I wonder how many of you might remember from your school days, passing notes behind the teacher’s back.
I never did much note-passing myself. I just wasn’t any good at it, frankly. I always got caught, so I gave up trying. But I remember other kids could do it. Some of them had taken note-passing to the level of an art form. They could get it from one side of the room to the other, it seemed, right under the teacher’s nose.
Those notes were full of news that just couldn’t wait until lunchtime, news of earth-shaking importance. Important news like “Mark likes Cindy, but Cindy likes Scott”. Or, “Stacey got braces yesterday and now she’s not allowed to chew gum.”
For some of us, the note-passing still goes on. It’s just that instead of passing notes in class, we pass them around on Facebook. It’s all fun and games until the boss takes a look at your online profile and finds out what you’ve been saying. It seems, judging by their Twitter feeds, like some people still need to grow up.
Regardless of how important these messages seemed at the time, they all somehow instantly sounded stupid and lame once they got confiscated by the teacher and read in front of the class. All learning moments have their wells of greatness and insight, and their potholes of stupidity and denseness, whether you are learning geography in the fifth grade, calculus in high school, personnel management in college, or Christian discipleship in the world.
In today’s Bible story, Jesus is on the road with his disciples. They get to where they’re going and Jesus asks them what all the fuss was about when they were on the road.
Like the student who just got his note confiscated by the teacher, they are silent. They are mortified. Why? Because they’ve been discussing who among them is the greatest of the disciples. At the time it seemed like the most important thing in the world. But now that Jesus asks them about it, it all seems pretty stupid and lame.
In college – college, mind you – we used to play this game. It was a game called Who, Sir? Me, Sir? Have you ever played that game?
For those who haven’t ever heard of it or played it, here’s how the game works. Everyone starts with a number, starting with 1 and counting up to however many people are in the group. And the last person becomes “Sir.” Now the idea of the game is to move up to the number 1 spot and stay there as long as possible. When the number 1 person gets knocked out, number 1 becomes the new “Sir” and the previous “Sir” moves to the bottom of the line.
So to move from wherever you are in the line to the next position up, the game goes like this:
The person playing “Sir” starts out by picking a random number and, saying: “Number (whatever number), number (whatever number), to the foot.” Meaning, the person who’s holding that number has to move down to the end of the line. Everyone else below that person gets to move up 1 rank.
If the person who is number whatever can interrupt and say, “Who, Sir? Me, Sir?” before “Sir” can finish the command, that person is safe, and instead, Sir then says, “Yes, you, Sir.” The person called out says, “No, Sir, not I, Sir.” And Sir says, “Then who, Sir?” And then the person called out gets to call whatever number, and things repeat from there.
Of course, the closer to the number 1 spot you get, the more everyone farther down wants to call your number. Holding onto that number 1 spot gets tricky.
If, like in the game, or in life, you’re focused on climbing the ladder, you’ve probably discovered that the higher you go the more people are out to knock you off.
While the disciples are playing Who, Sir? Me, Sir? on the road, Jesus is playing by a different set of rules. He sits down with this rough and tumble gang and turns their arguments about greatness on their heads, telling them, “If you would be first, you must be last. If you want to be first of all, you must be a servant of all.” And then – then Jesus scoops up a toddler in his arms and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”
There are certainly harder texts in the Bible, such as, “If your eye leads you to sin, pluck it out,” or “Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor.” But here’s a passage of Scripture that strikes us as very understandable, achievable, and likable: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” It’s a little sugary-sweet, but nevertheless likable. It’s a thought also found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: “Let the children come to me, and don’t hold them back: for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” It’s a likable text because, after all, who doesn’t receive a little child? I think it was W.C. Fields that said, “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.” But nobody I know agrees with that.
We all receive little children; we all open our hearts to them. Sometimes it’s hard to receive Jesus – when he comes as the revolutionary Messiah, the harsh prophetic critic of our religion and our lifestyles – but to receive Jesus as a little child – we can do that. I’ve heard many sermons on this text and you probably have too. We’ve all heard sermons on the virtue of “childlike faith”. If we could only become like little children.
