September 20, 2015
Sermon: “What Makes a Welcome Radical”
Mark 9:30-37

I want you to think about the reading from Mark’s gospel this morning. Many times, perhaps because it is inspired, we can read the bible and get its message for us quite easily. At other times, it is easy to get misinformed because none of us can read anything except from our own perspective and our own context.

The saying seems easy.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” So easy to say and to hear we can almost brush it off.  Smile approvingly at the children coming forward for the children’s sermon in worship, and check one more thing off our spiritual to-do-list.  Welcome little children?  Done.  We might ask ourselves, “How dense could these power grubbing disciples be to have been to missed so simple a point as this?”

In St. Mark’s day, children occupied an interesting place (for Jews and Romans alike).  They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation.  But in the present, they were a liability.  Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die.  They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed.  Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave.  However, the dynamics were more powerful than that.  On the one hand, an adult slave could be “worth” more in the present; on the other hand, even the smallest child was a member of the “household”—an honor to which a slave was unlikely (and in most cases unable) to attain.
Children were insiders left on the outside.  And they are the ones Jesus commands us to welcome.  On the one hand, this is just another instance of Jesus turning the expectations of the world upside down.  It is a great reversal in the name of justice, the kind of which Luke’s gospel is famous for (read the magnificat there).  But on the other hand, here in Mark’s gospel we also experience something else.  With children, at least, the power dynamics are not so black and white—it is not so much a question of who is great and who is not, but instead it is a question of welcome. Make no mistake, Jesus is proposing a radical welcome.Egypt_prayer_Middle_East_300px

Put another way, Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great.  Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.

And so I find I wonder now how it is that we as communities find ourselves able to heed Jesus’ invitation today to ‘welcome.’  I wonder where we get the clarity, the strength, the courage, the confidence, to be and do what is right in this way.  It must be more than simply knowing that new people are necessary in order to keep any institution, whether it be an community organization or a congregation, going strong.  In fact, if that’s our only motivator, it never really works.  At least not in churches.  Rather, it must, somehow, come from a deeper love for the last and the least and the lost that we would be willing to give up our space and welcome,  focusing always on what matters most of all.

It’s not easy, to be sure, and I do wonder if this is why many congregations are less than welcoming, why so many of us are not growing.  And while I have a deeper empathy today for why that is so, I’m still hanging on to the hope that even my seemingly normal self-centered nature can be overcome.  It matters too much for it not to be possible, after all.

What I worry about, going into the future, is that the church will look more like the border going into Hungary than the open arms of Jesus. It is understandable that we might fear reaching out and receiving others who are different, and who need the gospel and need to the benefits we enjoy as a community of faith.

What keeps me up at night is the images of children running down a railroad track, desperately trying to reach the border into Hungary. I am troubled when we speak about deportation of children and their families, reducing their value except as being an ‘anchor’ baby. I do not understand the huge inequalities in our educational system that leaves the poorest children bereft of many of the benefits that the wealthiest communities presume. Jonathan Kozal describes the entirety of this situation a ‘current day apartheid.’

Unless we learn to receive and be received by such as this, the least in our communities and in our world, our conversations about church will become empty or simply self-serving. We will worry about appearances and the color of draperies. We will continue to Facebook and Twitter endlessly amongst ourselves about nothing, or ever rehearse the same uninspiring conversations about skills and capacities, what our church is doing or has done recently — and about “who is the greatest” among us.

May the Lord save the church from such an uninteresting preoccupation.