Sermon – September 24, 2006

Welcoming the Children

Those of you who may be fans of former President Herbert Hoover will be pleased to know he has finally received his vindication.  Hoover is routinely regarded as one of the worst President’s in the nation’s history for his performance at the advent of the Great Depression.  But this week, scholars published a book of presidential doodles, a collection of the doodles that a host of presidents drew out in their idle or distracted moments.  Critics seem to agree that Herbert Hoover was the best doodler of all the president’s represented there, so, “here’s to you Herbert.  You’re number one.  The greatest doodler in our presidential legacy.

I saw this also this week as a fellow set a new world’s record for the number of straws that he could stuff into his mouth.  I believe he got 259 straws into his mug and is now being hailed as the number one straw stuffer.   And then there is the little guy from Nepal who is contending for the title of the world’s smallest man.  This 14 year old is 20 inches high, trying to wrest the title from a Jordanian man who has him by a few centimeters.  Looks like he will have to wait, though.  Have to be 18 to receive the title.

We have a funny compulsion to be or to elect the number one whatever, but Jesus turns this notion on its head today as he confronts the disciples who are arguing among themselves about who is the greatest.   And he tells them that that is not the measure of the followers of Jesus.  He says anyone who welcomes a little child welcomes me.  The economy of Jesus’ kingdom is that we would greet, the little, the lost, the unloved, the unacclaimed.  There is where you will see my face, he says, and not in your ascension to the titles and crowns.  

I have to say we shouldn’t be surprised by the disciples’ conversation.  They had walked with Jesus, they had sat at his feet, they had abandoned their careers in order to respond to his invitation to follow.  They had witnessed the power of his hands and his words and they were already thinking of the end game.  But Jesus says, you are 180 degrees wrong.  As you welcome someone as lowly as this child, you welcome me.  It is your service and not the demonstration of your power or primacy or accumulated laurels that will bring you into my presence.  He chose a child to show them the way.

Let’s go over again what it was like to be  such a child in 1st century Palestine.  There were no Gerber babies in Jesus time.  No cute and cuddly and clean babies.  No, babies then had very little chance, very little hope.  About a third of them died at birth, 30 percent of the survivors died by age six and 60 percent of those died by age 16.  Didn’t pay to get too close to a kid.  Pretty good chance they wouldn’t be around.  This is the model that Jesus lifted up to welcome in his name.

As a result of all this children had no status, they were on the same level as slaves.  They had no property, no prerogative. . . as one writer put it, “Children didn’t produce anything.  They didn’t contribute anything to village life.  Infants can’t build a barn or dig a well.  They just lie around all day.”  So until they were old enough to survive and produce something, they weren’t worth much.

Considering how we have advanced, it sometimes appears that things haven’t changed that much.  35,000 kids under the age of five die each day in this world, mostly from preventable conditions like lack of food, clean water, shelter and basic medical care.   Yet means to prevent these deaths are before us.  It costs just 2 cents for a six-month supply of vitamin A supplements, 15 cents for a 5-day course of antibiotics to treat pneumonia, 15 dollars to immunize a child against the six main childhood diseases.  A bed net to prevent malaria-bearing mosquitoes from biting a child costs less than 10 dollars.  The estimated cost to end these deaths, to welcome these children in a life-giving way, is estimated to be about 2.5 billion dollars a year.  All things considered, that’s not a lot of money.  Just for the cost of the war in Iraq alone, we could meet that need in its entirely for the next 15 years running.  By the way. 

It is from these that Jesus draws his lesson for the disciples.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”  That there in this lowliness and need you will find the presence of Christ.  He extends the offer to discover him anew in the other.  The disciples needed a lesson on what it meant to be great in the kingdom of God, in include the least among them, to put others before themselves is how greatness is achieved and measured in the kingdom of God.  The disciples, and we, are called to a different standard, held to a different ethic, called to a different life, as we encounter this Jesus.  Under him all things are turned upside down.  So, sometimes we can lose our way.

Jesus realizes that , and he puts out a marker.  We need a marker.  Jesus uses the child to remind those clamoring for the top, for the achievement of their own ends that such pursuits are done at a cost.  A cost to others and a cost to our spiritual orientation.  Clamoring for the top means that others have to fall by our sides.  We live in a market driven economy, a world driven by money, wealth and acquisitions, and as we follow these leads,  in those efforts, others must be pushed aside.   A desire to achieve singular success means certainly that others must be left aside.  Now, God gives us all great gifts of talent and opportunity and to cultivate them certainly is no sin, in fact it is good stewardship.  But to put others aside, to refuse to welcome the least for our own elevation, is finally to fail.  It cannot be how we walk our walk of faith.  It is a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry, this identification with, this sacrifice for, this comradeship with the least and the unheralded.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”  Greatness in the kingdom is set before us, measured by our humility and compassion, by our capacity to love and turn that love into action, our willingness to sacrifice.

I have to say that in this fellowship, that notion is set before us each time you drop a dollar in the collection plate.  By decision of this congregation, 20 cents of that dollar goes out the door to ministries of mercy and compassion before we pay the light bill.  It is a good thing and a way for us to meet these needs as a community. These fields of soybeans out here that we call the Field of Dreams will generate money to feed hungry people, to set up sustainable local economies, to bring hope out of despair.  The Heifer Project that we are engaged in with our Sunday School offerings bears the same gift to the least, as we provide start up stock so that a few might become a herd, and a herd, shared might bolster a whole economy, for the sake of the hungry and the poor.  These are our markers and they are good things and we should pay heed to them because Jesus says, here you will see my face.  I am thankful for the vision of this congregation to meet him there.

But the gospel always calls us to do more.  We must continue to grow in compassion and understanding and love.  Without this growth in understanding and the learning of godly wisdom, we will inevitably keep placing ourselves at the center of our lives.  Only when we are willing to constantly bathe in the waters of baptism and apply our minds to the wisdom of scripture and our hearts to the task of compassion, will we find the love and life and compassion on which love and life depend.  The only test of our love of God is the love we have for one another, and we only love God as much as the person we love the least.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux suggests that what we love we shall grow to resemble.

Isn’t that what Jesus us saying? If we welcome a little child such as this, you welcome me.

To love the least is to act in the love and wisdom of Christ and through that he is revealed and made known.   Jesus says we can see him more clearly, understand him more deeply, walk with him more closely through the children, the least.

Friends, we may be successful, gifted, first among our peers and that may be a good reflection of our gifts and our discipline and our perseverance.  But the lost one among us begs for our recognition.  The least seeks to known and lifted up.  The little ones look out from behind the walls and barriers that keep them invisible.   In their faces, Jesus says, we will see him.  May God grant us the eyes to see them as he sees them, and may we then find him there.

Amen