Readings: Mark 9:30-37, James 3:13-18, Secrets of Heaven 10225,3,6,7 and 3183 (see below)
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In our text for today, Jesus predicts his death a second time. He’ll soon make a third prediction, and this cycle of threes is an important narrative feature of Mark’s gospel. The predictions follow a typical pattern: Jesus says what will happen to him; the disciples misunderstand somehow, and Jesus corrects them. This misunderstanding of those who are supposed to be “getting it” is a larger theme in the gospel as well. The disciples are constantly not comprehending what Jesus is trying to communicate and from our position as invisible audience, they appear quite dense. So, though I have confessed more than once that the gospel of Mark is my favorite gospel, I do so hope it is because of its brevity, clarity and earthiness, and not because I enjoy these bumbling disciples constantly getting it wrong.
What is different about this second prediction story, is that it mentions how the disciples were afraid to reveal their lack of comprehension, afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. Perhaps this is understandable; Peter had been severely rebuked just a little while before, as we heard about last week. But their continued misunderstanding was having actual consequences in their behavior. They were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Which is just kind of laughable. Have they been listening to Jesus *at all*? But Jesus patiently explains it to them once again. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
As an illustration, Jesus brings their attention to a child. He doesn’t just point, he tenderly takes the child into his arms and says: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” There is the clear implication that how we understand our relationship to children will have direct consequences to our relationship to God. We don’t know who this child was. They could have been a child of the house owner, they could have been a child of that house owner’s slave. Either way, today we cannot appreciate the shock and surprise it would have caused disciples to hear Jesus say this. Childhood was not valued or romanticized then as it is now. Roman society was sharply ordered and motivated by the honor/shame dynamic. Those who had social capital were constantly trying to protect it and increase it by only associating with those who had equal or greater status. Children had no status and thus no particular value to that general scheme. Jesus wasn’t making a point about maternal or paternal love towards genetic children; of course then, as now, human beings were predisposed towards loving their own. Rather, he uses a child as a symbol of those left out of the value structure, pointing out that entrance into relationship with God’s kingdom depends on welcoming those who are marginalized. The kingdom of God is for all.
Later, in chapter ten, Jesus gets even more pointed. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Jesus preaches this idea in many different ways, with different examples of marginalized people, gentiles, the mentally ill, the disabled. Each time, I think we can learn a different but connected lesson about what welcoming means, about why we might instinctively close ranks in such a human way, about why some people get left behind. In this particular case, we might ponder what Jesus is trying to tell us about the nature of childhood and how that relates to welcoming. Because Jesus is not only or just saying “remember the children”, or even “value the children.” He is saying that *we* must receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Is there something about being childlike that means we are less likely to *allow* people to be left behind, less vulnerable to the distractions and concerns that blind us to the beauty of the whole of God’s creation, and the value of all of God’s people?
In our reading for today, we are introduced to Swedenborg’s explanation of the concepts of the innocence of ignorance and innocence of wisdom. As Swedenborg explains it, there is a certain kind of innocence experienced in very young childhood, an external kind of innocence called the “innocence of ignorance.” I wouldn’t, though, interpret this in any way as a negative state, even though words like “ignorance” and “external” have a somewhat negative connotation at times. Rather, young children are just very present to the world, very open to guidance. They experience things moment to moment, what they feel is what they express. During this time, Swedenborg tells us that young children are surrounded by the very highest angels(1). It is a blessed and beautiful stage of life.
Swedenborg contrasts this stage with another stage called innocence of wisdom. As we emerge from young childhood, we begin to move into a time of intellectual learning. As we know from science, babies and young children have already been learning enormously, their brains are literally being formed, they are like sponges. But at a certain point, we enter into a different kind of learning; we all develop a certain self-consciousness, an ability to self-reflect, a separation of the lower self and higher self. This is a good and appropriate thing and we spend a lot of time in this stage. During this stage learn who we are, what we value, what attracts us, what interests us, what we need to work on, what inspires us, and how we can move toward being a more integral, connected and compassionate person. Over time, the more we learn and grow and change over the years, the more we appreciate how little we know. This appreciation is the true essence of wisdom. It is not a devaluing of knowledge, or a repudiation of knowledge but a change in the way knowledge is held. Think perhaps of the light and gentle grasp we might have upon an egg in our hand, as opposed to the tight grasp required to claim something as our own, hold it tightly to our chest and say “this is mine.” Wisdom values the knowledge it has, and recognizes there is always more to be learned. This essential openness, this habitually real and holy space for the Lord to flow into, this is innocence. More specifically, it is the innocence of wisdom. It is our final destination as angels, and because of this return to innocence, Swedenborg reports that in heaven Highest angels appear at a distance as young children (2).
