Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Welcoming a Child/Receiving the Kingdom

Rev. Kathy Donley

10/4/15

 

Scripture Lesson:  Mark 9:30-37; 10:13-16

 

Welcoming a Child

 

While on sabbatical in the country of Georgia, the Rev. Paula Dempsey made four visits to St. George Cathedral at the Alaverid Monastery.   

 

On each visit she connected with a young priest-in-training who greeted her with his limited English or with an expression of delight that she was being ministered to by the church it was his assignment to tend.   She wondered how many others like her had enjoyed the silence and peace of that place.

 

She had one more opportunity to return at the end of her sabbatical.  She again made her way into the sanctuary and this time, discovered worship in progress.

 

Here is the story in her words:  “The melodious chant arising from behind the alter screen was answered in beautiful harmony by the priest in the nave. They repeated a musical refrain. Could I possibly remember it? What if this was communion? Would I be included? Earlier I had inquired about services open to the public and had been told only Sunday worship was offered. What had I walked into? A gift! I was basking in the moment when from the left of the altar screen, the young priest I had greeted each visit made a direct approach to me and said, “There is a code in the Orthodox church that only the Orthodox participate in the service. You must leave. So sorry.” I stood there in disbelief and said, “You really mean it? I have to leave?” He nodded and I turned to walk away from the sanctuary where I had sensed the presence of Christ, walked out the door over which St. George takes on evil, and out the gate past Jesus offering living water to a Samaritan woman. Kicked out of church.

 

What painful wounds of the church at home did this experience echo? Of when a pastor from my youth turned his back on me and couldn’t even look at me 40+ years later. Or when a local association upon receiving my resumé and photograph un-invited me to speak in a world mission conference. Or when dozens of pastor search committees tossed my résumé aside when searching for a pastor. Yes, I have been told to leave church before.

 

I was reminded of the church business meeting I attended as a young teenager when my church voted not to receive African Americans who presented themselves for church membership.

 

I was reminded of my brother for whom church has not been a safe or welcoming place. Now he finds no inspiration in church after having been denied welcome for so many years because of his sexual orientation.

 

Upon leaving the monastery grounds, I thought, “Are you followers of Jesus who welcomed this woman from Samaria to the well, or are you followers of the Orthodox Church patriarch? Which one?”

 

Paula concludes:  “Do we follow the example of Jesus regarding those on the margins, or do we follow a church riddled with fear of those who are different? Do we reserve God’s graces for the chosen few like us, or do we extravagantly share with all God’s children? And in the sharing, do we work to create a church and a world where all are welcome, all are fed, all are free to flourish and pursue lives of dignity that are fulfilling?"[1]

 

May her questions resonate with us as we come to the table of the Lord.  I believe that in this community we truly seek to follow Jesus.  We are not perfect by any means, but we seek to offer extravagant welcome and generous sharing.

 

 

Receiving the Kingdom

 

In each of the short readings we heard, the context is the children.[2] In Mark 9, the location is Capernaum, the home of Peter and Andrew and one of Jesus’ home bases.  The location in Mark 10, is beyond the Jordan.  In his home base, Jesus puts a child in the center of the group and says, “whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.”  Shortly after that, he goes towards Jerusalem, towards the cross.  The road takes him beyond the Jordan River, outside the boundary of the Promised Land. Interpreting Mark often means paying attention to geography as well as to the narrative.  It seems likely that Jesus’ crossing of geographical boundaries is a enacted way to proclaim a Kingdom without limits, a mercy and love for all people.  And so, because the disciples didn’t seem to understand what he said when they were back in Capernaum, this time Jesus says, “Anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it.” 

 

The disciples don’t get it.  Jesus said, “whoever welcomes a child welcomes me and welcomes the one who sent me.”  In other words, welcoming a child is a surefire way to welcome God.  But the disciples rebuked the mothers who brought their children to Jesus.  They tried to turn them away, just as surely as Paula, that precious child of God, was turned away from that monastery.

 

The disciples don’t get it.  And we don’t understand because we think of children in our twenty-first century context which was not at all how first century people thought of children.  Clear your head of all your sentimental ideas about children and understand this:  Children are a liability.  They have to be fed and clothed and it might be a waste of resources, because 30% are going to die when they’re still infants and 60% will not see their 16th birthdays.   In both Greek and Aramaic, the word for child and the word for servant are the same.  Biological children had no more status within a family than the servants, or the slaves.  This attitude persisted for centuries.   In the 1200’s, Thomas Aquinas taught that in case of a house fire, a man was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, then his wife and last of all, his young child.[3]  

 

We would save the young child first and so we miss how radical Jesus’ actions are.  This is not a sweet scene, not a feel-good Hallmark moment, not a photo op for Jesus.  When he puts a child in the center and says that anyone who welcomes that child is welcoming God, that is counter-intuitive and perplexing to the disciples. 

 

Jesus does not put a child in the center because children are cute and innocent.  Jesus does not put a child in the center because children have a special spiritual connection to God.  Jesus puts a child in the center because children were some of the most vulnerable, least powerful and lowest status people in his world.  Receiving, honoring, welcoming them is like receiving, honoring and welcoming God. 

