Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentecost 16 (proper 20), Year B, Sunday Sept 20, 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

There are many wonderful drawings and paintings of Jesus surrounded by children. The children are crowding around him, and some are leaning against him or hugging his knees. They are looking up adoringly at him and listening to his words. Sometimes he is holding a little child in his arms. These are such very tender images and express to us one of the ways in which we imagine Jesus, as gentle and kind and even fatherly/motherly. These images illustrate His teaching that it is especially the meek and lowly who are most blessed and loved by God.

However, the ancient people who were present with Jesus for the event described in our Gospel reading, and the early Christians who heard this story, would have most likely reacted quite differently. To ancient peoples, Jesus’ actions and words on that day would have been shocking and scandalous!

In the ancient Middle East (and even today), homes were constructed with walls around them to separate the household from the outside world and to enclose family space. The areas outside of the walls were the domain of men. Inside the walls, there was often a courtyard where men could meet and discuss their business, and then there were family spaces for the women and children. Children were usually not running about in the courtyard or the men’s meeting areas.

We also know that in the ancient world there was a definite social pecking order. Men and especially wealthy men of status were at the top. Wealthy women and wives of important men might also be near the top. Then there were ordinary men and craftsmen; then ordinary women; then at the bottom of the social scale were slaves, widows, and children.

In today’s reading we hear that Jesus “took a little child”. Most likely he had to go and find one, perhaps even by going near or into the family section of the house. Then the story continues: “He… put it among them”. He would have had to bring this child into an area where children would not normally be, perhaps in the courtyard where the men had gathered.

Then, he did something even more shocking by taking up the child in his arms, raising up the very lowest in the social order, to make his point even more clearly: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

As we have seen in the modern artistic renditions of this scene, we might interpret this as a lovely moment, with Jesus holding a cuddly, cherubic, gurgling infant. We can imagine a scene of domestic bliss, with the perfect baby and the perfect wife and mother, and the perfect father.

Now imagine, if you will, what this scene more probably looked like. Imagine how most young children would react to being seized from their mother’s arms and taken into a public space with lots of strange faces all around them, and then picked up and held by some strange man. Let’s rephrase Jesus’ statement: “Whoever welcomes this squealing, squirming, squalling baby in my name, welcomes me….” It’s easy to welcome the cute and cuddly, and much, much harder to welcome the messy, complicated, real people whom God actually brings to our door.

At the convent where I live, we sisters gather in our chapel to chant the Daily Office four times a day. Our chant sounds something like the chant that we use in this parish when we chant the psalm. We sisters have chanted together four times a day for so many years that we really get to know each other’s voices and how to stay together (mostly). We sing very quietly so that our voices blend, and we try to make all our voices sound like one. All is well, until we have visitors. We love having visitors at the convent, but sometimes their voices are loud, or flat, or too slow. We try to keep up the pitch and the pace, and sometimes we say in our hearts: we love our visitors, and we love it when they go away again!

Who is usually most welcome in our midst? Certainly those who are most like ourselves, who blend and harmonize most easily, who bring as little change as possible! Who is least welcome? It’s usually the ones who change and challenge us.

There is a church in New York that was not doing very well, either financially or in terms of attendance. As they were searching for a new rector, they told one of the candidates that they wanted to grow and prosper, so he answered them, “If you hire me as your rector, this church will grow. But I want you to understand that you’re not going to like it.” I think he was confronting their very earnest desire to grow, but only to grow in a comfortable way.

At Saint Augustine’s we have expressed a commitment to growing, especially by bringing in younger people. I have to be honest with you about this – at my age, I have been very comfortable here, with all of your help and with the warm welcome that I’ve received. Also, the average age of this congregation about the same as mine! It wasn’t until I saw some results from the parish survey that I realized that we are indeed a mostly aging congregation (as I also am reluctantly but inevitably aging). A substantial influx of new, energetic, enthusiastic, spirit-filled young people would definitely be a change and would definitely bring new life in Christ in our midst. And an influx of new, energetic, enthusiastic, spirit-filled young people would definitely challenge us in every way.

Our mission is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to live in love and to welcome all those who come to us for spiritual nourishment and fellowship in Christ. This means accepting some disorientation. Jesus himself was really good at shaking up the traditions and customs of his time. In the midst of change and challenge, the one constant is God, who is eternal and changeless in His grace and mercy. God knows our need, and will give us the strength and skills to persevere.

When we welcome anyone whom God has sent to us and who is drawn to be part of our worship and fellowship, we welcome Jesus in our midst, who was ready to speak with women, eat with tax collectors, and who gave his life for all who strive to follow Him. When we welcome anyone in His name, we welcome Christ into our midst and we are all blessed by the grace of God to heal our differences and open our hearts to work together and to live always in His love.

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