Amy Allen, New Testament professor at Vanderbilt University says of today’s Gospel text:
Children occupied an interesting place in the first century household (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. 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.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (Mark 9:37)
When I was a boy there was an image in our Sunday School class of this story. Many of you have seen it too. That image depicts a very Caucasian Jesus with sweet angelic children nestled all around him. It’s a sweet picture, a comforting picture and a familiar picture. It looks like the image many of us had of Jesus in Sunday School; warm, friendly and loving. First, Jesus did not look like that image on our windows. He was a Palestinian Jew, with dark complexion, looking a lot like the kind of men who are detained at our airports. Second, as Amy Allen reminds us, children were not viewed then as angelic, they were as young children something of a burden, illness came to many and they could not work as adults could. They really carried no value until they matured to a physical stature that would make them independent and productive to the household. Jesus did not look like us and the children he wanted us to welcome were likely malnourished, disheveled, and dirty. You are not likely to see that window in your church any time soon.
The underlying message of this text was not “love those angelic little children who look like us and are so irresistibly cute”, instead it was “whoever welcomes one of these unkempt and uncared children welcomes me.” It’s calling on us to demonstrate our love for God, for Jesus, not by loving our own but by loving those likely to miss out on the love of our community. You don’t witness to God love by picking and choosing who you will welcome, namely people who look, talk, dress and behave, just like you, you walk in God’s light, in Christ’s love, when you welcome those our culture leaves in the shadows.
I have permission to share this next story. Hedley told me it was OK by him I share this with you. At one of our recent Faith Studies our usual 25 were there to share in conversation. The question I posed to the five small groups was this, “have you ever worshipped in another denomination other than the United Church of Canada and what was that experience like for you?” When we came back together a spokesperson reported back what her/his group had shared. Most had attended one or two other denominations. A few told us they had attended three. I asked Hedley about his church-going experience and he told me he had attended so many different denominations he had lost track, this in spite of the fact he calls himself “Hedley the human calculator”. Hedley was smiling when he said this so I assumed my next question, “why so many different churches” would not offend. It didn’t, Hedley matter-of-factly told us that his mother would always take him as a young child to church with her. “I was a handful back then” Hedley said with a knowing grin. I nodded with understanding, “I was a handful too”. And I was.
Hedley and I are the same age. So I know the era of church he is referencing. Each Sunday at a new church the Minister (always a man) would take Hedley’s mother aside and say, “You are welcome here any Sunday but you will need to leave your son behind.” Hedley looked up and with pride he told us, “my mother would say to the Minister, we are a package deal, I don’t go anywhere without him.” Thus Hedley went to a lot of different churches. I wonder what those Ministers would say today if they heard Hedley reading the Gospel as he did so beautifully this morning.
I confess I understand. I was “different” as a child, my doctor told my mother I was the first child in Halifax he put on Ritalin. (I have no idea if this story was true or if he just said that to make my mother feel she was breaking new ground.) I was very, very hyper, though I could focus like a laser beam, remember everything that was said and done but never be able to be still or stop talking. Not much has changed. Not everyone was thrilled when my mother took me along to attend a gathering.
I remember very well the moment I realized I was not like other children. We were watching the ATV News one night and there was a segment on a summer program being offered at Dalhousie for children with “challenges” and there I was, running around in circles, being encouraged by university students to slow down, follow the rules and be more patient. It was embarrassing for my family to see me watching myself. My father quickly changed the channel.
I assumed then that religion, church, the Minister, these institutions were for “normal” people, people who mattered, people who looked like those stained glass windows in the church, the pictures in my Sunday School room. That view did not change until I took a university class from an older professor named George Grant. The course was cross-listed in Religion-Political Science-Philosophy and one of the requirements was to read one of the four Gospels and share our immediate reactions to what we read. I don’t know why I chose Luke but when I was finished reading it in full I was very surprised. Jesus in Luke is a prophet-healer-God agent who spends most of this time with sinners, women, people with illness, people from other religions and other ethnicities, and moreover the heroes of most of his stories are these very people. It made an impression. This was not the Jesus I remembered from my Sunday School, this was not a message of follow the rules and you will be loved, this was a message of “because I am loved I want to follow Jesus’ rules”.
One more story. A few years ago the United Church of Canada sent a consultant to Brunswick Street United Church to determine if the congregation should be disbanded, given its small size (15) and unorthodox worship style (a chaotic circle). The consultant thought there was no reason for the church to exist, after all the existing 15 attendees could easily attend any number of other close by United Churches. But I remember the night we talked about that and how many in the circle shared their experience going to those churches, people were polite, some smiled but no one talked to them at coffee hour, much less in the church sanctuary.
When you hear me talk about welcoming others, about the value of hospitality and making new people feel at home here at Bethany, you might think I am talking about a marketing strategy, how to keep the church afloat, put more bums in the pews. The usual pep talk for welcome is self-interest, “unless you want this church to close we had best do a better job at making people feel welcome here”. But that is NOT the reason I make such a big deal about welcoming new people. Rather, I share the importance of welcome because Jesus explicitly says, over and over and over, when you welcome the least of these, when you welcome the stranger, when you welcome the child, you welcome me. In a way this is self-interest, I want you to experience Jesus, the life-giving, life-changing, transformative moment when you know God is with you. I want you to know that feeling. So I encourage you to welcome.
But welcome is not welcome when it is only to welcome someone just like me. That is not welcome, that is like a secret society where only the members know the password, the code, to get in. When we offer a welcome we are saying you belong as much as I belong and together we belong to something bigger than all of us.
So whether you are a “handful” like Hedley and me or whether you are a more subdued child of God know that your welcome is a game changer, not just for the one you welcome but also for you. Remember, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” Amen.