by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 9, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Mark 9:33-37
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 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."
A Missed Opportunity
While I was in grad school, one of the professors at Harvard Divinity school was a man I'll call "Professor Jones." Because Professor Jones had a fine home close to the Divinity School campus, he often hosted receptions and dinners for world-renowned dignitaries. Thus he seemed to know just about everyone of importance in the religious and academic worlds. Billy Graham? I'll bet he'd been to dinner with Professor Jones. The Dalai Lama? No doubt they'd shared tea together. And so it went.
Well, one summer Professor Jones received a call from one of his colleagues at the Divinity School. "I've got somebody I'd like you to meet," he explained. "I wondering if you could host a dinner for this man."
Because it was summer, Professor Jones was less than enthusiastic. It would be a hassle to pull together a dinner in the off-season.
"I'm not so sure," he answered his colleague. "Say, who is this guy, anyway?"
The other professor explained: "He's the Archbishop of Krakow. He's going to give a lecture in the summer school on a phenomenological analysis of the individual as natural man and redeemed."
Professor Jones made some quick calculations . . . an obscure Catholic bishop lecturing on some arcane bit of theology . . . not worth the time and effort on a summer's evening.
"I think I'll pass," said Professor Jones finally.
"You're missing a great opportunity," his colleague said. "This man is going places."
"The Archbishop of Krakow?" Professor Jones replied. "I don't think so. But thanks for giving me the chance to host the dinner, anyway. Say, what's the name of the Archbishop?"
"Karol Wojtyla," came the answer.
"Never heard of him," Professor Jones responded.
Two years later the obscure Polish archbishop was somewhat better known, but by a different name: Pope John Paul II. Professor Jones had passed up the chance to have an intimate dinner with the man who would be Pope.
What Are People Worth to Us?
Can relate to Professor Jones? I know I can. After all, we have so much going on in our lives, and so many people who want a piece of us, that we're always calculating who deserves our time and who doesn't. Our calculations usually figure in the importance of the person we're dealing with. Is this person influential, then he'll get the time? Is she wealthy, then by all means welcome her in. Can this person somehow improve my life professionally or socially or politically, then I'll make the time. A person's worth in this case usually has to do with how that person can impact my life.
Karol Wojtyla, the man who would be Pope.
I don't think this sort of priority calculation is necessarily wrong. In fact, it's essential in our overly filled lives. We all need to determine the high priority people in our lives so they get the time and attention they deserve. If I didn't do this, for example, then I'd be a really lousy husband and father, since I've got more people wanting my attention than I could ever satisfy. I'm working constantly to make sure that I am present for those who mean the most to me in the whole world - and, honestly, I don't always succeed.
What lies beneath this process of discernment is a value system. Certain people, because of who they are or what they offer, have great worth to us. Others have very little. If your boss wants to talk with you on the phone, you call right back because, let's face it, your boss has a high level of value in your world. The pesky guy down the hall who keeps bugging you about getting together for lunch sometime? Fagedaboutit!
The crucial issue for us is determining whom we ought to value and why. And this depends on a larger understanding of what really matters in life, not only to us, but also to God. This is where we pick up the story in Mark 9.
Confrontation in Capernaum
Jesus's ministry of preaching the kingdom of God and demonstrating the power of the kingdom through mighty deeds had been going well. Mark 8 included both a high point and a turning point in the gospel. The high point was Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah. The turning point was Jesus's first prediction of his death.
As we read into Mark 9, Jesus and his disciples are making their way across Galilee. Along the way, Jesus once again predicted that he was going to suffer betrayal and death, and then, resurrection. But his disciples didn't get it. In fact, ironically enough, they were disputing among themselves about which of them was the greatest. When they arrived where they were staying in Capernaum, a small village along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, but they didn't answer, no doubt because they were embarrassed.
So Jesus gathered them about him and said, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). Then, to drive home his point, he took a child in his arms and said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me" (v. 37).
What did Jesus mean by this? Children, you must understand, were of little social value at this time. They were nobodies, basically. They had no power, or wealth, or honor. They were loved by their own families, I suppose, but were not otherwise valued in their culture. So if you were a disciple of an important person, like Jesus, and if you were concerned for your own personal greatness, the last thing you'd be interested in was welcoming a child. What could a child contribute to your life, other than mess and noise and nuisance? Children would have been off your radar screen completely, so to speak.
