9/23/18: Whoever Welcomes, Mark 9:30-37
Last in the series: Practicing Community
First Lesson: Psalm 1
Second Lesson: Mark 9:30-37
Rev. Scott Dickison
It’s a topic of discussion for Biblical scholars as to why the disciples in the Gospels of Mark come of as such—oh, what’s shall we say—slow learners. After all, it was the disciples who likely shared all of these stories that would eventually be written down in the gospels, you’d think they’d have themselves come off a little better!
They’ve been journeying all through the Galilee, watching as Jesus flips the world on its head: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry—in so many ways telling these people whom the world had forgotten that theywere nearest to God’s heart. Now as they’re settling in from their travels, kicking off their sandals, loosening their tunics, out of the blue Jesus asks them, So, tell me, what were you arguing about on the way?(and you get the feeling—Son of Man that he was—he knew they’d been talking about which one of them was the greatest). And you can imagine how they all kind of lock up and look around and down at their feet, and someone elbows Peter for always talking too loud.
Jesus tells them to sit down, and he tells them again what he’s said and shown in so many different ways in their time together, that in the kin-dom of God, as we said last week—this new family of God that’s breaking into the world—all the old orders of greatness and power and worth have been flipped on their heads. Now, whoever wants to be first should make themselves last and humble themselves through service to others. And then he calls over a child who must have been there in the house with them, maybe it was one of their own children—we’re told many of the disciples were from there in Capernaum, they may have been in one of their houses, and so maybe it was Andrew’s little boy, or John’s little girl—and he takes the child in his arms and says to them, Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
Greatness, in this topsy-turvy world of the kin-dom of God is known and shown by our capacity to welcome. And not just welcome anyone, not just our friends and our family—though that can be challenging enough at times—but to welcome the unexpected, the one’s, we could say, who can’t welcome you back. The ones who aren’t sure they are welcome. Children in the ancient world weren’t the precious jewels we understand them to be today. They were regarded as little better than slaves. Along with women—whom Jesus also went out of his way to call into his inner circle, to involve in the work of the kin-dom—children weren’t permitted in the company of men. For him to draw this child into the middle of that circle for any reason would have been a scandal, and then for him to take the child in his arms and then say that life in the kin-dom is defined by this kind of radical, world-flipping welcome—this…
At the heart of this new kin-dom, this new family of God’s people that’s breaking into the world, would be hospitality: the generous welcome of others. Hospitality is what will hold all of it together.
And hospitality does hold it all together. Over these last several weeks we’ve been taking a closer look at practices of life in community, and Christian community in particular. We’ve looked at practices of gratitude and truth-telling. Making and keeping promises, valuing the power of words, and valuing all people as God’s beloved—especially the poor and marginalized. And hospitality is the thread that connects each of these. And not just does it connect them, but as Christine Pohl puts it, whose wonderful book has been the backbone of this series, "Within hospitable families, communities, and congregations, the other practices [we’ve named] aren’t only necessary; they’re tested and refined.”
For instance, she notes, “Unless it’s rooted in gratitude, the practice of hospitality quickly becomes grudging”—not a blessing but a chore. There’s a vulnerability to inviting people into our homes or communities that makes practices of truthful speaking and living vitally important. To offer generous, sustained welcome often depends on making and keeping promises with each other to share the load and lend a hand.And just whomwe welcome pushes often touchy subjects of inclusion and boundaries to the fore. The practice of hospitality can accentuate the gifts of a community, but it can also expose fault lines and tender spots. Either way, hospitality is revealing. You could even say that how a family or community or congregation welcomes others says a lot about who they are.
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities where able-bodied people live alongside those with disabilities writes, “Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share.”There’s a healthy tension here, as Pohl points out, between a community feeling secure enough in its own gifts to want to offer these gifts to others, while also knowing that they’re “incomplete without other folks.”That others have gifts and experiences and perspectives we do not, and so our community is enriched by their presence.
This is why hospitality is such a sign of communal health: it requires security in who you are but also an openness to become something more.HenriNouwen, the great spiritual writer who spent the last years of his life living in a L’Arche community, writes, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It’s not to bring [others] over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”Hospitality as the creation of “free space.” Or in the church we might say, the creation of “sacred space.” Space not only for us to be and move together, but for the Spirit of God to be and move among us—space for us to receive her. Isn’t this what we do when we open our homes, our communities, our churches to others—we create a free space for them to be who they are, and we find that in creating this space for others to be who they are, we, too, are free to be ourselves, often in new ways?
