Sermon September 19 A Place at the Table (Mark 9:33-37) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you ever have a ‘kids table’ at your house? Usually a ‘kids table’ would happen at holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas – when grandparents or aunts/uncles/cousins would all be together, and there just wasn’t going to be room for everyone at whatever the usual dining table was.
And so somewhere near-ish, like maybe in the kitchen or in an adjoining living room, a cardtable or two would be put up, and that would be the ‘kids table’.
Where we’d all sit, when we were kids. Until, at some point, and often rather mysteriously, we’d suddenly find ourselves – randomly, one Thanksgiving, or one Christmas – magically at the grown-ups table. Ready for important adult company. No longer one of the kids.
It’s a bit of a thrill – getting a place at that table. But it takes a little longer, I think, to really feel integrated into the conversation. There’s often a certain shyness about jumping in, a kind of invisible line of differentness that’s drawn, like we're not convinced we really CAN be part of the conversation. Or that it’s a conversation to which we might have anything useful to contribute.
And when we’re the grown-ups, it can equally take a while to cross that invisible line. To realize that the one-time kids-table kid who’s suddenly made it to the grown-ups table might in fact NOT need special kid-type questions about school or soccer or other kid-type stuff, but might instead just be ready to... join the conversation. And make that invisible line of differentness disappear.
When Jesus and his disciples are travelling along the road toward Capernaum, in the passage from Mark that we heard just now, the disciples have apparently been hanging back a bit behind Jesus while they all walked together.
And arguing. Not loudly, probably just whispering to each other, they don’t want him to hear what they’re saying – but he CAN hear that something’s going on back there, and presumably he can tell that it was some sort of argument. So he asks them. “Hey, what’s going on back there?”
And... crickets. Everyone looking at each other guiltily. They don’t want to admit what they were arguing about because what they were arguing about was which of them was the greatest.
The greatest disciple. It’s interesting that we never really get a definition in this passage of what being the greatest actually MEANT to them. Was it about being the one Jesus loved best? Was it about being the one he depended on most? Was it the one seemed most holy? Or righteous? Or loyal?
We don’t know. It could have been the one who was best at finding firewood or making sure there's something to EAT at the end of each day – we really have no idea.
But probably what their argument came down to, in all likelihood, was probably something along the lines of “If Jesus is our leader, which one of us is his second-in-command? What about third? Or fourth?”
The disciples may well largely have been fishermen, with a tax collector or two thrown in for good measure, but they obviously understand power. They obviously understand hierarchy and influence and the value of being at the top of one, and having the other.
So they’re hashing it out with each other. Where do I stand, in relation to you? Who am I more important than, in this enterprise? Who’s going to listen when I say something, all of you? Half of you? And whose voice, other than Jesus’, do we all more-or-less agree is more influential than our own? Anyone’s? Whose?
They’re working out their hierarchy of influence, amongst themselves. And whether they’ve decided that’s based on holiness, or how much Jesus seems to depend on them, or how good they are at encouraging people to follow him? We don’t know. What we DO know is that the disciples understand that the closer they are to the top, to the centre, to the one who’s MOST important, the greater their own importance.
The greater their own influence and voice in the group. The more likely it is that when decisions have to get made, they’ll get a say. And they’ll be listened to.
So there they are, arguing on the road about who’s the greatest. And when Jesus catches them at it, and demands to know what they were arguing about, they DO have at least the grace to look a little sheepish about it.
But if they think looking sheepish is going to be enough to get them off the hook on this one, alas, they are quite wrong. Because when it comes to his disciples, Jesus is far too wise to depend on them just looking sheepish: they are clearly in need of a very stern lecture.
So he delivers one. It’s very very stern. It’s also very short. “Whoever among you wants to be first, wants to be greatest," he says to them, "must be the last of all and the servant of all.”
That’s it. End of lecture. But as the disciples all nod solemnly and say absolutely nothing in response, it’s almost like Jesus can hear the wheels turning in their heads. Like now some of them are thinking “So… I guess that means I’M the greatest because I’m definitely the most humble!”. So much for the lecture.
But fortunately Jesus is Jesus – even when we lay out our worst, he understands the human condition, he understands where these things come from. He understands that if the disciples seem overly concerned about how important they might be, relative to one another, it’s only because the way things usually work in the world. The closer you are to the centre of power, the more influence you have, the more say you have, the more you get listened to. That’s just the way it is.
