Saturday, 18 January 2014

Sermon: 'Whoever welcomes this child...'

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

First reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Gospel reading: Mark 9:33-41

Imagine – at the end of a particularly fractious church council meeting, Jesus walks into the room.
'What', he says, 'have you been arguing about?'

Silence. No body wants to say, 'whether to replace the photocopier with a cheaper model' or 'what hymn book we should buy' or even 'that we'd all like to get more people to come to church, but everyone's too busy to volunteer'.

And Jesus looks round the circle of chairs, and smiles, gently and sadly. He knows exactly what we've been arguing about, and we feel our faces go hot with embarrasment.

Or we might even imagine arriving in heaven with a big crowd of other Christians, and Jesus standing in front of the crowd and saying: 'what on earth were you arguing about on the way?'
'And', he might add, 'did it get in the way of telling people about me? Did it put people off following me? Did they get confused as to why there were two, or three churches, let alone several faiths, each swearing they had the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or did you argue goodnaturedly, while working side by side to get the job done?'

Both our readings this morning show a group of people, followers of Jesus, arguing about who is the greatest. Who is the best disciple - who was going to sit at Jesus's right hand in this promised Kingdom he kept going on about? And Paul is horrified to discover that the Corinthians are arguing about whether he, or Cephas, or Apollos, or even Christ himself, are the best person to follow.

We can only imagine how the Corinthians felt when they first heard Paul's letter to them read out. I wonder, did they all go silent with embarrasment, and vow to get on? Or did some, at least of them, go away from that meeting muttering to themselves, in little twos and threes: 'well that's all very well, but Cephas is here with us working hard and who does Paul think he is, telling us off like that?' 'Its all very well telling us to agree, but Stephanus and Julian are just plain wrong and its our Christian duty to tell them so'. Or even, 'humph. I'm a bit offended to tell the truth that Paul doesn't remember baptising ME. Don't think I'll bother going there again'. And so on.

We don't know the Corinthian's reactions, but we do get to hear how the disciples react when Jesus asks them what they are arguing about. They are deeply embarrassed. They might still be thinking, inside 'Well I am better than Judas, anyone could see he's not to be trusted', but they have the grace, at least, not to try to justify their arguments to Jesus.

And Jesus, knowing of course exactly what they have been arguing about, sits them down and brings a child into the centre of their inner circle. He hugs the child – the child is getting the best place at that table, is closest to Jesus – and says: 'whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and not just me, Jesus the person, whoever welcomes one such child welcomes God the creator of everything, Yahweh, God.'

We tend to see this as a fairly sweet little scene. Jesus and the children – you might remember watercolour paintings of Jesus surrounded by small children from all around the world, from your Sunday School days? And which of us would want to argue. We know, don't we, that children are important, that they are not just the church of tomorrow but part of the church of today, and so on. We love seeing babies and small children brought to church. Although we sometimes hear horror stories of parents with small children being told off for the kids making a noise in other churches, I'm sure we'd all be fairly sure that wouldn't and shouldn't happen in our own churches. Yes, we welcome children.

The gospel reading doesn't say what age the child was. I wonder what age you imagine? In my head, the child is perhaps 3 or 4: a little blond haired pre school cherub, just like in those watercolour paintings. Who could possibly not want to welcome such a sweet, innocent little thing?

And the gospel reading also doesn't say where Jesus got this child from. So I wonder...

What if, instead of a washed and brushed little infant, proudly handed over from her mother's arms, he was a 12 or 13 year old street urchin? Perhaps the reason he was in that house in Capernaum was that he'd been creeping round the circle of disciples trying a little light pickpocketing, or hoping to pinch the loaf of bread waiting on the table for their tea?

If we imagine Jesus dragging forward a frightened and belligerent little street urchin, who is perhaps flashing a knife ready to try to slip away from these threatening grown ups now he's been caught, the challenge to us is much greater.

Over the last week I've discussed these readings with a couple of members of the Belmont congregation. Talking about this reading, one of them told me a story of when she and her husband were acting as wardens for a Quaker meeting house in Bolton. One day, two or three young tearaways skidded into the entrance hall on their bikes. The 'welcomer' on duty duly approached them, and asked what they were doing there. 'It said Society of Friends on the door', said one.
'Well', she snorted, 'We're not friends for the likes of you.'

Would that happen here?
Well...another true story.
A few weeks before Christmas, one of the members of the Belmont congregation arrived to open up for morning prayer and found a gang of teenagers, about 15 or 16 year olds, smoking and spitting on the front steps. 'Good morning lads,' she said. 'But please don't make a mess on the steps. This is a special place for you and everyone to come to, not somewhere to make a mess of'. They stayed where they were.

So she invited them into the church. They stubbed out their fags and shambled in, and she cleaned the steps and then made them drinks and gave them chocolate biscuits. Eventually, one of them growled at her - ' do you know Mandela has died?'. It was the morning after his death. And it turned out that that was why they had come, incoherently and not quite knowing what to do when they got there, to the church. It had felt like the right place to be. She invited them to come and light a candle in Nelson Mandela's memory, and they did so. Then they left, and their parting shot was 'We're gonna pray for peace.'

I only heard this amazing story a few weeks later, just before Christmas, when I received a Christmas card addressed to the vicar, with a £10 note inside and an apology for making a mess, and their thanks to the lady who had cleaned up, let them into church, and given them food and candles to light.

When I asked the lady concerned why she hadn't told me, I learnt that she had mentioned it to one or two people, but had been roundly told off for letting that sort of person into church, regardless of her personal safety or the safety of the church. And when I told others that this was what being a welcoming church meant, someone eventually said, 'But we don't want the wrong kind of people coming.'

'What on earth do you mean, the wrong kind of people?' I said, trying hard to keep my temper. 'Well,' they said, 'You know. People who are just coming to nick the collection, or be disrespectful'.

Iwas horrified at first, but then grateful for their honesty. I'm sure we all, in our heart of hearts, have people we are really very glad we don't have wandering into our churches. Of course, we tell ourselves we would be welcoming if they came. But I wonder, if you're really honest with yourself, who would you really, prefer NOT to welcome into your church?

A bloke who turns up topless and covered in tattoes? Baptism families who don't seem to know what's going on and talk all through the service? Someone who smells of drink and stale urine? Maybe even someone from your family, or your work, or your street who you just can't stand?

Who are you secretly glad doesn't come to your church – you love them, you know God loves them, but you'd rather you went to the church down the road thank you very much!

And imagine again: Imagine – at the end of that particularly fractious church council meeting, or even an ecumenical discussion group, Jesus walks into the room.
'What', he says, 'have you been arguing about?'

And he looks round the circle of chairs, and smiles, gently and sadly. He knows exactly what we've been arguing about, and we feel our faces go hot with embarrasment.

And then he nips out of the church door, into the street – but before you can breathe a sigh of relief, he's back, and that person – the one person you'd rather not see in your church – is firmly led in by the arm. Perhaps they're even kicking and squirming, fighting to get away. And Jesus plonks them down in the middle of the church meeting. He looks around the circle, looking each of us in the eye for a long moment.
'whoever welcomes such a person in my name', he says, 'welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the God who sent me.'


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