But be careful with this seemingly harmless, likable text. If we hear this text as a glorification of childhood or the child, we’re hearing it wrong.
In that part of the world, in that day, children were considered worthless, second-class citizens. A child was of little value. In fact, a child was seen as a burden – dependent, helpless, and nonproductive. For those hearing Jesus’ words, children were so low on the social totem pole, they would have thought Jesus was crazy. This text says much more about Jesus than it says about children.
For Jesus to even place a toddler in the midst of a circle of adult men being taught by their rabbi was an incredible breach of all the social and cultural rules of Jesus’ day. Children were always separated off, part of the realm of women’s work with which men didn’t bother.
But now Jesus has brought a squawky toddler into the midst of twelve adult men at their monthly men’s breakfast. Wrapping his arms around the child, he proclaims to his astonished disciples, “In my kingdom, even the helpless, dependent, valueless children will be honored, no less than the poor, the outcast, the hungry and the wretched of the earth.” Even children. Especially the children. Here’s the Lord who serves the lowly and exalts the humble, the Lord who receives even children. More than that, he says, “If you receive a toddler, you receive me.”
The Greek word translated, “the least of these,” is the same word for toddlers. Jesus proclaims, “I am the least, the little, the lowly, the preschooler.”
This is Jesus’ answer to his disciples fussing about greatness. This is Jesus’ answer to the world’s eternal game of Who, Sir? Me, Sir?. As Jesus and his followers are on their way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will offer his life for the ransom of all, his disciples are arguing about greatness.
“When we get him elected Messiah and we’re in charge,” they said, “which one of us sit in which cabinet positions?” Jesus answers, “If anyone would be greatest, he must be least.” They wanted to know who was greatest, so he showed them: twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, God’s agent.
It’s a nice thought, and a comfortable one, because even if we have a long way to go in our treatment of the elderly, the diseased, and the oppressed, at least we can take pride that we have progressed in our regard for children. We honor children, we love children. We receive children. Well, mostly we receive them.
Over 16 million of America’s children are poor. In half of the states across our nation, one in five children are poor. In the other half, one in four children are poor. Children are the poorest age group in America, and the younger they are the poorer they are. Over five million of these children, that is, one in four infants, toddlers and preschoolers live in extreme poverty, during their years of greatest brain development. Extreme poverty is defined as a family of four living on $11,511 per year, which is $32 per day.
Oh, and the vast majority of these children do have at least one working parent.
I think it’s safer to say we receive our own children. A woman in my last church took a trip to the Holy Land, and like many visitors to that part of the world, she was greatly impressed by the poverty, particularly the poverty among the children. She told me that it was very disconcerting, upon their arrival at some holy place, to have the bus assaulted by throngs of young beggars, calling to the tourists, holding up their baby brother or sister, begging for coins. She said to me, “Our guides urged us not to give them any money; it would only encourage them.” All the tourists asked their guide, “Can’t something be done about these children? Somebody ought to do something; they’re such a nuisance.” Then their guide, their Muslim guide, replied, “You can see why your Jesus was crucified merely for saying ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.’”
Jesus depicts a very different kind of kingdom in receiving the little child. This text, like so many texts about Jesus, is a bit tougher than it appears on the surface. We so often look for an omnipotent, triumphant God who will make us greater, stronger, bigger, richer. Instead, in this deceptively comfortable text, we encounter a Lord who says, “If you want to enter the kingdom, go find a nobody to put your arms around and say hello to God.”
“Who, Sir? Me, Sir?” we may ask.
“Yes, Sir. You, Sir,” Jesus says to you and me.
And if we should have the audacity to answer, “No, Sir! Not I, Sir!” then Jesus will say to us, “If not you, Norwood United Church, then who?”