So Jesus understands where they’re coming from. He just wants to change it. He wants it to change. So no more lecture. Instead, object lesson. Jesus reaches out his arm, and (oddly) there’s suddenly a child there, no idea where he came from or how he got there, but Jesus takes that child and shows him to the disciples. “Whoever welcomes a little child like this one in my name, welcomes me and the one who sent me.”
That's it. End of object lesson. But it's a good one. Because for the disciples, at that time, the symbol of a child -- it has nothing to do with innocence, or simple faith, or any of the other sentimental notions we might nowadays associate with childhood.
Because at that time, that was NOT the way childhood was perceived, symbolically. At best they were tiny as-yet-untrained adults, useful to a degree perhaps at small-scale unskilled labour, but entirely undependable not to go off behaving badly without notice – and at worst they were just vulnerable. Prone to being carried off by a cough or a sudden fever, no solid record of staying-power at all.
So for the disciples, the symbol of a child has everything to do with worth, with influence, with power. Because children have none in that context. Zero. And the disciples would instantly have recognized that. They'd have immediately understood the point Jesus was making.
That it's that powerlessness, that lack of influence, as embodied in a little child, that Jesus is telling them he wants welcomed at his table. Not just in a friendly sort of way, where they’re sort of included by being asked kid-type questions so that they feel like they're sort of part of things – he wants them at his table in his name. As fully as he would be. With their utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless voices now completely integrated into the real conversations at hand.
It’s a different kind of vision of whose voice needs to be heard in community: who should have a say, who should have influence. Not just those with obvious power and sway according to whatever measure the world has decided provides them -- closeness to the top, greatness in terms of success or financial means – but also, and crucially, those who by the world’s measure are usually given no power or influence at all. Like children. Or the very poor. Or the uneducated. Or even just the ordinary.
This passage is about who needs a place at the table. And essentially Jesus’ point to the disciples, to us, is that instead of wasting their energy worrying about how great THEY might be, how important THEIR place at the table might be, what they should be doing instead is looking around them at that table and thinking who's missing? Who are we not hearing from? Because if we say all people are beloved of God, then that has to actually mean something on the ground. The way we seek to be together in the world, the way God wants -- and we want -- the world to be, has to be just as surely shaped by the hopes, the needs, the frustrations, of those who are too easily ignored.
One of the things I did over the summer was I participated in some roundtable discussions about the housing crisis in Halifax. The fact that there's literally nothing available in HRM right now below a level of rent that hundreds and hundreds of people can't afford, despite the fact that fully 80% of the homeless in Halifax right now have jobs. And I was there as an "expert" who knows about homelessness.
But oh my word, I really didn't. Because included in that roundtable were a whole lot of people I didn't even know were out there. One of them referred to themselves as the Invisible Middle. Who do still have a place they can afford on the fixed income of a pension, but they're this close to losing it to renoviction. And there'll be nowhere else they can go. The waves of stress and fear coming off them were unbelievable.
Me, an expert on homelessness in Halifax? I didn't know a thing. Not until I was at a table that they were at too.
So whose voice isn’t being heard? Who’s missing in the conversation? We’re called by this reading – if our experience tends automatically to be included in the conversation – to intentionally step back. To make space and then pay attention. To zip it and listen.
And then amplify what we've heard so that whose needs are cared about, and who gets influence and authority and a say in our society is changed.
Jesus does push. And if what he’s pushing in this conversation with the disciples, with us, IS absolutely technically an insistence on making space for the marginalized in our spheres of who matters – and it is –
Maybe, also, secondarily, it’s not actually a coincidence that the example who conveniently pops up here under his arm when he needs an object lesson, is a child. Because a child is a child is a child. Right? Wherever they are. Still sufficiently free of all the layers of differentness we accumulate awareness of over time, to just see each other as possible friends. And to act that way, without reserve.
Because put two kids, no matter how utterly different, in a puddle? They’ll splash and make friends. Give them some paper? They’ll sail paper boats, and make friends. Seat them in the kitchen at the card table? They’ll have a roaring good time behaving badly together, and they’ll make friends. They make it look so easy to expand their table. May it be so for us too, God being our helper. Amen.