But how do we get there? How do we find our way into the innocence of wisdom? How do we become more childlike as Jesus suggests? Because certainly, obviously, we cannot go back to our young childhood lives. A world full of toddlers; that’s not a world that anyone wants to live in. But, a more angelic world, a world that is open to newness and wonder the way young children are, a world that values curiosity and sees how God is flowing and makes space for that flow—that sounds like a pretty good world. How do we get there? Well, I am reminded of one of my favorite movies…
…a lovely movie called About Time. It is very sweet, and I highly recommend it. It is a story about a family in which all of the men are time travelers. They can only travel back and forth along their own timeline, so they cannot do grand things like prevent disasters or wars, unless they had actually been there, and since they were simple ordinary folk, they never actually involved in big events. And they also couldn’t travel too far back in their timeline or they risked deleting things that they valued, like their children. So, their skills were most often used for small things, like reading more books, re-living favorite moments, remedying faux pas; once they helped a friend remember lines in a play, once they redid a marriage proposal that they had rather slightly messed up.
And one day, the father tells the son his secret to happiness. He lives each day twice. The first time he just goes about his life in an ordinary way, subject to the same tensions and dissatisfactions that we all are. In one day, his colleague is reprimanded by an unfair boss, and that starts things off badly, then he mechanically buys his lunch; he is late to a meeting and runs frantically; a good outcome from that meeting is overshadowed by his low mood; he comes home exhausted and unable to connect with his family; it seems like it was a bad day.
But then he lives that day again, without changing anything except that he actively looks for the beauty, the gift, the opportunity. So that same day, he pulls faces behind the boss’s back to make his colleague smile, he looks the lunch clerk in the eye and thanks her, sees her smile; he runs, still late, to his meeting but pauses to appreciate the gorgeous building into which he is entering; he relishes his success and takes a moment to really feel it and help others feel it; and so he is energized and alive with his family; instead it was a good day. The same day actually, just with different eyes.
And over time, as his son practices living each day twice, he finds that the way he lives his life is changed. At some point, he doesn’t have to live the day the second time anymore, he automatically sees the beauty while living it the first time. I think this tells us something important about living life with innocence, about how that way of living opens our eyes to the kingdom.
Young children see things that we have forgotten how to see. For some children, every person is a friend and they treat them so, with openness and candor; every person is good and worthy and interesting, before they have been taught about status, tribalism or meritocracy. For some children, the world is a wonder. They cherish every earth-worm and roly-poly and funny-shaped stick, before they have been taught to value what is shiny and popular and disparage that which is dirty and earthy and free.
We are trained into seeing the world through a lens of accomplishment, transaction, and acceptability, and trained out of seeing the world through a lens of possibility, connectedness, and redemption. So, Jesus is constantly imploring us to see the least, last, lost and the left behind, really see them and recognize their worthiness and humanity. Why do the disciples continue to not understand? Why do we? Because they are living in the first day. Living in the structures that tell us not to see, not to believe, not to cherish. Living in that headspace of not enough, we become protective, grasping, distracted. But when we welcome the child, we welcome the second-day kind of living. We welcome seeing in a different way. More importantly, then we will no longer be afraid to relinquish that which feels so necessary; our sense of self-importance and self-consciousness. Fear puts ourselves first because it has to, that’s what fear is for. It will always push for us to ignore or disparage that which disrupts our ways of thinking, threatens our closed safe circles. The disciples chose not to ask Jesus what his death meant for them because they suspected it would up-end what they thought they knew about the world, what they valued about the world. So it would. And they continued to deny and run away, as do we, within our own hearts. But glory be, there was redemption for them as well, there always is, there always will be.
Swedenborg writes: I was allowed to see how much of young childhood was preserved in adult life, and that it was this that gave adult life its essentially human quality. For innocence - the external form of it - is present in a young child, and innocence constitutes that essentially human quality; indeed innocence is so to speak the basic attribute into which love and charity from the Lord can enter (3). May we all find that innocence that makes us human and humane, may we all journey through our days, the one day we get, with wild fascination and gratitude.
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. 33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Secrets of Heaven 10225
 The fact that the first state [of childhood] is a state of ignorance and also of innocence within ignorance is self-evident. While this state exists the inner levels of the mind are being put into shape for the use they will serve, and consequently are not yet opened up. Only the most external levels, those of the senses, are open; and when these alone are open ignorance exists. For a person's understanding and perception of anything at all springs from those inner levels. From this it also becomes clear that the innocence which exists at this time and is called the innocence of young childhood is of a most external nature.
 The last state however is one of wisdom and of innocence within wisdom, which exists when a person is no longer concerned just to gain an understanding of truths and forms of good, but is concerned to make them part of their will and life; for then the person has wisdom. And how far that person is able to make them part of their will and life depends on how much innocence they have, that is, on how far they believe that left to themselves they have no wisdom at all, but that whatever wisdom they have is derived from the Lord, and also on how far they love this to be so.
 From the way in which these states follow one another the person possessing wisdom can also see the marvels of Divine Providence, namely these: An earlier state serves as the basis for those following on continuously; and, the opening up or unclosing of inner levels advances…till at length they have been so opened up that what existed initially on outermost levels - that is to say, ignorance and innocence - also exists finally on inmost levels.
Secrets of Heaven 3183
This final state…is a state of wisdom which has the innocence of earliest childhood within it, and so the first state and the last are united. And when [a person] is old, being so to speak a small child again yet one who is now wise, that person is led into the Lord's kingdom.