“One Such Child”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 20, 2015 – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37

 

It’s as though the creators of the lectionary knew that we would have a baptism today. It’s as though they knew, decades ago, when they were compiling the three-year cycle of scripture readings for churches, that today would be a great day for a text about welcoming children. It’s as though they knew it would fit perfectly with a Sunday like today, when we have the great joy of baptizing a child, of celebrating Kelsey’s place in our family of faith.

This story is the stuff of Bible coloring books and Sunday School classroom posters and illustrated children’s Bibles. Who doesn’t love the image of Jesus cradling a child in his arms? Who doesn’t love the message that our little ones are particularly precious in God’s sight? Who doesn’t love the idea that a baby could teach those disciples a thing or two? Who doesn’t love the thought that the Creator of the Universe looks at us with adoring eyes, just as we look at a beautiful child like Kelsey?

But as perfect as this text seems for this day, I have to tell you the truth, which is that the people who compiled the lectionary did not actually know that we would have a baptism today. And I have to tell you another truth, which is that in its original context, this text is about something much harder than showering love on a beautiful baby and her family.

For most of us, here and now, the instruction to welcome a child does not seem even a little bit strange. We cherish our children, both in our families and in our faith community. We love having children with us in worship. We make special trips to visit the children in our lives. We see children as a group deserving of special protections, extra resources, preferential treatment. But the same was not true in the social hierarchy of first-century Palestine under the rule of the Roman Empire.

In that world, the world of Herod and Pilate and Jesus and his followers, status was everything. If you were lucky enough to be part of the in crowd, which very few people were, you made sure to show it at every possible opportunity. You invited only prestigious people to dine at your house. You avoided being associated with those who were less powerful than you for fear of tarnishing your reputation. You made sure to keep up appearances at all costs.

In that hierarchy, children were, well, not highly valued. I don’t mean to say that first-century families did not love their children—of course they did, or some of them did, anyway. Scripture includes several stories of parents who would go to any length to find healing or help for their children. But when Jesus took a child and placed her in the midst of the disciples, when he held her in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” their eyes would probably have bugged out a little bit, because welcoming children like that simply was not the way things were done.

In fact, we know that this teaching was hard for the disciples to grasp because in the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel, they make it clear that they do not get it. People are bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them, and the disciples see it as a nuisance; they speak sternly to the families and try to send them away. Jesus becomes indignant and proclaims another Sunday School favorite: “Let the children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

See, for Jesus and his followers, a child would have symbolized someone at the bottom of the heap, someone who was not a productive member of society, someone with no status whatsoever—someone who was almost a non-person. The disciples, influenced by their social context and concerned about how things would look and what people would think, wanted to avoid such association. But Jesus said, “No. These little ones, the ones the world calls nobodies—these are the ones who are the most precious to God. These are the ones I cherish most, and you should, too.”

And so I wonder, who are the people we might rather avoid associating with today? Who are the people the world calls nobodies? And how might Jesus be calling us to cherish them?

What would Jesus say to his disciples about the refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria? The ones pundits label as potential terrorists, as undesirable, as useless, even dangerous. Perhaps refugees are the ones Jesus would cradle in his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

What would Jesus say to his disciples about our Muslim sisters and brothers in this country? The ones who, when they build ingenious engineering projects, are seen as threats rather than as outstanding students; the ones whose places of worship are often defaced; the ones who are told by businesses and communities that their presence is not welcome. Perhaps Muslims are the ones Jesus would cradle in his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

What would Jesus say to his disciples about our African-American sisters and brothers? The ones whose existence is constantly degraded by racism, the ones who need to proclaim that their lives matter because this world so often tells them they do not. Perhaps Black folk are the ones Jesus would cradle in his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

What would Jesus say to his disciples about undocumented immigrants? The ones who are so often referred to as “illegal aliens,” as though their very existence is against the law, as though they are not even human but of a different species altogether. Perhaps undocumented people are the ones Jesus would cradle in his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

What would Jesus say to his disciples about people with criminal records, or people with mental illness, or people who are transgender, or people who are poor, or people who sit on the opposite side of the political aisle? Perhaps these are the ones Jesus would cradle in his arms and place in our midst as the most precious, most desired, most celebrated members of our community.

A church full of all of these “wrong kinds of people” might not be a comfortable thing for some of us to imagine. It might make our eyes bug out a little bit. But the family of Jesus is a community called to hang out with the ones the world calls nobodies, to reach out to the ones the world calls outcasts, to bring in those who have been forced to the margins, to cherish the undesirable and love the unlovable.

As we welcome Kelsey into our family of faith, this is what she is joining: a community where every nobody is somebody. A community where strangers are guests, and guests are friends, and friends are family. A community where worth is defined not by social status, but by our truest identity as children of God.

And here is the good news. Just as there is room in God’s heart for the ones the world calls nobodies, for the ones the world calls outcasts, for the Muslims and the Black folks and the refugees and the immigrants and the convicts and the mentally ill and the transgender and the poor and the politically-opposite—just as there is room for all of these, there is also room in God’s heart for those pieces of yourself and myself that feel unworthy or imperfect or shameful. There is room for brokenness along with wholeness. There is room for weakness along with strength. There is room for depression along with joy, addiction along with recovery, sickness along with healing, failure along with success, struggle along with triumph. There is room for all of who you are, all of who I am. And perhaps those parts of ourselves we cherish least are in fact the most precious parts to God.

So welcome, Kelsey, and welcome, every one of you, into a countercultural movement that turns hierarchy upside down, social order inside out. Welcome to a community where the last are first and the first are last. Welcome to a life of discipleship, which is to say, a life of welcoming those who have too often been deemed unwelcome. And welcome to the very heart of God, for just as there is room in God’s heart for the littlest children, there is room for you and me, too.

 


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