30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I’m a runner. Most of you know that, and I struggled this week on whether I should use a running metaphor today, but this applies. My image as a runner is important to me. I also like to run fast. I’m 53 years old, yet, I can run farther and faster now than I ever could…even with some minor aches and pains this past year. Sometimes, I have this image of myself really training hard in hard and winning my age division at the Boston Marathon or something similar. I don’t want to settle for being a good runner, I want to be a great runner.
I also imagined the same thing for the cross country team I coach. I want them to go all the way to State every year. Never happened as a team, but we did some individual runners to state and our girls team made regionals in a magical year.
Yet, here’s the thing, running is a sport where you can’t hide. All runners experience something similar, we are constantly humbled. Most runners imagine winning, coming in first…but, obviously, that doesn’t happen all the time!
In this sport, the only way you get better is by running daily, running workouts that make you suffer and experience some pain…not to the point of injury, but pain nonetheless. It’s hard. Yet, something emerges within, you begin to appreciate others, you experience a shared deep connection with other runners as you put yourself out there.
You are also vulnerable after a race, extremely vulnerable. After running the Boston Marathon in 2016 and being extremely humbled as I ran it injured and it only got worst. When I crossed the line, I only wanted to call my daughter who I knew would understand as a runner…I cried when I started talking to her, and I don’t really cry that often.
As a coach, I also have to remember that my words to my runners after a race have to be honest, authentic, and also encouraging. Especially to my own kids ran for our team!
Many of those words after a race are themes that I’ve repeated often, yet so many times they are simply not heard, yet, after a race, after the suffering, they often are heard in a way that is much more meaningful and they are received in a way that is almost very innocent and pure. Plus, honestly, I had some cred with these kids because they knew that I’m willing to suffer in races as well, they know that I know what they are experiencing, and that I was with them.
Running can be a great parallel to life, and to this morning’s gospel lesson.
Jesus has been with his disciples, he wanted to simply teach his disciples something meaningful, so he went through Galilee in secret as it says. He was teaching them that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. This was hard for them to hear and understand, but he kept on saying it, teaching it. It was important to Jesus because he was called into this world as the representation of all humanity. He was not only telling the disciples that he would suffer, die, and rise again, but that they would be participating in that suffering, death, and resurrection through him.
The disciples were probably keenly interested in the new life part, the resurrection part, but in order to experience that resurrection, before we can truly understand what it means to live life as God intended, we have to experience suffering, we have to die. This isn’t a cruel joke on God’s part, it’s a reality that we, as created beings, don’t always see or experience life as beautiful as it was meant to be. We have to go through experiences in life that push to ask some of the hard questions.
Yet, the disciples, like us, were not interested in the harder questions, they were asking the question: which one of us is greater? What is our image to God? Where will we stand with God at the end of time? What’s our status?
In the midst of those conversations, it seems like the disciples were focused on the resurrection part. Which I get, don’t we all want to run to the ending of a story, we want to feel good and triumphant. The passage even says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. Could that have been because they were afraid to confront the hard realities of suffering, of pain?
So, they escape by arguing about who’s going to be greatest. Or try to hide. But, they are missing the mark and Jesus would not let them hide. Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they grew silent. They knew that Jesus had caught them in a “sin”. We don’t talk much about the word “sin”, but it is an archery term actually, it means missing the mark. When you don’t hit the bullseye with an arrow.
It in this context, sin is a relational term. The disciples were missing the mark, they were focused on themselves, avoiding the hard questions, being distracted, rather than lifting each other up and loving well.
What does Jesus do? Well, he doesn’t send down thunder on them, he doesn’t condemn them. He does the opposite, he treats them with respect and simply calls them together, sits with them, and brings a child into their circle. He encourages them to serve others, to be last, to put others before them.
The example of a child is important to note. Children in the first century were considered non-persons. They were often slaves, they were of no value. They were truly on the margins. I tell my kids all of the time how amazing they are and how loved they are, but this wasn’t even close to the reality in Jesus’ time.
By doing this, by bringing in a child, Jesus is saying that children are the stand-in for himself, for the Son of God. We should welcome children, those on the margins as we would God, the creator of the universe. It’s not about becoming childish so we can enter the kingdom, it says much more about maturity, about being bigger than our selfish desires or our protected self-image and welcoming others in.
Friends, we are saved by God’s grace, all of us live in God’s love whether we recognize it or not. In the UCC, we believe that God’s love, God’s salvation action has more to do with Jesus’ actions on our behalf than our actions. We can’t evoke God’s salvation, he gives it to us, all of us, even those who have felt left out.
We are also called, as followers of Jesus, to live into this salvation with a sense of growth and maturity. We are called to live resurrection lives. Maturity happens as we grow through experiences with ourselves and with others. Oftentimes that growth happens when we enter into relationships with those who we may not normally associate with…God has so many friendships, so much growth, so much life, real life, waiting for each of us and for this church. As we become welcoming in our lives personally and corporately as a church, we will experience growth and we will the experience the joy of our salvation.
May we welcome life as it comes to us: suffering, death, resurrection…even as we welcome others in our communities who walk through these doors or that we meet in the neighborhood, welcoming them as we would welcome Jesus.