Sermon Archives

Sunday, September 19, 2021
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20 (Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
On Christian Welcome

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Collect for Proper 19)

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

I suspect Jesus would approve of such rhythms of annual welcome and hospitality as we publically gather to reconnect with old friends and welcome new friends into our lives.  But he might warn us as well.  You see, as important as these annual expressions are, we mustn’t let them become our primary expressions of welcome and hospitality, otherwise they would be too few and far between.

In fact, it’s quite striking that the exchange we’ve just read, the exchange between Jesus, his disciples and a little child, takes place in the most nondescript of places and times – passing through Galilee in the region of Capernaum is all we get.  There’s no host to story – no Zacchaeus in the tree, no Pharisee at dinner, no Martha or Mary to host.  Similarly, there’s no day or festival to place the story within the arc of time.  For Saint Mark this story is an everywhere-anytime story. 

The child, too, is equally non-descript – we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, a Jew or a Gentile; we don’t even know if the child was healthy or unhealthy, rich or poor.  All we know is that somewhere along the way, on some random day, Jesus was approached by a child and Jesus responded by embracing the child.

Which fits within the broader teaching of Jesus, of course, who is constantly emphasizing daily living – a practice of faith not simply in the holy places for all to see, not simply to the powerful who will reward us, but in the ordinary places and interactions of our lives where God alone might see. 

Set within this generic, timeless backdrop, 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.”  This simple yet transformative encounter, isn’t meant as an extraordinary event that one might take up during a high holy festival, but as an application with one’s daily life – our life here at Christ Church, as well as our personal life beyond these walls.

Beyond the ordinariness of the encounter which Mark sets up for us, 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!

First off, the who of Jesus’ welcome in this passage is quite remarkable.  To our modern ears and sensitivities, accustomed as we have become to children running around our feet and interjecting themselves into our lives, it doesn’t seem like much at all; yet, for first century Palestinians the welcome Jesus extends to a child is quite remarkable. 

You see, children in the ancient world did not possess the same place and status in life as children do today.  It begins with the fact that childhood in the ancient world was a difficult thing – a terrifying thing from our modern vantage.  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 some 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 one reached maturity, a child’s status was little more than 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 an 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 was 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.