Sermon – “Last, First, Littlest, Greatest”
When you look at today’s scripture you might think – “umm children and peace – good luck bringing those two things together pastor!” But this is Jesus’ upside-down world we are called to so be prepared that things won’t be exactly how you might think they will be!
It has long been a great debate in churches – Sunday school during church or before – at least those are the two most popular formats. More and more however churches had been finding ways to incorporate the children not only into the sanctuary but as integral parts of the service itself. Yes, those noisy, wiggly, balls of energy in worship! At least that was the trend before COVID. Sadly, COVID has had to change that practice at least temporarily to keep our youngest and our oldest safer from this nasty and persistent virus.
When reading today’s gospel scripture, it seems pretty evident – Jesus practically tells us to have the kids in the sanctuary with us, at least that could be one interpretation. In this short gospel passage Jesus is called upon to settle and argument among the disciples. What are they arguing about? Which one of them is the greatest! Really guys?! Haven’t you been listening to anything Jesus has said?! Oh the egos!
Enter the short passage from James – “13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” It goes on to say “16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” “Disorder and wickedness of every kind” – YIKES! I’m hard pressed to think of two words that describe the opposite of “peace” better. So there seems at least in my mind to be some connection between a lack of peace and having an inflated ego. Let me be clear though an inflated ego and having confidence are two very different things. Remember the disciples were “arguing” that’s right fighting about which one of them was the greatest.
Turn on the news for even a second – isn’t that exactly what we’re witnessing only on a much larger scale and with billions of dollars, armies and weapons that could destroy the planet ten times over! This Sunday we also celebrate our status as a Just Peace church. It seems particularly timely when you see what’s happening in our country and the world. So what is Just Peace? What does it mean to be a Just Peace church? Just Peace is not a destination, but a path requiring awareness and constant vigilance to resolve existing and developing conflict in ourselves, our families, our communities, our institutions, and our world. This path requires non-violence when possible and even when impossible to engage in love and restraint. Just Peace envisions a renewed, vibrant, diverse, and sustainable world free of violence.
“Sustainable world free from violence” – it seems especially important to say this I have heard too many people condemn protests that have “turned violent” and while I am in no way uplifting violence it is important to remember that violence often begets violence what I mean by that is – denying someone their basic human rights is violence, relegating them to second class citizenship is violence, dehumanizing someone is violence. I think you see where I’m going with this. Please be careful to include all forms of violence if you truly want to condemn violence and that includes the violence, we ourselves perpetrate on others and on the planet. I think it was Jesus who also said something like – “let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.”
Ok let’s get back to where I started – the children. Why is this passage so powerful? This short piece where Jesus calls for the disciples to bring a child to him. Well for one in this time and in this culture children were considered the very least, like women they were considered mere possessions. So you see what Jesus was saying (per usual) was quite radical! Welcome them – the very least and littlest and you welcome me. Well, that was radical for two reasons 1. Because it was totally countercultural to how people thought and operated and especially countercultural to social norms and 2. Because it meant that Jesus was aligning himself with those who were considered “the least.” The LEAST can you imagine the Son of God considering himself “the least!”
In this gospel passage Jesus outlines one of his most upside-down teachings in one simple statement: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Where did he get such a notion? Well as I’m fond of saying Jesus learned all his best stuff from his mother! Remember Mary’s words in the Magnificat where she described God’s incredible reversal which began with her offering herself to bring forth a humble child who would be king?
She says: God has shown the strength of God’s arm,
God has scattered the proud in their conceit.
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
Jesus takes it one step further with his statement – calling on us to let go of our egos, to humble ourselves (be like a child) and serve others – all others especially those who are the most “other.” Children are not born “othering” people, with prejudices. We teach them that. They are not born hating anyone. We teach them that too.
Have you ever watched young children play? They naturally gravitate toward connection even when they notice differences. Children are agents of a true peace. Not peace that is superficial based on there being no exterior sound or noise. Children are agents of peace because they have the potential, at least more than most adults, to live in the moment, embrace joy and love openheartedly with abandon. Are those not some of the cornerstones of peace? Living in the moment, joy and unconditional love.
UNICEF Chief, Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore said this about children and peace – “Place peace first by placing children first.”
It also feels like no coincidence that we remember Shirley on this day when we bestow the award in her memory. Shirley by all accounts loved and lifted children and others who were on the margins of society, she was someone who most definitely was servant of all.
So today may we remember those who are considered last, least and littlest for they are our greatest teachers and our greatest instruments of peace. My prayer for us this day is that we strive to be last! May we remember that in welcoming those who are forgotten or ignored we are welcoming Christ himself. Amen.