Rev. Jessica Palys
Before I get started, I just want to say thank you to Stephen King and Anton Jacobs for filling the pulpit in my absence and especially to Anton for shepherding the Klassen family through a painful period of grief. It’s unusual for a pastor to take such a long absence after only 10 weeks in the pulpit, but I’m so grateful for both the learning embedded in the week of transitional ministry training, and for the extended amount of time to tend to my friends’ wedding as well as see loved ones that I haven’t been able to visit for 18 months.
I am also thankful for Jerry, and Kelli, our music department, and Emily, Curtis and Lee, our administrative team this year, for all they do to keep this church stable and functioning; running a church ain’t no small matter. And lastly, to Sue Ann and all the volunteers who were already working daily on the rummage sale before I ever left town, and apparently just kept at it all the way through yesterday. What an amazing amount of work and dedication to pull that off.
While I was away, I attended the Transitional Ministry Education Consortium’s week-long training in order to learn some techniques and sharpen my skills in walking with a congregation through transition. The workshop was originally for interim pastors who come between long term pastors, but now it’s generally acknowledged that nearly all our congregations are in a constant state of transition. With demographics and culture changing so fast, society demands that faith communities adjust along with them - or fade into the past. But, as we like to say in organizing, change brings movement, and movement brings friction, and friction brings heat; that is to say, tension often arises in the midst of change, as well as uncertainty and anxiety. That in itself is not a bad thing, because periods of transition and uncertainty are often times of great growth and development - I mean, think back to your own life and about times you were in transition and how you emerged on the other side. Indeed, sometimes transition is when the holy spirit sneaks in. But periods of transition and uncertainty are rarely comfortable, for us as individuals or as organizations.
Uncertainty was certainly facing the disciples here in this scripture passage. Today’s gospel reading is the second time in as many chapters when Jesus foretells a mystifying end; the son of man will be ‘handed over’ to be killed, and will rise again in 3 days. The disciples, so starry eyed about the evidence of God’s power in Jesus, so hyped up to be a part of God’s kingdom, really thought that meant taking over their promised land with righteous might and the power of God. They were jazzed to be part of the soon-to-be ruling class, and were arguing about who might have the greater rank after it was all said and done. And just like us, they were trying think about who would be part of the in-crowd, who would get the most likes, who would have the respect of their peers.
Now, it’s important to note how society was different back in Jesus’ day. Keep in mind that back in Jesus’ time, there was no such thing as Capitalism - that system and all its benefits and evils wouldn’t come for 1500 more years. Rather, in Jesus’ time the governing system was an honor-based system called patronage. People traded on reputation, much more so than they do today. It was a system with Patrons - people of higher wealth, prestige and power, and clients of lower status. Clients would always seek to secure someone wealthier with higher status as patrons in order to solidify their status and allow them to climb. Reputations and connections to those with higher status was as important to economic potential as it was to popularity; every relationship was transactional. As a client, your labor and skills would benefit the patron you served, and your patron would open doors that would otherwise remain closed to you. This system of honor dominated every facet of life; from who’s crest you carried, to what you were able to say out loud, to the order of how one sat at the dinner table. As a client, someone of inferior status, in exchange for the good favor of your patron or benefactor, you would owe them loyalty and gratitude, and honorific statements in public.
Jesus hears his disciples arguing about how has the higher rank amongst his followers, and recognizes the trappings of earthly power and a teaching opportunity, because they just don’t seem to be getting it. He tells them, those of you who want to be first must be last and the servant of all. In the Greek translation, the word used here is diakonos, which is the root of our word deacons and diaconate, but which meant something different: A diakonos was one who served meals and only ate after everyone else had their fill. This person was the lowest in rank of all the servants who worked in a patron’s home. And then, he refers to a child.
Now, this verse is so often infused and romanticized with our 21st century values about the beauty and innocence of children. But it’s important to note that is *not* what Jesus’ disciples heard.
