Monday, September 21, 2015

Welcome the Child

We welcome here below in anticipation of welcome there above...

Proper 20b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Our Gospel passage today ends with a saying that is so much like another saying of Jesus, and said in such similar circumstances, that it is all too easy to blend the two, and miss the import of each. We’ll hear the second one in a few weeks, so I want to alert us to it now. But first, let me summarize what we heard in this morning’s passage from Chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, suffer, die, and rise from the dead; but their minds are clouded and they do not understand. In spite of not understanding, they are afraid to ask for clarification. It seems the disciples would rather drive around lost rather than stop and ask for directions! Jesus then upbraids them for having argued as they walked, about which of them is the greatest. In response to this exercise in pride, (which reminds me a little bit about a debate I saw last week...) he reminds them that whoever wants to be great must be the servant, must be willing to serve; and he then takes a little child in his arms, and says to them that whoever welcomes such a child in his name is welcoming not him but the one who sent him — which is to say, God.

That’s what we heard today. In a few weeks we will hear a different but similar account from the next chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 10: people are bringing little children to Jesus for his blessing, and the disciples try to stop them. Jesus again speaks sternly, and tells them to let the children come, reminding them, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Do you see the difference? It is subtle, but it is clearly there. In one case — today’s Gospel — Jesus is talking about welcoming children — and that whoever welcomes a child in his name is welcoming God. In the next chapter, Jesus is talking about how we need to receive the kingdom as a child. The first passage is about welcoming children and so receiving God, the second about becoming children ourselves, children of God in order to be received by God.

Now, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, Father Tobias is making a distinction without a difference. And I agree that these two sayings of Jesus are as like as two peas in a pod —

— and yet they are two, not one; and I think Jesus must have had some reason to say these two different things — and for Mark to record them for his disciples to pass this double message along to us. They are as like, and as different, as your face and your face in a mirror — but let us remember as James warned us in that Epistle a couple of weeks ago: don’t be like someone who looks in a mirror and then as soon as he turns away, forgets what he was looking at. Let us look a bit more closely at the text before us today, and the teaching that we are to welcome the child in Jesus’ name.

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I think we get this right, here at St James Fordham. You can visit some churches and see no sign of children in worship — the children are dropped off to Sunday School by their parents before anything starts — and some of the parents don’t actually make it to the worship themselves. The children stay there, out of sight, out of mind, away from the worship, sometimes being allowed to come to communion, but more often than that treated to their own separate communion in the kiddie classroom, as I said, out of sight, out of mind. I know congregations where to bring a child to the adult worship will earn you dirty looks — some people treat church like they treat the opera or the symphony — and having a child present, especially if the child is acting up a little, is considered poor form.

The irony is that these same people wonder why it is that such children, excluded from the worship of the church, once they make it through Confirmation class are never seen again. In fact, there is an old joke about a church that had a problem with bats in its belfry, and it was suggested the easiest way to get rid of them was to have the bishop confirm them at the next visitation. They would never see them again!

But is it any wonder that children who have been so little exposed to worship — who have never developed the habit of learning to sit quietly, to pray, to listen to the Scripture as it is read — is it any wonder such children never soak up the joy of worship, and so are left high and dry and ready to be blown away at the slightest breeze, or the gusty winds of worldly opportunity for sports, for shopping, for video games — for whatever it is that is more welcoming to them than their own church?

So I am happy here at St James that the children are present for the main part of the Liturgy of the Word, and only head off to Sunday School prior to the sermon — some might say, Thanks be to God! — so they can receive the milk and honey of instruction down in the Sunday school room, the kind of learning that is suited to their age; so that they can receive that milk and honey, better than I am able to deliver; but also to allow me to speak to you mature members of the church with the more challenging beefed-up message you are capable of hearing and digesting. And of course, the children come back for Communion — the most supremely digestible of all foods, the bread of heaven, and the cup of salvation, which we all share together. By doing this, we are honoring the children and incorporating them in the worship of the church so that they will be familiar with all of this as the grow older — things not strange to them, that only grown-ups do — but they will have developed a habit of prayer and attention and presence, encouraged by those who have already framed their lives in accordance with these Godly disciplines.

And I am happy to say that I see the results in young people now going off to college after serving here at this altar, or reading from that lectern, or sitting in the pews with their families to hear the word of God, to sing the hymns, and then to come to this altar rail — these young people who I have known for most of their lives, as I’ve been privileged to serve here in this choir and at this altar, as a lay-person, priest-in-training, deacon and priest, for almost thirty years. For though I’ve only been the vicar since 1999, I joined this parish back in 1985, and I’m happy to say I’ve baptized the children of some at whose baptisms I assisted back in the time of Father Basil Law.

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Now, just so you know, this is not my retirement sermon: there is still more than a month to go; but the impending nature of my retirement has brought some of these thoughts to mind, and I hope you don’t mind my sharing them. For it is all part of what it means to be a church — the church is a living thing, and its members come and go over time, entering and welcomed in as children baptized in that font, later confirmed as the bishop takes a seat and lays hands on them — and then not disappearing (except when college calls them away, but then coming back); sometimes standing here at the foot of the chancel or at the altar gate to exchange marriage vows, and then again at the font with their own children; and then, rich in years and full of faith, gently carried to this spot to be remembered, blessed, and sent off to the sweet pastures above, to that well-earned rest deserved of all faithful souls — not by their own deserving, but by the blood of Christ — welcomed at last as the child of God they are into the eternal dwellings.

So in the long run, our welcome of children here in our worship, here in this church, is a preparation for the day when we trust we shall all be welcomed as children of God into the kingdom of God. Those two sayings of Jesus are connected after all, aren’t they? He taught that we are to do to others as we would be done by, and isn’t it as clear as crystal that we should welcome children here below even as we hope to be welcomed as children there above? When we welcome a child in God’s name, we welcome God; and when we approach God as a child we are assured that God welcomes us.

This is not just fair and fitting. This is God’s Way with us, and we are called to follow that way, and to welcome the child.+