Sermon: Welcoming God

17 September 2006

Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield
Wisdom for the Journey: Welcoming God
Mark 9:30-37

            Do the e-mail users among you receive a lot of forwards?  My Dad is the king of forwards.  I must admit that sometimes I just delete them…after all they take up space in my inbox, and I generally don’t have a lot of time when I am checking my e-mail.  But the other day my Dad sent me a forward that I did take the time to read.  I would like to share it with you.

You see there were these two little brothers, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous.  They were always getting into trouble…trouble that their parents knew all about.  If any mischief occurred in their hometown, everyone knew that the two boys were probably involved.  The boys’ mother heard that the preacher in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would talk to her boys.  The preacher agreed, but he asked to see them individually. So the mother sent the 8-year-old in first in the morning, with the older boy to see the preacher in the afternoon.  The preacher, a huge man with a booming voice [much like me], sat the first boy down and asked him sternly, “Son, do you know where God is?”  The boy’s mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there wide-eyed.  So the preacher repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Son, do you know where God is?!”  Again, the boy did not even make an attempt to answer.  So the preacher raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy’s face and bellowed, “Where is God?!”  The young boy screamed and bolted from the preacher’s office.  He ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him.  When his older brother found him in the closet he asked, “What happened?”  The younger brother, gasping for breath between sobs at this point, replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time…GOD is missing, and they think WE did it!”

I share this with you, not only because it is a fun joke, but because I think it speaks to the scripture reading from today in a few different ways.  First, we are introduced to the wonderful world and mind of children.  Second, we are reminded that, even if in the e-mail it was perhaps misinterpreted, we have times when we do feel like God is missing or when we create our own barriers to welcoming God in our lives.

Yet again in our scripture passage we find Jesus making an example of a young child.  We do not know where this child comes from, but we know that the child appears and is there. Jesus holds the young child up to the disciples, and he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Nowadays, in a society where children are usually valued and loved and protected, we perhaps don’t truly understand what a huge statement this was.  But in first century Palestinian culture children were seen in another way entirely.  They were supposed to stay in the private places of society, in the home with their mothers.  It would have been unheard of that they were out and about in public, especially in a place where Jesus would have been sitting with and teaching his disciples.  Children of the time, although loved perhaps, were truly third class citizens.  In times of food shortage they were fed last, and for various reasons many of them did not live into adulthood.  At times they were killed upon birth so as not to be a burden to family or society.  These things were not intended to be cruel actions but rather to be ways of survival.  Children had no rights, existing at the whims and disciplinary procedures of their parents, no matter what the cost.[1] 

So here sits Jesus with the disciples making an example of a little child, a non-person by society’s standards, someone who was not to be in the public eye, someone who was unreceivable.  And this is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ argument over who was the greatest. 

I can only imagine the disciples sitting with Jesus that day.  They had already received another prediction of what Jesus’ fate was, another look through Jesus’ eyes and words at the crucifixion and resurrection.  And instead of choosing to struggle with what that meant, something that seemed too difficult to understand, they chose to argue over who was the best among them.  Who had the most status?  Who was the one called upon most often to preach and teach?  Who was Jesus’ “right-hand man”?  Who could take over if all that Jesus was predicting really did come true?  So Jesus, knowing what they had argued about along the way, waits until a teachable moment, and then sits them down and makes an example of a little child.  As one pastor wrote in response to this scripture, “Greatness in the eyes of Jesus is found in the willingness of his disciples to receive, to accept, indeed to really welcome those they would normally consider unreceivable, unacceptable, and unwelcome.  To welcome others as a child welcomes others before he or she is taught to discriminate between friend and foe…”[2]

               So the question becomes, if we are able to remove the blinders of society and become as children again in our welcoming of others and therefore of God, why is it so hard to do?  I think part of it is that we have our own ways so engrained in us by the time we reach adolescence, let alone adulthood, that it takes a bit to open up that childish side again, to reinvite the openness and willingness of a child.  On the other hand, we do manage to create barriers in our own lives.  They are barriers of stubbornness and sometimes issues of our own self-worth.  Why, we ask after all, would God want to come in to my life?  I make the wrong decisions.  I don’t look right.  I too cause mischief now and again.  I have a problem with my relationships, my work, my x, y, or z…

