Several months ago, a few of us took a walk at Bothe State Park on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. It was Amy’s idea- she had been there a few weeks before and said, “this is the place to think about death and new life.” And she was right. The first 5 or so minutes of the walk, nothing was out of the ordinary, but then we got to the part that was burned in the Glass fire, and we began to see the stark black of ash on the trees, and the change in the soil’s color, and the clearing effect that the fire had had on the land. You could see where the firefighters had been able to stop the fire, and the big swath of land where they hadn’t. It wasn’t an easy thing to see, especially after the heaviness of death that we contemplated on Good Friday.
Our job that day was to spot new life- the different kinds of plants, in particular, that had sprung up. The kids, of course, were the best at it- they noticed and pointed out all kinds of things that the adults would have missed. We saw 12 different kinds of ferns, and interesting mosses, and little flowers, and all kinds of places that plants had found to grow, even in the midst of this difficult landscape. New life in the ashes- right there, the same pattern, over and over.
I’ve returned to Bothe several times since that weekend, and of course, we see the same pattern every time we look up into the hills. The ashes are there, and life persists. We have had the burden and the privilege of seeing that up close this year, over and over again. Some of you have been very, very close to that mysterious truth- experiencing the ashes for yourselves, rebuilding and making life in the midst of them. But we’re all living in that paradox- ash and new life, all the time. Maybe we always have been, but we can just see it now, in a new way.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the visual reminder of this truth something that I’ve needed during this hard year, something I’ve had to return to, over and over again. Sometimes I look up into the hills and think- did that all really happen last year? And I see the life that is persisting in them, and take heart in the reality that life is continuing, in old ways and new ways, even in the ashes. And I wonder how we live in this time of so much uncertainty, as we wonder about fire coming again, as we try to understand the new life that we can notice springing up among us.
Jesus, I think, is talking about something similar in the Gospel today. Mark’s Gospel uses so few words, that we need a little bit of context to understand what’s going on. Jesus and the disciples, who spent the first part of Jesus’ ministry traveling around Galilee, are now on their way toward Jerusalem, and, of course, the crucifixion. And so Jesus is trying to prepare them to understand the suffering and death that they will witness there, but the disciples aren’t getting it.
So far, when Jesus has tried to explain, the disciples have rebuked him, tried to ask a smart-sounding question because they didn’t understand what was going on, and now they heard what Jesus said about suffering and death and then immediately got into an argument about who was the greatest among them.
In other words, the disciples are getting in their own way. They seem to think they’re a part of a movement with Jesus that’s going to be conventionally grandiose and powerful, that’s going to rise and rise and rise, but Jesus keeps messing it up by talking about suffering and death and weakness and being a servant. The text says several times that they did not understand Jesus, but they were afraid to ask him about what he meant when he spoke about his suffering and death and resurrection.
It can be tempting to read this as though they are afraid of Jesus- that Jesus is such a powerful figure that they can’t approach him and ask for help. But given how Jesus responds, I think what the disciples are afraid of is something dawning within themselves. I think they are beginning to know, on some level, what Jesus is trying to communicate, and they just don’t want to face it, because they are afraid. And so they make themselves busy arguing with Jesus and arguing amongst themselves and making smart sounding points so that they won’t have to face that truth, that realization growing within them.
And so, the text says, “Jesus sat down, called the twelve. Basically Jesus asks them to get still and quiet, within themselves. And he says these simple words to them: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’”
And then he 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, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
The word for child, in Jesus’ language, is the same word as servant. It means, basically, the lowest one in the hierarchy, the one who can be ignored most of the time, the one without automatic power. Children and servants were the lowest members of society at that time- they had no power and no voice.
So in other words, to welcome the lowest one, the ignored one, is to welcome God. This is what Jesus wants the disciples to get quiet enough to hear, so that they can understand what he has come to earth to do, so they can understand God’s love and message to them. Two simple sentences are all Jesus has to say in that quiet space- two sentences about servanthood, about welcoming a child. Shortly after this passage, Jesus will talk more about children- about receiving the kingdom of God like a little child, listening like a little child. Here, I think, Jesus is inviting us to welcome, and listen, to what a child, or what the child that lives in all of us, might have to say.
And I think that these two, simple instructions have deep implications for us in our life together today as disciples.
In understanding the mysteries of death and life, and pondering how best to live in them, I think God invites us to get quiet, and listen. And perhaps, more specifically, to listen like a child would. Not to have the biggest and most important thoughts, or to try to strive for greatness, or smartness, or power that will make you feel like you’re better or more important than the truth of the ash or the mystery of the new life that we can’t control. To look for what’s most essential, what’s in fact right there to notice- if we don’t let our big adult ideas about how things should be get in the way. There are many things to say about how children can teach us, but I think perhaps the simplest is just that they are much closer to their beginning in the great mystery of life, and so maybe closer to noticing the things that adults like to avoid in our desire to control and contain that mystery.
For me, the great reminder of this year has been that life is not ultimately ours to control, though we do have a part in stewarding it, and we have choices about how we live in this mystery together, choices that matter. We can choose to strive to be the greatest and most powerful, like the disciples were doing here, when faced with that great and sometimes very terrifying mystery, trying to control each other so that we can feel like we can control it all. Or we can choose to live with as much faith as we can, letting go of what belongs to God, which I think, ultimately, frees us to live more fully as servants of each other, and of the community we get to journey through this mystery with, stewarding life and love as best we can while we’re here. In ash and sprouting green, what we have is each other, and the practices that hold us together, and point us toward the God who holds us all.
The disciples don’t get what Jesus was trying to tell them, by the way, all this stuff about life and suffering and death and resurrection. This event, these words from Jesus seem to make no difference in the story, and the basics of this story repeat about 3 times in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus does some more healing and then the disciples again demonstrate that they’re thinking about who is the most powerful and important, and then they arrive at Jerusalem, still clearly not understanding, still trying to avoid the truth and grapple for power and control.
But they remembered what Jesus said, even if they weren’t ready to understand it then. They remembered what Jesus did and said, and they passed that story, these words from Jesus, on to others, and on to us, along with the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We might not understand all we are learning right now until later, even much later. We will learn by living it, by asking God’s guidance in the unknowing, and taking one faithful step, as best we can, and then another. We learn by traveling the path of ash and green shoots- acknowledging the loss and the new life that grows in the midst of it, pointing it out to each other as we go, together. We learn by passing what we learn down to those who will come after us, just as the disciples did for us; the words of a living God who speaks to us in the quiet of our hearts, who comes to us as a child, who lived and died and rose again as a servant of all, to point us to that new life in him.