Sermons

Jeremiah 11:18-20 – Psalm 54 – James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – Mark 9:30-37

Last Sunday we celebrated a newly-renovated lower level with a special blessing and coffee hour. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is a warm, welcoming, and beautiful space. As I came down the stairs last week for coffee hour, I stopped by one of the “before” pictures reminding me of what it used to look like. A parishioner who was doing the same commented on the transformation with words to this effect: now we have a space that embodies just how important and valued our children actually are to us.

And I had to agree. Although buildings aren’t the most important thing, what we do with them and how we take care of them make a theological statement. St. Paul’s has proclaimed some good news with this space: we welcome the little children in our midst, and we want them to know how much we love them.

It’s not too far a reach to see this as a manifestation of what Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel story we just heard: 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.” The act of welcome is so much more than just kind words – it is flesh and bone, brick and mortar, fresh paint and handicap accessible ramps. The act of welcome is in the architect’s pen and the worker’s sweat. It is also in a community’s willing sacrifice of time, and money, and convenience.

By all these measures and more, this is a community that takes children into its embrace and welcomes and includes them. That is one of the many things I love about the community of St. Paul’s. We celebrate children, wiggles and all, not because they are the church of the future, but because they are the church of the present.

It’s important to remember that for those listening to Jesus, the little child whom he took into his arms represented the weakest and most vulnerable among them. Someone wholly without power, without any assets, without the ability to offer anything of value or worth except perhaps in the future. This isn’t about innocence or playfulness or cuteness, but about powerlessness. The disciples had just been arguing along the way about who was the greatest, and this is the answer given to them – if you are thinking about greatness, you have no idea what Jesus is about.

Despite our culture’s obsession with power and wealth and reputation, I think most of us here today really get how important it is to stand with the vulnerable and the powerless. Being part of a religious community, especially a Christian church, is no longer, as it used to be, a means of acquiring social status or cultivating business connections. We know that being here on a Sunday morning makes us look odd rather than impressive. So although we always need to be reminded of the social message of this morning’s gospel, there’s a deeper question that has caught my attention.

At the end of this gospel passage, Jesus makes this remarkable connection: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. To embrace the powerless, the vulnerable, is to embrace Jesus. And to embrace the vulnerable Jesus is to embrace the God of all creation.

Jesus is drawing a direct connection between powerlessness, his own life and purpose, and God. He is reminding the disciples, and us, that this is more than ethical instruction – this is more than “being a good person.” This is about gazing into the very heart of the Divine, and discovering the deepest meaning of who we are. Here we see revealed the very nature of God.

On one level, Jesus’ object lesson about power is perfectly comprehensible without any reference to a divine presence beyond the world. It is entirely possible to be an ethical person without believing in God. It is entirely possible to care about the vulnerable in society, to take one’s own responsibilities seriously without having any religious commitments. Plenty of good citizens around the world do this every day. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is not a uniquely Christian or even religious framework – happily, it seems to be a basic human insight, one that can bring us all together.

But we are here gathered in the name of Jesus, seeking communion with the God who became incarnate in him and who continues to work in and through us. And so, while we share gladly with our sisters and brothers of all religions or none at all the commitment to do justice and love mercy, we have also been touched with a longing to know the source of that justice, and actually to drink from the fountain of that mercy. We are here to encounter Jesus, and through Jesus, the God who gives us life.

So when Jesus takes a little child, and says, look, pay attention to the one who is forgotten and powerless in the world, and through that powerless one know me, and through me, headed to suffering and death, discover God the true and living Heart of the universe, that’s something. We’re being invited to find God in vulnerability and weakness. And perhaps we’re even being invited to find vulnerability and weakness in God.

A vulnerable God, a weak God, a God who suffers and dies, is not the kind of God we might want, or expect. What good is a God who is powerless, with no status or ability to fix the pain of the world?

This is not something we can know theoretically. We can only know it when we welcome it into our midst. Jesus did not say, if you look at a child from a distance, you will understand me, and through me catch a glimpse of God. He said, whoever welcomes a little child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. An older translation of Scripture uses the word “receives” rather than “welcomes.” To receive, or to welcome, is not just to look upon or understand something – it is to take it into your very being. To make space, to make it part of you.

This is an essentially mystical perspective on life – having to do with an immediate encounter with mystery, with God. It is something we know only from experience, from careful attention, being fully present to what is weak and vulnerable in the world and welcome it as God in our midst. When we choose to let ourselves feel that weakness, that vulnerability, whether in others or in ourselves, we know more of who God is than we ever could when we are strong.

This doesn’t mean sanctioning oppression or abuse. But it does mean being willing to listen for God’s voice in the midst of the struggle. Being willing to accept help and comfort, and not always being the one to give it. Affirming that God is just as present in those who are receiving care as in those who are providing it. This truth is accessible in all of our experience, but it is distilled here at the holy altar – in welcoming God, broken and weak and powerless, into our very bodies and hearts. What good is a God who is as vulnerable as a child? Together, around this table, we can begin to find out.

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