Two Texans were trying to impress each other with the size of their ranches. One asked the other, “What’s the name of your ranch?” The other replied, “The Rocking R, ABS, Flying W, Circle C, Bar U, Staple Four, Box D, Rolling M, Rainbow’s End, Silver Spur Ranch.” The other feller was duly impressed and said “whew whee! That’s sure is some name! How many heads of cattle do you run?” The rancher replied: “Not many. Very few survive the branding.”
Most of us want some measure of success in life. The question is, how do we define what success is? What does it mean to be great? Having a plush bank account? Is it determined how well we can sculpt our bodies? How elaborate can we make our weddings, vacations, parties and funerals? How many friends we have on Facebook? How many awards on the wall? How busy we are? Can we survive our success?
We can imagine the conversation of the disciples as they debated the topic of their greatness as they passed along the way through Galilee. Peter had the most prominent fishing business and ego, so he’s the greatest. But no, Judas has a way with the money, he can stretch out a denarii, so he’s the greatest. James and John, they have enthusiasm and energy, which every new movement needs, doesn’t Jesus himself call them the “Sons of Thunder?” So naturally, they are the greatest. Andrew, Peter’s side-kick brother was Jesus’ first follower, so must be the greatest. Jesus personally went to Philip and said, “follow me” so he’s the greatest. Matthew was the tax collector who gave away his former life and turned it all around, so it goes without saying he’s the greatest. Simon is the zealous nationalist who really gets what messiah means and can put this ragtag group on the right track. He’s got to be the greatest of them all.
So on and on they squabble until they arrive at Capernaum. Once there, Jesus turns to them and says, what were you arguing about along the way?” Now, Jesus was there all along. He had to catch their heated debate as they walked. Jesus surely noted that their discussion about their greatness took place immediately after Jesus reminded them, for the second time, the Son of Man, would be betrayed, killed and raised from the dead. They did not understand Jesus’ teaching, they were afraid to ask Jesus questions, so the conversation devolved into this petty topic about who was greatest.
Once again, they are silent, embarrassed not only by their lack of knowledge, but apparently what they believe, what they have shared, has led to a fight. Jesus then sat down. It reminds us of the first time Jesus entered Capernaum back in Mark 1:21, where Mark tells us “They came at last to the village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee; and on the Sabbath Day, Jesus went straight into a synagogue, sat down, and began to teach.”
Jesus sat down and began to teach the disciples what it mean to be great in the kingdom of God. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We can just see these disciples. Still smarting from their turf wars, Jesus picks up a child and holds her close. You want to be great? This is where it begins.
Jesus suggests to us that the beginning of spiritual greatness is welcoming the powerless and vulnerable – in ourselves and in our world. Children in Jesus’ day had no legal standing. They were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Children were disciplined harshly and the lot of most children was work and illness. A child was constantly exposed to harm, abuse, and death. Absolute obedience was expected. There is no one more vulnerable than an orphan, a child who has lost her parents; and not surprisingly, the Scriptures place a high priority on the care of the fatherless and orphan.
To Jesus, the beginning of spiritual greatness is welcoming the powerless and vulnerable. The first time the Scriptures draw our attention to God’s greatness and use the word “great” to characterize God, is in the act of liberation of the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. In the book of Exodus we are told God hears the cries of the children of Israel in response to the oppression of their task-masters. So God chooses for us to understand that greatness is a response to suffering and oppression around us. If we want to be great in the way that God is great, then we will excel in making a better life for those who suffer. That is hallmark of greatness.
So Jesus turns the human understanding of greatness on its head. If we want to be great then don’t strive to be first, strive to be last. Jesus isn’t advocating actively losing, low self-esteem, being a slacker or incompetence. On the contrary. Jesus wants the best of us, Jesus wants us so secure in ourselves, knowing we are so loved by God in Christ, so convinced of our worth, that we are completely freed of comparing ourselves with other people so we can instead go serve other people.
Today, as we celebrate Homecoming , we celebrate the ministry and work of Welcoming as Jesus taught us. I can’t help but think of the example of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old Muslim, son of an immigrant, from Irving, Texas, who was arrested after his teacher mistook a clock he built for a bomb. Other students called him bomb-maker and terrorist. Instead of evacuating the school, Ahmed was questioned and allegedly asked to sign something akin to a confession under threat of expulsion. Then police took him in handcuffs to a juvenile detention center where he was also fingerprinted. He was interrogated for 1 ½ hours and denied his right to speak to his parents.
Finally the police admitted the error and let him go. However his three day school suspension was still in force. Even during this ordeal, the Mohamed family ordered pizzas for all the journalists camped outside their house, waiting to interview their son.
Thanks to all of the support, Ahmed is coming away with mostly positive feelings about this experience. "I didn't think I was going to get any support because I'm a Muslim boy," Ahmed said in one interview. "So I thought I was just going to be another victim of injustice. But thanks to all my supporters on social media, I got this far, thanks to you guys. I see it as a way of people sending a message to the rest of the world that just because something happens to you because of who you are, no matter what you do, people will always have your back."
This is healing fruit of the work of welcoming. We make room for the gifts of others. We nurture and encourage its growth. This is a great task we are called to do. Because there are literally hundreds of thousands of Ahmeds around the world who do not have a social media network. There are Ahmeds stuck in detention centers and refugee camps just for the crime for being in caught in the middle of conflict. The cries of pain and the cries of fear do not know nationality, religion, class, race or ethnicity. We can become great at welcoming these cries. Just as God listened so we can listen and then act. We become welcomers, agents of welcome, going about the subversive act of welcoming wherever we go – for whoever needs it. We need to remember this as many talented undocumented young people are being threatened with deportation.
Later this month we will observe the International Day of Peace. A week of World Wide Welcome of peace. We are reminded that the universal church's call to greatness in serving the poor – to rise out of the globalization of indifference that surrounds us – and to find our spiritual strength lies in serving those at the margins of society - the poor, the dispossessed, the immigrant and the refugee. As Christians who are blessed to live in the wealthiest country in the world, we are called to service in light of natural and human made disasters surround the globe and threaten he works of welcome.
On this Homecoming Sunday, we celebrate a new season. New opportunities to worship God. New opportunities to learn and grow in spirit and in truth. New opportunities to become more like Jesus, more Christ-like in our demeanor. New opportunities to welcome and serve our neighbor – our neighbor in the pew next to us, in the house down the corner, and our neighbor around the globe. New opportunities to be great. New opportunities to become radical welcomers --- welcoming in everything we do.
So be great. Make welcome work. Create opportunities for others. Embrace the stranger. Provide for another’s needs. Welcome the Ahmeds and his sisters on your path. Serve where you are needed. Remember you are welcome. We are divinely, radically, completely utterly welcomed – by God – and each other.
This is a welcoming place. Here Welcome Lives. Here Welcome Works – because God is here. We are here together. Welcome home. Amen.