Not that Kind of Baptist

Attention Must Be Paid

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Image attribution: By Tamar HaYardeni - Own work by the original uploader, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62597278

In the play Death of a Salesman, the main character Willy Loman is having an existential crisis. He is struggling with his own purpose and self-identity. Faced with the prospect of losing his job and the respect of his two sons, he is struggling to stay afloat. To my ear, one of the most powerful parts of the play is when Willy’s wife Linda defends him to their son. Linda passionately says,

 Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

 Attention must be paid. That is the quintessential human request, is it not, of the divine encounter? The story of Job, which the Lectionary treats sporadically this time of year, is about a man who experiences great suffering and pain. He is left to ponder why. He has to endure his so-called friends who unleash a barrage of bad theology and platitudes. They are often maligned for the unhelpfulness of their words. And it is true that a poorly timed word can be more destructive than silent “being with.”

But they do at least pay attention to this man in his profound suffering. One wonders what happens to Job’s wife in this…if any attention was paid to her?

And then in chapter 38, God shows up “out of the whirlwind.” For years I heard these words as those of a bully. Job is shouted down. “Where were you?” God asks in a series of rhetorical questions meant to remind Job that God is God, and Job is Job.

But I can’t help but wonder if there is another way to hear these words from God, prompted by Job's speech.  And it is in the more robust sense that the Jews call chutzpah. It is in the boldness of Abraham bargaining for the lives of Sodom. Those who dare to believe that the prospect of suffering is a proper subject for vigorous interrogation of God may very well receive an answer out of the whirlwind. Or they might receive a “thick silence” as 1 Kings 19 metaphorically describes.

But the God of the Bible who descends from the whirlwind to engage the human existential dilemma is one who is not aloof and distant. God is not the Deist’s clockmaker, setting the Earth into motion, then retiring into eternal self-reflection while the Earth burns below. No, this God is one who recognizes that humans in their finitude who cry out to God are created in God’s own image, and therefore the objects of love and creative fidelity.

God’s loving pursuit of human redemption emerges as attention being paid to the human being—as Linda Loman said—“attention must be finally paid to such a person.” It may not be the experience we’d crafted in our minds when we imagined God would emerge out of the whirlwind. But why should it be? After all, God is God and we are not.

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

Receiving the Kingdom as a Child

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Jesus tells us that we receive the kingdom as a little child.  What in the world did he mean?  How do we become as a little child?

The Gospel reading for Sunday, October 7, 2018 is a longer passage in Mark about divorce and children.  In a prior passage, Jesus taught his disciples that the antidote to their narcissism was to be welcoming to the lowest members of society.  However, in this passage, Jesus shifts his focus to the actual behavior and characteristics of children which are worthy of emulation in kingdom seeking disciples.

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. Mark 10:13–16

We shouldn't be surprised that the disciples have so easily forgotten the lesson of Mark 9:30-37 about welcoming the child.  They are portrayed as rather stubborn and difficult of learning throughout this Gospel especially.  

  • Why are the people bringing the children to be touched by Jesus?  Most likely they were seeking a blessing from Jesus, as a blessing could often be communicated through both words and a physical touch.  Baptists sometimes accompany ordination services with the "laying on of hands" which is understood to channel blessing.  Also, it could have been that some of the children were sick and their parents had heard that Jesus had healed others through his touch.
  • Why did the disciples speak "sternly" to those bringing children?  Perhaps it was their history of narcissism, of seeking their own greatness.  Perhaps they thought they were the gatekeepers to Jesus, and Jesus could not be bothered with persons as lowly as mere children.  Perhaps they were still smarting over their failure to successfully cast out the spirit from the young boy which prompted Jesus to say that "this kind can come out only through prayer." Mark 9:29.
  • Why was Jesus indignant?  This raises a host of interesting issues.  The word ἀγανακτέω means angry or indignant.  Much of Christian theology, prompted by a desire to portray God as impassive (cannot experience emotions), has interpreted any reference to Jesus' anger as merely metaphorical or human projection.  Surely the God of the Universe could not experience anger, many theologians asked rhetorically?  My own view is that Jesus really did experience emotions as the text says he did.  If we take the text at face value, and further accept that Jesus' humanity was real, then it should not be difficult to accept that Jesus could be indignant.  We could think of feeling indignant as a kind of righteous anger prompted by the disciples unjust act of preventing children from seeing Jesus.  
  • What does it mean to receive the kingdom "as a little child"?  Jesus phrases this as an exclusive requirement.  We must receive the kingdom "as a little child" or we "will never enter it."  I'll devote the rest of this blog to answering this important question.  

I think that our common sense interpretation of this passage is probably not far off from what Jesus meant.  By that, I mean we all associate certain qualities with children that can illuminate this text.  A child is born into this world:

  1. Without the ability to protect or feed itself;
  2. Entirely reliant on others for their care and keeping;
  3. Without the cynicism of our age with its distrust of genuine expression and others' motives.

