Welcoming (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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“Welcome!”  It’s a wonderful, warm and fuzzy word!  I say it at the beginning of worship.  We say it to our extended family members as they arrive at our homes.  And we say it to our friends as they gather with us for special events.  And by “welcome”, we really do mean that we want those people to feel invited, included and accepted.  We’re deeply and truly glad that they’re there with us.

But the word “welcome” is used so much in our society, that it doesn’t always mean that.  Sometimes, the word “welcome” is:

  • Just a word that I put on my doormat.  And if you’re my friends, or neighbors or kids trick-or-treating on Halloween, I really do mean “welcome”!  But, if you’re a door to door salesperson – interrupting me in the middle of dinner or when I’m trying to work from home – in my neighborhood where we have clearly posted “No Soliciting” signs, then, “welcome”?  Not so much!
  • More of a marketing strategy – “Welcome” they all say to me when I walk in the store.  And that may be true on one level.  But really, “welcome” means “please buy our stuff”.  They may be glad I’m there, but they’re really glad my money has come along for the ride!
  • Conditional – as a Pastor, I’ve seen any number of churches which put “All are Welcome!” in big letters on their church signs.  And probably, they actually want to believe that.  But often, when you look at their websites, it becomes clear pretty quickly that if your social and political views aren’t pretty far on the left or pretty far on the right, you’re not really going to feel welcome in that group.  For some groups, not just churches, “All are Welcome” really means “all who are like us” are welcome…

I suspect that the word “welcome” has always had various layers of meaning.  And perhaps that’s why, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t simply use the word “welcome” when he’s teaching his disciples.  Instead, he illustrates what he means by placing a child in their midst.  And he takes the child in his arms and says that “welcome”, for Jesus, is like welcoming a child.

Sometimes, we get caught up in the image of the child.  What a cute little kid!  Who wouldn’t welcome cuteness and innocence in their lives?  (Note, however, that Mark doesn’t tell us if the child wanted to cooperate in this illustration – for all we know, the kid could have been screaming and wailing that this guy suddenly picked him or her up out of the crowd!)

So what does it mean to “welcome a child”?  I don’t think it has anything to do with cuteness, innocence or whether the kid is well behaved.  Instead, I think Jesus is pointing out that welcoming a child means welcoming a person without:

  • That person “earning” their welcome – so often, people are welcomed because they’ve been good friends to us; or because they’ve been loyal colleagues to us; but children haven’t, and can’t, earn their welcome.  They can only be welcomed because we really want them to be there with us…
  • Necessarily accepting that person’s worldview – kids are sometimes fun to listen to because they have interesting views and ideas about how the world around them works.  Sometimes, they’re kind of insightful. But kids sometimes think there are monsters under the bed.  And that it would be fun to play in the street.  Or that it’s safe to walk near the edge of a cliff.  Welcoming children doesn’t mean we have to agree with these ideas…
  • Any expectation that there’s something in it for me – When I walk in a store and somebody says, “welcome”, I get the sense that they’re welcoming me because there’s a potential sale in their future.  But when I welcome a child, it’s not because the child can do anything to make me richer or more popular…

Now according to Mark, the reason Jesus talks about welcome is because the first disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest among them – or, in other words, who’s worthy of being welcomed into their community.

So from the very beginning, Jesus makes it clear that in his community of disciples, both then and now, people should be welcomed:

  • Regardless of whether they seem “worthy”, or to have earned the right to be there…  (In Mark’s Gospel, especially, Jesus’ disciples are all clueless from start to finish, but Jesus wants them with him anyway…!)
  • Regardless of whether their ideas and attitudes are the same as the rest of the group … (the community of Jesus’ first disciples included at least one “tax collector” and one “zealot”…)
  • Regardless of whether welcoming them brings the rest of the group any profit or popularity… (last week, the letter of James called out an early Christian community for fawning over new people whom they thought would be big givers…)

Welcoming someone without merit on their part.  Welcoming someone even if their ideas or politics are different from yours.  Welcoming someone even if there’s nothing in it for you. These are the ways you welcome a child.  But when the person you’re called to welcome isn’t actually a child, that welcome can be harder to give than it may seem.

Yet Jesus doesn’t tell us to give this kind of welcome just to be nice people.  He calls us to do this because this is same way God welcomes each one of us.  Almost always, when Jesus calls us to live in a certain way, it’s not so that people will say, “oh, what nice people they are!”  Instead, it’s almost always to reflect who God is, and how God acts, in our own lives.

Welcoming us as children is what God does.  It’s the baptismal welcome we live in each day, which is the kind of welcome that:

  • Invites us, apart from any “worthiness” on our part… (or, perhaps as some of those first disciples were thinking, that we’re not as “unworthy” as some of those other people…!)
  • Includes us, in spite of what often turn out to be our messed-up ideas about the way we think God should work … (notice that Jesus still accepts his disciples even when they’ve been playing “who’s the greatest”!)
  • Accepts us, even though God doesn’t profit from us being his people … (in fact, the point of God’s welcome is that in Jesus, God sacrifices for us in order to show us how much he loves and wants us…)

This morning, as we baptize Tomakyi, we should remember that in baptism, God welcomed, and continues to welcome each one of us, as children.  No matter how old we were when we were baptized, and no matter how old we are now, God welcomes each of us as a child.

That means that each day, Jesus invites you to be part of his community because of what Jesus has done, not because of what you’ve done.  Jesus includes you by forgiving you, not because you’ve got the answers right.  And Jesus accepts you because of his sacrifice for you, not because of your sacrifice for God.

And Jesus calls us to live each day in that welcome, and to try, as best we can, to reflect that welcome in our welcome of one another.