Sermon text: Mark 9: 30-37
A few years ago, I was out in Minnesota for my grandmother’s funeral, and I had the pleasure of staying with my cousin and his two young children: Chase, who at the time was 5 and Kendall, 3. While I was there Tim’s wife Danielle was in the hospital, so it was just Daddy and Cousin Dave taking care of the kids.
The first thing I noticed that it was like a bomb went off in every room the two kids entered. Toys everywhere. Shoes and clothes everywhere. Couch cushions everywhere. I couldn’t take three steps without tripping over something. It was like I was in an episode of American Ninja Warrior or on the set of Home Alone.
And then Chase threw up. So then he started carrying around a bucket. Then there was food wrappers and staying up past bedtime and running late for soccer practice and the inability to tie shoes. And everything was sticky. Kids are sticky. And I didn’t even stay in his house for a full day. We’re talking like 14 hours.
The point being, children really are a mess.
And yet it is children who Jesus uses to teach us about welcoming in our Gospel reading, because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that 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 the disciples have no idea what that means. They are too cowardly to ask. So instead, they start trash talking each other over who’s the greatest.
And when they go inside from their journey, Jesus slides into the conversation and says, “so…what were you guys arguing about on the road?” And the disciples freeze up. They’re guilt stricken, since they weren’t exactly talking about how to care for the poor or who might need some extra prayer. They were talking about themselves, just like teenage boys who argue about who is the greatest, and then they are ashamed to tell the truth.
Then 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. We are probably tempted, when we hear this story, to picture a cute, little, well-dressed kid from an ad for Target or Old Navy. Instead, we should consider how differently children were treated and perceived back in Jesus’ day.
You see, the sentimentality we attach to childhood is a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until the 18th century that children were viewed as innocent and angelic. Heck, we were still endangered kids lives in factories and mines in the 1900s…child safety laws didn’t come into existence until the Great Depression, and that wasn’t for their safety but for more jobs to be available for grown men.
These days our images of children come from Norman Rockwell paintings, or the monthly photo shoot to see how the kids has grown and changed, or those awful Anne Geddes photos…the ones where she dresses children up as cabbages and potted plants and snow peas…
These are the types of images our society thinks of when they 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 weren’t taking bubble baths every night before being tucked into their Disney bed sheets and reading “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” There was no sentimentality about childhood because childhood was actually a terrifying time. In those days children really only had value as replacement adults. But until they grew up they were more like mongrel dogs than they were beloved members of a family. It’s not that they weren’t loved, but there was the very grim reality that they could die at any time.
Children were dirty and unproductive and sometimes unwanted (and probably sticky too). And to teach his disciples about greatness and hospitality, Jesus doesn’t put a chubby-faced angel, but THIS kind of child in the center. Jesus folds THIS kind of child into his arms and says when you welcome the likes of THIS child you welcome me.
This is, without a doubt, a serious lesson in how we Christians welcome. But…as important as that is, that just couldn’t be the thing I took away from this Gospel text this week. I mean, we know this lesson. We know we are to practice hospitality, especially here in our congregation. I wanted more than a rudimentary lesson on hospitality.
There are times when I read and interpret scripture when I think: Wait. Why is it that I always assume that the disciples are a stand in for me and for us? Do you do that? I do that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just that it becomes so easy to see everything Jesus says as this sacred to-do list. Try to be last. Pray more. Forgive everyone. Cut off your limbs. And for God’s sake plant seeds correctly.
But so very often a to-do list isn’t all that helpful.
So yeah, like the disciples, we too should welcome childish, difficult, pathetic people. Fine. But like I said, I think you came to church today already knowing that. So instead, I wanted to tell you this: the thing that really captured my heart this week was not an exhortation to welcome children or other equally messy and annoying people. What captured my heart wasn’t thinking of myself in place of the disciples who are learning a lesson in hospitality. What captured my heart was thinking of myself in the place of that child. I mean, what if the child is a stand in for us? For you and for me.
You see, I started to wonder why the disciples were so insecure and cowardly that they couldn’t ask Jesus some simple clarifying questions earlier in the story? Why were they having this stupid argument about who was the greatest and why couldn’t they admit to it later when Jesus asked what they were talking about?
Then I thought about the times when I was too cowardly to ask about something that I should have because I was supposed to be the one in charge. I thought about the times when I showed off like the disciples and the times when I was too ashamed to admit the truth about my smallness. I thought about the times when I was an arrogant know-it-all who was trying to overcompensate for my inadequacies. 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.
I mean, I know God wants our excellence in discipleship, our pure devotion, and our unrelenting attention to our neighbors—but this morning I want to say that it is the parts of us that differ very little from a 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 his unwashed face. A child who doesn’t have the attention span to listen to Jesus’ words, who has nothing to offer, who no one else wants around, who no one else even notices. A child who has zero ability to make herself worthy. These are the very parts of you that Jesus folds into his arms and welcomes.
So yes, we are supposed to be strong, and knowledgeable, and competent for the sake of God’s Kingdom. But more often than we’d like to admit we are small, and scared, and lacking in understanding…and then we are so seldom in a place where we feel safe enough to admit that truth.
We don’t need to walk the road alongside our friends and brag about who is the greatest disciple. Or who belongs to the biggest church. 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. Because we serve a Savior who folds us into God’s loving arms. God takes all that is filthy and worthless and says “Welcome.”
With these messy, falling down, dirty faced things placed in the center and 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 us into. God bless the child in all of us. AMEN