 

Clear away your notions of children and childhood.  Understand that children here are symbols for whoever is last and least, whoever is vulnerable, whoever is not worth saving.  Who are those people in our world?

 

Well, children are still among them.   Things have improved.  We have laws against child labor and child abuse.  We offer formal education and music lessons and sports activities to some children.  But every 10 seconds in the USA, there is a report of child abuse.  And every day, 8 children and teenagers die from gun violence.[4] Eight a day.  Every day.

 

The Rev. Howard Thurman was an influential African-American Baptist preacher and teacher in the last century. He had two daughters, Anne and Olive, who grew up in  Washington, DC when he was Dean of the Chapel at Howard University.  One time they took a family trip back to Daytona Beach where Rev. Thurman grew up. 

There they sauntered down the long street from the church to the riverfront.  As they made their way, they passed a playground. As soon as Olive and Anne saw the swings, they jumped for joy. “Look, Daddy, let’s go over and swing!” This was the inescapable moment of truth that every black parent in America must face sooner or later. What do you say to your child at the critical moment of primary encounter?

 

“You can’t swing in those swings.”

“Why, Daddy?”

 

“When we get home and have some cold lemonade I will tell you.”

 

When they had had their lemonade, Anne pressed for the answer, “We’re home now, Daddy. Tell us.”

 

Thurman said, “It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school. Only white children can play there. But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida—it takes all these to keep two little black girls from swinging in those swings. That is how important you are! Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how much power people are willing to use to keep you in the place they have assigned to you. You are two very important little girls. Your presence can threaten the entire state of Florida.”[5]

 

What a great way to tell the truth to his daughters!  And how that story underscores the vulnerability of children.

 

You might tell me that that story is outdated, that things have changed now.  And you’re right, the story is old and some things have changed.  But if they have changed so very much, then why is the phrase “Black Lives Matter” so controversial?  If they have changed so much, then why do African-American parents still have to teach their children how to survive in white America?  And why was a child with dark skin arrested and put in handcuffs for making a clock? 

 

One commentator says that the message of this text is “Receive the kingdom of God when it approaches in the form of a child.”[6] 

 

And I say, receive the kingdom of God when it approaches in the form of an African-American child or adult.

 

But who else, would Jesus have us welcome?  Who are the most vulnerable among us?

 

What about immigrants whose foreignness makes them easy to take advantage of.  Or undocumented persons, many of whom have been here for decades with no path to citizenship, and who live in constant fear of being deported and separated from their children who are U.S. citizens. 

 

Or ex-cons, who have done their time, paid their debt, but can’t find employment, can’t find a welcome anywhere, except possibly with those whose activities would lead them back to prison. 

 

Or refugees, whose homeland and way of life and dignity has been stripped from them. Many of the world’s refugees are Muslim and let’s face it, Muslim people in the United States are also a vulnerable group.

 

Or gay and lesbian teenagers, whose profound sense of rejection makes them 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.  And for reference, suicide is the third leading cause of death for all teenagers, after accidents and homicides. 

 

Receive the kingdom of God when it approaches in the form of a foreigner.

Receive the kingdom of God when it approaches in the form of an ex-con or a Muslim person.

 

Welcome a child in Jesus’ name which is welcoming Jesus and welcoming God.

Embrace a gay teenager or a transgendered person and welcome God. 

Embrace a homeless person, a drug addict, a refugee and embrace the Holy One.

 

This message is so hard for the disciples.  It comes alongside that other message they don’t get – that Jesus will be betrayed and executed and rise again.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will be defenseless and vulnerable, rejected all the way to death on a cross. These messages about children occur in the midst of the passion predictions.  Remember that Jesus came to us as a child.  This is what the Messiah, the Savior, the Redeemer of the world does – he puts himself in the lowest, most vulnerable, least powerful place in the culture. 

 

In these last days of his life, Jesus is crossing the boundaries, demonstrating the borderlessness of his kingdom.  The disciples don’t get it.  They wrestle with it and pass on both the message and their struggle to the early church.  The early church wrestles with it. Who is in? Who is out?  Who will define the doctrine and defend the faith and keep us pure? Isn’t that our job? 

 

Or is our job to set aside those concerns and claim our own vulnerability, our own experience of rejection in order to serve, to give, to receive the outsider and welcome the Christ.  Every succeeding generation of Jesus-followers has had the same struggle.  Every succeeding generation of Jesus-followers has to learn “who is my neighbor?”  and “how do I love my enemy?”  Every succeeding generation has the same resistance to this deep transformation.  

 

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”   Those who have ears, let us hear.  Amen.

 

 


[1] https://baptistnews.com/perspectives/a-parting-gift-rejection-from-the-church/

[2] I am indebted to Andrew Prior for this idea and much of the trajectory of this sermon.  His fine essay may be found at

https://onemansweb.org/the-children-and-divorce-mark-10-2-16.html

[3] John J. Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville, MN:  Order of St. Benedict, 1996), p.146

[4] http://www.politifact.com/oregon/statements/2014/jun/27/brady-campaign-prevent-gun-violence/do-average-nine-children-day-die-united-states-gun/

[5] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart, (Orlando:  Harcourt, Brace &Co, 1979). p. 97

[6] Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1991), p. 173.

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