Saturday, September 19, 2009

All are welcome

There are few in this world today who do not love children. The presence of a baby can make the heart of just about anyone melt. When a young toddler yell’s hi as we walk down the aisle at the supermarket it is impossible not to say hi back. When a kindergartener says something so funny you cannot help but to laugh. Children are a vital part of our community and of our lives.

This is one of the reasons so many love the stories of Jesus with the children. We have all probably seen dozens of different images of Jesus surrounded by children. There are beautiful images of Jesus swinging a small child around, laughing along with him. I’ve seen wonderful artists portrayals of Jesus cradling a baby in his arms. Jesus loves children just as we all do. So when we hear about Jesus taking a small child and speaking to his disciples about welcoming a child, our hearts tend to melt a little.

What is so fascinating about our Gospel passage for today is there are so many layers that need to be unraveled. Like most scripture, we cannot take it at face value. If we were to apply this passage to our own culture, we would view the children as a welcomed part of the community. We would think of how easy it is to welcome a child, as we do so all the time.

The interesting component to this is during Jesus’ time, children were not as welcome as they are today. In fact, young children were viewed as useless and in the way. They were disposable commodities within their culture. Part of this had to do with the fact that many children did not live very long. The other part had to do with young children not being of working age. Since they had little to contribute to society, they were viewed as almost sub-human until they reached an age where they could work.

The focus of our Gospel text for this Sunday is one that speaks to welcoming the invisibles of this world. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is indeed counter-cultural. Jesus is to be seen in small children, in the lepers, in the tax collectors. Jesus is even to be seen on a cross and here again he announces his impending death to the disciples. These lessons are difficult to accept for his disciples, and can often be difficult for us to hear today.

Here, Jesus calls his disciples, and ultimately us, to humble ourselves. The disciples had been fighting over who is the greatest, who would take over after Jesus was gone. Jesus takes this argument and tells them no one is the greatest.

Just like any good parent or teacher he tells them we are all equal. We are all saint and sinner, no one is greater than the other. We are to view ourselves the same as we view the invisibles of our community. We are to humble ourselves and welcome the child, eat with the criminal, shake the hand of the tax collector. We are to view each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, as Christ can be seen in each of us.

So often this text and other texts like it become a rags to riches kind of story. They are told in a way where the least become the greatest, the underdog becomes the winner and receives the trophy. But really, Jesus’ teaching here is so much more than that. It is not about becoming the underdog so we can get the reward. Rather, Jesus is telling us that we are to humble ourselves, not bickering about who is the greatest. No, we are to humble ourselves in turn recognizing that we are all equal in the eyes of God. We are to humble ourselves, not so that we get the reward, but because we are called to be humble. We are called to view ourselves and the child as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

We are not to be chasing after power or greatness. We are not to be placing ourselves on a pedestal as being the better Christian or more worthy to come to the communion railing. We are not to be working towards reaching a certain social status so that we have the better homes, better cars, better phones, or better clothes. We are called to reject all of these things as contrary to the kingdom of God.

None of these things matter to God’s kingdom. As is so often said, you can’t take a suitcase to heaven. Jesus tells us in this passage to stop worrying about worldly things. We are to focus on what is important, what really matters in the bigger picture. We need to stop chasing after the things of this world; instead we are to follow the way of the cross. We are to be following in the way of the cross that seemed so repulsive to Peter and to all who would use power to reinforce social barriers and hierarchies that keep folks from seeing one another as children of God.

A student at Luther seminary recently shared the following story about a woman she met in Kenya named Doris. She lives in the poorest slum in Kenya, in a tiny shack made out of cardboard, and the slum she lives in is "guarded" by corrupt police officers who are always trying to get bribe money. She welcomed her grandchildren into her home to live (no one knows if their parents were alive or not). Her grandchildren are HIV positive and she contracted the disease from them.

She faithfully walks with them for 2 hours each way every Sunday to bring them to church, and Doris makes the walk by herself each week to go to a support group at church for people living with HIV/AIDS. She welcomed the visiting college students, all white Americans into her home, even though doing so was dangerous to her life because it drew the attention of the police, who asked for a bribe that our group refused to give. The police could have thrown her in jail, or worse. The students also drew the attention of her neighbors, who might have thought that since she had white people visit, she must have more wealth than they thought, and they could have robbed her and hurt her.

Doris’ story is an example to us of what it means to walk the way of the cross. It is to humble oneself, to take risks, by welcoming the outcasts of the community. For Doris, we knew the risk she was taking by welcoming white people into her home. And yet she knew that is what Jesus calls us to do. She knew that the students were her brothers and sisters in Christ, and so she welcomed them, just as Jesus called the disciples to welcome a small child. For whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

The call for us, brothers and sisters, is to recognize that we are all a part of this great family following the path of the cross. We are a family called to take down the barrier of the labels such as invisible or outcast. We are to take down the walls that divide us, recognizing that no one is worthy of the kingdom of God, yet Christ still suffered for our sins and he still welcomes us to the banquet feast. We are to welcome each other, knowing that we are all saints and we are all sinners, and journey together on the road of humility towards the cross. Amen.


Brown Family said...

Great sermon. I hadn't thought of the children of that time being seen as so useless. I still have so much to learn in how to become more Christlike and child-like in my journey Home. :)

Bruce & Sylvia said...

I really enjoy your blog. It gives us all something to think about. We are all here to prove ourselves worthy of the sacrifice Christ made for us all. He loves us all the same. Thanks for your thoughts. Love you Aunt Sylvia