When I first read this text, I couldn’t help but think that it is the perfect text for this time of year. Weeks ago schools all over welcomed children back for another year of learn. Just last we started our own Sunday school and welcomed the children what a drastic change from the Jesus we’ve had the past two Sundays. And today Jesus says, “Welcome the children! Bring in the children. When you welcome them, you welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome God.” It is so perfect. It is so peaceful. It is the Kodak moment, in which picture Jesus holding the children in the palm of his hand, and then we plaster it on church bulletins everywhere.
But if I am being honest, I can’t help but wonder if this is what Jesus really meant. I cannot help but wonder if we still have a Jesus who offends us and makes us uncomfortable. Two weeks ago, Jesus tells the Syrophoenician woman that she and other foreigners are like dogs, undeserving of the gifts from God’s table. Then Jesus calls Peter Satan and tells him to get out of his way. But is Jesus really telling us today to welcome the peaceful, innocent children or is he saying something different.
Children today are a symbol of life, and happiness. The ideal Christian family with well-mannered, pig-tailed children running around the house. You can see this all over. News networks lit up this week when a young dad caught a foul ball at a baseball game, handed to his daughter and what does she do? She throws it back over the upperdeck railing. It was funny, it was cute. The father gave his daughter a big hug and told her that it was okay. And the news just ate it up. If a politician or celebrity wants portray their sensitive, gentle side, what do they do? They film them with their children at home, taking a walk, or playing in a park. Today, children are a sign of joy and gentleness. And it is easy to see how we get that picture on front of your bulletin of gentle Jesus holding and lifting up the cute children. But our text today gives us three images of children that tell a different story.
The first image actually from the verses just before our text today, where we hear the story of a young boy possessed by a Spirit. The disciples and Jesus come down from their high, mountaintop experience, only to be thrust into the stark darkness of a boy possessed with a Spirit. A boy so possessed that his own body thrusts him into fires and lakes. Now Jesus is the only one who can cast out this demon, and listen to what he. He says, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” This child has been kept from speaking and hearing. This first image of a child is of one who has been silenced and stuffed away. One whose voice and right to speak have been taken away from them.
The second image of a child come when Jesus and the disciples tip-toe their way through Galilee. Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that the Son of Man, will be betrayed. Thrust into human hands and killed. The Son, the child, will be betrayed and killed. This second image of a child is of one who has been rejected and put to death.
Finally, the third image of a child comes, once Jesus and company have traveled to Capernaum. Jesus huddles the team up in a small room of a house, and he says to them, “You want to be the greatest? You want to be at the top? Well, chew on this. In order to be first you must be last. You must become servant of all.” And then he reaches down, picks up a little, dirty, squirming child and says, “If you welcome the child, you welcome not just me, but you welcome God.” This third image of a child is of one is last, who is slaving servant to all, waiting at the hands and feet of its masters.
So is this story about our sweet Jesus who teaches us to love the sweet children? I don’t think so, because the text tells us that the children represent something different. They represent those who have been kept from silenced and hidden from society. Those who have been betrayed into human hands and killed. Those who are last and servants of all. They are the socially invisible. Dismissed. Lowly. Weak. Vulnerable. Those without status.
Among his disciples Jesus places the the nobody and he says, “Here I am. You welcome this child, this reject, you welcome me. You welcome me, you welcome God.” It was offensive then and it is offensive today. Because what does this mean for the life that God is calling us into? This turns our world upside down. Our society does not operate like this, by welcoming the lowly and forgotten. Our society operate by standing on them, with what I would call the “pig pile” mentality. Do you remember what a pig pile is. This when playful kids or a celebrating sports team piles up on top of one another. Now, if you have ever experienced this or witnessed it, you know exactly which is the last place you want to be. On the bottom. You have the weight of everyone on top of you and, though done in good fun, it can be suffocating. Our society operates as a pig pile feeding on the denigration of human life. A pyramid scheme if you will, where we all are fighting to get to the top because we certainly do not want to be crushed at the bottom. The disciples know this; they had it back then too. Why else would they argue about who is greatest? Because they are trying win each other over and be the greatest at the top of the pig pile.
Today, advertisement after advertisement, commercial after commercial, tells us that we have yet to reach the top. If you have this one last item, if you lose just 10 more pounds, if you can get one more promotion, then you will have reached the top. Then you will be complete and you will have made it. So this idea that we welcome the lowly and diseased is not something we are interested in, because we just trying to get to the top ourselves.
The only problem is that there is not much “at the top” and, once you are there, there is only one direction left to go. The few who have gotten there or close will tell us this if we listen closely. In 2001, David Duval, a professional golfer, won the British Open, his first and only major championship. After all was said and done, trophy has been presented, check handed out, he whispered to his caddy, “You know, I thought it would feel better than this.” Actor Matthew Fox, of the hit TV show LOST, said that next year he is going to take a break from acting, because he doesn’t want to miss any more of his kids lives than he already has.
Our system forces us to climb over one another, pushing and clawing to be on top in order to achieve an unknown and ultimately absent goal. There is nothing at the top. In contrast, God actually invites us down and towards the bottom of the pig pile – into the most God-forsaken place where the forgotten, the invisible and disgraced reside. And God says, “Come find me there.”
God invites us, begs us, pleads with us to welcome those at the bottom, those who are suffocating because in the end don’t we all end up there anyways? Don’t we all eventually fall from the top? Towns are tearing each other apart over who deserves health care. Churches everywhere are deathly afraid that their endowment is running out and they won’t turn things around in time. Don’t we fall from the top when we slowly realize that our marriage isn’t what it used to be. Or when we realize that our deteriorating health forces us to now depend more on our children than they do on us. We are dying in ways that are known, but primarily unknown to those around us. God invites us into joining those at the bottom, because let’s face it, we are already there.
And so God does not tell us to welcome those at the top, because the top is not real. The top is just a figment of our imagination that we keep fighting each other over. The top is not real, cancer is real. Life behind bars is real. Staggering financial debt is real. And God wants us to be real. God wants us to come down from the top and to take off our masks. And the beautiful thing is that God promises to meet us there.
Jesus says, “when you welcome one such as this, one who is suffering and suffocating, you welcome not just me, but you welcome the one who sent me.” God promises to meet us right here in our suffering. When are willing to come down, take off our masks, and join each other in it and only then will those God-forsaken places at the bottom of the pile become God-forsaken no more. AMEN.