They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.” --Mark 9:30-37 (CEB)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a child, my mother - as most mother’s do, I think - try to convince their children to eat everything that is on their plate. (You’ll notice that I learned that lesson well!) One of my mom’s stock phrases to encourage us was to remind us that there were starving children in China. (Perhaps you heard this, too?) As my siblings and I got older, we used to mock my mom, asking her how not eating our food would help these starving Chinese children. Was she going to personally pack up our leftovers and ship them overseas? You can only imagine what a hard time we gave her!
Yet, there was truth behind this saying for her. It was about not wasting our food. The ultimate truth behind this statement was for us to learn to not use more than we needed. Notice, I said needed. And not wanted.
This difference between need and want was something I worked hard at with my own son. While I backed off pushing him to clean his plate, I still tried to teach him to make choices that were moderate choices. To only take as much food as he could actually eat. To live simply and frugally. And to remember that he was part of a vast earth filled with billions of people who were all interconnected and loved by God. And, yes, that wasting food was not a good thing, especially when we knew there we so many others out there who didn’t have as much or even anything to eat.
Tonight, we come together on this first day of Lent. Ash Wednesday. When we will receive the ashes on our foreheads. And remember our eventual return to that from which we were made. Dust. Earth. And the breath of God.
In Genesis 2, we hear how God created humankind after God had first made the rest of creation. Forming man out of the dust of the ground. Breathing into his nose the breath of life. If one looks closely at this verse in the Hebrew, we recognize that it’s a Hebrew pun. Adam, meaning human. Adamah, meaning dust of the ground. Humanity - we - are literally people of the dirt.
We don’t like to think of ourselves this way. As “dirt people.” Instead, we like to think of ourselves as good. Often, as really good. Or, even the best. The best at what we do. At who we are. Particularly, at being the people of God. I wonder if it’s more cultural than anything else. After all, in our country, we’re all about being first, aren’t we? Maybe that’s why it’s no real surprise to us in tonight’s reading that the disciples are arguing over this very same question. About which one of them is greatest. Or the best. About which one of them is first. This, when just a few verses earlier, Jesus has been trying to teach them about the betrayal and death he will suffer by human hands. By the very hands of dirt people.
This is Jesus’ second of three teachings in Mark of his own death. Each time, scripture tells us that the disciples were agnoeo in Greek. Meaning, ignorant. Not understanding. One wonders if it was willful. Or perhaps it was just easier to remain ignorant. Because to face the truth of what the future would bring might be too frightening. We, as human beings, do not like to talk about death. Whether it is our own death, or the death of loved ones, or even the death of our eco-systems, we don’t like to talk about it, because to do so is to face the reality that everything and everyone eventually dies.
Maybe this is why we like to pretend that global warming isn’t happening, even though the evidence for it is all around us. Perhaps this is why we continue to engage in practices in our own lives that perpetuate it. Our insistence, for example, on continuing to use single-use plastics, even though we know the damage this has done to our environment. Our willful ignorance of our own carbon imprint and our unwillingness to change practices to mitigate it. Our resistance to electing political leaders who will begin to address the devastation we have brought upon our planet, much less even admit that we are the major cause of this, because admitting it would mean that, for us, just as for the disciples, being first is more important than anything else. Perhaps even more important than Jesus’ own sacrifice and death.
Notice that, in his response, Jesus turns the disciples to focus on the children. Children, who, in Jesus’ day had no status, when infant mortality rates often reached 30%, with another 30% of children dead by the age of six, and another 60% percent gone by the age of sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation. Childhood in Jesus’ day was a time of terror.
For many children in our world today, it is also a time of terror. Here in Kentucky alone, over 11 million children live in food insecure households. At least 4 million families with children are being exposed to high levels of lead. Fourteen million families are faced with water bills that they can no longer afford for water often contaminated with pollutants from pesticide, fertilizer runoff, or coal ash. Those who are last in our world - children and other vulnerable populations - are much more likely than any others to experience the greatest negative effects of global warming.
Do the disciples care about the children? Do we care about the children? And not just our own children and grandchildren. Do we care about the children in China as well as the rest of the world? Leah Schade writes that “How we treat the most vulnerable in human society...reveals our values. It’s also how we treat the most vulnerable in God’s creation. For example, if we look at a beautiful forested mountain and only value it for the coal or gas or oil beneath its surface and are willing to sacrifice [that mountain] for our short-term needs, then we are, in fact, not following God’s will for ourselves or our children. The well-being of children and the well-being of God’s creation are fundamentally linked.”
This is why Ash Wednesday and Lent is so important for us. Because it is a season of coming in touch with our own sinfulness, our own need for redemption, and our own mortality. It’s a time for us to learn - to really learn - what it is to be people of the dirt. To be dust and ashes. To give up being first. To learn moderation, as my mother tried to teach us. To care for all of the children and the vulnerable in our world. And to realign ourselves with the earth from which we came and the breath of God which gives us life, before the "dust returns to the earth as it was before and the life-breath returns to God who gave it.”
Return, people of the dirt filled with God’s breath. It is time to return. Amen.
Preached February 26, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Mark 9:30-37; Ecclesiastes 12:1-7; Psalm 32:1-5