“Attending to The Margins”
Mark 9:30 – 37
Chilmark Community Church
October 18, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
When I was a kid, I used to hate getting book reports and tests back from my teacher. There were always those annoying and sometimes downright upsetting little comments in the margins – – written in red ink so that I would be sure to see them – – or worse, so that my parents would be sure to see them. It was not until I was completing my undergraduate work and then working my way through seminary that those comments in the margins began to take on a much different meaning. Frequently there would be bits of editing information in the margins that helped me see nuances I had missed. If I paid attention and incorporated the suggestions into my paper, my writing actually became stronger and clearer. As I continued on in my academic career, paying attention to what appeared in the margins became an important part of my growth as a student and a pastor.
Jesus was a teacher who attended to the margins. In the story we just read, Jesus and his disciples are on their way on the road through Galilee. Jesus has just disclosed to them that he will be betrayed and killed and will rise again. They don’t understand what he is talking about. Indeed, in Mark’s Gospel the disciples never quite seem to catch on to what Jesus means or who Jesus is. So their conversations drift to other concerns. When they finally get to the house where they will be spending the night, Jesus asks them – – maybe in an offhand kind of way – – “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” It seems pretty evident that he had a good idea of what they had been discussing or he probably wouldn’t have asked them in the first place – – and Jesus seizes a teachable moment. They had been jockeying for power – – wanting to know who would be most favored – – who would be at the top of their little hierarchy.
Jesus asks – but he doesn’t wait for their answer. Maybe he just didn’t want to hear their inept arguments or deal with their embarrassed responses yet one more time.
Instead, he gives a teaching: “Whoever wants to be first must be the last and the servant of all.” This was a pretty paradoxical and even radical teaching for that time in history. Power and abuse of power was the way of life. The Romans exercised massive military power over Israel. Males exercised power over females. Heads of families exercised the power of life and death over their wives and children and slaves.
Some time ago, archaeologists in the middle east discovered a letter written at about the same time that Mark’s gospel was written. It was written by a man named Hyperion, an Egyptian laborer who was separated from his family because of his work assignment. He wrote to his wife who was expecting their second child. The letter is written in tenderness and concern. Even so, Hyperion advises his wife that if the newborn child is male, she should embrace it, but if it is female, she should “put the child away” – that is she should let the child die of exposure. Hyperion exercised his judgment about what was best for his family. His power over the life and death of his wife and children was a part of the way society was structured under Roman culture. The poor, the weak, the sick, the female, the slave, the child –
All were powerless and all were vulnerable – – all lived in the margins of the mainstream of life.
“Then he took a little child and placed the child in the midst of them; and taking the child in his arms, Jesus gave them a teaching: ”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and not only me, but the One who sent me.”
Jesus paid attention to the margins. His greatest concern was for the little ones who lived at the margins of life. By his words and actions he directed the attention of his disciples toward the margins – – telling them that it was no longer appropriate for them to be arguing about who would be greatest among them. Indeed, the commentary from the margins was that their greatness was dependent upon their willingness to be servants of all.
This teaching is an example of the ministry which eventually led Jesus to the cross. It was a dangerous and revolutionary teaching. It reversed the accepted order of things – and in the end, could not be tolerated by the regime in power. Staying in power meant exercising control over every aspect of human life. When Jesus brought a little child into their midst and taught that the disciples must give up their power and become servants of the ones who were powerless, His revolutionary message reverberated. Jesus was dangerous. People who attend to the margins tend to be dangerous to the status quo – – but, in the end, that is what discipleship is all about.
Martin Luther King Jr. attended to the margins. The Mahatma Ghandi attended to the margins. Doctors Without Borders attend to the margins. Iconic figures like Mother Theresa attend to the margins. Their unrelenting commitment to listen to the voices from the margins brought them to servanthood. Servanthood is not glamorous and in the case of King and Ghandi, and more recently in the case of Doctors Without Borders, servanthood can be dangerous and fatal. Jesus called his friends to be servants, nonetheless.
Jesus brought a child from the margins of the disciples’ awareness right into the center of their attention. It is an image that challenges us today. Our own desire for stability and security and predictability often narrows our peripheral vision. When we are trying to keep our own lives together, just keeping up with daily concerns is enough to occupy all our attention. We aren’t very different from the disciples in that way. They all had their day to day concerns and hopes and fears, their issues of survival……and yet, Jesus directed their attention to the margins.
But his teaching was even more than a teaching about our responsibility to care for and attend to those who live precariously at the outer edges of the fullness of life.
Imbedded in the story this morning is also a lesson about our relationship to God. Jesus points out that in welcoming the child, we welcome him – – but not only him. When we welcome the child –that is when we attend to those most in need – – we find ourselves welcoming God – – the living God of all creation, the Holy One who breathes life into every living thing.
So, underneath a teaching about attending to life in the margins is Jesus desire for us to be in intimate relationship with the One who sent him. It is the work of Jesus to draw us into close communion with God. It was his greatest desire for his friends – -and for us. And so he gave a double barreled teaching: If you would be great, place yourself in the role of servant to all whom you meet – – live from the center of an attitude of servant hood. And then he adds the part that leads us into closer knowledge of God: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”
A number of years ago, I spent a long weekend at a retreat center in the Catskills. There was a large arched, wrought iron gate in front of the entrance to the main building. Welded into the design of the archway overhead were the words “See God In Each Other.” It is the spiritual principle by which Mother Theresa lived her life. As she bathed and cared for the most destitute people on the streets of Calcutta, she was caring for her Beloved Jesus. Thereby, she spent all her waking moments in the company of God. Even as she acknowledged her spiritual struggles later in life, it was this servant ministry that kept her aware of the presence of God in her daily life.
I am often amused and perplexed by the way we humans are so easily drawn to take literally the words of judgment and harshness and condemnation we often encounter in the scriptures – – yet we are unable or unwilling to take literally a principle of Jesus that we ought to understand very clearly – – when we welcome any human being into our presence – – whatever their place in life – – we are welcoming not only Jesus – – we are welcoming God.
As followers of the way of Jesus, we do not come up short on good works. What we consistently fail to do is to cultivate a vital, consistent, conscious awareness of the Living Presence of God being offered to us in our encounters with other human beings, with each other – indeed in our encounters with ourselves.
Imagine, just for a moment, what would life in our communities be like if we consistently saw the face of Christ in every resident on this island…….not just the nice ones, but the difficult ones, the ones we don’t want to be around.
The supreme gift of God to humanity is the gift of Jesus. In the human face of Jesus, we see God – – we feel the love of God. Jesus’ gift to us is even more profound. In his visible human form, he becomes our guide – – he points us toward a state of being – – a state of conscious awareness in which every human interaction is full of God.
So here is the challenge of discipleship that Jesus offers to us – -to discipline ourselves to cultivate a conscious awareness of God in each human being we encounter. Jesus invites us to attend to the human beings at the margins of our lives who are showing us the Divine Presence waiting to be welcomed – – and then to watch what happens.