Dependent, vulnerable, without control: this is how we find life and hope in God’s reign in this world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27 B
Texts: Mark 10:2-16; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Children are complicated.
You long for them to learn words, then they never stop talking. You eagerly await their first steps, then they become a running blur. They’re full of love and kindness but can rapidly turn to anger and harsh words. They change quickly, outgrow clothes astonishingly fast, and can be really challenging to be around when they’re learning to exercise their own authority and voice and opinion. Children are amazing gifts and blessings. But they are complicated.
So when Jesus says to enter into God’s reign you need to become like a child, it’s perplexing. What does he mean? Innocent? Yes, children are. But they’re also capable of sinfulness and manipulation. Trusting? Yes, but no one asks “why” better than a child. Children often need hard evidence to be convinced. In fact, children are just like adults, only smaller. Similar emotions, needs, desires, opinions, arguments appear in people of all ages.
But these truths don’t apply to most adults: children are utterly dependent on others for everything, they’re exceedingly vulnerable, and they have control over almost nothing.
That’s our entry point into God’s reign, Jesus says. Not imagining some attributes of children that aren’t true, and trying to recreate them in ourselves. But instead admitting how completely dependent, vulnerable, and without control we also are in this world.
The clues are in today’s story itself.
The disciples control access to Jesus. They’re the adults, they’re in charge. For some reason, they decide these parents can’t bring their children to Jesus. (Notice that the parents also control their children. We don’t know if the children wanted to be brought to Jesus.)
Jesus is outraged (“indignant” is too light a translation). He reaches out to these children and says two critical things: first, God’s reign belongs to vulnerable ones like these. And second, if you want in, you need to be like them.
Clues also appear in the testing the Pharisees just set. They believe Jesus doesn’t honor God’s law or teach it. They make a big mistake in choosing as a test case one of the laws Jesus considers deeply unjust. Men under Jewish law at the time could basically throw their wives away in divorce for little cause, simply by issuing a certificate of divorce. Women had no such option. So Jesus answers their harshness with harshness. If you live by the law, Jesus says, be careful. You’ll get burned by the law.
Again, Jesus’ outrage is at people in strength and authority riding roughshod over those who are vulnerable, in this case vulnerable women in a patriarchal society. An outrageous reality that still exists today, as we’ve witnessed these past weeks in Washington.
That’s not the reign of God Jesus came to create.
Jesus reveals a reign of God that is only good news to those on the bottom.
God’s reign is marked by forgiveness and grace, not by rule-keeping. It’s a reign, Jesus preaches, where the least are the greatest, where everyone is willing to serve others, where life is found in letting go of domination and control.
Jesus announces good news to those who are poor and those who are oppressed, those who are downhearted and those who are sinful. Jesus goes out of his way to welcome into God’s reign people the so-called “good” people have written off.
And today Jesus takes a child into his arms to make it absolutely clear: “This is how you come to God.”
If you want to come to God and maintain control over your life, if you think that you don’t depend on anyone, not even God, if you are determined to protect yourself and your things and your opinions and your rights, you will learn it is impossible to understand or receive God’s reign.
But if you’re willing to admit you’re as vulnerable and dependent as any child, or as those women they were debating throwing away like so much trash, if you’re willing to admit you control nothing of importance in your life, that you are weak, well, Jesus says, I’ve got good news for you. I came for people just like you.
I have come that you might have life, Jesus says, but life isn’t found in control, and independence, and invincibility. When you admit your weakness, your dependence on my mercy and love, I will take you into my arms, I will always forgive you, and I will set you down again with the strength and courage to love God and love neighbor with every breath of your being.
You will know life, then, like you’ve never known it before.
That’s the true Good News of God the Son of God wants you to know.
To show you this, Hebrews says today, in Christ the Triune God became the most vulnerable and dependent of all. Christ relinquished all control and self-protection. Instead of supporting those who would crush others by their self-righteousness, Christ Jesus tasted death, Hebews says, suffered completely to become the pioneer, the guide for your healing, your saving.
Jesus also revealed that being vulnerable and dependent on God means being vulnerable and dependent on each other. While that opens you up to all sorts of pain and loss and daily death, the risen Christ has also revealed this is a path of life, even now.
When you’re willing to become one of the least, to let go of control, you find the true God has already gotten there ahead of you, and you begin to understand: God’s love can only happen where God is, and that’s always with those who are lost, those who are the least, those who are stepped upon in our midst. Those who are vulnerable and dependent, who control nothing.
Love of neighbor begins there, too, when you see everyone as a neighbor to be served, everyone as worthy of your love and care.
This is also the Good News the world has desperately needed for so long.
The healed, whole world the Triune God desires, begun by taking on our human life and continuing by making us all new, is found when we become children again, utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, and utterly loved and graced.
The reign of God belongs to such as these, Jesus says.
And isn’t it a relief? A relief to let go of your need to prove your righteousness, to let go of your fear of failure? A relief to not have to be in charge, to find life in depending on God and your neighbor, to find healing and hope in vulnerable love and life?
You are a beloved, blessed child of God. Good news: that’s exactly what you need to be to enter into God’s reign of life and love.
In the name of Jesus. Amen