Sunday, September 24, 2006

Proper 20B

Wisdom 1:16-2:22; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:30-37

Once upon a time, a tiny striped caterpillar burst from the egg that had been his home for so long. “Hello world,” he said. “It sure is bright out here in the sun.” So begins Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. My mom and I read that book over and over when I was a child.

The little caterpillar, named Stripe, began to grow bigger and bigger as he happily munched his way through the leaves on his tree. But one day, mid-leaf, he thought there must be more to life, and so he set out and found all sorts of new things: grass and dirt and holes and tiny bugs – each fascinated him. But nothing satisfied him.

Until....he saw a line of caterpillars, all shapes and sizes and colors, crawling purposefully toward a great column rising high in the air. Stripe joined them, and discovered that the column was a pile of squirming, pushing caterpillars – a caterpillar pillar.

They were all climbing up, but the top was so far away that Stripe had no idea what was there. None of the other caterpillars could stop to explain what the pillar was – they were all so busy trying to get wherever they were going, up there….This is it, Stripe thought. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for. And he plunged into the pile.

Right away, Stripe realized that in the caterpillar pillar, it was climb or be climbed. There were no more fellow caterpillars – there were only obstacles and threats which he turned into steps and opportunities. Some days, with this mindset, Stripe could get much higher; other days, it seemed he could only manage to keep his place as the other caterpillars pushed and shoved around him, all trying to get to the top.

With apologies to Shakespeare, it seems to me sometimes that all the world’s a caterpillar pillar, and all the men and women merely climbers. From very early on in life, when we are still just eating and discovering and growing bigger and bigger, we learn that there is a “top” out there, up there, and that the only way to reach the top is to jump into the pile. It’s climb or be climbed.

Get to the top. Be the best. Be the greatest. Get there first. We work hard, we struggle, some days we make progress, some days we do well to hold our place. The recognition and respect, the prestige and power we…well, we earn (right?) by our hard work makes us feel good, and so we work for more. We begin to measure ourselves and others by our rising and falling, our successes and failures, as though we were measuring our worth.

Of course, first doesn’t always mean best – sometimes first means luckiest, shrewdest, wealthiest, most ruthless in worming their way to the top, wherever that is. Who will be greatest? Who will be first? Which begs the question, who will be last? Who’s at the bottom of the pile? Where does anyone rank in the caterpillar pillar, the ladder of life?

I spend the most time with him. Well, I left the most behind to follow him. I bring more sick people to him than any of you. I called him Messiah....It’s no wonder the disciples didn’t understand Jesus on the road to Capernaum, when he told them for the second time that he would be betrayed and killed, and rise again. They barely heard him – they were too busy arguing with one another about who among them was the greatest. And anyway, messiahs weren’t supposed to suffer and die – they were supposed to save, save God’s chosen people from oppression and restore the kingdom of Israel. The disciples believed, as generations of Jews had believed, that the messiah would be a political and military hero who would rise to power, rise to the top….And now that they knew Jesus was the messiah, the disciples were determined to rank high in his regime. I’ve earned it. I’ve never let him down. He’ll pick me.

Not only did they not understand what the messiah would do – apparently, the disciples also didn’t understand what a teacher could do. Writing on the board, their backs to the class, while lecturing on particle physics, teachers can see and hear everything. The look on Jesus’ face when he asked them what they had been arguing about on the road told them he already knew.

So he started the lesson over. And while in that time students were always adults, it sounds to us more like a room full of children. Jesus sat down and gathered the disciples around him, Mark tells us. And then, using small words, simple statements, and illustrations, he taught them just how one finds a place in the only kingdom that really matters.

Not by climbing. But Jesus played along with their – our? – linear view of worth (worst – best, last – first, bottom – top), and he said, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. You want to be the greatest? You don’t go up – you go right back down to the bottom of the pile and take care of those who are being trampled underfoot. You’ll find yourself in the midst of the kingdom of God. You’ll be where I am.

We who follow Jesus on this side of Easter morning know that being trampled by the world – being trampled to death – would become the glorious occasion for trampling down death and rising to life again, life everlasting, life that would endure. But the disciples gathered around Jesus that day knew only that going up by going down was going nowhere at all.

But the lesson was only half over. Jesus took a 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.”

It is we who are the more likely to miss the full meaning of this teaching. In our world, childhood is precious, a wonder-filled time of eating and discovering and growing bigger and bigger. But children are vulnerable in our world of caterpillar pillars. They are small and weak, unable to provide or care for themselves, unable to repay those who do provide and care for them (unless you count sticky red-popsicle lipped smiles as payment). And so when we hear Jesus say, whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, we hear him urging us literally to care for children but also more broadly to care for all those whose vulnerability, innocence, and purity allow us to glimpse a pillar-less life.

But that’s the easy part of the lesson. The disciples would have heard a much greater challenge. In the Mediterranean world in their time, children were not only not precious – they were invisible, inconsequential, even expendable. Because they were entirely dependent on others, children were a burden, and if the load needed lightening, they were left to fend for themselves. It was climb or be climbed if they wanted to make it to adulthood. Some 60% never did. Children were quite literally last and least of all, the exact opposite of what the disciples were posturing to be in the kingdom they thought was coming.

And yet it was a child, representing all people who were in that time invisible, inconsequential, burden, and expendable, that Jesus brought right into the midst of the disciples gathered around. It was a child Jesus wrapped his arms around, and I suspect that for just a moment it was hard to tell just who was who in that embrace, who was the Greatest and who was the Least, who was the Servant and who was the Beloved. In that embrace, Jesus taught that there is nothing at all linear about the kingdom of God. Instead it is centered in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One in whom heaven came down to earth, the One who walked into the midst of people no one else would love – sinners, tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, women, children – and became their servant. The kingdom is centered in Jesus, of whom our prayerbook says, he stretched out his arms of love upon the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

In the kingdom of God, there is no top and bottom, no worst and best, not even last and first. Instead, the kingdom of God reaches out, invites in, opens up, grows bigger and bigger. We don’t climb up to it, we can’t fall out of it. We don’t earn it. Everyone is welcome.

Not at all like the kingdom of the world, where only one person (or one person at a time) can be at the top. That kingdom, our little friend Stripe learned, is lonely and fleeting. At the top of the caterpillar pillar, he found….nothing, emptiness. And worse, in the end the only way to get to the top was to topple the caterpillars who had gotten there first. It was impossible to hold on to nothing….

In the kingdom of God, though, it is Jesus who holds us, all of us, all the whole world. We all have a place in the only kingdom that matters, but we cannot know its full joy until we reach out our arms in love and take hold of those who would measure as last, worst, rock-bottom in the world’s caterpillar pillars and in our private pillars we build so that we can be on top somewhere. Who are the children, the vulnerable, the innocent and pure, the invisible, the inconsequential, the burdens, the expendable in our world? In our communities? Right outside our church doors? We cannot know the full joy of the kingdom of God until we reach out our arms in love and take hold of them, not as their betters but as sisters and brothers. In welcoming them, we welcome Jesus Christ, and are ourselves welcomed into the only kingdom that really matters.

My mom and I sang a song over and over when I was a child – you probably did, too. From very early on in life, when we are still eating and discovering and growing bigger and bigger, or from right now, let us understand, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. Amen.

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