Practice, practice, practice

Preached on 23 September 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 20, Thematic Track

Have you ever heard a kid boasting to their sibling, “Mom like me best!” or maybe you were that kid?  Or a child whining, “You always get away with things because you’re the favorite!”

One of my brother’s favorite taunts was, “I was here first.”  And sometimes he would add that our parents found me on the porch; that I wasn’t really part of the family.

It doesn’t end when we become adults, though; plenty of adult siblings still play out the old rivalries.  Nor is it restricted to the family.  Oh no, it extends to classrooms and playgrounds and workplaces.  We do love to rank things and rank each other.  It must be human nature.  Who’s better?  Who’s more important?

The church is not immune to this phenomenon, either.  We love to measure and rank ourselves, too.  We measure the “success” of the church by Sunday attendance (yes, we do count), by how many members we have, the number of pledges, the average pledge, the total budget, how many people participate in various programs, and so on.

We categorize churches as family size or pastoral size or program size.  Somehow, we almost always think we should be bigger or “better” or “greater” than we are.  We sometimes focus so much on the numbers that we forget about People and Relationships.

Even the disciples.  Jesus just told them, for the second time, that he is going to die – that he will be handed over to the authorities and they will kill him and that after three days, he will rise.  They don’t understand, but do they ask?  No, they start squabbling amongst themselves about who’s the best.
The best or greatest what, I wonder?

Jesus ignores them, until they get to Capernaum, where they’ll spend the night, presumably.  There, he calls them out, “What were you arguing about?”   Then he turns it completely upside down.  If you want to be first, you must be last; you must be servant of all.”  And lest they all race to the back of the line, so to speak, he clarifies.

“Whoever welcomes a child, or one such as this, in my name, welcomes me,” he says, “and whoever welcomes me, welcomes God.”  What’s important is relationship, not rank.  Life is not a competition, but relationship.  We are invited to deeper relationship with God through each other and especially with those among us who are “such as this child.”

Who is that?  Who are “the ones such as these” among us?  I would think they include anyone who is vulnerable, dependent on others, perhaps less knowledgeable, less skilled, less mature.  When I think of the qualities of a child I think of openness, loving, close to God, in some ways.

And it includes, of course, actual children.  Children are as much a part of the Body of Christ as you and I.   They are not becoming part of the Body; they are not the future of the Church.  They are the present of the Church.  And what a gift they are.

The other part of Jesus’ statement raises the question, what does it mean to welcome them?  Do you think Jesus means that we need to train them to be just like us?
Or maybe he means that we need to learn to be a bit more like them in some ways.

We can recognize that we, too, are vulnerable, dependent, not as mature as we like to think we are.  We can learn to be more open, loving, and close to God.   Welcoming the child, welcoming one such as this child in the name of Christ, is about loving, nurturing, caring for, and building up.  It’s giving of ourselves, and at the same time being open to what they have to share with us.

We welcome the children because God so graciously welcomes us week by week, day by day, hour by hour into God’s unbounded love, welcomes us to this table, this banquet, welcomes into the very body and life of God’s son Jesus Christ.

At every baptism, the congregation vows “to do everything in your power to support this person in their life in Christ.”  That means that we vow to help and encourage them to fulfill their own baptismal vows.

The first baptismal vow is to worship with our community of faith.  We welcome them, the children, in our worship; not we welcome them if they can understand it, or if they can behave like miniature adults.  We welcome them as children.

We seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially in the children, especially in those who are vulnerable, at risk, those who are on the edge because of health or poverty or emotional or spiritual pain; and we allow Christ to shine through us.

It’s not just while we’re in the building, either.  I think Jesus means it about our whole lives.  It’s in the neighborhood, the city, the whole country, even.

You know, in a way, I think we come here, to church, each week to practice our baptismal vows. We practice here so we are equipped and ready to live them when we leave.
We practice:

  • Seeing each other, first, as people, as fellow children of God.
  • Seeking and serving Christ in one another.
  • Breaking bread together, sharing a meal, and by
  • Praying with each other and for each other; praying for one another’s needs and concerns, giving thanks for our blessings, and celebrating our joys.

All this, regardless of education level, economic or social status, political opinions or affiliations, age or sex or race or physical ability.  We come together, as children of God and practice being followers of Christ so that we can go from here and do likewise in the world God calls us to:  See those we meet first as people; as children of God, seek Christ in them and serve; break bread with them, even if we disagree.  We strive for justice and we persevere in resisting evil.

We welcome the children, the vulnerable, those who are dependent (and in truth, we all are), those who need protection and safety, not only in this space, but in our neighborhood, in our community, and in our nation.

Because that’s what the gospel demands of us; because that’s what it means to follow Christ.

And so, we come back here to practice, to learn from Christ how to be the Body of Christ.