by Clint Schnekloth
Gospel Reading: Mark 9:30-37
For Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012: Year B – Ordinary 25
Chapter nine of Mark sits right at the center of the gospel. Since Mark is structured chiastically (see, for clear exegesis on this point, the late Donald Juel’s Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible), the very central texts are Christ’s healing of the epileptic child, and then immediately following it, this “true greatness” text where Christ physically places a child in the midst of the assembled disciples.
To point out the somewhat obvious, Christ’s placing of children in the middle of the assembly is paralleled and illustrated by the gospel writer placing these stories in the middle of the gospel. Both stories immediately follow after the Transfiguration text, which is, in the gospel of Mark, the closest thing we have to a resurrection account. Hence, this text absolutely pops with theological energy and import.
Everybody loves this text because it is about children, and children are so cute. It lets preachers fire all the right sentimental cylinders on the emotionality engine. Blech! When we do this, we use children as a patina, a simulacrum of really placing children in the midst of the assembly. Let me illustrate. We all know churches that bring all the children to the center of the assembly for the children’s sermon, right? However, during the rest of the sermon, are the children central? Are they models of faith? Or are they there just for the giggle and cute factor?
Jesus very distinctly does not say, “I love these cute little guys. Isn’t this kid so adorable?” He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). So the children in our assembly are Jesus in the assembly, and Jesus in the assembly is God in the assembly.
Next time somebody shifts a small child off to the side or fails to listen to them, remind them, “That is God you just failed to listen to? That is God you just put in the corner.” Some obvious liturgical corollaries of this text that could function as visible sermons include: stop withholding communion from small children; interview children for the sermon about their faith; pray for and with children.
Why Children Redux
However, this doesn’t quite cut it. Even this can tip over into child-centric sentimentality. Jesus places children in the center because they stand in for and represent the least, period. So the true read on this text is to illustrate in the assembly how we continue to marginalize children, and just so how we marginalize all kinds of people. Then, offer the truly hard word, “Now let’s do something about this. We need to change this assembly, right now, and wrap up in our arms and hold all those who had been pushed to the margins.”
The Hardest Question
We like to pay lip service to things we know we should do better but are cognizant of how hard they actually are. The hardest question has to do with stopping fake welcome in order to offer true welcome. Does bringing children forward for the children’s sermon fake a real welcome of children as completely central to Christian assembly?
Clint Schnekloth is the Lead Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has written extensively for Augsburg Fortress, including the Seasonal Essays for Sundays and Seasons and the baptismal resource Washed and Welcome. Clint blogs at http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com.