Welcome Like A Child

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 9:30-37.

Many of you know that this spring we installed new playground equipment in the Trinity churchyard. It’s right behind the church here, just beyond these Ascension windows. Raising the funds and then raising the structure was a major undertaking for our families and our children’s program, and we are all pretty thrilled with the results. I am happy to report that over the summer I have personally witnessed many families, both parishioners and neighbors, enjoying the new playground.

What many of you may not know, however, is that built in to the new playground there is a set of bells. The bells are not musical – well, not exactly: they are more-or-less tuned to a note, but their sound quality is somewhere between a “ring” and a “clang.” And the sound of those bells can be quite … penetrating. From the Rectory, there is no mistaking when someone is playing with the bells.

Not long ago I was sitting over in the Rectory, thinking deep and mysterious thoughts, when from the playground there arose quite a clangor. It was unexpected, and it was startling, and I rushed to the window to see just who was making such a racket. And what I saw was what I was sure must be one of the five cutest kids in the world, and the father up on the platform ringing the bells while the child smiled and clapped and danced. It was adorable. And I went from “Aaaargh!” to “Awwww…” in about two seconds flat.

Now I share that story with you this morning because the reaction I had was just about exactly opposite to the reaction of the disciples in the Gospel story.

Jesus takes a little child, and places it in the midst of this group of adults, and embraces it, and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” And the reaction of the disciples is “No. Seriously?”

You see, in the ancient world they thought about children far differently from how we do today. Our ideas and feelings about children and childhood have really only been around for a relatively short time. I read a cultural historian once who referred to “the discovery of childhood” in the Romantic movement in poetry and literature and philosophy in the eighteenth century. We today tend to think of children as pure, innocent, open, delightful, wise, and in some ways significantly closer to God than we are. We invest a lot of warm emotion and affection in children.

But children weren’t always thought of that way. Prior to the eighteenth century in Europe and North America – and still in many other cultures around the world today – children were seen much more in functional and economic terms. Children were valued because they could grow up to work: to work the family farm or help in the family shop or take up the family business. Children were valued because they were a sign of the prosperity and wealth of the family as a whole. Children were valued for what they would be or who they might become, but not so much for who they were. In fact, children were often regarded as little adults, as potential people, as proto-persons, but not as real, individual personalities at all.

Look at portraits of families with children before the late eighteenth century. Often the children are painted as tiny adults, with the same proportions as an adult body, only smaller. It’s as if the artists didn’t even look closely enough at the children to realize they had different proportions – shorter limbs, bigger heads, more rounded features – compared to an adult body. The children didn’t matter as children; just as reflections of the adults.

In ancient Rome, children were literally and legally the property of the father. Not people, property. And the father could do whatever he liked with his property: keep it, sell it, give it away, kill it, or invest in it for now and hope it paid off in the future.

In so many cultures, ancient and modern, childhood is not valued as a distinctive and worthwhile stage of life; but children are regarded as marginal, on the fringes, potentials, but not really people.

So when Jesus takes a child and places it in the disciples’ midst, he is not trying to tug on their sentimental heartstrings. He is instead making a point about the lost, the least, the marginalized, the folks on the fringes, the not-quite-people, and their relationship to the welcome of God. He is saying “Whoever welcomes one unvalued person, whoever welcomes one marginal person, whoever welcomes one maybe-he’s-not-really-a-person person, in my name, welcomes me.” Whoever values another, not for what you see in them, but for how you see them in Jesus, will be great in the way God measures greatness. If you want to be a good disciple – if you want to be the greatest disciple – you must learn to welcome the presence of Jesus in all kinds of unlikely, unvalued, overlooked faces and places. Or, as a friend once said to me about a particularly annoying stranger she’d encountered, “I had to be nice to him – he might have been Jesus!”

So think for a moment about a time just recently, the most recent time you can think of, when you encountered someone you were tempted to regard as inferior, as unfinished, as not all there, as maybe not entirely a real whole person. Maybe it was someone on the street. Maybe it was someone drunk, or drugged. Maybe it was someone who didn’t talk the way you do. Maybe it was a refugee or migrant or foreigner. Maybe it was someone whose behavior didn’t fall within the boundaries of what you consider proper and appropriate and civilized. Maybe it was someone not from your chosen political party. But whoever it was, think of someone you were tempted to measure as inferior. Now can you imagine welcoming that person in Jesus name? Can you imagine relating to them, not because of what they might do for or mean to or benefit you, but because of who they are to Jesus? That, Jesus says, is the measure of a good disciple.

But Jesus’ words today go even deeper than that. When Jesus says “Whoever welcomes an inferior, unvalued, unfinished person welcomes me,” he is putting himself in the position of the inferior, the unvalued, the unfinished; and if Jesus is putting himself in that position, then he is calling those who follow him to be in that position, too. He is reminding his disciples that the way to spread the Gospel is not to go out and tell people some information about Jesus they don’t already know, but to give them the power to welcome Jesus into their lives for themselves. And the way to empower them to welcome Jesus is to make yourself, in Jesus, powerless and vulnerable enough to really be welcomed by them.

Episcopal priest and author Dwight Zscheile points out that over the centuries the church has become comfortable assuming “itself to be in charge, to have the answers, and to be competent. … We are accustomed to neighbors coming to us when they are seeking God not to seeking them where they are to inquire about their views of God.” But our season of mission now requires us in the church to take on “a posture of humility,” to be ready to learn from our neighbors what it is they need to live lives of right-relationship and mutual well-being and genuine flourishing. And that means not being in charge, being vulnerable, being open to learning things we do not expect, being, well, like a child. It means taking the position of an inferior in order to let someone else set the agenda. If we want to do mission with our neighbors, we have to be willing to be welcomed into their lives in the world.

And what do you think that would be like for us? How could we, as Trinity Church, go ask our neighbors how we can help them live full and flourishing lives, in body and mind and spirit? How could we, as individual Christians, go into the world like children and be ready to be welcomed by whoever would welcome us? On this day, as we start our fall program and resume our full worship schedule and begin again our Sunday school, how can we do all our church stuff in a way that will welcome Jesus among us?

Jesus said “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me.” Let us be ready to welcome Jesus – and be ready to be welcomed as Jesus – in all the places we are sent to go. Amen.