In Jesus’ time, children are not elevated as they are in today’s society. They are, of course, most likely loved by their parents, but in terms of honor and status, they rank near the bottom. According to biblical scholar Sharon Ringe, “A child did not contribute much if anything to the economic value of a household or a community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggle for prestige or influence. Honoring a child with the rituals of hospitality or respect would offer no benefit; it would not help you gain favor of someone of higher status.” In the transactional nature of the patronage system that rests of reciprocity, children are, at best, a burden and at worst, a nuisance.
Jesus drives this point home, again, by his word choice. What is translated as ‘little child’ in Greek, paidon, is a word that resembles another word for servant, pais. With this, he makes it clear lest they confuse him with another patron in their usual system; In order to be with the community of Jesus, they will demote themselves to the most worthless beings in society. They will be without social standing or honor. I’m sure the disciples must have been thinking, “Become like Children? You sure?” Making a point of offering hospitality at all to a child is topsy turvy and a bit scandalous since they have nothing to offer back; telling the disciples to become like children is a direct affront to the dominant values of human society of their time.
So it’s important to note how society was different in Jesus’ time. But it’s also important to note how society is the same. Because, although we do not function in an explicit patronage system that assigns value and rank based on status, wealth, or success…. we haven’t really escaped it, either. We still fight over who is best, we still create cliques and exclude others… we still scamper after those with power and neglect those who have none. We still strive for security and the social safety of being part of an ‘in’ crowd. And, as change, uncertainty and anxiety ratchet up in any society, organization or system, people are more likely to look for safety and belonging in the clique of their choosing, and forget that we are all here to love each other and serve each other.
With this illustration of children, Jesus pointedly asks the question: How are you to the people who can do nothing for you? How to we treat the one who has nothing to offer us? How are we to people who are not useful in our lives? How do we conduct ourselves with those who are a challenge? Who is in, and who gets left out?
A few months ago, right in the middle of my move, I caught a headline on Facebook that said something like, Did Loneliness Give America Trump? It was an article referring to a new book by Michael Bender, a Washington Post reporter embedded with the Trump Campaign, bewildered by the continued energy of the people at the rallies. In his book, entitled “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” Bender switches his attention from the candidate to the lives of the people attending those rallies with him and comes up with a much deeper and disconcerting story that has continued implications for our country. Bender says a large proportion of the former President’s most ardent supporters were people who suffered from lack of purpose, no community, and loneliness. Paraphrasing the article,
“Many were recently retired and had time on their hands and little to tie them to home,” writes Bender. “A handful never had children. Others were estranged from their families.” Throwing themselves into Trump’s movement, they found a community and a sense of purpose. “[Their lives] had become bigger with Trump,”
People who had become worthless to society and other groups found value in following the campaign from town to town. Becoming a part of the Trump campaign gave these people belonging, a word that, to me, represents the most important aspect of human life. Humans are social creatures who do not function well in extended isolation. Surely these 18 months of pandemic lifestyle have driven that point home.
That article was posted by one of my favorite Seminary professors, Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, with a provocative question; is this the work of the church in the 21st Century? Is the work of the church to be a force that resists loneliness? Is it our job to create belonging in a society adrift and drowning in loneliness?
That article, and that question, have been on my mind ever since. To me, that word belonging has so many meanings. It is one of the most important, and yet is one of the most elusive properties of our lives together. We all know what it means intrinsically, and we all know when we’ve felt it, but it’s nearly impossible to wholly define. But I believe it is the critical work of the church. Belonging is the glue that can hold a family, a society, and a congregation together. I believe belonging is what allows us to keep it together. But what creates belonging? Acceptance? loyalty? connection? trust? support? Over the next week, I invite you to ponder what that word belonging means to you, and to send me a sentence or two in an email so that we can collectively investigate this concept over the next few weeks. Consider when you’ve felt like you belonged; what made that possible? When and how have you created belonging for someone else? How have you treated someone who had nothing to offer you, those society would deem of low rank? When have you failed to offer belonging to someone? What aspects of the groups you are a part of create a sense of belonging, and when do they not? How does our congregation measure up?
I look forward to your thoughts and what kind of revelations we might have as a community of Christ who loves each other, loves the children of God, and loves those who have no rank.