The holy gospel according to Mark the 9th chapter.
30[Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for 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.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then 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.”
When I was a brand new pastor, I served a small congregation in New Castle, an hour north of
here. There were a number of little girls whose moms would bring them to church, and I encouraged them to not sit in the back, where they tried to sit to not disturb anyone, but to sit up front, right here. Three feet tall, there was nothing and no one standing between me and them, besides the altar I stood behind. They could see everything I was doing, and they watched intently.
One morning they were particularly chatty – so much so that I found myself getting distracted by whatever they were going about in that row. As I had already developed a relationship with the girls and their parents – I stopped mid-sentence in my sermon and gave them a broad smile – and just acknowledged them silently. I couldn’t tell if they were intrigued or embarrassed, but all their eyes were on me.
As we transitioned to the meal, and I prayed and chanted from behind the altar, I glanced up at them to find five little girls in the front row, mouthing the words along with me, hands raised, hands together, bow…. It was one of the holiest moments in ministry I had experienced thus far, and remains a beloved memory. Now that I’ve experienced attending to my own child in worship, I know the power of watching a ritual, participating in it, and giving children the space to be present in their own way.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me. One of the most amazing truths about Christianity is that God became a helpless human infant. Divine power does not look like wealth, or strength, to choose vulnerability is to be great in the kingdom of God. To understand Jesus words for us, we have to understand the position of children in Jesus’ time, and the concept of welcoming or hospitality.
In Jesus time, children occupied the lowest place in the household, no social standing. The word in Greek actually had double meaning of “immediate offspring” and “slave.” Children held no status, or economic importance or honor – and in a society where honor and status was valued highly, children could be considered worthless. This is a very different concept of childhood, when compared to our culture’s tendency to make the child the most important member of the household, and to put our child’s needs ahead of our own.
However…. “In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, their vulnerability was magnified by the fact that they had no legal protection. A child had no status, no rights. A child certainly had nothing to offer anyone in terms of honor or status. But it is precisely these little ones with whom Jesus
identifies.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common- lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-5
Fast forward two thousand some years. Whether or not we place too much emphasis on our children’s needs, wants, entertainment, and activities is a whole other conversation. But we have learned how to communicate and teach our children, to grow up to be kind humans. We respect and value children for who they are, even though they do not represent greatness or power or authority in the world’s eyes. So let’s look at the best ways we welcome children and perhaps in identifying those things, we will also see how we welcome Jesus into our midst through hospitality to the most vulnerable.
The first thing that comes to mind when welcoming a child is to get down on their level. So much of childhood is spent literally staring at the behind of the adult standing in front of you. To communicate welcome to a child, you crouch or sit on their level, face to face, eye to eye. To welcome the vulnerable is to take a place yourself lower than you think you ought to be, and humbly meet someone where they are at.
The second thing I think of when welcoming children is Food. Whether is breast-feeding and infant or rummaging through your car or purse for some fruit snacks, when kids are hungry they let you know, and they are loud about it. Caring for the basic needs of children, food, shelter, naps, safety is primary for parents and care-givers, and it is primary for Christian hospitality to all people. Making sure that vulnerable people have food, adequate housing, rest, and live in a safe environment on our list of things to do as a church. We provide food to families through our food bank, and spiritual nourishment each Sunday through Holy Communion. I will soon be meeting with children who have
not had their first holy communion to teach them that there is a place for them at this table too. How are we making sure the most vulnerable people have a place at the table? To welcome a child is to welcome someone who can provide no tangible benefit to you, but is solely dependent on your care, and making a place for them at the table is your responsibility.
Jesus reinforces that greatness is not about ability or power – this scene happens after the disciples were unable to heal a boy, and now are arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. In God’s kingdom, God’s administration, greatness is service and hospitality towards those who can bring you no power. In Jesus time one would expect to cater to and show hospitality towards a guest or a neighbor who could benefit your social status or economic position. But no one would expect anyone to cater to a child’s needs, or show hospitality and service towards a servant or slave.
Id like to try something in your worship space soon – and you have the perfect set up for it. The cry room is excellent for babies or mommas who need a quieter separate space. But the nursery area for me, is too separate from our communal worship. I have a firm belief that children of all ages can participate in worship in their own way, and should be present in the intergenerational event that we call church. In the aisles here, some churches make a space called a Prayground. A small area set aside with soft quiet toys, books, and other items to occupy children who have a different attention span than you do. In my last church, I had children’s bibles, nativity finger puppets, play food sets and small dishes to pretend at communion, and children’s bulletins to color reinforcing the themes of the day and scripture or season.
You may be thinking to yourself, well that’s all well and good Pastor Erin, but there aren’t any children here…. There will be. COVID has required us to go far beyond what we thought was possible for worship, and now requires us to relearn how to get together as an intergenerational community, while keeping the vulnerable safe. May we seek to re-establish our community as a place where the vulnerable and small are welcomed, lifted up and served.