A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, September 20, 2021

Sermon (Sept. 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    Penny has me hooked on watching house shows. We love watching how designers are able to take an existing home and create more living space for the people who live there.       

     Sometimes they will do this by removing a wall to open up the room or repurposing a corner in the house where there is a lot of wasted space. And the best part of these shows is the look on their faces when they have the big reveal. A lot of times, we fast forward through a lot of the show just to get that part.

     You’ve heard of the phrase, “I need some space.” We all need space. We all need enough room where we don’t feel crowded. There is something about getting rid of the clutter in our lives to help us feel more at peace. 

     Jesus was incredible at creating space for people. I think this is why people were so drawn to him. He was able to make room for them.

     In our Gospel reading for today, we have another example of Jesus creating space for people, this time for children. And I love how Mark sets up this story. Just before this story of Jesus welcoming the children, we have the story of the disciples arguing with each other about who was the greatest. 

     This is that classic example of adults acting like children. The disciples were arguing with each other about who is more important.

     This ties in with our James New Testament reading where James asks the question, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” I can’t help but to wonder if this is the same James, the disciple who was in that same group arguing about who was the greatest. My hunch is that James was speaking from his own experience.

     After Jesus calls the disciples out on being so childish, instead of giving them a lecture about what it means to be one of his disciples, he does a little visible demonstration instead. Jesus takes a little child to his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

     That’s an interesting word that Jesus uses here. “Welcome.”  In the original Greek, the word, “welcome” refers to exactly what Jesus was doing here, providing space for someone, in this case a little child. 

     Think of a grandparent hugging their grandchild for the first time after several months of being separated because of the pandemic. Think of parents hugging their son or daughter after they have been away at college for several months. This is the kind of genuine, authentic welcome that Jesus means when he uses the word, “welcome.”

     In all my years serving as pastor, I have never heard people in a church say that they are not a welcoming church. And that’s probably true. Most churches are welcoming. OK, there might be a few out there who really aren’t, but for the most part, I do think that churches are welcoming.

     But do we really welcome in the way that Jesus means here? This scripture has led me to rethink what it means for us to be a welcoming church. If welcoming means that we join Jesus in giving space for people to have enough room to feel safe and grow, that takes it to a much more meaningful level. 

     To be a disciple of Jesus means that we create space for others. Jesus is showing us that being a disciple is closely associated with being welcoming of others. When we create space for others, we are giving people room to grow and flourish. 

       I love our Call to Worship this morning that is based on Psalm 1. The psalmist says, “Happy are those who follow God. They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season.”

     That’s a great image of what we are called to do for others. Create space for others so that together, we can flourish and grow in our faith.

     Every now and then, Mindy, our custodian will take me on a landscaping tour around our church building. She’ll offer suggestions on what we might do to provide more space for some of our plants and bushes. 

     If we think that moving a plant to another area around the building would provide more space, we also need to think about how much sunlight that plant will need. There’s a lot that goes on when thinking about how we can help plants to grow and flourish. Psalm 1 is reminding us that we too need to be planted where we can grow in our faith. 

     All of this is to say that this story of Jesus welcoming a child is is a story of creating space for others. It’s what it means for us to be Jesus’ disciples. It’s what it means for us to be a welcoming church.

     Three weeks ago, we hosted Trey Pearson’s Safe Space tour. 

[Trey Pearson singing during worship on August 29.]

     Trey was the lead singer for a popular Christian rock band that had a huge following and was known world-wide. When he came out as gay five years ago, sponsoring groups canceled his concerts including a concert that was supposed to be held here in Athens around that time when he publicly came out. 

     Since that time, we have invited Trey to sing in our church and share his testimony with us. The first time was in February of 2016 and the second time was just a couple of weeks ago. In Trey’s own words, his safe space tour and his safe space Facebook page are places for LGBTQ persons and allies to talk about their journeys, and to be vulnerable with their stories and their questions without fear of judgment. Whether from a religious background or not, these safe spaces are dedicated so that people can share their journey and where all are welcome.”

     And by the way, his Facebook Safe Space page has almost five thousand members. It’s that last part of his description that stands out for me. “Where all are welcome.”

     In Jesus’ day, children were viewed as nuisances. They were marginalized. And sadly, even today, children are not always shown love and nurture. But this was especially true in Jesus’ day, since he was living in a Roman/Greco culture where the treatment of children was very cruel by our standards today.

