Posted by: Renee | October 22, 2012

Who is important enough?

SERMON: “Growing Up and Growing Young”

© Rev. Bert Montgomery, October 14, 2012

Presented to University Baptist Church, Starkville, MS

Mark 10:13-16 (Dalen Jackson Translation)1

And they were bringing children to him so he could hold them. But his disciples scolded them. But when Jesus saw, he was indignant, and he told them, “Let the children come to me, and don’t stop them–you know, the kingdom of God is made up of people like them. I’m telling you the truth, whoever doesn’t accept the kingdom of God like a child won’t come into it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them and laid his hands on them.

~~~~~

Mother’s Day, 1997.

The young Montgomery family was living in Memphis. After morning worship at our church, we stopped at Walmart to pick up just a few items.

But when I got inside … there in a Memphis, Tennessee, Walmart … walking up and down the chips aisle talking on his cell phone … was one of my childhood musical heroes …

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top!

Billy was talking on his cell phone and pointing to various snack foods and soft drinks, and this big, burly, roadie-type of guy, who was pushing a cart, would grab whatever Billy pointed to and then toss it into the buggy.

I did what every ZZ Top would have done – I stood on the next aisle over and eavesdropped. He was talking about having a layover in Memphis, grabbing some grub, and where he’ll be the next day.

I put off my shopping for a few minutes and stalked (though, I prefer the word “followed”) from a distance, and when Billy and Mr. Burly Man went to check out, I ran outside and waited. As they walked out, I approached.

“Mr. Gibbons! Please excuse me, but I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. My older cousin turned me onto ZZ Top in the 1970s. I have all of your albums, some t-shirts, posters – I’m a big fan. May I have your autograph, please?”

Billy looked at me, paused for a moment, then looked over to Mr. Burly Man assistant. No words were spoken. Mr. Burly Man then pushed his cart between Mr. Gibbons and his adoring fan, saying, “we don’t know what you’re talking about.” And they went their way.

I was crushed.

My wife wanted to hunt them down and tell Billy Gibbons exactly how much money I had spent on ZZ Top stuff in my measly twenty-plus years of life, and how if it weren’t for idiots like me, he wouldn’t have a big burley assistant doing all of his unpleasant work for him …

But, we just went home. It took me a few years to get over that and to be able to start really enjoying the Top again.

~~~~~

Sometimes we just have to accept our place in society.

Some people are just important; others are not-so-important; and still others are a total nuisance and a drain on time, energy, resources, etc.

This political season it is so very easy for all of us to fall into the trap of classifying individuals and entire groups of people (about whom we know next to nothing, but think we know all we need to know), as important, not-so-important, and total nuisances which should just go away. 

The very structures of our society are based upon achievement, success, prestige, wealth, power – of importance, and the lack thereof. Of movers and shakers. Of mid-level managers. Of peons. And everyone in between. 

~~~~~

In our text today, the disciples, who in the context of the Roman Empire, were part of an entire group of insignificant people who needed to be ruled over by the more important, more powerful, more wise Romans … in our text today these “discarded” disciples were feeling a bit empowered by their close association with Jesus. 

Jesus is preaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is feeding the masses. Jesus is healing the sick and casting out demons. Jesus is continuously confronting the religious establishment – which had to some degree or another made peace with their place in the Roman Empire. And more than a few times in Mark’s Gospel, prior to this morning’s text, Jesus refers to the reversal of fortunes – that the first shall be made last and the last shall be made first.

The disciples sensed that Jesus may very well be the promised Messiah. And, like James Carville and Karl Rove, the disciples began positioning themselves around Jesus to become important advisors, confidants, and leaders in Jesus’ rise to power. And the disciples began acting like Jesus’ “handlers” – watching out for Jesus, helping Jesus get to where he wants to go without having to be bothered with little things, and certainly a man on the rise didn’t have time to be bothered with little people … 

In today’s text, Jesus’ handlers are on top of their game. Moving Jesus along from important event to important event, keeping eyes open for possible important people Jesus may need to speak with, and keeping eyes open and arms out protecting Jesus from the demands of useless folks, little people, peons.

