by the awkwardness of the moment and say something, anything that might give our friend some comfort in the midst their horrible grief; or at least not say something that will inadvertently make things worse!
But the thing is that we really don’t have to worry about that: because it’s not really about what we say; the fact is, what they’re going to remember later on are not our words of eloquence and wisdom, or even that we were at a loss for words. What they remember is that we were there; that we took their hands in ours, that we looked them in the eye to see their sadness; that we hugged them and cried with them for a bit. Maybe the only words spoken were “I’m sorry,” if that; but it spoke volumes, and we did more good in that moment, offered more healing, showed more love than we could ever think possible. And all simply because we cared, and we showed that care by stooping down low enough that we might touch, and fell and share in their pain and grief.
If you want an example of how to be “Christ-like,” beloved, there it is: if we can love like that, if we will choose to love like that, letting Christ’s love be manifest in us, then we are not far from the kingdom of God. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, this is our life’s calling, yours and mine, wherever we are; to love one another with a love that stoops. As it says elsewhere in scripture, “Truly …just as you did it to one of the least of these …you did it to me.”
Go forth and serve the Lord today with that kind of love. And may our thanks be unto God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry