The Sign of God is a Child

The Rev. Matthew Potts Sunday ServiceThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

In the name of the God whose love makes and saves and aids us. Amen.

So as you all know, this summer, my family and I moved here to Cambridge from Cape Cod, from Falmouth where we'd been living. A few years ago, I think Cami, Sammy, and Danny were seven, five, and three at the time, some friends of ours from church, an older couple who lived in a condo in town, invited us over. It was a hot summer day. There was a pool at the condo complex, and so they invited our only over to go for a swim in the pool. And that sounded great because it was a hot day, the first hot day of summer. We wanted to go for a swim, take the kids for a swim, give them something nice to do. And on the way, we stopped at CVS or whatever and got some pool toys, right? Snorkel and mask and the whole business.

And so, we showed up at the pool, and it was great. This elderly woman, wonderful woman named Barbara, met us and escorted us out to the pool, unlocked the gate for us, and let us in, and stayed there with us. One of the toys that we had gotten was like a squirt something, right? And so Danny, the three-year-old, four-year-old, whatever he was, he went right for that and filled it up and started spraying everybody in sight, including Barbara. And so we said, "Danny, stop it. Put that down. No, stop it." And so Danny said, "Okay," and then continued to squirt everybody. So we took it away. "You don't get to have that anymore. That's mine. You don't get to play with this. That's mine."

So then Danny took the snorkel, filled it up with water, and started whipping water at his brother and sister. And we said, "Danny, no. What did I tell... That's mine, I'm taking it away. That's mine. That's over here. That's not yours anymore." And then Danny took his hands and started splashing his brother and sister. And I said, "Danny." And he looked at me and he held up his hands and he said, "Are you going to take these away?"

And maybe what I should have said to him in response was what Jesus said, "Daniel, if your hand causes you to sin... " The gospel of Mark is not doing me any favors this fall as I join you as your new preacher. I've had some tough lessons from Mark, and this is another one, these hard teachings of Jesus' where he says, "If your hand causes you to sin, throw it out. Cut it off and throw it out. If your eye you to stumble, if your foot causes you to stumble... " I think these are teachings that we need to take seriously, if not literally. I'll say more about that in a minute, what it means to take them seriously but not literally. Because I think they are actually saying something important to us. I don't think we can just ignore them because they seem so exaggerated and, frankly, distasteful.

To explain why I think they're important and what I think is actually going on in Jesus' admittedly heavy use of these teachings, let me give a little bit of context. We have this paragraph from scripture abstracted from the whole story of the gospel of Mark, and so it's hard to know what's going on and why Jesus is speaking so harshly in this moment. So here is what has been going on in the verses preceding the verses that we read this morning. First, Jesus was traveling with his disciples, and there was a child that they could not heal. And then Jesus heals the child. Then they keep walking, and after healing this child, the disciples start arguing. Having noticed how well Jesus did healing this child when they could not heal the child, the disciples start arguing about who among them is the greatest.

"Which of us is the best disciple? Which is Jesus' favorite? Which is the one who will be placed in a position of power once we go to Jerusalem?" And Jesus overhears their argument. He hears them saying this. And in this moment, in the midst of their argument, Jesus stops, and he takes a child out of the crowd, and he holds the child in his arms and he says, "Whoever receives this little one receives me." So this is like a rejoinder to the argument they're having. They're having this argument about status, about who is the best, who is the greatest, who's the most powerful among them, and Jesus redirects their attention and says, "Stop talking about status. Stop talking about which of you is the greatest. You know the one we should be concerned about? This child."

Now in ancient Judea, children did not have significant social status. This was a marginalized person. This is a person without social status. And Jesus says, "Stop arguing about status. This one is the one you should be paying attention to. This one is me," Jesus says, "When you receive this one, you receive me." Now, that child is still in Jesus' arms when John asks this question that begins our lesson this morning. The child is still in Jesus' arms when John says, "Well, what about this other guy who's using your name to cure people. He's not one of us, right?" I mean, there's a tone-deafness to John's question. He's still preoccupied with who's in and who's out. He's still preoccupied with questions of power and status even as Jesus is sitting there with this child in His arm saying, "Pay attention to this one."

And it's at that moment that Jesus flips it around and says these difficult, really terrible sayings: "Cut off your hand. Pluck out your eye. Cut off your foot." I think given the background now, we can understand why Jesus may have been impatient, why he may have been inclined to use some exaggeration to try to get his lesson through to his disciples who seemed to refuse to hear. So I really think this is hyperbole. I would not commend these actions to anyone in a literal sense. We also know from earlier in the gospel of Mark, Mark 4:33 says that Jesus spoke only in parables. He spoke only in figures. And so we can receive these as exaggerations, as figures. But Jesus is saying something important. The fact that he's using these figures to try to get some message through the ears of his status-obsessed and power-hungry disciples, we need to pay attention to that.

Now, the simple way to read these lines, and a way I don't want to read them and wouldn't like to read them, is in this harsh and awful way. If you look at the wrong thing, you're consigned to perdition. If you touch the wrong thing, you're consigned to perdition, those extreme judgments where the stakes are eternal. Again, these are hard teachings and not ones maybe consistent with the forgiveness of Christ that we also read elsewhere in scripture. So how else might we read these teachings? The hinge of the whole thing, I think, rests upon the word that is translated in our version into English as hell. Now, the New Testament, the records we have of Jesus are written in Greek, but the word that is translated as hell here is actually a Hebrew name Gehenna.

Now, we have conceptions in our head probably, probably you do, I know I do, of what hell is, right? Maybe it's this pit of fire under the earth with demons and whatever. But Gehenna was a place, not that hell's not a place necessarily, right? But Gehenna was actually a ravine outside Jerusalem. South and West of Jerusalem, there was a ravine called Gehenna, and Gehenna was the place where they burned the trash. And it was one other thing as well; it was a place where King Ahaz of Judea... According to 2

Kings, 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, it was a place where king Ahaz of Judea had sacrificed his children to the Canaanite god, Moloch.

King says it was one son, Chronicle says it was his sons. He took his sons to this ravine and he set them on fire. All these lines about sacrifice and fire, seasoning with fire. Gehenna was the place of child sacrifice. It was where King Ahaz went to appease the Canaanite god, Moloch and also, by the way, to appease the Assyrian Empire which was breathing down his neck. He sacrificed his own children for power. And Jesus makes this reference with a child in his arms. So I don't think this lesson really is about extreme asceticisms or the sins of our eyes or our fingers. From beginning to end, I think it's about children, or at least about children as emblematic of those who are most vulnerable. Or more to the point, it's about what we are willing to sacrifice, who we are willing to sacrifice, how often we are willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable towards other ends.

When Jesus' choice is framed this way, again, imagine Jesus with a child in his arms, and his disciples still jockeying for status, him saying to them, "If you, you disciples, who are so preoccupied with power and conquest and authority and status, if you are forced to choose between even your own eye and the life of a child, if you're forced to choose between your hand or your foot and the life of the least vulnerable... " Well, I think Jesus is saying, "That's a terrible choice, but morally, it's a straightforward one. It's a painful choice, but a necessary one, a difficult choice, but a simple one."

I wonder how we fair before these hard words. I wonder what we'd choose. I think it's easy to look back at this first century Judeans who did not give any social status to children. But Jesus is talking not just to them, Jesus is talking to us. As Calvon prayed in the prayers, today, this day, we are turning away Haitian immigrants from our border with Mexico, immigrants who have braved their own life and limb to travel from Haiti, through Mexico, to our border. And two-thirds of the people we turn away are children or the women who care for them. This is a habit of ours. I wish I did not have to remind us of the children we put in cages just a couple of years ago on that same border.

I am still haunted by the image of that young Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a shore in Turkey in 2015. A few weeks ago, a drone strike in Afghanistan killed 10 innocent people. Seven of them were children. To whom were those seven children sacrificed? And we don't need to think just internationally, in our own country these last months, 25 million children last year did not go to school at all in this country. Twenty-five million children did not go to school last year. This year, somewhere between one and three million of those children, we have no record of. We don't know where they went. They left school, and they never came back.

Now, we are in the midst of a global pandemic, and I know that there are no easy answers. I'm not suggesting that there are answers that are easy or perfect. But I do know because I have friends who live abroad and family who live abroad, I do know that while we in this country were arguing over when and how to reopen bars and restaurants and hair salons and other places, they were trying to figure out how to open school safely, especially to the children who are most vulnerable and needed to be in school because their homes or other circumstances were unsafe. That was the argument in other places and not enough the argument here.

If the words of Jesus this morning are hard to hear, it might not be because the choice He gives us is hard. It may be because we keep choosing wrong. Ahaz was king of Judah, and he set his children on fire. And there was a prophet in Judah at the time, and that prophet was Isaiah. Now, Isaiah prophesied under four kings, but it's under King Ahaz that Isaiah made, for us Christians at least, perhaps his most famous and most memorable prophecy. He told Ahaz, the king who murdered his own children for the sake of power, he told Ahaz that the sign of God would be a child born of a young woman and that that child would be Emmanuel, God with us. And now we hear today, we hear this child, Isaiah prophesied, we hear Him in our midst, this God with us, telling His disciples then and now what Isaiah already knew 3,000 years ago, what Ahaz refused to hear, and what we could still learn. The sign of God is a child. Any child, every child. May we be given grace to receive and to welcome it.