 ~~~~~

I confess that today’s title – which came very early in the week – comes from our Americanized general interpretation of this Gospel story.

Come as a child –

full of wild-eyed wonder,

imagination,

trust,

innocence,

and with a sense of adventure.

Plenty of wonderful and inspiring sermons spring from this theme …. but as the week went on, I was reminded that the original hearers of Mark’s Gospel were not hearing feel-good reminders to set free the child within (which I love, by the way; and, if that’s what you want, I can loan you our video of the Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman movie Hook – a modernized retelling of Peter Pan reminding grown men of the adventures and wonder of the magic of childhood).

No, the original hearers of Mark’s Gospel heard this as a radical and revolutionary challenge to the religious and social status quo. 

The focus, as Elizabeth Malbon2 points out, is not upon the childrens’ “innocence,” but upon the childrens’ “powerlessness.”

Markan scholar Richard Horsley3 builds the case that when Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God belongs to children” – it

sharpens the agenda of the whole Gospel story that the Kingdom of God is present for the people, the peasant villagers, as opposed to people of standing, wealth, and power.”

Mark’s Gospel, when read in full – in one sitting – or better yet, when heard read aloud or seen presented in a monologue or play-like style (which, by the way, many scholars believe it was originally done – performed like a Greek play to tell the Gospel story) leaves little room for fantasy-type feel-good inspiration. It is clearly a story of radical inclusion and confrontation of power and prestige. It is clearly a story of warning to those who enjoy their positions in society, and it is clearly a story of hope and acceptance to the many hopeless, powerless, discarded, and “weak” folks in “the masses.”

A few verses before today’s text Jesus warns against casual discarding of wives, thereby giving status and importance to a group of people with almost no status or importance.

In the verses that follow today’s text Jesus tells a man to walk away from his prestige, wealth, luxury and importance, which, perhaps being filled with ambition and a sense of self-made success, the man is not willing to do.

~~~~~ 

Mark’s Gospel as a whole, and particularly today’s story about Jesus welcoming children, is good news for many, but not-so-good-news for some.

If your achievements tempt you to look down upon others who have achieved less …

If your position in your family, in your company, in your department, in your class, in your fraternity or sorority, in your organization, in your church, is something that brings you satisfaction to the point you feel like you’ve been entrusted with “the important work” …

to the point that you relate to someone else as “less important” ….

to the point that you dismiss others for being “lazy,” “unworthy,” “dirty,” “uncouth,” “uncultured,” or “unimportant” …

then today’s text is a flat-out repudiation of your value-system.

Lest you hear this as a political sermon giving the context of recent statements that have been made … let’s keep in mind that both Democrats and Republicans pander to “the important” folks, the “movers and shakers,” the folks with money and influence. While they may bicker about whom they represent, both parties, and our culture in general, stand in judgment from today’s text.

BUT …

If you’ve ever been left out,

if you’ve ever been “written off,”

if you’ve ever been bullied,

if you’ve ever been made to feel you don’t dress right,

look right,

think right,

act right,

you don’t have enough credentials,

you don’t have enough to offer,

that you’re a loser,

a drain on society and our resources,

a nuisance who gets in the way when important work is trying to get done …

then this text is for you!

Jesus says YOU are the important ones. Jesus says YOU are the ones that matter. When the burly men are trying to keep you away from Jesus because he has serious matters to tend to, Jesus stops everything and welcomes you and reminds you that you are most important to him.

When our churches act like the disciples, acting as Jesus’ handlers to keep folks away and protect Jesus’ time and energy,

Jesus rebukes us and welcomes the unwelcomed. 

But when we in our churches open our doors wide and welcome the unwelcomed, Jesus is here with us blessing us all as God’s children created in God’s image.

~~~~~

1 Dr. Dalen Jackson is Academic Dean & Professor of Biblical Studies at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky (www.bsky.org). This is from his unpublished, direct-from-the-biblical-Greek translation of the Gospel of Mark, “According to Mark.”

2 Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International) 67.

3 Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Wesminister John Knox Press, 2001) 189.

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