WORSHIP SERVICE SEPTEMBER 19 2021 “The Wonder of a Welcome”
You are invited to join Holy Trinity church members for worship on Sunday, September 19, 2021 and hear Pastor Erik’s message, “The Wonder of a Welcome.”
You are welcome to join us inside the sanctuary at 9:30 and 11:00 or watch the HTLC Virtual Worship Service on Sunday morning.
“The Wonder of a Welcome” Mark 9:30-37 Sept. 19, 2021
As adults we can forget how intimidating the world can be through the eyes of a child. Almost everything and everyone is bigger than you. There is a physical distance between a child who has to look up at an adult which can accentuate the authority adults have over children and make it harder for them to feel at ease or welcome. So when meeting a child for the first time, it can be helpful to get down at their level. They may feel more welcome if they can look you in the eye without having to look up at you.
I learned this sometime early in my first call to a church. I did not always do it, but I did try to be mindful of this dynamic and when appropriate, get down more on the level of the child I was talking to. When I did my children’s sermons, I would sit down on the floor or the step with the kids. When I was greeting people at the door and a child would come out, I would try and remember to crouch down so they could look me more in the eye as I said hello and told them I was happy they had come. It was always fun to see how their face would often light up with a smile when I made the effort to meet them at their level.
Jesus makes a big deal about welcoming children in today’s Gospel reading from Mark, and it is important to note that he does so right after he has caught the disciples arguing about who is the greatest among them. At a time when they are fighting about who deserves to be at a higher level than the others, he brings them down to a level where none of them would have expected that Jesus would take them. He brings them down to the level of a child.
This might not sound so bad to us today, if we have images in our mind of children as sweet, innocent, darlings. It might sound not so bad to us in this day and age when sometimes children are the center of our attention. But at the time of Jesus, things were different. In ancient culture, children had no status. They were subject to the authority of their fathers, viewed as little more than property. The child in antiquity was a non-person. We know this from studies of ancient history and archeology, but even the Bible alludes to this fact. In Galatians chapter 4:1-2 we read that, “… as long as the heir is a child, he is no different than a slave.” A child could not receive an inheritance until they were an adult and up to that point they were almost like a slave.
The children would have been with the women, not hanging around a religious teacher and his students. So, for Jesus to insist that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples would have been almost inconceivable.
Yet that is what Jesus does. He tells his followers that when they welcome a child, it is like they are welcoming him which is like they are welcoming God. Notice that the child that Jesus puts in their midst is not used as an example of humility, but as an example of the “little” and insignificant ones whom followers of Jesus are to welcome. So the disciples are thus not to be like children, but to be like Jesus who embraces the children. It is Jesus who demonstrates what it means to be “the servant of all.” This shows that it is through the small and powerless that God appears to the world.
Since the welcome Jesus is talking about is like we are welcoming God, then that welcome is not just to a be a cursory greeting, but to be more of an invitation into a deeper connection or sense of belonging. The word welcome can sometimes be a little surface if the ones who are doing the welcoming do not seem genuine in their greeting. I don’t know about you, but there have been many times when I have walked into a store or a restaurant and the person behind the counter has said “Welcome to Subway” or whatever store it is, and they have not even looked up to make eye contact with me. They have just gone about looking down at whatever they were doing and the greeting kind of comes out sort of lackluster as if they are simply doing what they have been told to do, but don’t really mean it.
The same thing can happen in a church. The author Thom Rainer writes about a survey they were doing where they were asking visitors about their first impressions of churches they had gone to. One of those families who responded said they had arrived at a church a little late and there were two greeters near the door. The greeters spoke to them for about two seconds, the family said, then they went back to their private conversation seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world and people around them.
In another story I’ve heard from a church consultant, a volunteer was asked about their job as a greeter. It came to the attention of the consultant that one Sunday this volunteer had welcomed a visitor but on the next Sunday that same visitor came back, and the volunteer had not spoken to them at all. When asked why they hadn’t welcomed the person the second time, the volunteer replied that it wasn’t their job to be the greeter that Sunday.
