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So You Want to Be First?

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Sep 23

Text: Mark 9:33-37

“So you want first place?” This is how Eugene Peterson translates verse 35 of our gospel reading. Jesus says: “So you want first place? Then take last place. Be the servant of all.”

Even a plain-spoken, contemporary version of our text only gets us so far in understanding it. Jesus knows his wisdom may be a little jarring for his listeners so he proceeds to illustrate the point. Continuing with Petersen’s translation: “He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.” In Matthew 18, it’s “I’m telling you...whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom.”

Ok. That helps a bit. Jesus not only wants to embrace children, he wants us to be like them. Keep it simple. Stick to the basics if you want to know what God’s kingdom is like. Be humble like a child. This is starting to make some sense at a gut level. After all, children are worth imitating for all kinds of reasons, right? First and foremost, children love to love and they respond to love. They ask great questions about life and death. They use their imaginations. Many kids find it easy to be in relationship with God if only because their minds aren’t always causing them to doubt. What’s more, kids aren’t nearly as interested in status as adults. Most are unimpressed by people who have big jobs or powerful positions. What often matters more to them are experiences and relationships, and at a deep level, the extent to which those around them offer serious attention to their being and care. We can see why images of this passage - like the one in that stained glass window up there - portray Jesus as especially soft and gentle towards children. He wants to make a model of their childlike wonder and love. Many a soft-hitting sermon has been preached on just this theme and yet, here in this text at least, I think Jesus is after something far more fierce.

To grasp the full force of his gesture in this passage, we need to understand something about the role of children in first century Palestine. According to the Oxford Bible Commentary, “children were considered to be of very low status and of little value.” Hard as that may be for our modern Western minds to imagine, it’s actually a profound understatement. In his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, the scholar John Dominic Crossan tells about an ancient near eastern letter written by a husband to his wife that dates to the turn of the first century. The husband wrote to her while traveling and presumably in response to a message that she was pregnant with a second child. He writes:

I urge you and entreat you be concerned about Appolonarion [their first child] and if I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you. If by chance you bear a[nother] ...cast it out to die. You have talked to Aphrodisias... Therefore I urge you not to worry.”

And with that he signs off the letter. I urge you not to worry?! He just told his wife to cast out a newborn child! But in those days and in that region, unless the father accepted a little one as a member of the family, children were seen as dispensable, literally. They would readily be abandoned or maybe “taken up by another and reared as a slave.” According to Crossan, in our passage from Mark where Jesus references children, he is avoiding and overturning “the horrifying meaning of a child as a nothing, a nobody, a nonperson in the Mediterranean world of paternal power, absolute in its acceptance or rejection of newly born infant.”

And so our text stands against the patriarchal, hierarchical, and in some case infanticidal kingdoms of this world. It stands for the radically inclusive and egalitarian nature of God’s kin-dom, on earth and in heaven, which explicitly welcome nobodies while inviting us to check all worldy status at the door. To underscore the point, Crossan later says that a “Kingdom of Children is a Kingdom of Nobodies,” as in a glorious, divine kin-dom of would-be nobodies, where riches, achievements and social privilege matters not. Jesus is here inaugurating a new way of being where even nobodies were vaulted into prime seats at God’s welcome table of love! Children and grownups alike should be measured not by age or station, but by the sheer fact of their God-given dignity and belovedness. So you want first place? Then learn to feel what’s it like to know your dignity without the illusions of your privilege and security. Feel your dignity, know it, count on it even when facing the most undignified of circumstances. So...be like a child. Be like a servant. Be like a nobody and then, then you might start to get it.

Two stories came to mind as I was reading this passage earlier this week. The first one challenges us to embrace a child. The second offers a model of childhood “nobodies” finding the faith and courage to change history.

The first is about Cicely. If you attended our 10 O’Clock hour today about remembering slavery’s living legacy, you’ve already heard something about Cicely. Cicely was one of several so called “servants” who was held as property by the fifth minister of this church, Rev. William Brattle. He’s up there on our wall. Rev Brattle, and his son, the revolutionary war Major William Brattle, have a street named after them. It’s about a hundred yards that way. And a square. And a theatre. And a florist. We know the names of several persons enslaved by the Brattle family because they are listed in our church records as having been “baptized and owned the covenant.” Names like Scipio, Philicia and Zillah. Cicely isn’t listed in our membership records but her name is inscribed on a headstone in the Old Burial Ground just up the street. It reads: “Here Lyes ye body Cicely, negro late servant to ye Rev. Mr. William Brattle. She died April 8th 1714, being 15 years old.” Why did Brattle choose to give her this memorial while most other enslaved persons were buried in unmarked graves, if that? We may never know. Cicely’s headstone stands today as if to highlight the appalling lack of any of other record of Cicely’s too-short life. But for that headstone, this beloved child of God might as well have been a nobody.

