Monday, September 21, 2015

Welcoming the little ones

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  St. Mark 9:37

“We’re taking a bit of a chance on him,” the headmaster told me, “It will probably be a tough adjustment.  Make sure you keep an eye on him.”  Joey, let us call him, was one of the students assigned to my advisory group at Saint James School.  We classed him as a tenth grader, but he had been in and out of so many schools over the past few years that it was hard to tell where he actually belonged.  My first impression was that Joey was a nice enough kid, but he couldn’t really understand social cues.  He laughed at things that weren’t funny, and he had trouble following a conversation.  He seemed extremely nervous, shell-shocked almost, always fretting about whether he would be able to remember when this class met, or what he was supposed to wear for football practice.

Saint James is definitely a college preparatory boarding school.  We didn’t really have what are termed, in the trade “second chance students.”  The schedule was tight and there were lots of things to remember, and we left students to supervise themselves a fair amount of the time. 

I did watch out for Joey, though, and I could soon tell that he needed it.  Nothing seemed to go right for him.  He soon fell far behind in his classes.  He was danger in hurting himself and everyone else on the football field.  His backpack was like the Bermuda Triangle—things went in there, and never seemed to come out again in one piece.  And for much of the time, he was an emotional wreck, breaking down in tears or blurting out inappropriate things in class almost every other day. I met with the assistant head of school and looked at his file, quite a few pages of assorted psychological disorders, lots of meds, a broken home.  The kid pretty much had everything stacked against him, and the results we were seeing seemed to fit well into what could be expected.

And then, about three weeks into the term, things began to change for Joey.  He was still failing most of his classes, and he was still disorganized and all the rest of it, but he seemed to always be smiling.  One day, he confided his secret to me, “I have a friend—not just one, but a couple of friends.”  This was the best school he’d ever seen, he said.  Because at Saint James, people didn’t call him names or beat him up behind the locker room when the adults weren’t looking. They talked to him about ordinary stuff, played video games with him.  One kid had actually invited him to go home for the weekend for a sleepover.  Joey was 16 years old, but he’d never been on a sleepover. 

Later that day, I talked to Grant, the boy who had asked him over to his house.  Grant was a good athlete, one of the most popular kids in the ninth grade.  The girls all loved his curly black hair.  He could have made Joey’s life a living hell—he had that kind of social power.  But instead, he decided to fill Joey’s life with joy.  I thanked Grant for taking an interest in him and asked him about the sleepover.  “Yea, he said, I’ll think it’ll be fun.  I mean, he’s a little goofy in the head and all, but once you get to know him, he’s not a bad kid.  And anyway, it’s the sort of thing you are supposed to do, isn’t it.”

I was proud of my students when they won the football title and when they got into Ivy League colleges, when they put on those wonderful musicals in the spring.  But I don’t know if I was ever so proud of one of them for anything as much as I was proud of Grant for taking Joey home for the weekend.  “It’s the sort of thing you are supposed to do”—yes he was right, but how seldom do people really do that sort of thing?  How seldom do they really treat the weak and the vulnerable with dignity?   How seldom do they look past the faults that everyone else can see to the person that lies behind?  How seldom to they welcome the little child in the Name of Christ.

Grant, you see, wasn’t just popular and handsome and strong.  He was also one of my best acolytes.  He was in the chapel for services 6-8 times a week.  He had grown up going to Sunday School every Sunday. He knew he was a Christian, and he knew what a Christian was supposed to do.  Along the way Grant had internalized the message that Jesus explained to the apostles so vividly when he drew a little child into their midst: the test of your fidelity to me is the way you treat the most vulnerable.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” 

Jesus called us to the lowly in response to a dispute among his disciples about who was the greatest.  He had told them twice now that he, their king, would be rejected and crucified.  But the disciples just can’t get the idea of a worldly kingdom based on violence and ambition and envy out of their mind.  For them, a kingdom meant grades and ranks and classes to fill.  The apostles wanted to be at the top of the heap, catapulted from obscurity to hobnobbing with the rich and famous. 

