Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." Mark 9:35-37
We had our two grandchildren come to visit us at the cottage this summer and the cool things was, they didn’t bring their parents! It was better that way. Parents always bring a litany of rules with them and they tend to be pharisaical about them. Oliver is two and he’s supposed to have a nap every afternoon. That’s the rule, but he didn’t want to have a nap every afternoon, because he didn’t want to miss out on anything his brother might have been enjoying. So guess what? No naps... and the world didn’t end! They also had chocolate milk at breakfast a couple times... after all a kid’s gotta get their milk quota, and chocolate milk took no convincing at all! Logan, who is five now, enjoyed doing some things his parent might have been a little nervous about ‒ like starting the boat engine whenever we had to go somewhere, and steering the boat all by himself a few times... OK, all the time.
Our days were filled with play together – making castles in the sand, swimming in the water, and fishing from the boat each day... and in so doing Sue and I welcomed Jesus, honored Jesus, played with Jesus. After all it was Jesus who said: “whoever welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me.”
In today’s passage in Mark, we see Jesus do something remarkable for a Jewish man living in Israel 2000 years ago. He noticed children. He held children. He played with children. It was quite remarkable because he lived in a day when children were not significant... they were low on the totem pole of life. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, they were more filler than the main event. They were not a priority.
Ancient Palestine had a distinctive pecking order that included the following: the religious authority (righteous), adult men, adult women, Gentiles, the diseased, the sick, the unclean, sinners, criminals and in that mix somewhere came children. They held a certain status according to their category and they knew it, or they soon learned it. But it’s evident from today’s passage that Jesus didn’t subscribe to cultural pecking order of his day. He didn’t hold much regard for the religious authority, but he did show an affinity for children and even infants. On one occasion the disciples tried to apply the pecking order when a group of mothers were bringing their babies to Jesus. The disciples tried to shoo them away because they were doing the important work of the kingdom, but Jesus stopped the disciples in their tracks and told them not to prevent the children from coming to him. The pecking order was out of sync with God’s Kingdom. In fact, he said we all need to become as children to inherit the Kingdom. So Jesus used a child to teach his disciples on two separate occasions: the first had to do with welcoming children into our midst, and the second had to do with settling a dispute over greatness:
Can’t you just hear those disciples arguing over who was greatest?
“Well I have memorized more of Jesus sayings than anybody else.”
“Perhaps, but he always calls on me to pray – he obviously likes my prayers.
“Yea, what about that little miracle I did?”
“Wait a minute. I am the disciple that Jesus loves!”
“Well, I’m the rock on which he will build his church!”
“Hey, we’re the ‘sons of thunder!’”
The assumption is that greatness will determine who gets to be closest to Jesus. So Jesus takes a child in his arms to teach them about greatness.
I think my grandchildren are great, but what makes them so has nothing to do with their performance or their attributes (although grandparents love to brag). It’s not about their reading ability, how high they can count, or how much they’ve grown since last we saw them. What makes them great is simply their capacity to receive love. When we Facetime with them or visit them in person, we shower them with our love and they can receive it and respond back with love in return. And the more we pour our love upon them, the more we receive back.
This is true, of course, not just of our children. Jesus is talking about all the “little ones” in the world – anyone lacking rank or status among us – all those without wealth, educational degree, without title, influence or position, without fame or fortune, prestige or power. They may not have much but they each have the capacity to be loved and to love. And it is love that matters in the kingdom. It is love that brings us close to Jesus – so much so that when we welcome one of these “little ones” we come close to Jesus. So, we are encouraged to welcome and love all the little ones in his name.
Back in late June of this year, a 25-year-old soccer coach in Thailand decided to take his soccer team the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand. The twelve members of the Wild Boars team ages 11-16, traveled three kilometers in and one kilometer down into the cave before becoming trapped by rising water. It had started to rain outside, and water had filled much of the cave’s passageway. For ten days, they were trapped there without food, drink or blankets. Finally, on the tenth day, a diver emerged from the water and was surprised to discover all the boys still alive and in one place. He left after communicating with them briefly, promising to return the next day with food and doctors.
Once found, the whole world watched, waited and prayed for them to find a way to save the boys. Food and clean water were brought in along with blankets and medical help. They took videos of the reunion which were posted on social media, which went viral in no time. The whole world was watching. The USA sent navy seals to help, Elon Musk sent a one-person submarine (which they never used because it couldn’t negotiate the turns... but the gesture was there.) Once the boys had regained some of their strength, they decided to take them out of the cave one by one. They had pumped out as much water as they could, but still the boys would have to swim underwater through parts of the trip and it was expected that about 1/3 of them would likely be lost. They gave them scuba lessons to make them comfortable with wearing a tank and breathing underwater. When the rains began to fall again, they started the evacuation process because it was now or never.
As you know, all twelve boys were rescued from that cave and after some time in hospital, they were returned to their families. One Thai Navy Seal lost his life in that rescue effort and has been honored as a hero for his sacrifice.
Saving those 12 soccer players is probably the good news story of the year. Good news, although the boys and their coach really shouldered much of the blame for the crisis. It was foolish of them to have entered that cave so close to the rainy season! It was foolish of them not to take food and water or warm clothing. It was good news, in spite of the fact that one Navy Seal died in the effort to save them. Good news, why? Because the pictures of those children stuck in that cave pulled at the heart strings of every heart. They were totally and completely helpless children, completely dependent on others (and the grace God) for their wellbeing. So, it was their vulnerability that triggered our love, and our collective prayer was for their being saved.
Jesus identifies so closely with the “little ones” that he says to his disciples: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” To care for a vulnerable, innocent child and to look out for their wellbeing is to care for Christ and his wellbeing. Christ stands in solidarity with little ones.
This week ABC aired an interview of Sally Field by Diane Sawyer. Sally Field has written a new memoir entitled “In Pieces,” which chronicles her long career in acting. In it, she shares pieces of her personal life along the way, and one thing she reveals is that she was sexually abused by her step-father as a child. In the interview, she tells Diane Sawyer: “Child abuse and in particular sexual child abuse is so damaging because it’s so complicated. There isn’t just one feeling.” Diane picks up on that last comment and has her expand upon it. Field says this: “How then do you grow and have any sense of what healthy sexuality is? It is always connected to danger, shame and the loss of self.” So, a corrosive wound formed in Sally Field, compounded by the troubling question, “How much did her mother know?” It took her decades till she had the courage even to ask her.
When we see the vulnerability of children it ought to evoke our collective maternal instincts and make us want to care for them. When someone sees that vulnerability, and takes advantage of it, it is one of the deepest betrayals in all humanity. It steals away their childhood innocence and replaces it with shame, fear and deep confliction. No wonder Jesus aligns himself so closely with children! He’s protecting their very self from attack.
Today we are ordaining some new officers into our church. Remember that one of your jobs as a church leader is to do all you can to make sure the church is a safe place for children to come and be children. So, we must insist on background checks on all people working with children here, we must insist on two adults for every activity or program involving children, and we must commit to be advocates for all children in our midst. We ought to get to know their names, be attentive to their needs, encourage them, and be ever ready to share with them joy of the Lord, because whoever welcomes one of these little ones, welcomes Christ.
And by little ones, he means children yes, but also all in our midst who are vulnerable ‒ the poor, the lost, the lonely, the refugee, the needy, the bullied, the forgotten, the stranger, the outcast. And this includes the vulnerable child within all of us ‒ the part of us that needs comfort, care and assurance of God’s love.
Welcome to this important ministry that is yours, and that is all of ours!