There are three sentences in just about every church that will get you the same reaction every time. You know that reaction: that look of panic. That uneasy look that belies the total terror that lies beneath. It reminds me of the Jurassic Park movies…remember when the T-Rex comes on screen, and the dinosaur expert says “they can’t see you if you don’t move.” As soon as these sentences are spoken, everyone in the room immediately goes into high alert…you can tell that they are trying to look calm, but deep down there is anything but calmness in their hearts. When one of these sentences gets spoken, everyone freezes and drops their eyes…or side-glances at their neighbor to see if they will respond. It’s like the speaker has been transformed into a gigantic T-Rex and the only way to get them to leave is to say absolutely nothing. Tell me I am wrong about these three:
“Who would like to close us in prayer?”
“Let’s spend a few moments talking about tithing.”
“I need a volunteer to teach the children’s Sunday school class.”
I could write a sermon about any of those three, but I’m going to start with the last one. Because the irony is so great. When we talk about teaching children, we are literally talking about the most vulnerable, helpless creatures in our midst. And yet, how many of us see them as equal to gigantic T-Rex’s? We see children so often as these terrifying creature…I don’t know if its the full diapers, or unruly behavior, or difficult-to-answer questions, but we are terrified.
Interestingly enough, that is not a new phenomenon. Lloyd deMause has written about child-rearing through history and some of the perceptions that adults have of children. He writes, “adults throughout history have routinely called little children ‘beasts,’ ‘sinful,’ greedy,’ ‘arrogant,’ ‘lumps of flesh,’ ‘vile,’ ‘polluted,’ ‘enemies,’ ‘vipers’ and ‘infant fiends.’”
While some of those perceptions are changing, I see it still happening today. From cuts to K-12 education, to the way we illegitimize teachers as glorified babysitters, or the way we demonize them as greedy for wanting a living wage for raising our children. And the church is sometimes no better. Ask anyone who has ever done children’s ministry: it is absolutely one of the hardest jobs in the church to find volunteers to work with our children!
As deMause suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. And we see it in today’s Scripture passage – a reality of first century Palestine, for sure.
Before we get there, let me remind you where we are in the series. We are in the middle of a series called “Jesus’ Bucket List.” The series takes a look at the three times in Mark where Jesus predicts his death. In the face of the reality that he will not live forever, he gives his disciples three different teachings, and three different priorities about his mission, that he wants them to understand. Before he dies, this is what he wants the disciples to understand. Last week, we talked about denial and what that looked like to Jesus and what that looks like for us.
In this week’s passage, we actually see two of the priorities of Jesus at once. He talks about greatness, but that overlaps with next week’s passage as well, so we are going to hold off on that one until then. But then he talks about welcome. That’s what I want to talk about today.
The scene is this: the disciples are arguing among themselves on the walk through Galilee. They are trying to figure out the pecking order between them. They are trying to whisper about this behind Jesus’ back, but of course he picks up on their arguing. And so when he sits down with them at the next stop, he looks at them straight in the eye and says “what were you arguing about back on the road?” And the disciples go all “T-Rex.” They all sit there perfectly still, thinking that if they don’t say anything and don’t move then maybe Jesus will go on to a different topic. I can just imagine the disciples all sitting there, looking down at the floor, maybe side-glancing at each other to see what they are going to say. The terror in their heart is palpable.
So Jesus answers for them. He brings a child from the home where they are staying and brings him or her up to his lap. And tells them, basically, “this is what I want you to understand.”
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9-36-7)
Whoa. How’s that for an object lesson? His message is clear: Their “welcome” is broken. They don’t understand the Kingdom because they don’t understand how to welcome for the vulnerable in their midst.
In Mark, we often see Jesus teach the disciples first, and then amplify the lesson for the rest of the crowds that come to hear him teach. So a few verses down the road, we see him do it again. Children are trying to come up to Jesus, but it says that the adults are “rebuking” them. Remember last week, we talked about that word in Greek having to do with casting out demons? These adults were literally trying to remove the “little demons” from Jesus, and he flips out:
But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10.14-16)
Again the message is the same: their “welcome” is broken. You don’t understand the Kingdom because you don’t understand how important these children are.