In the coming months, I’m eager to sit with you and with the story of Cicely and to consider, in our minds, hearts and souls, the moral and theological questions her story raises for us. After all, her story is part of our story. For today, I can’t help but hear the words of Jesus, as if Cicely were the very child that he touched that day, that he took in his arms, that he blessed and laid hands on. Imagine this with me: Jesus standing here in our midst, his gentle hands on her shoulders. “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.” First Church, I ask you, how will we embrace Cicely and her story? How are we embracing the descendants of those who knew and worked alongside her? How do we embrace children of all colors today? How do we embrace those who our contemporary world would deem a nobody?

Now, for that second story. We need to fast forward 250 years and focus our attention on the City of Birmingham in May of 1963. I’m guessing many of you are aware of the crucial role that Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Cotton and others targeted Birmingham as a site of non-violent demonstrations and civil disobedience precisely because they knew Birmingham would demonstrate the most violent reaction to their agitation for desegregation. We’ve seen footage of police and fire fighters unleashing water cannons on protesters, of dogs chasing down and biting people in the streets. Some of you remember that this footage, seen live on national TV, is what drew the attention of the Kennedy and federal law enforcement officials to the South to stand in solidarity with and to protect African Americans. I wonder how many of you are aware of the crucial role that children played in those demonstrations.

If you thought the March for Our Lives with all those Parkland High School students was remarkable, consider this precedent: As we learned on Tuesday in our Road to Freedom study session led by Mike Stevens, when King and others arrived in Birmingham, they were unable to rally citizens to risk being sent to jail under the infamously terrorizing Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor. But the children of Birmingham had another idea. At first hundreds and then thousands of school aged children starting volunteered to march, many defying their parents and teachers. Years later, one person involved shared a prevailing sentiment that the kids felt like whites in Birmingham were going to kill them anyway so they might as well fight. Over five days, thousands of children, some as young as 10, showed up marching, facing those fire hoses, dogs and cops, essentially volunteering to be thrown in jail. And under Bull Connor, thousands were transported in paddy wagons and school buses to be booked, jailed and interrogated. When local jails filled to the max, they started holding them in cages on animal farms. An HBO/Southern Poverty Law Center documentary that we watched shows the extremely unsettling footage of children being knocked off their feet by firehoses, the water pressure forcing them to slide down city sidewalks. It also showed the sheer courage and fearlessness of these kids. Some were jailed for a day and released— only to return the next day, in bathing suits, carrying signs and singing freedom songs, with music blaring on loudspeakers in the 16th Street Baptist Church where Rev. James Bevel and Dorothy Cotton would help to organize and rally their indomitable wills and efforts. As the documentary reported: “By Tuesday, May 7th, the City of Birmingham faced a state of collapse. Three thousand students were stampeding through downtown in a victory lap. The police had been made helpless. Kids were everywhere.” Detective James Parsons, Birmingham Police Department, said “We couldn’t stop it. We couldn’t contain it. The white people were in panic. They didn’t know what to do.” “I was sitting there (at the) jail and said, ‘There’s no way to hold the lid on this. The fear was gone.’” Three days of intense negotiations later, with movement leaders and white officials up until dawn and in constant communication with the White House, the City of Birmingham finally relented and began to meet their demands for desegregation.

In a conversation after the film, we marveled at those children, at their fearlessness and at the faith of the parents and leaders who were painfully aware and deeply conflicted about the risks. In the end though, the detective was right! “The fear was gone.” Connor’s terrorizing tactics were rendered useless. At some level, the children already knew their God-given dignity and freedom. At some level, they already knew they were free and no one could take that away. And so they kept on marching and singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

And here again, I imagine Jesus, standing here with us, pulling the memories of those fierce, freedom loving Birmingham school-children before us, saying what he says. “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.” In this case, we should imitate not merely the love, curiosity or humility of children but their fearlessness as well! And if the stories of these children facing those firehoses isn’t enough to give us to courage to face and embrace the story of Cicely, I don’t know what is.

Before I close, allow me to share a potentially relevant and helpful poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s a little whimsical too, so we are changing up the tone here. Ready?

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Do you still want to be a somebody? Do you still want to be seen and recognized? Do you still want to be first? Or maybe we should reframe the question. Instead of “...So you want first place?” How about “Do you want to be embraced?” And do you want to know what it’s like to embrace God? For whoever embraces the child, as I do, embraces me. Whoever embraces the servants, and as God does, embraces me. So remember Cicely. Remember the children of Birmingham. Ask yourselves, are you willing to be Nobody too? If so, then let the fear be gone. Get ready to the know the true meaning of your human dignity and that of others. People, get ready to share and feel that eternal embrace of God’s love and freedom and to do what you never before imagined you could do. Amen.

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