Sermon Archives

Sunday, September 20, 2015
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
On Christian Welcome

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As the calendar turns from August to September, signs of welcome begin to spring up all around.  Of course, there was the Fall Homecoming Festival here as we regather as a community from far flung summer holidays.  Schools, too, are all about fall welcomes with first days and parents’ nights on every parent’s mind.  And the recent Labor Day weekend brought countless gatherings of family, friends, and neighbors together for the customary Labor Day barbeque. 

Certainly Jesus would approve of such rhythms of annual welcome and hospitality as we publically gather to welcome old friends home and new friends into our lives.  But we ought to be careful as well.  Important as these annual expressions of welcome are, they cannot be our primary expressions of welcome and hospitality, otherwise they would be too few and too inconsistent to make much difference with the recipients of our warmth or even ourselves for that matter.

In fact, what we see throughout Jesus’ teaching, is an emphasis on daily living – a practice of faith that transforms the daily actions and interactions of our life.  As we hear these words of Jesus today, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” we must also think about their daily application to our life – our life here at Christ Church, as our personal life beyond these walls.

Two elements of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples – the who and the what – ought to draw our attention and, I suspect, challenge our understanding of hospitality and welcome.  So let’s begin with the first, the who!

The who of Jesus’ welcome in this passage is quite remarkable.  It may not seem so to our modern ears and sensitivities as accustomed as we have become to children running around our feet and interjecting themselves into our lives.  Yet, for first century Palestinians the welcome Jesus extends is quite remarkable. 

You see, childhood in the ancient world was a difficult thing – terrifying thing from our vantage point today.  Consider this: 

Infant mortality rates reached as high as 30%
Of those children who survived birth, another 30% would die by their 6th birthday, and 60% would die before they reached 16. (Malina and Rosenbaugh, p 238)

In such a world, it will be no surprise that children would “suffer the greatest from famine, war, disease, and dislocation” (Malina and Rosenbaugh, p 238).

Even a male child, who had not reached maturity, remained little more than a slave within the household – it was adulthood, not simple birthright, which conferred status on a child.  Until then, however, a child’s status was similar to that of a slave. 

Surrounded by his closest friends and most loyal followers, Jesus scoffs at their bickering and takes up a child into his arms.  In this brief exchange, Jesus shows his welcome to extends well beyond the customary boundaries of the ancient world.  His embrace, the reach of his community and fellowship extends not simply to those near to him, those dear and loyal to him, but the very margins of all too terrifying world.  His embrace, our embrace, must include the most vulnerable in our society.

And what is it he offers this little child?  An embrace, of course, which we may naturally see as affection.  I suspect we will all remember from our own childhood, the power of a loving adult’s embrace – a father or mother, a grandfather or grandmother who took us into their arms and held us with care and strength and affection.  We cannot say too much about the power of a human embrace, particularly for a vulnerable child.

But that was not all that Jesus offered in this little child.  To understand the full depth of his offering, we must see it within the broader context of Mark’s account.  We must remember, what occurred just before this – an argument between Jesus disciples.  As the ragged band made their way through Capernaum, the disciples began a rather typical human, dare I say male, argument:  who was greatest.  You can hear them, can’t you, walking along the dusty hillside path, squabbling about who was greatest among them, who was closest to Jesus, and who would be next in line should he be arrested as the authorities threatened. 

This exchange wasn’t just about welcome – it about status within God’s kingdom!  It was about who mattered for God and who would represent God.  And to answer their questions, Jesus took up a little child, placing all the status he had inherited as the Son of God on this little child.  In Jesus world, and in God’s kingdom, no longer was a child merely an outcast, but an heir to God.  And no longer was an outcast merely an outcast to be overlooked or forgotten, because an outcast was also a child, and a child was an image of Jesus and heir to God.  In this brief exchange Jesus brings the world of the oppressed and vulnerable into the heart of the kingdom of God.

The who and the what of this story matter greatly – a little child, that’s who, and the status of Jesus, that’s what.  With that Jesus transforms his community.  No longer is it enough to be close to Jesus, a faithful follower of his teachings.  Jesus’ community would receive the outcast and the abandoned, the vulnerable and the humble, not just with affection, but with real status and embrace.