These are physical and psychological realities which you could nuance with your understanding of nature vs. nurture and special exceptions.  Put into theological terms, to be a like a child then is to be entirely reliant on God's grace for entry into the kingdom.  The Bible uses different metaphors to capture the reality of becoming a child of God.  Paul speaks of adoption (a metaphor dear to my heart) in Galatians 4:4-5.   Paul also speaks of inheritance and becoming part of the family of God in Romans chapters 4 and 8.  

The power of thinking of human beings before God as little children is that it captures an essential element of biblical theology: that we are all born into this world in fundamental equality before God.  All must receive grace in order to enter the kingdom.  No person merits grace.  No person earns his or her way in.  

I believe Jesus was continuing his lesson from Mark 9:30-37 when the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest.  The reason this has to be repeated over and over again is that the disciples (and of course, we!) don't get it.  In just a few verses, James and John will come to Jesus and ask to sit at his left and right hand "in your glory."   They still didn't get it.  The kingdom of God is not about seeking our own glory.  It begins with a recognition that our own spiritual poverty (apart from God) won't do us any good.  This is why Jesus says in his very first beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

So, to be "as a little child" means we cannot rely on our own accomplishments and "greatness."  Instead, we must be solely reliant upon the will and grace of God.  There is so much more to the story, of course.  The rest of the story is nothing short of our whole lives as disciples.

But here Jesus is talking about just entering the Kingdom.  And in order to "enter" you must be reliant on God's grace alone.  

Painting attribution: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cranach_the_Elder_Christ_blessing_the_children.jpg

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

Welcoming the Child of God

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The Bible passage I'd like to explore can be summed up like this:  Jesus reacts to the disciples' narcissism by welcoming a child in their midst.  Now, what can this mean?  

My passage is drawn from last Sunday's lectionary reading, Mark 9:30-37.  In the passage, Jesus tells the disciples yet again that he will die.  They were incredulous the first time (Mark 8:31-33), and the second time they seem to ignore him.  

After leaving a child exorcism that left the 12 disciples frustrated at their lack of success, they are feeling threatened.  Their power has seemed to ebb.  What they thought was an inexhaustible supply of miracles had run dry.  This kind only comes out with prayer, Jesus explains to the disciples when they ask why they could not cast out the spirit.  

But rather than retreat to their quiet place to pray, they gather together to argue.  That should resonate with us in this cultural moment.  Their argument is about who is the greatest.  And it prompts this exchange in the Gospel of Mark.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It has long puzzled me why Jesus reacted in this way to their bickering.  But upon closer examination, I believe it is because Jesus had to display for them a tangible example of how those who are last in the society show us something powerful about God.  Or put more exactly, when we welcome the least powerful, we welcome God.

I preached about that a week ago.  You can watch it here.  

One of the main reasons it is a puzzling text is we don't "get" the child reference like the disciples would have.  Children were not elevated in first century culture.  They did not have legal rights and were not exactly held up as paragons of wisdom.  Think about all the laws governing children, their care and protection, enhanced penalties for crimes against children, and the like.  Think about the vast amounts of books and media culture which focus our cultural and parental anxieties on children, their rearing, progress, and education.  We are a child-focused culture.  

Read one way, the Bible is child focused, almost with a laser like lens at least in the first few chapters of Genesis.  Having children, fertility problems, God's promises relating to them...all loom large.  But they are not viewed the same way in the Bible as they are in our culture. 

A child could be a slave in ancient Roman society.  And in fact, there were thousands of child slaves.  

So, one possibility for the preacher--the one I took in preaching--is to see Jesus as elevating the lowly.  To the extent that children were viewed as without any special dignity or power, then his welcoming of a child is a way of turning the disciples' pretensions to power upside down. I believe this interpretation is buttressed by other passages where Jesus gives a special status to children.  A prominent example that will happen in the very next chapter is Mark 10:13-16, where the disciples again showing their stubbornness in learning, try to prevent children from seeing Jesus.  Let the little children come to me...he tells them.  Weren't they listening?  Apparently not...and apparently we aren't either.  

While they were busy arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus had just finished casting out a spirit from a child (Mark 9:14-29).  While they were busy denying that they had been pathologically obsessing about their own greatness, Jesus embraced a child.  

We might ask, who are the especially marginalized and oppressed people in our society?  And we might ask, once we begin truth telling about that, what are we doing to welcome them?  

I think of the 12,800 children separated from their families in U.S. detention facilities as the New York Times recently reported.  I think of LGBTQ persons who are routinely shut out of churches, membership and baptism and communion denied.  I think of homeless persons suffering from a lack of shelter, mental health care, and substance abuse facilities.  I think of, I think of...now you think of a child of God and fill in the blanks.  Who are you thinking of now?  Go and welcome that person.  

For, as Jesus tells us, to welcome such a child in Jesus' name is to welcome Jesus...and therefore to welcome God.  

Image attribution:
Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Let_the_Little_Children_Come_unto_Jesus.jpg

 

 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: welcoming

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