           When I was a senior in high school I participated in the Junior Miss Program.  For those of you who have never heard of Junior Miss, it is a scholarship program where girls who are seniors in high school participate in categories like scholastics, talent, fitness, interviewing and presence & composure.  Now I know some of you who have witnessed me in the office here or at youth fellowship playing Ga Ga in toe socks on a Sunday night are laughing inside right now. But my best friend asked me to enter the program with her, and you can’t let your best friend down!  So I went through the local & state parts of the program and ended up at Nationals, competing against 49 other girls for the title of America ’s Junior Miss 1996.  And after two nights of competition, of being judged by people who didn’t know me from Eve, the top ten were announced.  And I was not one of them.  Inside, the competitive side of me was a little bit let down, but then the rational part of me took over.  That last night, when those 10 finalists were to compete and we were all up on the stage, going through our group routines, I gave everything I had.  Why then and not before when I was being judged, you might ask?  Well, it was just because of that.  No one was judging me anymore.  I could just be me.  It was an amazing release.  My mom said something to me about it afterwards.  About the fact that she hoped that the attitude I had that final night could last…the one that was not worried about what other people thought, the attitude that I was gifted and good enough despite how other people judged me.

             That was a moment of enlightenment for me…one that I wish I had lived by from that moment on.  But much like many people nowadays, I went back to thinking that I was not good enough for whatever the reason of the day was.  It is true that each of us has our own ways that we unintentionally block ourselves from believing that we are good enough or smart enough, ways that we block ourselves from believing that we are worthy…ways that we block ourselves from believing that we are worthy to receive and welcome God into our lives.  We all have moments when we feel like God is lost and we, ourselves, or other people are blaming us for the mischief that caused it to be that way.  We each have our moments when we do not feel like we are heirs of greatness.

             And yet again what Jesus teaches us in this story in the Bible, in his object lesson with the little child, is that greatness is not always about success by worldly standards but rather by the character of a person and how willing one is to welcome those who are not seen as welcome by society and by doing so to welcome and to serve God.  Servanthood does not mean losing one’s identity or changing one’s outward or even inward appearance.  It does mean that we identify the ways that we are able to serve others and God with our own particular gifts and talents.  Each of us serves God in a different way, and each of us experiences God in a different way in our own lives.  We must be willing to be honest about the ways that happens, not trying to take on other people’s practices or depend on what others would have us do or would judge as right.  We must be uniquely ourselves while allowing others to be uniquely who they are in the effort to serve and by doing so, to welcome God.

             A Taize reflection on today’s scripture brings us back to the ways that we are called to be as children in our efforts to serve and welcome God, how we are to reach in to ourselves with a hand of acceptance and how we are to reach out to those who are deemed “less than” in our society.  It says, “Welcoming a child means welcoming a promise.  A child grows and develops.  In the same way, the kingdom of God on earth is never a finished reality but rather a promise…children are unpredictable.  In the Gospel story, they arrive when they arrive, and in any case not at the right time for the disciples.  But Jesus insists that they must be welcomed because they are there.  In the same way, we have to welcome God’s presence when it presents itself, whether it is the right time or not…welcoming God’s kingdom means keeping alert and praying so that we can welcome it when it comes, always unexpectedly, whether at an opportune moment or not.”[3]

             In this past year when a good deal of time has been spent envisioning the future of this church and re-identifying who we are as God’s children in this place, the word “hungry” has come up quite a bit.  As God’s children, as people who are striving to be true Christians in this unpredictable world, we are hungry…hungry for God, hungry for wisdom, hungry for the ways in which God reaches out to us, teaches us, and lifts us up.  We are invited to welcome God into our lives in two ways.  First, to welcome God into our own personal lives and our own personal relationships.  We do this through prayer, devotions, song, as well as many other spiritual practices.  We are also invited to welcome God into our lives in community.  Through reaching out, opening up to those among us, perhaps sitting next to us who are in need of support, and opening up to those in our world who are different – who perhaps have been deemed unreceivable, through accepting people, teaching our children what it means to be Christians in this world…through all of these actions we welcome God into our lives in community.

             Yes, perhaps there are times in our lives when we feel like God is lost, or at least far away, but it does not take much to understand that God is ever-present.  And what an amazing gift it is when we truly feel that presence in our lives.  When we welcome others among us with an openness and willingness like that of children, even those who cause a little mischief now and again, we are welcoming both Christ and the One who sent him to be in the world teaching the world who is truly great.  Amen.

[1] “The Greatest Among Us” –

2 Ibid.



[3] “What Does it Mean to Welcome God’s Kingdom Like a Child?” –

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