James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A child in the first century Mediterranean world is a nobody. A child’s life is characterized by a complete lack of rights and lack of legal status. It is quite the opposite of how we welcome children in our Western world in the 21st century. Children have rights, and for those who have children in their lives, they are at the center of attention.It is difficult to imagine really what it would have meant to be a child in the first century. No rights and no status does not mean that parents did not love and cherish their children, that they didn’t rejoice in them, care for them, tell stories, teach them and pass on family traditions. Children just were not a consideration, certainly not the focus of anyone’s attention, not even marginally. They were there, and at the same time weren’t there at all.
Jesus makes such a no-body the focus of attention. He takes a child and places him/places her in the middle of the teaching circle that he had formed around him. Everyone sees the child now. He reaches over and takes the child in his arms. He holds the child, a no-body, warm, maybe wiggly or pulling away, a physical touch. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. – And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Sisters and brothers, when we welcome Jesus into our midst, when we welcome Jesus’ presence among us, – that is when sacrament happens. The mix of word, sign and promise. Water, bread, wine. Sins forgiven, body given for you, blood shed for you. Word, sign, promise. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
I am not proposing a new sacrament, but think about it, that is scandalous news!, that whoever welcomes the unseen no-rights-possessing-one, welcomes Jesus, and with Jesus God. – And it isn’t meant to be just an idea, a concept of mind, but physical, – body, skin, hair, character, the real stuff of life.
Jesus makes the unseen, no-rights-possessing-yet-real-person-nobody a parable for us. Jesus takes the child into his arms for us to understand what his death and resurrection means. That is knocking-it-out-of-the-park good news for every single person who was ever told that they are nothing, that they count nothing, that they are a piece of dirt, that they have no voice, no rights, no outlook, no future. The parable of the child is the good news for all women and men and youth and children who ever were denied their humanity.
We have no idea how many women, men, youth and children around us and in our midst suffer silently. Centuries of conditioning by a patriarchal and hierarchical way of life have told us that it is better to keep quiet. The reasons for that are many: we are made to believe that what wages and rages within us is our own fault; or, we watch what happens to those who come out and tell the truth, – they are not believed, they are dragged all over social media, the news, justice is rarely attained. So, it still seems best to keep quiet and remain half dead by the side of the road.
Whoever welcomes one such person in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
Dear sisters and brothers, do you hear, do you get how powerful this welcome sentence is? Jesus is truly scandalous. We still live a patriarchal, hierarchical way of life, and there are countless people who experience for themselves that they are a no-body.
Welcome, Jesus says; welcome, the church is called to say, you are truly welcome in our midst.
It may sound as if I am mostly referencing abuse against women, and, yes, that is what I am talking about. Women need no longer suffer silently. But I am not only talking about women, men, girls, boys, people of all genders and sexual orientation who have been harassed, abused, or denied their humanity.
I mean anyone who is falsely accused and not believed, and thereby made a no-body whose voice just doesn’t count. People get silenced in a thousand ways. People are mobbed, accused of crime they did not commit and forced to suffer legal and emotional consequences. In families children absorb the trouble of their parents and never find their own voice. Whole groups of people, natives in about every continent have been extinguished and their memory cut off from the land of the living.
In everyone who is denied their voice, their trustworthiness, their dignity, their God-given humanity, their existence, in everyone who we welcome in our midst and hear them, is the sacramental presence of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. Real presence. We remember, it is Christ’s real presence that gives us life, and hope and healing.
Christ’s healing and hope is for both, those whom Christ takes in his arms as well as for those who form the circle around them. Together in the circle of Christ’s presence can we confess our shame that we still work and think in the categories of first and last. I am not sure if we will ever be able to come up with ways of ordering our lives without hierarchy, without top down, without patriarchy. But we can talk together, we can address it. We can make changes.
Our church, the ELCA, is preparing a new social statement on women and justice, to be voted on next summer at the churchwide assembly. The work on it started in 2009, almost 10 years ago now. It includes now not only concerns of women but of persons of all genders and identities. We are turning in our comments this week for the final drafting before next year’s assembly.
Dear sisters and brothers, the parable of Jesus taking a child into his arms in the middle of the circle of disciples is the best news ever. It is powerful, encouraging, liberating, voice-giving. The life-giving meaning of cross and resurrection becomes so clear now. Reason to rejoice and sing alleluia as beloved children of God in Jesus’ arms.
All the while, the circle of disciples, the church, the body of Christ is charged and challenged to be the circle in which crucified and risen Christ can be welcome. We have to continually work to be trustworthy, open, caring. Aware of our built-in human tendencies to care more for ourselves and for the rules of who comes first, second, third, – and last.
The good part is that the promise of Jesus’ real presence gives voice not only to those who are restored as beloved children of God but to the whole circle itself. Loved and forgiven we, all together, form the body of Christ, and assemble around the table. We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, we see each other across the table, and praise the name of God, for it is good.