Jesus was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘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.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ – Mark 9 (NRSV)
I have this friend named Kae Evenson – and she is one of my very favorite preachers in the whole world, and well, she and I once discussed that reading we just heard, where Jesus takes a child in his arms and teaches the disciples that if they welcome a child such as this in his name they welcome God. So anyhow, Kae told me of this brilliant technique she employs when dealing with toddlers. She said it really helps her to be patient and compassionate with defiant, emotional, snot-faced toddlers when she just thinks of them like little versions of really drunk people. Then when they keep falling down and bumping into things and bursting into tears she just treats them like she would a friend who has had too much tequila to know what they are doing. Kae suggests treating toddlers like drunk friends who you just try and make sure don’t hurt themselves and who you clean up bodily fluids from and make sure they drink some water and then just lovingly change them into their pajamas and tuck them into bed.
The point being, Children really are a mess.
And yet it is children who Jesus uses to teach us about welcoming today in our Gospel reading. Because, let’s be honest, sometimes sacred hospitality can be a messy business.
So here’s what’s happening: Jesus and his disciples are on the road and he starts talking some nonsense about how he will be betrayed and killed and raised from the dead and his disciples had no idea what that meant, but they were too cowardly to ask so instead they just start talking smack with each other.
And then when they go inside Jesus just kind of stretched his arms out, yawned and was like “so….what were you guys arguing about on the road” and they all totally freeze up…guilt stricken… since they weren’t exactly talking about how to care for the poor or who might need some extra prayer these days. They were talking about themselves, and like insecure Jr high boys they were arguing about who was the greatest among them and then they were ashamed to tell the truth about that.
To which Jesus says whoever wants to be great must be least.
So he takes a small child and places that youngster among them. He takes a child into his arms and says whoever welcomes such a child as this in his name welcomes him, and indeed, welcomes God.
But here’s a caution. Lest, when we hear this story, we picture a cute little well dressed kid from an ad for the Gap – we should consider how differently children were treated and perceived back in Jesus’ day.
Because sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the sentimentality we as Westerners attach to childhood is a fairly recent thing. It really wasn’t until the 18th century that children were viewed as innocent and angelic. These days our images of children come from Norman Rockwell paintings emblazoned in our minds or worse, those Anne Gettes photos…you know where she dresses up children as potted flowers and snow peas…well, we might conjure these kinds of sentimentalized images when we think of childhood, but it wasn’t like that in the 1st century. In Jesus’ time, there wasn’t a growing market for adorableness like there is today.
These children didn’t exactly take bubble baths every night before being tucked into their Sesame Street bed sheets and read Goodnight Moon. There was no sentimentality about childhood because childhood was actually a time of terror. Children in those days only really had value as replacement adults but until then they were more like mongrel dogs than they were beloved members of a family. And they weren’t even really housebroken. They just kind of leaked everywhere and they died like, all the time. Children were dirty and useless and often unwanted and to teach his disciples about greatness and hospitality, Jesus puts not a chubby-faced angel, but THIS kind of child in the center, folds THIS kind of child into his arms and says when you welcome the likes of THIS child you welcome me.
No doubt. That is a serious lesson in Christian welcome that Jesus is teaching us. And we, like the disciples, should welcome the messy reality of having children in our midst as if we are welcoming God’s own self. I often wonder if perhaps the distracting noise of children in worship is more pleasing to the ears of our Lord than even the most perfect choir anthem.
So all of that made me wonder: wait. why it is, when reading the Gospels, that we seem to always assume that the disciples are a stand in for us? I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that then it’s so easy to see everything Jesus says as a to-do list. Try to be last, pray more, forgive everyone, cut off your limbs and for God’s sake plant seeds correctly. But how helpful is that for the already exhausted?
So yeah, like the disciples, we too should welcome childish, difficult, pathetic people. Fine. But I think you came here tonight already knowing that. So instead I wanted to tell you this: the thing that really broke my heart this week was not an exhortation to welcome children or other equally annoying people. What broke my heart wasn’t thinking of myself in the place of the disciples who are learning a lesson in hospitality, what broke my heart was thinking of myself in the place of that child. I mean, what if the child is a stand-in for us – and not a generic us, I mean us. Here. In this room tonight.
See, I started to wonder why was it, earlier in the story, that the disciples were so insecure and too cowardly to ask Jesus some simple clarifying questions? Why were they having an asinine argument about who was the greatest and why could they not even admit to it later when he asked what they were talking about? Which made me think about times when I had been too cowardly to ask about something I should have because I was supposed to be the one in charge. I thought about the times when I had been showoff-y like the disciples and the times when I was too ashamed to admit the truth about my smallness. The times in this work we do when I felt my inadequacies so strongly that all I could do was try and over-compensate for them and then I came off as a real jackass because of it. And then I started to wonder about how all of those times would have been different if I really believed that these very same childish parts of me were the parts Jesus welcomes. Yeah, ok, maybe God wants our excellence in preaching and our strength in administration and our killer pastoral care skills- but here tonight I want to say that it is the parts of us that differ very little from 1st century child which are welcomed into the arms of our loving savior. The parts of us that are like A useless child who has dried snot wiped across her unwashed face. A child who can’t actually understand Jesus’ teaching at all, who has nothing to offer, who no one else wants around, who no one else even notices is there. A child who has zero ability to make himself worthy. These are the very parts of you that Jesus folds into his arms and says welcome.
So maybe here tonight this is a word for us leaders in the church – we who are supposed to be strong, and knowledgeable, and competent for the sake of the Kingdom but who are, more often than we’d like to admit, small, and scared, and lacking in understanding and yet so seldom in a place where we feel safe enough to admit to any of it.
We need not walk the road alongside our colleagues and brag about whose church has the greatest attendance. There is no need to pretend we know more than we do. And there is also no need to try and hide our pettiness about all of it. Not with the kind of God we have, brothers and sisters. Because we serve a God who folds into God’s loving arms that which is so filthy and worthless and unable to help itself and God says “welcome”. Welcome.
With these messy, falling down, dirty,-faced things being placed in the center and being held in the arms of Christ and being welcomed into the life of God and God’s people, there is simply no reason to not ask questions, there is simply no reason to not have humility, and there is simply no reason to not fearlessly speak the truth. For that is the kind of children God’s hospitality has made you into. God bless the child. Amen.