     So when Jesus took a child into his arms in order to demonstrate to the disciples what it means to be welcoming, his point would have been well taken. Being welcome is about giving space to people who have not been given the space they need and deserve to help them to be who God has called them to be. 

     Jesus’ inclusive love for all was demonstrated in so many ways throughout his ministry. Jesus’ own Safe Space tour took him to many places where people didn’t feel welcomed.

     Jesus offers us example after example in how he welcomed all people and shared God’s unconditional love with them. Just here in Mark’s Gospel alone, in the chapters preceding today’s reading, the first thing Jesus does is he calls on a bunch of common fisherman to become his disciples. He welcomed them.

     He then heals a man with an unclean spirit, a woman sick with a fever, a leper, and a paralytic man. He welcomed them.

     He ate dinner with people who were considered sinners and unworthy to be included in God’s family. He welcomed them.

     He healed another man who had a withered hand and he did this on the Sabbath which was considered a major religious violation. He healed many others as well. He welcomed them.

     When his mother and brothers were calling for him, he looked at the crowd and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” He welcomed them.

     When the disciples were caught in a storm and they thought the boat was going to sink, he calmed the storm and saved them by saying, “Peace, be still.” He welcomed them.

     When they made it to the other side of the lake, he then healed a man who had an unclean spirit, healed a young girl who was near death, and restored a woman who had been sick for twelve years. He welcomed them.

     He fed a large crowd of people with just five loaves and two fish and even had twelve baskets of leftovers. He welcomed them.

     I’m now in chapter 6 where Mark tells us in his own words, “And wherever he went, into villages or cities, or farms, they laid the sick in the market places and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak and all who touched it were healed.” He welcomed them.

    A non-Jewish woman came to him begging to heal her daughter and Jesus healed her and then he healed a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. When he was healed, he said, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” He welcomed them.

     Where are we?  Oh, yes. Chapter eight. Once again, he feeds another great crowd of people with a little bit of bread and some fish, and this time there were seven baskets of leftovers. Jesus welcomed them. 

     Hey, we’re finally in chapter 9! He invites some of his disciple to follow him up a mountain and they watched the most incredible thing where he, along with Moses and Elijah, those two ancient figures from the Old Testament, mysteriously appear and are transfigured with Jesus right there in front of those disciples, a glimpse of heaven they would never forget! He welcomed them.

     Just barely down from the mountain, he heals a man’s son who was unable to speak since childhood. He welcomed them.

     And this brings us to today’s story. Let me catch my breath.Taking a child into his arms, Jesus tells his bickering disciples, “Whoever welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” He welcomed them.

     Jesus’ welcomed everyone throughout his ministry and he calls us to be welcoming as well.

     Last winter, someone who was new to our church sent me this wonderful reason why she and her husband enjoy coming here. It has stayed with me ever since. 

     She wrote, “Thank you for helping to create a space for us.”

     And my response to her was… “You are welcome.”

You are Welcome!

Sermon Discussion Questions
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a & Mark 9:30-37
September 19, 2021

In our Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus “welcomed” the children. In the Greek language, the word, “welcome” refers to creating space for others.

What kinds of “space” do you think people need? What do you think people mean when they say, “I need some space?”

Jesus’ ministry was about “creating space” for others. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we have been reading how Jesus welcomed others through his teachings, his healings, and by his very presence with others. 

What kind of “space” does Jesus create for us? How have we felt welcomed by Jesus?

Our Psalm for this week talks about being planted by streams of water which leads to the yielding of fruit. Just like plants need space to grow, we also need space to be the people God has called us to be. Singer, Trey Pearson who recently sang at our church began a ministry called the Safe Space Tour which provides an opportunity for people in the LGBTQ community to feel welcomed and not judged. 

What are some ways that we can create space for others, especially those who feel isolated and judged by society?

In our James scripture reading, he talks about “conflicts and disputes” that occur between people. It’s unclear if this is the same “James” who we read about in today’s Gospel. The disciple, James and his brother, John were seeking power in Jesus’ kingdom. This leads Jesus to welcome the children. It was a lesson of humility and of creating space for others. Children in the Greco/Roman world were seen as dispensable and were often ignored in society. 

In what ways, can we join Jesus in welcoming and creating space for children? 

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