Then Jesus brought a little child into their midst and putting his arm around the child, said to the Twelve, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Readings included Exodus 40:34-38, Mark 9:33-37
Listen to the sermon here
(September 2015) For the past few days Carol and I have been blessed to have two of our little grand-daughters staying with us. Audrey is about to become a two-year-old and little Evelyn is just seven months old. It has been an amazing couple of days as our very tidy, ordered, quiet, home has been turned upside down and inside out by these two bundles of beautiful energy and all the amazing baby paraphernalia that their Mom brought with them. Between toys, bottles, diaper bags, baby beds, and all the stuff that had to be moved from their regular resting spots to spots out of reach from tiny little hands, our house became a beautiful cluttered mess. It’s wonderful, it’s chaotic, it’s noisy, it’s exhausting and it’s the best fun imaginable. I’ve loved every wild and crazy moment every bit as much as I’ve enjoyed each and every sweet and tender joy filled moment. There is nothing quite like staring into the eyes of a baby and seeing all that precious potential and marveling at the miracle of life. Children have the power to open us to the wonders of this amazing mystery that we are a part of. But even as a wax on about the joy and wonder that children can inspire in us, I know that when all is said and done, their Mom will take them home and our world can return to its quiet, ordered, everything in its place, and a place for everything kind of way.
Children can be quite demanding and there are even people on this planet that find children annoying. I’ve even heard tell of people who don’t like children. So, when I read of Jesus, the great master and teacher of wisdom, bringing a little child into the midst of his most ardent students, in order to teach them something, I can see how they might have been a little perplexed. After all, the Twelve as they were called had given up everything to study with Jesus. They left their lives and jobs behind and followed him where ever he went listening and learning. They attended his public classes where he taught the masses and they also attended his very private classes where Jesus delved deeper and farther teaching them more and more about his program and broadening their vision of a new way of being in the world. Even when Jesus wasn’t actively instructing the Twelve, they were watching and listening to him as they traveled to and fro, risking their safety in a world where life for their people was lived under the persecution of their conquerors. So, when they returned home to Capernaum, perhaps they were expecting a little R & R, or maybe even a couple of masters’ classes in the relative peace and quiet of familiar territory.
The Twelve were a competitive lot, each of them vying to be teacher’s pet; arguing about who among them was the most important. So, Jesus sits them down for some private tuition, and warns them that what they think they want, will require them to be something quite different than what they want to be. “If any of you wants to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all.” Just in case they didn’t get the message, Jesus brought a little child into their midst and putting his arm around the child, Jesus tells them, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Now, I’ve got to admit that before we welcomed our granddaughters into our home a couple of days ago, I figured I’d use Jesus’ words as a kind of introduction to a sermon that would prepare us all for our Special Congregational meeting where we will be making some important decisions about renovations which will make our building more accessible. I thought I’d be preaching about inclusivity and welcoming the stranger. After all, according to the anonymous gospel-storyteller, Jesus insists that “whoever welcomes a child” welcomes none other than Jesus, and whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the One who sent Jesus, who after all is said and done is God, God’s self. According to our first reading from the Book of Exodus, our ancestors and Jesus ancestors wandered around the dessert with nothing but the Tent of Meeting in which to welcome the presence of the Sacred who came into their midst as a great cloud which could be seen by the whole house of Israel. Every stage of their journey they erected the Tent of Meeting and waited upon the arrival of the great cloud and they would not move on until the cloud appeared. When the cloud rested on the Tabernacle in the daytime, and at night there was fire in the cloud so that everyone knew that the Holy One was in their midst. It’s important to have a place where the Holy One can be encountered and it is important to ensure that everyone who wants to come to that place can get in. So, let’s make this place more accessible as long as we are here!
I know, I know, it’s sloock. The kind of manipulative preaching that I absolutely hate. So, rather than get down to writing this sermon, I let my granddaughters distract me and I played with them when I should have been doing my homework. But a I was oohing and aahing over their various antics, I kept hearing that Jesus fella saying, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”
And a word kept coming into my head and that word was not inclusivity, as much as I wanted it to be inclusivity and indeed willed it to be inclusivity, a different word kept coming to me. It was a theological word. I highfaluting, baggage laden, theological word: incarnation.
Incarnation: a fancy theological word dreamed up to name the idea that God comes into the flesh; that God is embodied in a human being. Incarnation is a word theologians use to describe the mystery of God being present in Jesus. In Jesus all that God is, is en-fleshed in a person. Jesus is the incarnation of the Divine. Which is how the gospel-storyteller can have Jesus say, “Whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” So, while blowing raspberries to impress baby Evelyn, I mulled over the idea of seeing Christ in her.
