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Sermon: Welcoming Disorder

September 18, 2009

Mark 9:30-37

One of my colleagues, who used to serve in another part of the country, tells about the time that a new minister came to a church in the big town down the road.  The new minister was an excellent preacher.  People would come from all over just to hear him.  The church saw worship attendance jump almost immediately.

This preacher, however, could not handle distractions during the service.  On one Christmas Eve the sanctuary was full.  In the middle of the sermon, a couple came in and couldn’t find a seat.  They went up and down one side, but couldn’t find a place.  The preacher saw them and simply stopped speaking.  The couple went around the back of the church to the other side of the sanctuary.  Up and down they went, but there were no seats.  Then the couple went up to the balcony.  All the while, the preacher watched them in silence.  Finally, just as they were about to take two empty seats in the balcony, the preacher said, “Will you please sit down?”

You can imagine how such a preacher might react to children in worship.  In fact, he absolutely prohibited children from being in the sanctuary during the sermon—would not allow it.  He was the speaker at a local preaching conference, and one of the participants asked him about this.  “I’ve heard that you don’t allow children in worship during the sermon.  Why?”

He said, “I can’t do what they pay me to do when children are present.”

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one…child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  What does it say about our worship service if children are not welcome?

The occasion of this saying of Jesus followed yet another prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection.  In this part of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been thinking a lot about his final days, and he had been trying to get his disciples to comprehend their significance.  It is not only Jesus who had a cross to bear, but it is each of us.  Mark tells us that after this latest discussion of Jesus’ passion, the disciples could not understand what Jesus was trying to tell them, but they were afraid to ask him what he meant.

You have all heard teachers say “there is no such thing as a stupid question,” but neither you nor I want to be the one to ask those questions because we don’t want to seem foolish.  And Jesus hadn’t always responded politely to those who did ask him things.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the disciples kept silent.

And so the disciples did what we all do in the face of a mystery we don’t understand—they pretended to be more worldly and to have more knowledge than they actually did.  You know how it is, fifth grade boys on the playground talking about girls.  Not one of them has any clue about what girls are really like or what makes ‘em tick, yet they all pretend to be experienced experts.  They brag, but they know nothing.  You see, not one of those boys wants to be seen as the naïve beginner.

That’s what the disciples did.  They argued about which one of them was the greatest.  They couldn’t even understand Jesus and were so afraid that they wouldn’t even ask him what he meant, but as soon as they were left to their own devices, they were bragging and boasting and pretending they were really something.

Jesus called them on it.  “Hey, guys, what were you arguing about on the way?”

Not one of them dared to answer Jesus.

Jesus knew.  He said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

He brought a little child in to the circle—who knows where it came from—and he gathered it in his arms.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus chose a child, and in his world—and not just his little corner of Palestine, but practically everywhere around the globe in the ancient world—children had very few rights, and no status.  A child was another mouth to feed, and until it could help work the fields or fetch a dowry, a child had no value.  Even in our own “enlightened” age, children do not fully count.  In some places, parents can very easily sell their children to repay debt or simply to reduce the burden on an impoverished family.  In our culture, people still use the phrase “a child should be seen and not heard.”  It may be true that in this very church you have a pastor who would never dare say “I can’t do what they pay me to do when children are present,” but our worship service is designed for adults.  Most of us don’t think much about welcoming children, even in the modern age.

Children represent—even today—the last.  Unless we are their parents, we often consider their needs last in our planning.  Their opinions carry little weight.  Adults expect them to do as they are commanded.  In discussions about who is the greatest, a child’s name will never come up.

Jesus says, “Welcome the child.”  Welcome the one that nobody else seems to notice.  Welcome the one who has no status.  When you welcome the child, the least, the lost, the last, you are welcoming Jesus, and you are welcoming the God who sent Jesus.

One reason we shy away from welcoming children is that they are disruptive.  If you welcome a child into your home, you never can be sure that your house will still be standing when that child leaves.  If you agree to watch a child, you may very well be in for an afternoon full of screaming and tantrums.  In fact, Desiree already has an entire collection of photos of our granddaughter creating chaos and the girl is not even a year old.  How much disorder can an eleven month baby create?  A lot.

Welcoming the disorderly, chaotic child into your life, welcoming one of the least and the forgotten, is the same as welcoming Jesus, and more than that, it is welcoming God.  What is interesting about that is that God will create just as much disorder and chaos into your life as a child—perhaps more.  The art of discipleship is to welcome the disorder God brings so that we can experience true living and a whole life.

Moses never expected or wanted to return to Egypt to confront Pharaoh.  He did everything he could to get out of it.  For Moses to lead the people through the wilderness for 40 years was a hassle he didn’t need.  The Apostle Paul never expected or wanted to be called by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  He didn’t care to be struck blind for several days and then spend the rest of his life traveling throughout the known world, suffering hardship, abuse and imprisonment in order to spread the word of the Gospel.  When God calls you, you can expect a certain amount of disorder to appear in your life.

I suppose Angie and Christie never expected to spend a month in India—deprived of pizza and hot showers—in Angie’s case enjoying the comforts of a hospital bed for several days, and in Christie’s case, teaching English to the students at Pravaham  (www.pravaham.org).  But when you welcome God into your life, you can expect a certain amount of disorder.

I’d bet money that Sandy—as a young girl—never said to herself, “You know what I’d like to do when I grow up?  I want to plan meals for 80 and buy all the food every single week.”  Yet she does just that for Sunday Nite Supper.  Rick never said, “Boy, I’d really love to teach Sunday School.”  Nevertheless, that’s what he’s doing right now.  There aren’t many of our liturgists who ever expected to get up in front of a crowd and speak or read unpronounceable words from the Bible.  More than a few choir members over the years were surprised to find themselves singing in front of the congregation.  God has odd ways of calling us out of ourselves and into a fair bit of disorder.

But that disorder always has a greater purpose—both for our lives and for the kingdom of God.  Moses led a people to freedom.  Paul launched the mission of the Church beyond Jerusalem.  Angie and Christie shared love with some young women who probably haven’t experienced much love in their lifetimes.  Sandy has made sure that homeless and hungry people have a meal.  Rick has helped our kids to learn about Jesus.  Liturgists and choir members have shared the Good News in word and song.  And each of these people, as they have allowed God to disrupt their lives, have learned something about themselves along the way.  They have experience new strengths in their lives.  They have come to trust God in new ways.  They are stronger, healthier, more effective disciples because they have welcomed God.

It all starts with one child.  Welcome one child.  Welcome one person that the world has neglected.  Do that and you welcome Jesus and the God who sent him.  And then you had better buckle up, because it is going to be a crazy ride.

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