But Jesus wanted to shake things up. He wanted to turn his disciples' world upside down. So he took someone that His disciples would be least likely to welcome, and said, "If you welcome this kind of person, you welcome me, and not only me, but God Himself."
Behind this statement is a critique of the disciples' values and worldview. Their earlier preoccupation with their own greatness misses the whole point of servanthood. Greatness, in the kingdom of God, is a matter of humility, not haughtiness, of servanthood, not sovereignty. In God's kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Children, who were among the last of the last, were prized by God, as were others ignored by the culture: widows, singles, women, foreigners, the poor. So much does God identify with the "nobodies" of society that to welcome a child in the name of Jesus, that is, for His sake and by His authority, is to welcome Jesus Himself, and even His Heavenly Father.
So far in this preaching series we've talked about how God welcomes us so generously in Christ, and how we have the opportunity to welcome Him in response. We welcome God by welcoming His Word, like the Jews of Berea. And we welcome God by inviting Him into our lives, much as Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his home. Today we discover another way to welcome God: Welcome the people God cares about. Welcome people of little social worth because God esteems them worthy. Welcome "nobodies" as "somebodies" because this honors the Lord.
I've noted before in this series that we can't literally welcome God into our homes or our church, as if he were standing on our doorstep. But we can welcome real people in God's name. We can open our hearts, our lives, our homes, and our church to children, and to others whom the world might consider merely extras on the set of life. We can treat them as stars. In that process, Jesus suggests, we make God a star.
In our remaining time, I want to consider some practical ways we can implement this teaching of Jesus. The first one is obvious, but it's worth saying anyway: We need to be a church that welcomes children in the name of Jesus.
Now you might be thinking: But don't we do this already? Look at our ministries with children. Aren't we welcoming them now? Yes, indeed. One of the things I so appreciate about our church - as a pastor and as a father - is the way children are welcomed here. They are valued and loved. They are taken seriously as disciples of Jesus. Their needs and concerns matter to us.
I could point to lots of examples. Consider the number of adults who are active as leaders in our ministries with children and youth. We're talking about well over 200 people each year. Then there's our effort to reach out to teenagers in our community, whether through our own youth ministries, or pizza lunch, or our partnership with Young Life. Or consider our church's commitment to children in other places, such El Niño, Mexico as we help a couple hundred kids go to school, or Tijuana, through Tijuana Christian Mission, or China, through Caring for China's Children, or Africa, through building a school in Swaziland or sponsoring kids through World Vision. These are all instances of welcoming children in the name of Christ. And I want you to know that God receives all of this as acts of welcome for Him.
There have been times when I've been extraordinarily proud of the way our church has sought to make a place for children. The first time was when we decided to build the youth center under the Sanctuary. A lower level had not been in earlier plans, and adding it increased our budget by a million dollars or so. Yet the Building Committee and the Session went out on a limb financially because they believed that we were to make a place of youth in this church.
Then, of course, we did it all over again, with the basement of the Administration Building. This time there were unique challenges and opportunities to welcome teenagers. In particular, the Building Committee received from the high school leaders and kids a plan for how they wanted to paint the basement, in a wide variety of colors, with one ball splattered with paintball stains. Now this was not, I assure you, what our middle-aged Building Committee had in mind! Yet the members of the committee wanted to welcome children, in reality, not just on paper. So they bit the bullet and, well, you've seen the basement.
Part of what I love about this example is the willingness of a bunch of adults in power to let young people be young people, and even to give them power over their space. The Building Committee didn't ask them to adopt grown-up tastes. They let kids be kids, so to speak. And the message the Session and Building Committee sent was: You are welcome here as you are. You don't have to become like us to have a place here.
I'll bet a whole lot of us in this room had other experiences of church when we were young. Church was the place where we had to dress up in uncomfortable clothes, where we couldn't play, where we had to sit still and be quiet, where we had to sing songs we didn't really understand, and listen to adults talk to other adults in ways far above our heads. The implied message was: "You've gotta be here, but you're not really welcome here. You need to be what we adults need you to be: quiet, attentive, otherwise out of the way. We're not going to compromise our church experience for you. You've gotta come our way."
