A couple days ago I called my friend Kae so we could talk about this Gospel reading where Jesus takes a child in his arms and teaches the disciples that if they welcome a child in his name they welcome God. And we started talking about the actual reality of children and how difficult small ones can be to manage. Kae told me of this brilliant technique she employs when dealing with toddlers. She said it really helps her to be patient and compassionate with defiant, emotional, snot-faced toddlers when she just thinks of them like little versions of really drunk friends. Then when they keep falling down and bumping into things and bursting into tears she just treats them like she would a friend who is too drunk to know what they are doing, and who you just try and make sure doesn’t hurt themselves, and who you clean up bodily fluids from, and make sure they drink some water, and then just lovingly change them into their pajamas and tuck them into bed.
Children are really a mess.
NBW sermon 9-23-2012 <——click here or listen below. (sermons are a spoken art form)
And Jesus uses children to teach us about welcoming today in our Gospel reading. Because sometimes sacred hospitality can be a messy business.
Here’s what’s happening: Jesus and his disciples are on the road, and he starts talking some nonsense about how he will be betrayed and killed and raised from the dead. His disciples had no idea what that meant, but they were too cowardly to ask.
And when they go inside ,Jesus just kind of stretched his arms out, yawned and was like, “so … what were you guys arguing about on the road?”
And they all freeze up … guilt stricken since they weren’t talking about how to care for the poor or who might need some extra prayer these days. They were talking about themselves, and like insecure junior-high boys, they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. And they were ashamed to tell the truth about that.
To which Jesus says whoever wants to be great must be least.
So he takes a small child and places that child among them. He stretched his arms out once again, takes the child into those arm and says whoever welcomes such a child in his name welcomes him — indeed, welcomes God.
But here’s a caution. Lest, when we hear this story, we picture a cute little well-dressed kid from an ad for the Gap – we should consider how differently children were treated and perceived back in Jesus’ day.
Because sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the sentimentality we as Westerners attach to childhood is a fairly recent thing. It wasn’t until the 18th century that children were viewed as innocent and angelic. These days our images of children come from Norman Rockwell paintings emblazoned in our minds. Or worse — those Anne Geddes photos … you know where she dresses up children as potted flowers and snow peas. Well, we might conjure these kinds of sentimentalized images when we think of childhood, but it wasn’t like that in the 1st century. In Jesus’ time, there wasn’t a growing market for adorableness like there is today. And anyone who has spent time around actual toddlers will tell you, that Anne Geddes stuff is bunk. I mean, God bless ‘em, but they really are much more like out-of-control drunk people than cute potted flowers with chubby faces.
See, what childhood was then is simply not what childhood is for Americans in the 21st century. Children in those days only had value as replacement adults, but until then, they were more like mongrel dogs than they were beloved members of a family. And they weren’t even really housebroken. They just kind of leaked everywhere and they died like, all the time. Infant mortality was about 30 percent. And then another 30 percent were reportedly dead by age 9. These children didn’t exactly take bubble baths every night before being tucked into their Sesame Street bedsheets. There was no sentimentality about childhood, because childhood was actually a time of terror. Children were dirty and useless and often unwanted, and to teach his disciples about greatness and hospitality, Jesus takes the likes of THIS and puts THIS kind of child in the center, folds THIS kind of child into his arms, and says when you welcome the likes of THIS child, you welcome me.
No doubt. That is serious lesson in Christian welcome that Jesus is teaching us. We should welcome the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. We, like the disciples, should welcome the messy reality of having children in our midst as if we are welcoming God’s own self.
But, as important as that is, it’s not actually the thing I took away from this story this week. What I started to wonder is why I always assume when reading the Gospels that the disciples are a stand in for us. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that then it’s so easy to see everything Jesus says as a to-do list. In this case, the point of the story is that we should welcome children. Or we should welcome the equivalent of what children really represented in that culture. All that is true. But the thing that really broke my heart this week was not an exhortation to welcome children or other equally annoying people. What broke my heart wasn’t the idea of being in the place of the disciples and learning that lesson what broke my hearts was thinking of myself in the place of that child. What if the child is a stand-in for us?
And what if Jesus was trying to tell the disciples that. See, I started to wonder why was it, earlier in the story, that the disciples were insecure and too cowardly to ask Jesus some clarifying questions? Why were they having an asinine argument about who was the greatest and why could they not even admit to it later when he asked what they were talking about? And I thought about times when I had been too cowardly to ask about something I should have. I thought about the times when I had been showoff-y like the disciples and the times when I was too ashamed to admit the truth about my smallness. And then I started to wonder about how all of those times would be different if I really believed that these childish parts of me, the parts that are like a 1st-century child: A useless child who has dried snot wiped across her unwashed face. A child who can’t actually understand Jesus’ teaching at all, who has nothing to offer, who no one else wants around, who no one else even notices is there. A child who has zero ability to make herself worthy. What if I believed that these are the parts of me that Jesus folds into his arms and says welcome. Because that changes everything.
How often, like the disciples, do the times of cowardice, boasting, and fear come from the fact that we don’t know or don’t believe that, like a child in the lap of God, there simply is no longer any basis for insecurity? Because God places these messy child things in our midst, folds into God’s arm that which is so filthy and worthless and unable to help itself, and says welcome. So there is simply no longer any basis for insecurity or fear of any kind. With these messy, falling down, dirty-faced things, being placed in the center and being held in the arms of Christ and being welcomed into the life of God and God’s people, there is simply no reason to not ask questions, there is simply no reason to not have humility, and there is simply no reason to not fearlessly speak the truth. For that is the kind of children God’s hospitality has made you. Amen.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author ofSalvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television
Toddler photo, paulaphoto / Shutterstock.com