Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2018 (Proper 25 Year B)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
One of the disadvantages of reading the Bible the way we do every Sunday, is that we get little snippets of the story here and there, and this might prevent us from seeing the Bible’s bigger picture. That larger narrative matters because the arc of the story is part of the story. The connections you make about Jesus are sometimes made as that arc develops. I’m sure this is not lost on all of you who take notes every Sunday, but for the two of you who don’t, today’s Gospel finishes one of the most interesting sequences in chapter 10 of the Mark’s Gospel.
The story picks up in verse 13 as people are bringing little children to Jesus so that he might touch them with blessing. Mark says that the disciples "spoke sternly to them", and who is surprised? After all, little children can be a huge distraction for busy people, what with their need for attention, and affection, and security. That phrase "spoke sternly to them" is an important one for Mark’s story because it serves as a kind of punctuation mark. You just heard that phrase in today’s gospel, and that means something I’ll try to explain. Jesus rejects the disciple’s stern warnings however, and delivers a warning of his own. The Kingdom of God belongs to little children like these he says, and if you don’t receive the Kingdom as a little child, you won’t get in. Yikes! What does that mean? I think the sequence of stories that follow illustrate his point.
Mark’s narrative turns to the Rich Young Man and his attempt to fish for complements from Jesus by asking a seemingly sincere and impressive question like "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Note for the record that he doesn’t ask what "we" must do; just what "I" must do. He’s a bit self-centered… not really focused on the team there. Jesus knows where his heart is however, and that is on his wealth. I think it’s hugely significant in this story that Jesus looked at him and loved him, as if to say, "Oh friend… I am delighted in you as a beloved Child of God… you don’t need to fish for complements from me. But you’re missing the whole point; wealth won’t get you into the Kingdom of God. There’s a child within you who you need to discover and to follow."
In the next story, James and John are asking Jesus for political power by requesting a seat on his right and his left hands when Jesus comes into his Kingdom. I am convinced that his disciples believed that Jesus was going to raise an army and crush the Romans. Jesus told everybody plainly what was going to happen in Jerusalem; arrest, flogging and death, but they seem not to hear. "That’s all very nice Jesus, but where are the swords that we’ll need? And what about military training? Peter there is a hazard to himself and others with a spear". I don’t think James and John were asking to join Jesus on adjoining crosses, but rather, they were asking to rule the Romans as his right and left hand assistants. Jesus tells his band of confused disciples that political power has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, but being a servant might.
Finally, the team comes to today’s story as they enter the town of Jericho. There, Blind Bartimeus disrupts the journey; "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" This is where Mark puts that punctuation point: "Many sternly ordered him to be quiet." See how Mark did that? They shush the children and they shush the beggars, and Jesus’ reaction to this is the same. Jesus calls to Bartimeus, who does exactly what a child does; he throws off his cloak, his only possession, and "springs up" and goes right to Jesus. He doesn’t ask for political power and wealth doesn’t inhibit him; he just asks to see again. And, as always, Jesus tells says his own faith is healing him, and so he sees and follows Jesus on The Way, near the head of the line I’m thinking… the last shall be first! This is a grown man who did what Jesus asked; he received the Kingdom of God as a little child. And the "sternly ordered" phrase is intended to help us see the parallel between Bartimeus and the children.
What does it mean to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child? None of us are children any longer, so it might seem like there is no hope for us adults. Friends, I want to suggest something to you; every one of us has a little child dwelling within our heart. We can access that child, and we need to do this. Psychologists suggest we give that child a name, and that we do our best to be a parent to our inner child… to nurture and protect it.
My inner child is named Christopher, the name I gave myself when I was about 6. Christopher is a delightful young boy, but he’s afraid and scared… he’s not exactly sure if he is really loved by those around him, and he is just not certain about things… about the world or about himself. These are not the problems that my adult self is willing to admit, but it sure is the way Christopher sees things. Christopher is vulnerable.
Now Christopher is not always on his best behavior all the time, as you might imagine. Children can be supremely self-centered like the Rich Young Man, and many will throw a temper tantrum like the disciples who got angry with James and John. I think Jesus is not under any illusions about this, and he may be suggesting there are more important things about being a child in the Kingdom of God. Children, at their core, seek three things: love and affection, safety and security, and a degree of power and control over their surroundings. Children who get these things in abundance live well-adjusted lives. They are happy and joyful. They are able to come and go with ease… they go out to explore the world with curiosity and confidence, and they return to their parent’s embrace full of wonder and stories. They are easily attracted to others; they play well together. When children don’t get these three things they can take up strategies to help manipulate others toward affection, security, and control or they can build defenses that keep way hate, insecurity, and powerlessness. In extreme cases, children can grow up deeply maladjusted and can even become psychopathic, withdrawn, and paranoid as they approach adulthood. I’m not wagging a finger at any parents here if you happen to have grown children who suffer like this; there are many causes for this; much of it out of our control as parents.
All of us suffered a combination of all of this as children (Christopher did), and it is within the complex interaction of affection and rejection, safety and insecurity, and control and randomness that our adult personalities get formed. Our inner child responded to all of this, and so much of what we do as adults has to do with the unfulfilled needs that we had as children. Adults cling to wealth and power and everything else as adults because our need for love and security and control went unfulfilled as children. That child within you still needs affection… still needs safety and security… still needs to know that their world is under control and within the grasp of their power as children. Your inner child needs a parent, and that is something you can do for yourself. And, being a parent to your inner child is something that God is offering to be. Let your inner child, vulnerable as she is, lead you into the Kingdom of God. Let God be a parent to that child. Let God fill them with a sense of God’s deep, deep love and affection. Let them sit on God’s knee and know what it is to feel safe and secure. Let them stand as a beloved child in God’s embrace and know what it is to be fully alive, fully in control of their environment and efficacious in the world. Within that Kingdom of God, your inner child can go out into the world with joy and confidence, returning to God’s embrace with a sense of wonder about creation and full of stories. They can be easily attracted to others, and play well with them in green pastures. This seems to be the Kingdom that Jesus is inviting us toward and Mark is helping us to understand.
Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black and white They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. Your inner child is one of those I’m singing about here… they are loved by Jesus too. Let us pray together.
Gracious and loving God, help us to find and to name our inner child. Give us, like Blind Bartimaeus, the courage to throw off our anxieties, spring up and follow those children into the Kingdom of God. May Christopher and all children like him be filled to overflowing with the love, safety, and control they are seeking in God’s parental embrace. And may we all be healed by the warmth of their smile in the arms of Jesus. Amen.