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First. Last. Welcome.

Pentecost 17, Common Lectionary Year B 

Mark 9: 30-37

 ©2015 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

“Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and the One who sent me.”

My first thoughts on this text when I back in July
when I first read this text for today
went something like this:
“Oh great!
This is a perfect text for our Covenanting for Learning!
I could springboard off this to encourage
you all to become part of the KidZone leadership team,
get to know our church children,
to go deep with them as they explore their faith in God.”
I also thought,
“Because we are welcoming Joёlle into our ministry for the year,
I can focus on welcome as a hallmark of Christian community,
encourage you all to get to know her,
oh, and wear your name tags
so she and other newcomers can be saved the embarrassment of not knowing your name.
…..”

That was my thinking in July.
Today the world feels quite different,
and so,
reading this text has taken on different imperatives too.

In fact, this passage,
for all that it contains the line
“whoever welcomes a child like this”
is not really about welcoming children
or student ministers into church at all.

It’s a puzzling text, that at first blush
seems like two disconnected incidents,
neither of which appear to have much to do with us.
First we have another dire warning from Jesus
(we had one last week) of his inevitable suffering and death
because of living the Dream of God.
No lead up, no commentary, just boom.
Death, and the fear that goes with it.

And the second incident :
one of those embarrassing shame-faced moments
when the teacher, the boss, the admired mentor,
walks in the room in the middle of your most childish moment.
What does Mark say…
“What were you talking about?”
And they shuffled their shoes, and picked their cuticles,
and looked nervously, fearfully,
at the passing gecko on the roadway,
because they weren’t going to tell him
they’d been scrabbling for shot-gun seat at the front
of the Gospel mini-van, now were they?

What connects these two incidents,
and what might they have to do with us?
Normally we watch Jesus closely when that question comes to mind,
but in this case, the clue lies in the behaviour of the disciples.

Now, remember, when you read “Disciple” in Mark,
even though they are a bit klutzy, clueless, childish,
well-meaning but largely ineffectual,
Mark is using code;
“Disciple” means, dear reader, “Me. You. Us.”

So, let’s try this, again, see what happens.
He was on the road with us, teaching us, saying to us,
“You know this Dream of God is going to get me killed?
But after betrayal, death, and three days, God will raise me again.”
But we didn’t understand, and more to the point,
we were afraid.
Too afraid to engage in what frightens us,
too afraid to ask questions.

And in the second incident:
“When he asked us what we’re talking about on the road of life…
we are silent, afraid again.
Silenced, hobbled by our fear.
Fear of what God’s Dream cost Jesus, fearful of what it might cost us.
Afraid to let God in on our secret neediness for approval,
our human lust for power,
our thirst for success, for comfort, for….
Mark’s is an awkward Gospel, isn’t it?
With so few words, it exposes the dark underside of ourselves and our world.

+When fear takes root, we cannot look at suffering, or death,
sacrifice, without a cold-sweat,
+When fear takes over, we can’t stomach the idea that God
is to be found not in places of ease and success,
but in the midst of pain and suffering,
and we don’t want to go there.
We’d rather ride shot-gun at the front of the bus.
+When fear becomes entrenched,
we, disciples, everyone, the human species
begin to behave as if grace is rare,
as if life itself is rationed, scarce,
to be bought and paid for,
to be fought over,
to be hoarded.

“There’s not enough room, jobs, water, shelter…”
there is not enough for us, and them….
And the jostling begins,
the haves hold on, greedily, fearfully,
the have-nots predictably grasp, reach, hungrily, fearfully.

It was ever thus.
It was in the time of Jesus,
and it is, in different garb, the same now.

Silence and fear,
crippling our hearts, our minds, our actions.
Can any of us hear this text today,
without hearing echoes of
4 million people displaced by civil war in Syria.
Silence and Fear.

Let me read you this poem:
“Refugees at the crossroads.
They walk in silence—clutching hope in their hands.
Fear on their faces—frightened by the past, fearful of the future.
Will no one open doors to receive them?
Look again and you will see familiar people…
mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents.
Your dreams of safety and security are theirs
That which is joy to every human heart is not alien to theirs
That peace you long for is the peace for which they strive.”[1]

It’s tempting for a preacher at this point in the text, to get preachy.
But, that’s not what Jesus did.
And nor will I,
nor will we.
Jesus could see that it’s not cruelty or hatred
that cripples your average you and me,
that makes us silent in the face of suffering,
that makes us jostle to hold on to what we have,
it’s fear.

And God knows,
ynd you can’t badger fear into goodness,
you can’t “buck up” fear into courage.
you can’t punish fear and expect hopefulness,
you can’t preach to fear and expect faithfulness
You can only love, and comfort
the ones who are fearful.

So, again, let’s re-read our text,
Let’s see what Jesus does with silence and fear:
He sat down, called the 12 to himself.
Picture that. (do it)
He takes on the posture of comfort, intimacy, egality,
he invites us to sit with him.
In one sentence, he turns the world upside down,
laughs aside the grasping, acquisitive, fearmongering culture of success,
the sabre-rattling military might of empire,
the xenophobic ghettoizing of extremism,
by taking upon his knee,
the one of absolutely no account in his culture, a child.
Mark, not given to displays of warm-fuzziness,
takes three phrases to indicate this posture of embrace and welcome:
a little child,
whom he places, (fragile, like a precious jewel) in their midst,
then whom he gathers into his arms.

Snuggled on his lap, feet dangling either side,
while a hand curls around his beard,
a finger pokes his nose,
as eyes meet, and smiles crack the child’s and Jesus’ face
in greeting,
and he says,

“The Dream of God looks like this.
Welcome, snuggling, intimate, egalitarian welcome,
of the child, the widow, the orphan,
the lost, the least, the last,
the Muslim second generation teenager who makes clocks,
the gay couple who want to get married,
the alcoholic, the drug addict,
the Syrian, Afghan, Somalian refugee,
the hijab, niqab, kippa wearing people of faith who want to live as fully as we,
the mentally ill, the aged, frail, no longer productive – whatever that means –
and all the ordinary me’s and you’s who are craving life, hope, a future.

First, and last, always and everywhere in God’s world,
God’s call is
“You are welcome.
So, then, be a welcome.”
That’s the end of the sermon, but I do want to say a couple more words.
For two weeks now, we have watched,
and our hearts have ached
with God’s call, we’ve wrestled with our fear, our sense of inadequacy,
and many of you have stepped up your support for
our participation in Ride for Refuge as an immediate response.
We are also going to be exploring seriously
with MCM and ARM, and others how we can join
with other people of faith in Montreal to sponsor
Syrian refugees. If this is something you can support
with your time and talent, please speak to Pat Mayberry,
Paul Clarke or myself after worship today, or in the coming days.
We will keep you all informed as this call develops into a response [2].

 

[1] From CAFOD. Used by UCC on its recent Refugee Sponsorship poster.

[2] For more on UCC response, see the UCC website: http://www.united-church.ca/communications/news/response/150911

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