It wasn’t difficult to see an inkling of the Mystery of All that IS in little Evie, she is after all a beautiful image of the one who made her; she is quite simply a beautiful example of the divine and in her giggles and smiles I can see beyond Evie, to the One who is Beyond, the Beyond and Beyond that also. So, ever so slowly this sermon which was envisioned as a way of talking about inclusivity began to take shape as a sermon about meeting Divinity in the faces of those we met. As inclusivity gave way to incarnation, little baby Evie started fussing and squirming and crying and flailing all about. Ever so quickly the adults in the room were thrown into a frenzy of activity prepared to do just about anything in order to shut her up. She was having none of it and as baby Evie dragged us from our idyllic little paradise, big sister Audrey reminded us that she is about to enter the terrible twos as she demanded in not so uncertain terms to be paid attention too.
Life was taking on a completely different texture and I quickly remembered something I’d read in one of the commentaries on our gospel reading which insisted that people in the first century had a completely different attitude toward children than people in the 21stcentury.
Back in the first century children were to be seen and not heard. For an adult male to recognize the presence of a child in a public setting was a very rare thing indeed. Infant mortality was outrageous in the first century and people believed that most children didn’t have what it takes to develop into an adult and this is way so many of them died. So, when you encountered a child in all likelihood you were encountering a little being who might never become a person. Children were of little use until they proved that they could survive. It seems harsh. But, it is reasonable to assume that some people probably insolated themselves from the tragedy of infant mortality by simply ignoring the presence of children unless they absolutely had to. When we read or hear about Jesus bring a child into the midst of adults and insisting that in welcoming the child they are welcoming him, the radical nature of the gesture is all but lost on us because in our culture children are prized, cherished and adored. But try to imagine living in a culture where children are to be seen and not heard…some of us grew up being told to speak only when we are spoken to, but the first century was even harsher in their treatment of children. Now try to imagine a bunch of blokes who are obsessed with being first, hearing that they must lower themselves to welcome children because in welcoming such lowly creatures as these they are welcoming Jesus himself. Then to hear Jesus claim that in welcoming him they are welcoming the One who sent him: blasphemy. Jesus is not only claiming to be God, he is pointing to children and saying welcome them, and you welcome the One. Jesus is saying that the One can actually be seen in creatures as lowly as children.
But wait it is even more outrageous than this. For if Divinity can be seen in creatures as lowly as children, then that means that Divinity can be seen in each one of us. Incarnation is not simply the en-fleshment of God in Jesus, incarnation is the enfleshment of Divinity in everyone; in you and even more frighteningly in me. How many of us have the courage to look into a mirror and welcome the God in us? For if Divinity is present in us that changes everything. If the One who is Beyond the Beyond and Beyond that also, can be welcomed by welcoming a child, then surely the ONE who is the Holy of Holies can be welcomed in us. Do people we encounter, encounter the Divinity that is in us? Do we have the courage to encounter the Divinity that is in us?
So often we work so hard at finding the answers, discovering the secrets of the Mystery that Is God, can it really be as simple as welcoming a child? Perhaps, even the child in us?
There’s a story I read long ago about a seeker who was very young, but very serious. This seeker happened to be a Buddhist and in his quest for knowledge he approached a Zen Master and asked: ”If I work very hard and diligent how long will it take for me to find Zen.”
The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years.”
The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then ?”
Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”
“But, if I really, really work at it. How long then ?” asked the student.
“Thirty years,” replied the Master.
”But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student.
“At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?”
Replied the Master,” When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”
That pillar of cloud often eludes us. If only we could find God. If only there was a place where we could be certain that God would show up. If only we could learn the correct prayers and pray them at the correct time, in the correct way, so that God would hear our prayers and we could know that God is here. If only we could find the right teacher, or the right read the right book, or study the right program to ensure that we would know God. Our eyes are firmly fixed on the goal as we stumble about on the path. If only we could look around and see the face of God enfleshed in those we met on this amazing path. Each and every day we could welcome God into our midst. If only we had the courage to look into our own reflection and welcome the one that we are and in welcoming who we are we will welcome the One who made us.
Incarnation – God en-fleshed in a person. In this person, and this person and yes in the person you met in the mirror each and every morning. Now, lest you fear that in meeting God in the mirror we might be deluded into believing that we are actually God, do not be afraid because in meeting the Divine in us it becomes abundantly clear that divinity is in the service of all, and the quality of our welcome deepens as we minister to the Divine in each one.
God is beyond the beyond and beyond that also, together we live and breath and have our being in God, the one who Is Mystery, beyond knowing, who is ever present in all of creation, in you and in me.
Let us open ourselves to the one in whom we dwell, the one who dwells in us and all around us. Let us open ourselves to the possibility of Divine encounters as we explore the many expressions of incarnation that happen in and around us.