September 23, 2018 – Year B – 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Nancy loved going to the local bingo hall. In conversation one day, she explained to me the attraction of the Bingo hall. There, she had a sense of community. If she missed a time or 2, the regulars would ask after her. When she arrived, her new friends would welcome her with delight. They would give her tips and hints to up her chances of winning a BINGO. In short, they cared about Nancy. No where else would she find such a sense of community. Unless you went to the bar regularly. Or the church!?
When I was on medical leave I went to a nearby church for 5 consecutive Sundays. The 1st Sunday a acquaintance invited me to sit with her family, which I did. The remaining 4 Sundays I sat by myself with no one speaking to me except for 1 lovely welcoming woman, once. After that experience in worship, the last thing I wanted to do was go for coffee time after church. So, I didn’t. Then, I tried another church and had the opposite experience. The congregation warmly welcomed me, even asked me to read 1 sentence in a litany that the whole congregation was involved in. The difference between the 2 congregations was remarkable.
I wonder where we fit when newcomers visit us? Do we welcome and try make the newcomer feel like they are part of the community? Or do we ignore them?
Penticton United Church self identifies as a welcoming church. We are proud of the fact that we welcome newcomers. We have a welcome table out in the narthex, after all. We wear our name tags so that everyone, newcomer and long-time member can call us by name. We love it when children come to be part of our worship service.
Jesus took a child and held him or her in his arms. Was the child a boy or a girl? Most likely a boy, considering the customs of the day. Did he have brown hair or blonde? Likely the child would have had dark hair and dark skin. If the child was a girl, was she numbered, as was the custom in Greco-Roman times, or was she named Mary or Martha or Hanna? If a boy was he Nathaniel or Andrew or James? Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem and Jesus was explaining that the path they were taking was that of crucifixion and rising from the dead. You can just hear the disciples crying out, “No! No! No!” They were arguing who was the greatest. They had no use for talk about crucifixion and resurrection.
As they trundled along they reached Capernaum. Jesus tries to tell his disciples what the future will bring- his betrayal, death, and rising again. The first time Jesus told the disciples about this, Peter challenged him and was rebuked. This time no one says anything.
Instead they begin to debate something they do understand – who is the greatest. It is not clear from the text if they are discussing who among themselves is greatest or if they are arguing about what makes for greatness,. It may be that their confusion about why Jesus would talk about dying sparked a conversation about the attributes of great leaders. How could God’s great Anointed One be prepared to die?
Jesus understands their conversation to be a misunderstanding of the nature of greatness. Being first, says Jesus is being willing to be last. To illustrate the reversal of values in what he is saying Jesus takes a child, a member of the Capernaum household, and places the child in their midst. We do not know the age of the child. Was it a tiny 2 month old baby? Or was it a precocious 6 year old, we wonder? “Whoever welcomes such a one welcomes me, and the one who sent me.”
A child in Jewish and Greek society had little status. Because of the incidence of serious illness and accident, fewer than half of children born lived to the age of 6 in Jesus’s time. Since the life of fa child couldn’t be guaranteed, one wasn’t considered to be a full person, worthy of respect, until they had reached the age of maturity.
For Jesus to make a child his representative was a radical step. It went against all popular notions of what someone with his status could expect. He was redefining greatness as “servant of all” by placing himself in the position of one who could be called upon to serve an adult member of the house-hold, and one whose life was extremely vulnerable.
Jesus goes a step further. To welcome such a vulnerable one, says Jesus. Is to welcome God. God’s greatness lies, not in God’s power over other’s, but in God’s willingness to serve the creation God has made. The challenge for disciples is to understand greatness as the capacity to care for others.
To welcome the child is to welcome Jesus. To welcome Jesus is to welcome God. And God is always in the welcoming business.
There is a scene in Tennessee William’s “A Street Car Named Desire” when Blanche, an unlovely person desperately seeking love, meets Mitch, a man who is grossly overweigh, who is embarrassed that he perspires profusely, and who, like Blanche, is frantically lonely.
It is not their strength, but their mutual weakness, which brings them together, and because they are both so needy. Blanche is able to trust Mitch with the tragic story of her life. Mitch then takes her in his arms and says, “You need somebody, and I need somebody, too. Could it be you and me, Blanche?”
She looks at him in amazement, then reaches for him, her eyes filling with tears, and says, “Sometimes there’s God, so quickly.”
So be it. Amen.