Summary: Christ’s call to be welcoming extends far beyond the young.
There is a clergy colleague of mine in this district who has two sons. I have known these two boys since they were babies, and since moving to Chattanooga, I have enjoyed playing with them on several occasions. Usually when I encounter the two boys, they have their light sabers in hand and are ready to engage in sword fights like most young boys. Recently, my colleague told me of riding in the car with his youngest son, a five-year old who started kindergarten this year. I always enjoy such stories from my friend, as his boys seem to have interesting thoughts and conversations when they are in the car. Well, on this particular occasion, his youngest made this statement, “Dad, I can’t decide if I want to be a rockstar or a construction worker when I grow up.” This seems to be a common dilemma as we grow up, deciding what we want to be when we get big. And for most kids, it changes daily, or at least weekly or monthly. I remember in my early years aspiring to be a doctor or an astronaut. I’m pretty sure archeologist was probably in there somewhere too, along with basketball star. I remember my sister announcing with conviction for years that she wanted to be a cash register. Not a retail clerk, but a cash register because the cash register gets the money!
I’m sure that if we were to take the time today to share with one another all the things we talked about being when we were young and dreaming about growing up; it would probably run the gamut – President, teacher, lawyer, architect, inventor, artist, cook. When we are young, the possibilities are endless. Yet, how many of us when we were young said, “When I grow up, I want to be small.” Now, I’m not talking about being small in stature. I’m talking about being small in power or small in prestige, more like a servant than a master. This is exactly what Jesus was telling his disciples they should aspire after when he pulled the young child into his arms on this occasion and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Today we celebrate here at Grace what this church is doing to welcome the children and youth of our community. Already today we have celebrated with these students as they begin a new school year and start new grades or perhaps even new schools, and we have taken time to share today’s Scripture through a message geared specifically to younger minds; a component which will be back in our services on a regular basis. We mark today the beginning of a revitalized Children’s Sunday School program, which will kick-off next week and teach the story of Daniel throughout the month of September. Youth Sunday School is gearing up again, too. Indeed, we are busy being about the work of welcoming the young in the name of Jesus Christ. But as we mark this milestone today, let us remember that Jesus’ lesson to the disciples extended far beyond welcoming the child.
To understand exactly what Jesus had in mind when he, shall we say, “redirected” the disciples’ conversation about who was the greatest, we must have an understanding of the role of children in Jesus’ time. In the ancient near East, a child was a non-person. This is difficult for us to fully comprehend now because we have come to place great value on childhood and that privileged time of innocence. Yet, when Jesus was in ministry on this earth, children would have rarely been found among a teacher and his disciples. Children stayed with the women, working and serving in the households. They had no standing or influence in the wider, male-dominated society. Children were inconsequential. They were socially invisible. And yet here, with his disciples before him, Jesus puts forth the child as his own “stand-in.” But the child is also a stand-in for a wider social segment of humanity. Jesus’ words to the disciples were not just about welcoming children, but about welcoming all who are socially invisible, all who are inconsequential or marginalized. Jesus is turning the tables on the definition of greatness. The disciples knew that the conversation they were having was inappropriate, and now Jesus is letting them know why. The Kingdom of God is not about greatness and power; it’s about service to the least. Jesus teaches his disciples that the one who is ready to serve someone who can offer nothing in return will be the greatest. When we get big, our desire should be to be small, to be servant at all.
What we celebrate at Grace here today on Christian Education Rally Sunday is only the beginning. The “welcome wagon” is just getting rolling. Even as we mark this noteworthy occasion, let us be reminded that there is still service to be done in this community. For the most part, people will not find their way to Grace on their own. We must invite them. As a general rule, those who walk through the doors of Grace will already be believers. I was thinking this week about the fact that probably most of the people who visit in churches already hold at least some belief in God as Lord of their lives. But what about the people who have never heard the name Jesus Christ; those who do not believe in a creating God whose hand is still at work in his creation? What about those in this community to whom the Gospel is a completely foreign concept? These things will not change, lives will not be transformed, unless we are making intentional efforts to reach out in the name of Christ and welcome those around us who may not have the same belief system as us. Surrounding us in these neighborhoods up and down the northern stretches of Hixson Pike are people who struggle in the midst of lives that are inconsistent with God’s will for our lives. The message of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love brings with it the key to looking ahead and shaping lives that are fruitful and blessed. But this Word will not spread itself. We must share with all the good news of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again to new life; a new life that is now offered to all in love.