Now there have been times when we at IPC have sent that message to kids as well, like when we've had children in worship without including any elements they can relate to. At other times, let me add, we've over-reacted in the opposite direction. I remember a situation many years ago when a few junior high boys were way out of line in being disrespectful to some of their lay leaders. When our junior high director talked with those boys' parents, the parents said something like: "Look, our kids have to be so good all the time at school. They're under so much pressure. Church is the place they can let down a bit and just be kids. So why are you being so hard on them?" Let me be clear. Welcoming children does not mean allowing them to be disrespectful, or disruptive, or impolite. Part of our job is to help our young people grow up to be mature disciples of Christ, and this requires exercising loving discipline when needed. Again, part of what I love about our youth ministry today is the balance between screwiness and seriousness, between playfulness and prayerfulness. For the most part, our staff, lay leaders, and parents are striking just the right balance.
My friends, I don't mean to suggest that we're perfect when it comes to welcoming children and youth in this church. There's still so much more we can do to reach out with a God-like embrace to the young people in this community, not to mention elsewhere in the world. So let's keep it up. But, at the same time, we need to step back and thank the Lord for how He's helped us to welcome children. And, may we always remember that when we welcome children, we're welcoming Him.
Welcoming Others Who Are Easily Ignored
Before I wrap up this sermon, I want to consider how the teaching of Jesus might apply to other people, not just children. I explained earlier that children were basically "nobodies" in the culture of Jesus, they were off the radar screen of value and honor. So, before we finish, we should ask ourselves who else fits into this category for us, and how we might welcome them.
Who are the people we might tend to overlook, people we might be reticent to welcome into our fellowship? I can think of lots of different kinds of folks: people of different races and ethnicities, people from lower income brackets, single adults, single parents, senior adults, gays or lesbians, or the homeless. Then there are people who don't share our politics, people who don't share our theology, people who don't dress right, people who don't speak right, people who aren't especially well-educated or don't have "successful" careers. My guess is you can probably name a few other types of people whom you'd easily overlook and fail to welcome in the name of Christ.
As individuals and as a church, we need to let the Holy Spirit show us where we have blinders on. We need to learn to welcome, in the name of Christ, all sorts of folks we might ordinarily ignore or avoid.
After all, if we don't welcome them, how will they get in contact with God?
And if we don't welcome them, where will they hear the gospel and find a family of believers?
And if we don't welcome them, how will they be able to grow in the grace of God?
The Power of Welcome
Sometimes I'm astounded at how God weaves my life into my sermon preparation. I had planned to preach on this text for more than a month. It wasn't some last minute switch. But here's what happened to me in the last week.
A young man came to my office to meet with me. I've known him for more than 30 years, since he grew up at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I grew up and where I worked on staff for seven years. I knew this man, whom I'll call Bart, reasonably well, though I'm about ten years old than he is so we weren't ever close friends.
Bart met with me partly because he wanted to tell me a story about my father. My dad and mom were the superintendents of the second grade Sunday School department at Hollywood for many years. During one of those years, Bart was in their department. He was rather a shy kid, but, I learned, my dad showed a special interest in him. They'd play a game on Sunday mornings that helped Bart to feel at home.
One day, however, he had a terrible morning in the second grade department, and was crying uncontrollably. So my dad came over and swooped him up and carried him to a place where they could talk. According to Bart, my dad listened to him, encouraged him, and helped him to calm down. Bart felt truly loved, or to use my words, truly welcomed. This event made a huge impact on Bart, so much so that he wanted to come and share it with me, more than thirty years after it happened, and almost twenty years after my dad passed away.
You can imagine how much it meant to me to hear this about my dad. It's something I had never known before, and now I have a new picture of my dad to treasure.
But you can also imagine my shock at hearing this story this week, while I'm preparing to preach a sermon about a time Jesus swooped up a child and said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
My dad made a huge difference in the life of a boy, so much so that he cherishes the memory over three decades later. This is great all by itself. But even more wonderful is the fact that when my dad welcomed a crying little boy, he was welcoming Jesus. And not just Jesus, but God. Yes, God felt welcomed that day as my father cared for Bart.
So, my friends, let us be people who welcome God into our lives and into our church by welcoming those He treasures. Let us welcome children - and all whom they represent - so that we might welcome Jesus, and not just Jesus, but the One who sent Him as well.