TEXTS: Psalm 116:12-17; James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37
Gracious God, help us in our meditations on your Word to receive you and welcome you in our lives. Amen.
Last week, we heard the writer of the Epistle of James admonishing us that words matter, and that sharp tongues can cut and wound, and, thankfully, words may also heal and bless.
This week, James offers insight about how to live wisely to a Christian community struggling to survive in a hostile environment—an environment where other religions might infiltrate the young faith community and divert it from the course on which it had been set by Jesus. Somehow, I don’t feel that is too different from what some of our churches face today from the prosperity gospel folks, or people who want to conflate nationalism with their version or perversion of religion—whether it be Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism…or some other “ism”. James note that evil is often cowardly and weak. Philosopher Longshoreman Eric Hoffer once said that “rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength”. The reaction of Muslims to the hate-filled movie trailer bye attacking embassies and killing people does not represent the core values of Islam, just as the reaction of the Terry Joneses of Christianity does not represent the strength of Christianity but rather our human weakness.
At The Interfaith Alliance event of Prayers for Peace Day on the past Thursday, a number of Muslims spoke of how the terrible actions of some so-called Muslims had caused them many tears, and much sorrow, and how the gathering of people of many religions, each praying in their own way for peace, helped to touch those broken places in their hearts. It was a deeply moving evening. That event resonated with James’ belief that “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Thus, churches, so often marked by conflict within and among various sorts of believers, are called to remember that these conflicts—whether doctrinal or territorial—come from human envy and ambition. If you’ve ever lived or worked in an environment of aggressive ambition or if you are particularly sensitive to this election season of resentment that we are currently enduring, you know what an “unwelcome” place that can be.
James advises us to remember that true wisdom does not come from ourselves, but comes from God. In this political season, I would be so thrilled by any politician who said: I don’t have all the answers; we need to work through these complex matters together, trying a little of this and a little of that, and perhaps then, if we don’t claim to have all the truth ourselves, together we can find a way. So it is spiritually: if we try to draw near to God, God does draw near to us. If we try to please God, we become more Godly in our relations with others and the world. So we acquire that divine wisdom that is pure, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. That sounds like a welcome place to be!
Home is a welcoming place. In Mark’s Gospel it is clear that Jesus has a home in Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. A great many significant things happen in that house. Jesus goes there often to get away from the crowds, but still they interrupt him frequently.
Out on the roadway the disciples had been involved in a bit of career evaluation. One thing led to another, and they got into something of a tiff over which of them was in line for the next major promotion. Of course, they had done their best to keep Jesus from overhearing this discussion, but apparently tempers had run hot and the whispers got too loud at some point. Before they could get it hushed up, Jesus caught the drift of what was going on.
So there in his home, Jesus asks: ‘What were you talking about a few minutes ago?’ The disciples are silent, presumably embarrassed at being caught by Jesus as they argued over which of them was the greatest. They were every day folk, fishermen, merchants, maybe a carpenter, a tax collector…nobody special until Jesus came along and then they thought they were going to be part of a new, great political and national triumph.
To their thinking, the predictions of killing and rising again, sounds like Jesus is heading for self-destruction. Like good members of the crew, although they are deeply confused and perplexed by these repeated comments of Jesus, they look around to see who is going to carry on the fledging operation. They still harbored illusions that Jesus would come with power, that the reign of God, the kingdom that he kept talking about, was going to be a real political place.
It is probably not an overstatement to suggest that we followers of Jesus are still caught up in this illusion. If Jesus is the Messiah, if we are doing things rightly and believing rightly, then the world will eventually bow at the feet of Jesus.
When Jesus finds out what all the whispering arguments have been about out there on the way—a phrase that reflects that Christians and the church are always on the way–, he finds a child and brings it front and center to teach a lesson. Child-centered families are something of a new invention. In the middle-eastern world in which Jesus lived, children were entirely without rights or status. Someone has observed that if Jesus were to re-enact this scenario in our time, it might not be a child he would use, but perhaps an Alzheimer’s patient, an undocumented worker from Mexico, or maybe a person with AIDS whom he would embrace.
To those misunderstanding disciples of his, whether in his own lifetime, or now, Jesus says: “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he makes the child, a real nobody, a stand-in for himself.
Jesus brought out the child, powerless, capable of producing nothing much, to remind us that God is to be found in the lowly and humble. After all, the story starts in a manger and ends on the garbage hill and a borrowed tomb. There’s a Jewish story of a young rabbinical student who asked of his teacher: “Rabbi, why don’t people see God as much as they did in the olden times?” The wise old man put his hands on the student’s shoulder and said, “The answer, my son, is that no one is willing to stoop so low.”
As with children, the really good things in life are rarely ours, if ever, because we have earned them or worked for them. They are ours because of the love and forgiveness and generosity of some one else.
Christ follows the symbolism of the vulnerable child with the stress on an action verb: Welcome! “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes NOT me but the ONE who sent me.”
Welcome, as Jesus uses it, means something far more radical than our little polite nod of the head when we respond to a thank you, with “you’re welcome.” Or our casual greeting when someone enters our home, “Welcome”. As Jesus uses it, “welcome” implies hospitality—which is to make space, to make room for the other. Welcome disturbs the comfortable status quo. Welcome forces us, by admitting another, to accept being out of control. To welcome a child connotes acceptance of smallness and lowliness. Jesus wants his followers to learn from the child about newness and holiness of life.
Jesus makes it even more radical: If we “welcome the child”, he says, we welcome him, and we welcome the one who sent him, namely God. To make room for Jesus, to make room for God is the most radical thing that we as human beings can do. It changes everything. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once noted: “If God is not of supreme importance, God is of NO importance.” If nothing is changed, if we keep living the way we always have, using words in political or religious conversations as if the violence hidden in them doesn’t matter, if we have not made room, we have not welcomed him into our midst.
The word “servant” in Greek is “diakonos” and literally means “one who waits on tables”, and from which we get our word Deacon. Children were often used as those who waited on tables, too invisible to be seated at the table. It is in their serving of others, their selflessness, that Jesus declares constitutes real greatness.
This church was first named “Union” church, and then “New Union” because the founders intended that here no one would be excluded, but all would be within the unity of God’s love that embraces all—the good, the bad, the ugly, the sinner, the failure, the success, the radical or the fearful, the conservative and the liberal, the generous, the tightwad, rich or poor, male or female—all would be one in Christ Jesus. Here, in union with Christ, each person and the whole community is transformed. We celebrate the welcome table, where there is no hierarchy of status, other than that we bequeath to one another: some to be elders because of our perception of the efforts they have made in their lives to draw near to God, and nearly all of us to be deacons, and definitely all of us to serve one another as we pass the tray with their simple elements—a bit of bread, a sip of the fruit of the vine—to remind us that where two or three are gathered, not in our own names, but in his—that he is here with us. As we pass those trays down the rows, we become Christ to one another, even if we think one of those to whom we are passing these symbols may be a contemporary Judas, that one is included.
And so Christ has been here in this hallowed place of simple beauty, this beloved community of memory and hope, touching hearts, mending broken places, accepting confessions both of sorrow but also of faith, offering encouragement to those weary from life’s journey, and strength to those who keep trying to live Godly and generous and peace-giving lives. Thanks be to God known to us in Jesus whose presence has made this a welcome place for many generations, and we pray, for generations to come.