We’ve reached the turning point in the gospel of Mark, and there is a pattern that is repeated three times. Three times, Jesus announces to his disciples that he will suffer, be killed and will rise again. We heard it in Chapter 8 last Sunday, we hear it again in Chapter 9 today and we will hear it again when we get to Chapter 10 in October. And each time, there is a pattern:
Jesus predicts his own suffering, death and resurrection.
The disciples misinterpret and fail to understand.
Then, in response to that misunderstanding, Jesus has to reorient them, to change their values, by teaching them and us what it means to be his followers.
Today’s misunderstanding culminates in the disciples’ argument with one another about who was to be the greatest.
How does Jesus reorient them? He takes a little child into his arms and welcomes the child.
Have you ever thought of the act of welcoming as a reorientation? As something that changes who we are and how we think?
I remember when I first started at St. Albans downtown, it was a late summer day, and our doors were open. As our service was ending and I was coming down the aisle towards the doors of the church, a man came walking in carrying a mattress. Puzzled, I went over to him and asked him, “why are you bringing you mattress into the church?”
He replied, “Because that nice lady over there told me I should!” And he pointed to Carrol.
It turns out that he was in the process of moving, and he’d been walking down the street past the church with his mattress. Our singing attracted his attention, so he came in to listen, leaving his mattress outside. Carrol had noticed, so she went to talk with him and invited him to join us for refreshments after the service. But his mattress was still outside, and there was a risk of rain, so she had suggested he bring his mattress inside. And that’s what he was doing when I met him. Hospitality means welcoming people as they are. Even if they’re carrying a mattress into the church.
Jesus welcomes a little child. He invites the one with no social status into his arms, right in the middle of a bunch of grown men who have been arguing about which one of them is the greatest. What’s your idea of greatness? Is it based on achievement, on position, on power, honour, influence, prestige or social status? Jesus turns all of these notions upside down when he welcomes the one at the bottom of the social hierarchy to join him in the centre of the circle. That’s reorientation.
But there’s more. In Jesus’ culture, to welcome someone, to provide hospitality, was a big deal. It meant to provide a meal, a place to stay, a place of honour at the table. Sometimes, both then and now, there is an expectation that the favour will be returned. I’ll invite you for dinner, and next week you invite me. But a little child can’t offer that sort of hospitality in return. To welcome a child is to do so with no strings attached, with no expectation of return. It is pure gift, what we call grace. That too is a reorientation for most of us. But it’s what Jesus is all about. “Whoever wants to be first, to be great, must be last of all and servant of all.”
You see, Jesus’ ministry was principally directed towards outsiders. Those who were not part of the community. Those who were estranged from the community. Those without social status. In Jesus’ day, that meant tax-collectors and sinners. That meant foreigners, women and children. That meant those who were sick, poor and oppressed. People who didn’t fit in, people who couldn’t comply with the rules and social expectations. And because Jesus’ mission and ministry was mostly to these outsiders, it didn’t conform to the usual way of doing things or take place in the usual places.
New wine calls for new wineskins. That’s what Jesus said about his ministry. Ministry to outsiders means we can no longer be constrained by the way that the insiders have always done things. If sitting at table and sharing a meal with outsiders meant that rules and customs and traditions had to change, then that’s what Jesus did.
There is no question when you read the gospels that Jesus’ new way of doing things, offended certain people. It especially offended the insiders. They just didn’t get it. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would be willing to bend the rules in order to welcome outsiders to his table.
Welcoming matters. In fact it may well be the most important thing that we do as a church community. And yet, far too often, we take welcoming for granted. We take a bland, passive approach, thinking that if we put a sign up outside that says “All are welcome”, we’ve somehow become a welcoming community.
But the welcome that Jesus talks about, the welcoming that Jesus models for us is a much more active, a much more radical, indeed even at times a subversive and a dangerous act. During his lifetime, Jesus was often chastised for eating and drinking with the wrong people. His scandalous, welcoming behaviour was one of the reasons that Jesus had so many people in the establishment out to get him. Welcoming is a boundary crossing activity. It upsets people, it upends social norms.
It can also be dangerous. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus welcomed Judas to the table, and offered him bread to eat and wine to drink, knowing full-well that this same Judas would betray his hospitality, and indeed his life, later that same evening.
How should we as a community, as a church, as followers of Jesus, model ourselves after Jesus himself when it comes to welcoming? It’s not hard to give lip-service to welcoming. Most churches would say that they value welcoming. When I go to the website of most churches, when I look at the sign on the door, often the first thing I see is big letters that say, “You are welcome.”
So let me rephrase the question. As a church that explicitly values welcoming, do we have in mind a welcome which is cheap or costly?
Some of you may recognize that distinction as one borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who as a young man in the 1930s, wrote a book called the Cost of Discipleship. In this book he introduced us to the distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”.
“Cheap grace,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."
Costly grace, on the other hand, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a [person] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ "
Bonhoeffer was talking about grace, but I believe that the same distinction can be applied to welcoming. Cheap welcoming is putting up a sign that says “all are welcome” without much further impact on us as a community, without risking the way that we do things.
Costly welcoming, on the other hand, is courageous. It is a risk-taking act, because to welcome someone into our community is to commit to making space for that person without fully knowing how that will change us.
Costly welcoming takes effort on our part, because it requires us to listen and learn the ways of the stranger and to change our ways as a result.
Costly welcoming can be dangerous, because it means that the insiders are no longer in control.
Costly welcoming has the potential to change who we are and how we do things in order to fully welcome the one who is the stranger into our midst.
Do you remember the gospel we heard a few weeks ago about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman? At first Jesus resists welcoming the foreign woman within the scope of his ministry. But when he does welcome her, when he listens to her and extends compassion to her and healing to her daughter, we find that Jesus himself has been changed. That he has learned through this encounter that the scope of his mission and ministry was to include Gentiles and not just the people of Israel.
What I am suggesting is that if we wish to model ourselves after Jesus, if we are serious in our desire to make welcoming one of our core values, then we have to take welcoming seriously, and be ready to risk the cost. I think it’s worth it, because making space for the other is a sacred and powerful act. When we make space for the other, the stranger, the newcomer in our church community, we welcome not only the visitor. We also welcome God into our midst. And when we do that, well, who knows what will happen next.
Jesus took a little child into his arms and said,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes
me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Homily. Yr B P25. Sept 19 2021. Trinity
Reading: Mark 9.30-37
Image by Alex Green (Pexels)