It is possible then, that we can at times welcome someone without actually making them feel welcomed. We can think we are doing our job, but not come across as authentic and thus miss the opportunity to help someone feel like they belong. This is why I think it is important to look again at the word used for welcome in our Gospel reading this morning. The Greek word that is used for welcome is from the word dechomai. Another more literal translation of this word is “to receive.” When you welcome someone, you receive them.
Football season has started this Fall, so when I think of the word receive, I think of a wide receiver. What does a wide receiver do? They catch the ball. They take it into their hands and they hold onto it. They connect with the ball and they don’t let it go. What if this was an image of what it meant to welcome someone? What if it meant receiving them in a genuine way even just for a moment? To connect with them and hold on to them in way that conveyed they belong? That might mean a physical holding, such as a handshake or hug, but it might mean more of an emotional holding—like holding a space for them with a caring presence, eye contact, or a listening ear.
One of the most powerful scenes of welcome that I have seen in a movie is from the film Antwone Fisher. The movie tells the true story of a young man in the Navy who is having some real issues with anger. In fact, he is getting into so many fights that his superior officer tells him he needs to see the counselor on base as played by Denzel Washington. As the movie unfolds we learn through the conversations with the counselor that the young Antwone had a rough childhood and never felt like he had a place that he belonged.
He had born in prison to seventeen-year-old Eva Mae Fisher and twenty-three-year-old Eddie Elkins. His father, Eddie, was shot and died before Antwone was even born. Antwone was placed in foster care within the first few weeks of his life, and for two years he lived with a loving family. The state eventually put Antwone back in the foster system, claiming that Antwone’s attachment to his foster mother could be problematic. He was subsequently placed in another home where some of his most traumatic childhood experiences unfolded. For fourteen years Antwone suffered both emotional and physical abuse.
As he became a young man, Antwone finally left the abusive situation to set out on his own. He ended up living on the streets until he finally enlisted with the Navy. After learning the young man’s story, the Navy counselor suggests to Antwone that he go back and try to find the family he never knew. With additional encouragement from his new girlfriend, Antwone sets out to Cleveland to try and re-connect with the relatives he has never met.
One of the climatic scenes of the movie comes when he has managed to find some of his family and they invite him to a special dinner to meet everyone he is related to.
To me this scene demonstrates what it means to receive someone. Before Antwone even gets there, one of his relatives is there to open the door. The rest of the family immediately begins to introduce themselves so they know who he is. They give smiles, handshakes, and hugs.
The table is full of all kinds of food. It is already set and ready for folks to dine together. Antwone’s girlfriend is there as a familiar face to help steady him as he absorbs the overwhelming recognition that he has relatives he didn’t know he had. The elders of the family are there as well. The bustling room is hushed when the matriarch of the family motions for Antwone to come near.
She takes his hands and looks into his eyes and says, “Welcome”, and you know she means it. You know it comes from the deepest, authentic place within her. They are receiving the young man as a true part of their family, as someone who was lost, but now is found and he has a new sense of belonging he hasn’t known before. He experiences the wonder of a true welcome.
When I first saw this scene, it reminded me of one of the images we use for holy communion in the church. It is the image of the foretaste of the feast to come. It is a picture of that heavenly feast we will be a part of when Jesus comes again. It is a picture of the kind of greeting God extends to us through Jesus when we come to him, when we realize we are really forgiven and we are God’s child. It is the feeling of knowing we are now a part of the family of God and Jesus receives us with open arms—taking us by the hands, looking into our eyes and saying to us, “Welcome.” When we realize that we have received this kind of welcome through a God who loves us, then we can extend this same kind of welcome to others. And who knows? By doing this, we might just be a part of experiencing a little bit of that heavenly reception right here and right now. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner