Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Who Is Welcome

Mark 9:30-37
September 20, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Leader: We are so much like the early disciples! We want God to know how hard we work. We want to be praised and recognized for our efforts and successes. And we want God to pass over our failures as though they were inconsequential. When Jesus heard his disciples arguing, he responded that they should be ready for service rather than adulation. And then he placed a small child in their midst; a child with no guile, no pretense. May God help us to reach out to others, not with thought of importance or gain, but in love and compassion; truly caring for each one we meet. When we have done this, we will have truly given our hearts and our service to our Lord. Let’s listen for God’s word to us as we read responsively Mark 9:30-37

Leader: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them,

People: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Leader: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them,

People: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Leader: But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them,

People:“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Leader: Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,

People: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Leader: The word of the Lord.

People: Thanks be to God.

We’re well into Mark’s gospel now, in the ninth chapter.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.
He has already stirred up all kinds of trouble.
He has gotten into some arguments with the religious leaders.
In his teachings and his actions, Jesus has gone way outside the lines.
Jesus is vulnerable now, and powerless.

He has demonstrated that he has the power of God, but he does not have any political power, none of the status of this world. He has predicted his imminent death and resurrection. He has tried and tried to get these disciples of his to understand him, to understand his mission, his teachings. I cannot imagine what Jesus must have felt when he would tell them what was going to happen, that he was going to die, and they would answer him like they did in this scripture reading.

He says, “I’m going to be killed” and they get scared. Then they wonder which one of them is greatest. Can you imagine! It’s as if a parent said to the family, “I’m going to die,” and the family begins to argue about who gets what part of the estate. It’s as you’d told a friend about your terminal diagnosis, and the friend’s reaction is to start scheming about how to get your job, or your house, or your husband or your wife.

They were afraid!
They didn’t want to ask him about that prediction of his death and resurrection. So they came up with another topic – themselves! and who of them had the most status, the most power. When he tells them about what is going to happen to him, they are terrified.

Jesus asks them, “Hey, what were you talking about back there?”
"Well…..” He sits down, tells them to huddle up. Time for a lesson, boys.
Jesus picks up this little child, and sets the child in the midst of them. You’ve seen the pictures, the sweet little toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap, surrounded by the humbled disciples.

Isn’t this a sweet image? What a nice scene – so reassuring, to know that we are doing what Jesus said. Because we welcome children, little ones. We do, just like Jesus said. It must make Jesus so happy, to see how nice we are to kids. Sweet.

Except that is not the scene, nor is it the image, nor is being nice the message. As usual, Jesus goes outside the lines, and his lesson is not what we expect. It isn’t as if children were out just randomly walking around with the disciples. We know that the disciples had left their families behind. They were itinerant, going from place to place –no way to raise a child. And while children in the first century had nowhere near the status they do now, they were still loved by their parents. Parents didn’t just leave them to run wild in the streets of Capernaum. Most children would have been at home, doing chores, or with a tutor or learning a trade, or with other family members. In any case, the child was a symbol, standing in for all sorts of other people.

We know this is not just a story about being nice to little kids because later there IS a story about Jesus welcoming children, and about how he blessed them. This is not that story. This story about who is welcome. So when the disciples are all assembled, Jesus says, “If you want to be first, you need to be last of all.”

Give up the place where you ALWAYS sit, and leave the back rows for visitors and latecomers! Give up your spot at the head of the line. Trade it for the end of the line.
Or go outside the line altogether, and give up your place of privilege in this world.
Trade it for humility. Give up your comfortable position. Be ready to serve, to be a slave to others. Give up your some of your comfort to live more simply so that others in this world may simply live.

Jesus set this child among them- who knows where the child came from –and he said “Welcoming this one is welcoming me. Welcoming me is welcoming God.”

Serve the beggar.
Be a slave to the vulnerable.
Welcome the lowliest.
Go beyond the lines of convention and common sense.

Unfortunately, like those disciples, we want to make this story easier. We want to make this about us, so we’ve already changed the subject!

Oh, we welcome children! We do, Jesus!
No worries! We got this!
We welcome new people in worship, too.
We have greeters! And we are nice.

If somebody comes in this building on Sunday morning, we really do welcome them.
See, if we can keep the message small, keep it about how nice we are, we don’t have to think too hard about it. But Jesus never lets us off the hook that easily. Just like he challenged the religious authorities of his time, he challenges us to think more deeply. With this child in the midst of them, Jesus is demonstrating that human value is not in power or status.

This child has no status, no power, no net worth. This child is vulnerable. That child was a stand in for a whole huge group of people –the global population of nobodies.

Who is welcome?
Those who look like us?
Those who speak our language?
Those who think like us and act like us?
Do they have to come to our worship service?
Will we extend welcome to those who are not interested in church?

If Jesus were here now,
he might put a Syrian child in the midst of us,
or a Guatemalan child,
or a Mexican laborer,
or a young African American man with saggy pants and a hoody.

Then he would say,
“Whoever welcomes THIS child of God welcomes me.
And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

But it’s scary.
It is!
What if… you fill in the blank….
What if….
It is scary because we understand that what Jesus said is true –he was going to die and rise again. There is no resurrection without a grave. And we want to stand far away from that grave. We don’t want to die to ourselves, or die to power or status, or die at all, for that matter.

Jesus welcomes all, and he does it in the shadow of the cross.
He showed us who is welcome, Jesus did.
He showed us how to be the servant of all,
how to take the last place in line,
how to leave the seat of honor for someone else.

He showed us how to give – not just out of our excess,
but to give of our very selves, to give generously and excessively.
He showed us by giving his life, by being a servant.
Jesus came, he said, not to be served, but to serve,
and he does that in forgiving us
and welcoming us into the presence of God.

Our power is not in our value, and our value is not in our power. 
Our value comes from the truth that we are precious children of God, 
redeemed by a merciful savior.

Your banker won’t do that for you.
Your coach or teacher or yoga instructor can’t give you that.
Your biggest fans or a thousand friends don’t tell you that.
You can’t get that from your mom,
or from a beautiful sunset, or a walk in the woods.
You get that in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus showed us that we are who is welcome.
That’s where our real power lies;
that’s where real status comes from.
Our power is to be servants, as Christ became a servant.
Once we were slaves to sin, but now we are set free in Christ Jesus.
Once we were dead, but now we are alive!
Because God has been merciful, we show mercy.
Because we have been blessed, we bless.
Because we have been welcomed, we welcome.
To be forgiven without condition,
loved with open arms
redeemed without reservation,
and called to a life of service –
that’s what it means to be one who is welcome.


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