Proper 20B Sermon (2000)

Proper 20 (Sept. 18-24)
Texts: Mark 9:30-37;
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a


Then Jesus 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…”

We often see this verse by itself, with its theme of welcoming children that deserves our focus and attention. As we have undertaken mission exploration here at Emmaus in the last several months, in fact, I think it describes well the theme that has come to fore for us. We’ve established a helping relationship with Wadewitz elementary school. And the 2nd floor renovations, along with the new Sunday School curriculum, have combined to make a statement that children are welcome here. Next Sunday we will be visited by a representative from Kids Hope USA, in yet another effort to not only welcome children, but to reach out to them in love.

Yes, these verses about welcoming children do well, even when standing by themselves. But we do have them in their context today, too, and I think the context helps us to get even deeper. Welcoming children is the positive thing that we need to do. But welcoming children is also a contrast to the negative thing that we need to stop doing.

The wider context of these verses includes two prior themes: (1) Jesus continues to be extremely straightforward with his disciples that he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (2) The disciples don’t show the slightest understanding of what this about, as they continue to argue and fight amongst themselves about who is the greatest. The negative thing they need to stop doing is this fighting to be first. So Jesus gathers his disciples and tells them flat-out, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And just in case they still aren’t getting it — and they’re not — Jesus takes a child in his arms as an object lesson. These days, we’re used to having object lessons for the children to help them understand. But in today’s gospel Jesus uses a child as an object lesson to help the disciples understand.

Do you think the disciples finally got it? Not really. And that’s usually a good signal that it’s going to be hard for any would-be disciples of Jesus to get it. Do we get it today? I’d say there’s definitely signs of not getting at least parts of it.

About a year-and-a-half ago we had another school referendum up for vote. I felt strongly enough about it to write a “Parson to Person” column in the newspaper. I want to recall that column today because I think that what I was trying to say there was hopefully in the spirit of what Jesus is trying to get us to understand in today’s gospel.

In that column I tried to lift up what I see as the spiritual side of issues such as schools — which, when we are talking about our modern day children, is one of the most important parts of their lives. If we are going to heed Jesus’ words about being welcoming to children, today that means being involved with their education, doesn’t it? I think that our Mission Exploration Team has been right on in getting Emmaus involved with Wadewitz school, and now asking us to look at the Kids Hope USA mentoring program with school children.

But there’s also that aspect of the negative thing we need to stop doing: fighting with one another about who’s the greatest. Think a moment about our recent school referendums here in town. Why do we keep turning them down? Can we acknowledge that it’s because of some form of us grown-ups fighting with one another over who is the greatest? The animosity between the school board and the teachers’ union is often pointed to as a major factor. But I raise this issue not as a way of pointing the finger at anyone, or any one group. I would like us modern day disciples of Jesus to be honest about our own responsibility in this, no matter which way we voted in the referendum. And notice who it is that suffers the most when we adults can’t agree. Isn’t it the children? Jesus’ disciples continually argued about who was the greatest amongst themselves, and Jesus responds by taking a child in his arms and saying, “Forget about yourselves a moment, and think of the least among you, not the greatest, because that’s where you’ll always find me.”

This might be a good time to ask with St. James:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures….

This is why I talked about Affluenza in that newspaper column about the school referendum. St. James understands well our disease of conflicting desires. In our modern context, I find the notion of Affluenza, a name coined by that Public Broadcasting TV show, (1) to be an apt description of what James is talking about here. Another standard way of putting it is, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Our lives are so focused on keeping up with our neighbor’s desires, getting the same things they get. And when we adults are so caught up in the consumption of things and the status it brings, who loses out the most? Our children. First of all, they are likely to become carbon copies of us. If we look at our children and see insatiable consumers, we need to see that they are simply more obvious, less subtle, versions of us adults.

But there is an even more dangerous downside for our children when we are caught up with the conflicts that come with Affluenza: they get neglected. We are so busy with our stuff, and with our arguments, that there’s no way we could put the children first like Jesus is asking us to do today. There’s not only our children here in Racine, but there’s millions of children all over the world who barely eak out their existence from day-to-day. Our high school youth had a small taste of this in Juarez, Mexico, this past summer, where they shared their time and love with children who live in a poverty that most of can’t even imagine.

So is this Good News, or just something to get us all feeling guilty this morning? Our high school, as they devoted a week of their lives to these children, found it to be Good News. It helped them to cut through the morass of Affluenza, if only for a week, and to encounter the kind of love that truly satisfies us and makes us come alive. For Affluenza, as the name implies, is a disease. It’s a condition that ultimately leaves us feeling less happy and alive. When we were encountering John 6 this summer, about Jesus the Bread of Life who truly satisfies us, we talked about how all our consumerism, our Affluenza, is a bread that continually leaves us unsatisfied, craving more. And as St. James so clearly tells us this morning, Affluenza, our conflicting desires, is also at the heart of our conflicts, our lack of peace in living with one another.

Jesus’ disciples continually argued about who was the greatest amongst themselves, and Jesus responds by taking a child in his arms and saying, “Forget about yourselves a moment, and think of the least among you, not the greatest, because that’s where you’ll always find me.” Yes, this is Good News! We can stop fighting precisely by welcoming the children, by forgetting our skirmishes to be first and instead finding God’s love for those who usually finish last in our world. We find peace, we find true life, we find God, when we welcome the least of this world, when we welcome the child. It is a wonderful invitation to keep before us as Emmaus continues to prayerfully reach out in mission. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 23-24, 2000

1. For more information on Affluenza see the PBS website at:


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