You don’t get it, Jesus says.  Whoever wants to be first in my kingdom must be last of all, the servant of all.  The first must be one like me, who pours His life out for you, who gives up all the glory of heaven to take the form of a servant.  You shouldn’t be worrying about how well you will fit in with the high and mighty, but how you can nurture the weak and lowly. 

To demonstrate his point, Jesus pulls a child into their little conclave.  It’s the way you treat one of these little children that will show how truly you want to follow me.  Ancient Palestine was not a world that swooned over the cuteness of children.  There were no clever kids’ sayings email forwards.  In Jesus’ time only about half of children lived to adulthood, and infanticide was a widespread practice in Roman society.  To be sure, many parents must have been tender and affectionate toward their own children, but children had no social standing and little protection.  They were often treated as nuisances, unable to pull their weight. 

You need to take the people whom no one else wants, Jesus is saying.   You must receive them “in my Name:” for my sake, seeing me in them.  Jesus, the one rejected by His friends, the one ridiculed by the crowds, the one who suffered unjustly, without anyone to come to his defense—that’s who you should be looking for when you gaze into the eyes of those forgotten and rejected by the world.

In the rigid societies of the ancient world, this teaching of Jesus was among the most noticed, the most condemned and the most liberating.  The Greek philosopher Celsus sneered in the second century, Wherever one finds a crowd of adolescent boys, or a bunch of slaves, or a company of fools, there will the Christian teachers be also.”[1]  That great modern religious philosopher, Jesse the Body Ventura, was, you see, in good company when he claimed a few years ago that Christianity was a religion for weaklings.  The Church has long been a place open to all comers, like Robert Frost’s home, “that place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”[2]

Almost every church I know has folks who are deeply involved in its life who don’t really fit in anywhere else.  They are just a bit too awkward, or to eccentric, or they have a few too many needs.    But in the Church, at least when we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we welcome them in, we befriend them, claim them as one of our own.   We hope of course, that they will grow in the life of grace, and sometimes we’ll need to intervene and keep them from harming themselves and others.  But it’s crucial that we swing the door as wide open as it goes, so that we are ready to seek for Jesus just where he promised we would find him, among the people no one else wants. 

Here at Saint Timothy’s, I’m finding that you really get this.  The sign out along road says “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” and you’re putting that into practice in all kinds of ways.  Children are welcomed here, and no one scowls when a baby cries or a toddler wiggles under the pew.  Many of you have told me that you came here and stayed here because the people were so kind to you.  They remembered your name and helped you find a way to use your gifts. 

You had an outstanding model for this in your former rector.  In the few weeks that I worked with him, I was so impressed by the ways that Father Brad went out of his way to provide pastoral care to some very vulnerable and broken people.   As those of you who staff the food table will know, this is a place where the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill are received with respect and compassion.  There are people all over this town whose life has been one rejection after another, who have been kicked around by the system, who are truly the little ones of our place and time.  And this church is their sanctuary.  Here they have found something unique, an outpouring of love in the Name of Jesus Christ.

This is a rare and precious thing in a world like ours.   So many seem anxious to build higher walls these days, so we don’t have to think about those who are suffering.  We hear such crude and unsympathetic rhetoric used to speak of the vulnerable.  These are times when the Hungarian prime minister claims to be defending his country’s Christian heritage by spending millions on razor wire to keep out refugees fleeing for their lives.  Presidential candidates who claim to revere the Bible announce their plans to deport millions of our hardworking undocumented neighbors and friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ.  There is such fear and anger all around us, and Christ sends us out to counter it with love, by seeking out and welcoming those people whom the world is so quick to reject.

This will not, of course, be easy.  Jesus isn’t looking for armchair activists, and you don’t really welcome the vulnerable by merely spouting slogans about tolerance and inclusion.  You have to go to people like Joey, that former student of mine, the awkward, demanding, needy people that God has put right in the middle of your life. You will know who they are unless you’ve already decided to ignore them.  Welcome that person into your life.  Remember that he or she is Jesus for you, in this time and place.  He has promised to hide Himself in them.  Share with them the love they’ve been looking for and never finding for so very long.  And then, you see if the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t change people’s lives.

[1] qtd. in Origen, Against Celsus, 3.55.
[2] Frost, Robert.  “The Death of the Hired Man.”

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