Freeport/Merrick: “Welcome Works”
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 cool is our worship, how well-attended is our youth and Christian Ed. Programs? How intelligent or knowledgeable we can sound? How many bible verses we can quote? How full we make our calendars? How many renowned people we know – how renowned we are? How best a golf score we obtain, how well we can quote or recite the best literature? How sumptuous are our dinner means? What does it mean to you?
Greatness means many things to many people. So 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, so he’s the greatest. But no, Judas has a way with the money, he can really stretch out a denarii, so he’s the greatest. James and John, they were filled with 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 he 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 this discussion about who was the greatness took place immediately after Jesus reminded them, for the second time, that the Son of Man would be betrayed, killed and raised from the dead. They did not understand Jesus’ teaching correctly. Maybe they thought that Jesus’s comments meant a reorganizing of the disciples, some would be exalted, stand in Jesus’s stead, as Jesus goes through his suffering. They were afraid to ask Jesus clarifying questions, so the conversation devolved into this petty topic about who was greatest. Jesus then sat down. It was time for a teaching moment.
Jesus sat down and began to teach the disciples what it means 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. We can just see the disciples’ jaws dropping. What stunt are you pulling now Jesus? What can a child do? What good is she in a grown-up world?
To Jesus, spiritual greatness begins with welcoming the powerless and vulnerable, like children. Incidentally, the first time the Scriptures 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. God chooses to be understand as a great God in response to God’s response to suffering and oppression. 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 in the Kingdom of God.
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 incompetent. 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.
Jesus suggests to us that spiritual greatness is welcoming the powerless and vulnerable. Take children. 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. Ordinary children in the ancient world didn’t have play time, school, a carefree existence that we equate with modern children in advanced societies. A child in Jesus’ era was constantly exposed to harm, abuse, illness and death. Absolute obedience was expected. There is no one more vulnerable than an orphan, a child who has lost her parents. Not surprisingly, we read repeatedly in the Scriptures place the high priority God placed on the care of the fatherless and orphan. The Psalmist (in Psalm 10) declares “…you are the helper of the fatherless,” Psalm 82 demands “Defend the weak and the fatherless.” God admonishes in Exodus 22:22 “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.”
In Jesus’ eyes the lowest of the lowest are the children. So, he instructs us, we must create a place where immigrant children are welcome. Where children of different religious backgrounds are welcome. Where children of color, different ethnicities, different religious or sexual orientation are welcome. Where children who are sex trafficked or sexually abused are welcome and protected. Where geeky, nerdy children are welcome. Where differently abled children are welcome. Children who are abused are cared for. Where sick children receive treatment. Where all children feel love and affirmed.
This is the work of welcoming. We have the great task in our own country, where upwards to 2,720 undocumented children and youth have been separated from their parents. Where 15 million children are poor, lack adequate food and medical care. Where close to 500,000 are missing. Where 6.6 children are referred to child protective services and close to 700,000 are in foster care. Where 300,000 are involved in sex-trafficking. Do we want to be great? Then can we embrace these forgotten, hurting children?
The church’s call to greatness is serving the poorest of the poor– to rise against the plethora of indifference that surrounds us – and to find our spiritual call to serve those at the margins of society - the poor, the dispossessed, the immigrant and the refugee, the child. We Christians who are blessed to live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world are challenged to follow the works of welcome of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We now celebrate a new church season. We are called to 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. Most of all, the child who is voiceless and is invisible, but is hurt, unloved, thrown away. New opportunities to become radical welcomers --- welcoming in everything we do.
So be great. Make welcome work. This is a welcoming place. Here Welcome Lives. Here Welcome Works – because God is here. In welcoming each other, in welcoming the least among us, we welcome Jesus. That’s the greatest we are called to, we are here together in our diversity. We are here in Christ’s name. Hear the words of Jesus: Welcome home. Amen.