In other words, Jesus tells them, in both of these instances, “the way you welcome children is the way you welcome me. In fact, the way you welcome the Father.” Your resentment, your discomfort, your fear of these children is a symbol of the way that you fear the “other.” When someone is different, or needy in one way or another, or unpredictable, or vulnerable, you run…or you freeze and hope they go away.
But instead, says Jesus, you should see these children as your teachers. Look at what he does with these kids: he blesses them. Could you imagine how powerful that scene must have been? For Jesus to hold these children in his arms and speak words of blessing into their lives? That powerful act becomes a symbol for his ministry. The way he welcomes these children becomes one of the most important lessons that he offers. Again, he knows he is not going to be around forever – but before he is gone, he has to show them how to live out the Kingdom. “Fix your welcome. Welcome them. Because when you figure this out, then you will know how to welcome all of God’s children. When you figure this out, then you will know how to welcome me.”
It’s not just about children – they become the object lesson for how we welcome all who are created by God. It’s about all of God’s children. I think the reason why children intimidate us is that they aren’t “enough” yet. Well-behaved enough. Quiet enough. Knowledgeable enough. But Jesus’ message to the disciples and us is “are we willing to receive them as they are?” Because none of us are perfect. None of us have all the right answers. So will we live our lives whispering behind Jesus’ back, arguing about which of us is better than the other? Or will we learn from their vulnerability, their honesty, their reliance upon others for their needs and their willingness to ask for help? Because that is the way that we truly receive the love that God has to give us! Not by trying to do it ourselves! And Jesus understood that it sometimes takes an object lesson, a role model, to teach us that reliance.
Jesus so radicalizes welcome here that the disciples don’t even know what to say. They would probably have not even noticed this child in their midst…even as she brought them their food and cleared the table for them. But Jesus put her front and center and said, “this is how you fix your welcome!”
Now, I think this has at least two implications for us today.
First, we need to pause and say thank you. For some of you here today, a portion of this sermon feels a little incongruent. Because for some of you, children are not “vile,” or “vipers,“ or “fiends.” Some of you get it, and I want to lift you up as an example for the rest of us…
If you are now or have ever been a teacher of children. In any context: Sunday school, public school, preschool, homeschool. In any age: we’ll go with the definition that would have been Jesus’ probably…13 was adulthood, so we’ll stick with any age 12 or under. Current. Retired. Part-time. Full-time. In the Church. In the community. If you have been a teacher of our children, I want you to stand up. Stand up. Amy and the nursery team, if you have the speaker on, I want you to stand up, too. We need to say thank you.
Every once and a while, someone will tell me that we don’t clap enough in this church. Let’s debunk that myth right now. I want you to give these teachers as big an ovation as you can. I want them to hear it down the hall in the nursery. We have to say thank you to our teachers because they teach us the Kingdom. They are Gospel people. They take these words of Christ to heart and make it happen: through every diaper change and runny nose and snotty attitude. Thank them for their Gospel ministry!
But there is another word I want you to hear today. I want you to hear from our children. Earlier this week, I asked a few of our children a simple question: “how do you welcome someone into your home?”
And these were the answers….
“I say hello and share my toys with them.”
“We give them hugs…and if they come over for dinner, we give them food!”
“I would say ‘welcome to our home.’”
“I would open the door for them and give them the grand tour…and let them sleep in my room.”
“I would welcome them by hugging them and giving them a high five!”
“I could draw a picture for them and tell them I like having them over, and tell them I want them to come over again.”
This is why Jesus said we have to put these kids front and center. Because they have so much to teach us. We have so much to learn from them. Jesus reminds us to let them teach us, to let them show us how to open the front doors, let them sleep in our rooms, give them hugs, share our toys, and tell them we want them to come over again. If that isn’t Gospel welcome, I don’t know what is!