I remember earlier this year on Pentecost Sunday when we celebrated our language ministry and invited a few of our Chinese teachers to come and share about their experience in our program. These young women had each come to the states in the last few years to teach language in Bibb County schools and initially found their way to our church to help them work on their English. But as they shared with us, it was clear they’d found much more here. They spoke tenderly about feelings of isolation in this strange land. Not knowing the language or culture well—not always feeling as if they were welcome here by the loudest voices they heard. But here at the church they’d found free, sacred space to be themselves. They’d found friends. They called us their church even though few of them were Christian and had ever been with us on a Sunday morning. And to show their appreciation they wanted to sing for us—do you remember? So they sang a traditional Chine folk song about friendship, and it was beautiful and touching, and we thought that would be it, but then they asked if they could sing another song they’d learned and so we went with it, and they began singing “You Are My Sunshine.” And everyone—them, us, we—began to laugh, and before we knew it, the whole congregation was singing along, eyes watering, smiles glowing—something unusual and a bit unruly for us here at the First Baptist Church of Christ! Here we had opened space for them, and there in the middle of worship they had opened space for us.
And this of course was special and entirely welcome, but it points to the risk inherent to hospitality that both Vanier and Nouwen point to: the risk of being changed by those we welcome. Jesus, too, knew that change is wrapped up in hospitality. In Matthew’s telling of this story he actually tells the disciples they must “changeand become like children” to enter God’s kin-dom, and the way to change and become like children, he says, is to welcome them. Opening our homes, our communities, our congregations, ourselves, to others is to risk being changed by them, or even more I would say, is to risk being changed by the Spirit of God that surrounds us when we do. Change, or transformation, is a natural part of hospitality: we can’t open ourselves to others and not be changed by them, through new perspectives, new experiences, new truths. And change makes us uneasy—it can even make us fearful.
No honest Christian sermon on hospitality preached in this current moment can avoid touching on immigration, how we as a people welcome or do not welcome others into our country and communities. And it seems to me that this fear of being changed by those coming to our country—and we should say, certainpeople coming in, namely those with darker skin who don’t speak the language and don’t look the part—this fear has been a feature of debates around immigration since the founding of our country, and it’s certainly at the heart of current shameful policies around child detainment and family separation, and the general approach of rounding up and rooting out and so forth. Language that in so many ways refers to entire groups of people as some kind of contaminate or scourge betrays this fear.
And like most fears, this one has one foot in reality: to welcome others is to risk being changed by them, absolutely. But what we often call the fear of change is really more the fear of loss—not just fear that we will be changed but that in this changing we will lose something, about ourselves or our community. And so we need to ask ourselves very clearly and very exactly what we fear losing in welcoming others? And then we as a people need to hold those fears up against reality and ask if that’s really what’s happening, and we as Christians must hold them up to the witness of Jesus, and ask if those things are really worth holding onto in the first place? Don’t we pray every Sunday for the kin-dom to be on earth as it is in heaven?
The devastation from Hurricane Florence we’ve seen over this past week reminded me of about this time 13 years ago, in the fall of 2005, when I moved to the state of Mississippi the day hurricane Katrina hit. I was moving to the northern part of the state, which was mostly unaffected, but we had many displaced people coming up from the coast, and the city of Clarksdale, which I lived just outside of, opened it’s modest convention center to house them. Clarksdale was not a community of much means and had all the fractures around race and class that you’d expect, but it came together over those few weeks, as so many communities do in times of crisis, to create a free space for these folks coming up from the coast. There was a hot breakfast every morning courtesy of different church groups. More snacks than could ever be eaten, racks and racks of clothes. There were people everywhere—people who would just come by to talk and hear folks talk about where they’d come from, what they’d seen. There were mental health professions there to offer more robust listening, along with nurses and doctors. It was special.
I remember one of the first days it was open, a group of men from the Mennonite community that lived just outside of town showed up with lumber and tools to build a kind of barrier and gate to give the folks from the coast some degree of privacy away from where the volunteers would be offering services. And I remember watching as these men labored over this plywood wall with a swinging gate. They must have spent two days creating this elaborate, incredibly sturdy short-term barrier. And 22-year old smart-aleck that I was, I remember whispering under my breath to a friend about this job they were doing on a privacy wall that would come down in a week. And one of the men must have overheard and turned to look at me and we caught eyes, and I remember looking at him in my embarrassment and expecting to find judgment, but instead being welcomed with tenderness. He knew what I hadn’t yet discovered, that among the families and children who had traveled great distance without many means or even much of a plan, with no place to go and likely no home waiting for them should they return, was Christ and the one who sent him. And so how could we offer anything less than the best of what we have?
But he also knew the disciples of Jesus are often slow learners and that’s just part of the journey.
“Whoever welcomes,” Jesus says.
Christine D. Pohl, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, 160
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, found in Pohl, 159
Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life