Welcome the Children
[Please note: this sermon includes reference to the death of children.]
Last week, Jeff outlined our homecoming season theme: Following Jesus with Head, Heart, and Body.
We were reminded of the importance of bringing all three into alignment in our lives as people of faith: to understand our faith with our heads, to trust our God within our hearts, and to act out our faith with our bodies.
Today, we have another text where Jesus calls the disciples into alignment with head, heart, and body.
He tells them that his time is coming to an end soon. That it will not be an easy end, but that he will be back. They do not understand. They can’t wrap their head around it.
They are incapable of understanding because their heads and hearts are elsewhere. Instead of taking advantage of their time with Jesus, they are arguing about who is greatest. Don’t you want to slap them? They can ask him anything! What would we give for that chance?
But, like many of us, their priorities, where they put their passion and energy is out of alignment. Not only that, they were afraid. They couldn’t ask because of their fear. Perhaps they didn’t trust Jesus, perhaps they felt shame about their argument. Either way they were paralyzed.
But Jesus knows. And he doesn’t scold them, but teaches them. He invites them into a new way of being and relating with each other. And in fact, gives quite a simple example: Welcome in a child.
Now, while this was a simple act, it was scandalous in an honor-shame culture. You are who you associate with, so you don’t associate with a child. A child who hadn’t proved their worth to society, a child who was likely poor, a child who might not even live long because of lack of healthcare at the time.
But that’s what he says to do. Welcome a child, and in that small act you welcome him, and not only him, but the one who gives him power.
In the face of all the tragedy in today’s world…and it is in our face a lot with social media and 24 hour news stations…and there is a lot tragedy, it can quickly be overwhelming. We, like the disciples, may not understand. We may have our priorities backwards. We may be too afraid or ashamed to ask the questions of our hearts. We, too, can be paralyzed, retreating into apathy.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the photos of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child refugee who drowned while his family tried to reach Greece. Aylan wasn’t welcome in own country anymore. Nor did his family know where they would be welcome.
When I first saw the image of Aylan face down in the sand along the shore, I couldn’t bring myself to dwell on the image, or to feel anything in response to viewing it. I was in my last days as a nanny and couldn’t look at the image without picturing the kids I watched in Aylan’s place. I couldn’t deal with that weight of emotions and care for the kids at the same time.
But since then, I’ve forced myself to look again. Forced myself to be disturbed. To feel the full weight of what happens when as a global community we don’t do enough to welcome the children, the homeless, the poor, the stranger. My hope is that by feeling that pain, I will be moved out of my comfort zone and reject apathy.
But I also realize that I can’t feel that pain every moment of every day - it’s just not healthy or helpful - and is just the opposite extreme of apathy. I needed a boundary around the pain and the grief.
I often find that boundary in the rituals and traditions of the church. Unlike the disciples, we don’t have Jesus here with us (at least not in the same way the people of his day did) to set us straight and call us out of ourselves, but we do have the church, the Body of Christ.
Gathering with others who see the hurt of the world and the hurt in our own lives gives us a chance to process and to mourn and to find new life. The rituals and traditions we enact serve as containers for our grief, providing safe space to slow down, meditate, empty ourselves, and eventually, be renewed.
Like physical therapy loosens and strengthens stiff, weak, or atrophied muscles, worship and spiritual practices soften our apathetic hearts, refocus our distracted minds, and point our wandering bodies in a new direction.
Jesus told his disciples to welcome a child - a simple act.
Jesus calls us to do the same.
Anyone can do a simple act, it doesn’t take a hero.
In a recent article in Presbyterians Today, musician and activist David LaMotte challenges the narratives we tell about changing the world. Most of us think we need to be a hero to make a great contribution to the world. And with problems as big as ISIS, millions of displaced people and refugees, and institutionalized racism, it makes sense to think we need a bigger than life hero. A role none of us are really equipped to play.
LaMotte also points out that the way we tell the stories of past change also feeds this hero narrative. He describes a shift in his own understanding of Rosa Parks part in the Civil Rights Movement, a shift from the hero narrative to an anti-hero or social movement narrative.
He writes about learning her story in history class,
“Parks was held up as a hero, a seemingly powerless little, old African American lady who had made a spontaneous decision not to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus and literally changed the world with her courage. So the story went.
I was inspired by that story, as I still am, but what I didn’t know as a young student is that the version I was being taught omitted much of the truth. What I wasn’t taught changes everything.
No one told me, for instance, that Rosa Parks had been the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 12 years by the time she was arrested or that she had traveled to the Highlander Center in Tennessee for a 10-day training in voter registration and nonviolence shortly before her arrest.
On the day of the arrest, December 1, 1955, she was 42 years old, hardly a “little, old lady,” and her decision, though it wasn’t planned for that particular day, was rooted in years of undramatic daily work for change. “
He continues telling the story about the following boycott and the everyday acts that led to that, and well, you should read the article to get the rest of the story.
The point is, Rosa Parks and so many other change agents were not super human, but worked within a community, in the midst of their everyday lives, to bring the change they wanted in their sphere of influence.
Jesus invites us to do the same. He told the disciples, look around you, welcome those who are alone, who are sick, who are unacknowledged, who are hungry, who are deemed unworthy. Welcome them!
So if you’re wondering about what you can do, what your version of welcome might be, know that you are not alone! Here are some questions from LaMotte to ponder:
- Heart question: “What do you care about?” What breaks your heart? ”Or, conversely, What do you see people doing that really inspires you and gives you faith in humanity?”
- Head question: “What do you bring? There are two parts to this question: What are you good at? and What do you love?” What skills and knowledge do you have that can be helpful?
- Body question: “Where is your community? Where will you find the people who care about what you care about? Maybe this community already exists and you need to join it. Maybe you need to gather it together.” Perhaps you community is this congregation.
- Body question: “What will you do? Where do the gifts you mentioned intersect with the things you care about? Choose something small and achievable, maybe something you can knock out this week. Don’t get overwhelmed. And bring this question to your community of purpose. Chew on it together.”
- “Do that thing. It might help to write your answers on a slip of paper and put it somewhere that will annoy you until you do it.”
- “Rinse and repeat. What did you learn? Are you drawn further into that work? To other work? Go back to step one.”
Again, the questions are:
- What do you care about?
- What do you bring?
- Where is your community?
- What will you do?
- Do it.
- Reflect and repeat.
Each of our small acts will ripple through our communities bring the change we seek in the world. If this all sounds too simplistic and idealistic, consider some of the big wins that the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) has had in the last year, through the work of many everyday acts:
1. “Agreement between DC Water, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to invest $90 million for Green Infrastructure and local hiring of DC residents on its massive $2 billion EPA-mandated storm water clean up project. Using a mix of green and gray infrastructure will create 190+ additional jobs.”
2. “WIN Helps Secure $150 Million for Affordable Housing in DC, including $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund; $40 million for the building of more humane, smaller family shelters in DC to close the dilapidated DC General shelter and a 35% increase in funding for homeless services--all in the FY 2016 budget.
WIN also started construction on new affordable housing: 140-unit Brightwood tenant purchase and renovation and Eastbrooke Apartments, 39 affordable family rental units. Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) also celebrated groundbreaking on North Capitol Commons, 124 units of affordable housing with 60 units of Permanent Supportive Housing for formerly homeless veterans where WIN organized to deliver the land and crucial subsidies for the project.”
So as we shift to our next rituals of singing, praying, and visiting our stations in the back, use this time as a container, a safe, boundary-ed place to contemplate where your heart is breaking, to consider what knowledge and skill of your mind will be helpful to others, and to commit to an act lived out in your body.
What small act of welcome are you called to?