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  • Rev. Diane Curtis

With Open Arms

Mark 9:30-37

New Revised Standard Version

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You may have seen a scene in a movie or commercial of a man and a woman running towards each other from opposite sides of a meadow to embrace one another in a huge hug. The image usually generates warm and fuzzy feelings with an expression of never-ending love. It is an idyllic picture but not reality. Most people don’t go running across a field to greet their loved one.

Reality may be that the two run towards their loved one, and, distracted by something in their peripheral vision or while looking at their cell phone, run right past one another, missing each other completely, and head off in different directions without even noticing what happened for quite a while.

Relationships are complex. Sometimes they are warm and fuzzy or involve people who meet on common ground. More often, they are like the two people who run past each other because they are on different pages. Rarely does a relationship involve people who are on equal footing all the time even when they think they are.

Some relationships are situational. One person is better equipped or has the appropriate talent to handle a situation so, of course, they should be the one on the front line. Or one may be having a bad day so it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to greet whoever is at the front door. Other times the two are in sync. They have the same train of thought, function with a mutuality that keeps them moving forward hand-in-hand in the same direction.

Relationships are they key to the Christian faith, the foundation of Christian community – the way we relate to one another and, most importantly, to God.

We like to think we are all on the same page because we have a common faith. Because we all believe in Jesus, we see things in exactly the same way, don’t we? Probably not. We have different expectations of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We have different expectations of what it means to be part of a church or faith community. We see the world in diverse ways.

Just like in any relationship, each person in a congregation brings their own history and traditions and understanding of what it means to be a church. Everyone’s background becomes part of the community of faith they are part of. Just like in any other kinds of relationships, the people must learn how to integrate ideas, perspectives, and expectations to embrace and accept each other for who they, individually, are.

This is what Jesus is speaking to in this passage. He is talking about relationships among his followers – how they interact with one another and, by extension, with others. Jesus presents the image of welcoming a child as an example of how they are to behave towards others.

We might think of an experience of welcoming a child or grandchild or other youngster who is important to us, remembering the warm fuzzies, the joy of seeing that child. I remember going to visit my grandparents in Chicago. The one thing that sticks out in my mind is pushing the buzzer to be let into the building, climbing the three flights of stairs to their apartment, and finding my grandfather on the landing with his arms open waiting to welcome me. The feeling, as a child, that someone wants you there was special. Waiting arms opened wide for a hug is an experience we wish for all children. That they might know that someone wants to welcome them and let them know that they are special.

In first century Rome, the setting for this event, it was a different scenario than the one I described. Children were low on the social pecking order, considered socially inferior and were largely invisible. The idea of opening one’s arms to welcome a child in public was counter cultural.

In that society there were only two classes of people, the upper class and the lower class. It was noticeably clear who was considered important and who wasn’t. This is the world the disciples lived in – knowing who mattered and who didn’t. Children and the lower class didn’t matter and were treated as such. Which is why the image of Jesus welcoming a child was so poignant. This just wasn’t done in public.

Jesus’ action may serve as a metaphor for what it means to welcome the unwelcome. Almost every church I have ever been to describes themselves as welcoming. Except one. A church I was assisting during their transition that told me they didn’t want anyone new and that they didn’t welcome people. One of the members of their session told me that he came for two years before anyone spent much time talking with him. I looked at him and said, “So why are you still here?” I guess that was the acceptable culture of that church.

Fortunately, most churches consider themselves a welcoming bunch. Anyone can come. Anyone will be accepted. Anyone is invited in. Is that really true? Are there unwritten rules or standards, even ones we don’t think exist or aren’t aware of? Ones that cause us to be prejudicial and not completely accepting. We may think that our way is the way everyone sees it. We don’t take time to try on someone else’s shoe, to try to see from their perspective. The other person doesn’t feel as welcome or that they fit in as we think they do.

I heard a story once about a large dinner meeting. The board of directors were to sit at the head table. The man responsible for seating arrangements seated an experienced member of the board, one who had attended numerous dinners, next to a new member, a first timer, at the end of the table. He thought the veteran could make the newbie feel welcome, make introductions, and guide her through the business.

The experienced person went to the head table to check out the seating arrangement before the event started. When he saw his place card near the end of the table next to that of someone he didn’t know, he promptly picked up his card and switched it with a director who was seated next to the presider – the place where the most important sit. He had to have a lot of self-importance and guts to do such a thing. His action revealed a profound need to be in a perceived position of status.

We can’t imagine anything like this ever happening in the church, can we? But it does, although it is usually much more subtle. We don’t walk up to a person sitting in a pew and tell them that someone else is going to sit there so they will need to move. Or walk up to the end of the pew and tell the person sitting there that it is my pew, the one I always sit in, so they will need to sit somewhere else.

We may have a pecking order in the church. Some members are, or see themselves as, a bit more important than others. Since they are a bit more important, they assume that their way of doing things in the church is better than another person’s way.

Welcome is the hallmark of the church. Welcome is what we are all about. When someone is baptized there is joy as a welcome to God’s family is extended to the infant, child, youth, or adult.

We say we like having children in the church. They are adorable. Children can come up front to light the candles or for the children’s message and we smile. We have vacation Bible school and Sunday school and the Christmas play and children’s choirs.

There are those who see children as an irritation as well. They make too much noise, drop hymnals on the floor, and don’t stay in their seat. They may subscribe to the notion that children should be seen and not heard.

Then they become youth. Oh, good, they can be readers and help at events and be Sunday school assistants and join the youth group. Then they graduate out of church and we don’t see them anymore.

We welcome new members. We like to see new faces or old faces who officially become part of the congregation. People who will be roped in right away to come to events, help with events, be on committees, and fill a seat on the board. But if they have new ideas, want to set up the tables differently at the potluck dinner, try something different in worship, or disrupt the status quo, they might become an irritant to everyone. People start saying don’t do things our way. How do we handle this type of situation? How does such a reaction demonstrate welcoming others?

Think about how we view others in the congregation. We see someone who comes on Sunday, leaves right away, or stays on the fringe of church life. We wonder why that person doesn’t volunteer to help. Have you ever thought about why such a person doesn’t help? We may assume they don’t want to get involved. Maybe it’s as simple as they haven’t been asked! Maybe one or two do everything so they see they aren’t needed.

Sometimes those who do most everything need to let go of some things so there is a space for a new person to squeeze in and become involved even in a small way. We open our arms wide and say welcome. This is your space. Do your thing! Our way may not be the only way.

What about those who aren’t here or those we think should be here? Most people think that the future of the church is to get more children. If we don’t have children, we need to find a way to get them to come. We think a healthy church has a large Sunday school, a successful vacation Bible school, etc.

Looking around we don’t see children or people with children here. Does that mean we can’t be healthy if there are no children? Not necessarily. There might be more than one way to welcome people and invite them in.

Jesus asks us to look around. To find those who are the “least” that no one notices. Those who are lower on the totem pole or even on a different pole all together. The ones who feel left out or constantly trampled or ignored. These are the people who need to be welcomed with open arms. The older adult who sits alone all the time and wonders if anyone cares about them. The person with a disability who doesn’t feel that the church is a place for them.

God is calling us to do and be what our name says: to be the living hope of Jesus Christ out in the world. We might have to open our arms wider. To welcome people we didn’t even think about welcoming before. We need to be open to the moving of the Spirit in us and through us that enables us to welcome more people as God’s children and into God’s family. Let’s open our arms wide, walk out, and invite people in.


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