The other day on television, I was watching a reality cooking show called the Rachel Ray’s Kids Cook Off. All of these 11 and 12 year olds are competing to win the chance to do an on-line cooking show and win money that will be put away as a scholarship to cooking school when they are old enough. Seeing what these young chefs come up with is impressive and they are precious and funny and smart…but what really catches my attention is how the kids treat each other. They help each other out, sharing ingredients and cheering each other on. When one of them is eliminated, the others offered comforting words.
In addition to being just plain fun, it was great to see the intelligence, sincerity, enthusiasm, and kindness of these children. And yet, it is not for any of these attributes that Jesus took a little child in his arms and said to his disciples “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
In that day and time, children were the invisible ones, the worthless ones, the ones who had no standing at all. When we heard the telling of the feeding of the 5,000, for example, children were not even included in the count. It makes me wonder who Jesus might pull into the midst of his followers today. Who is invisible? Who has been deemed worthless? Who is without standing?
Sometimes, it might be a child. This past week, a Texas high school student Ahmed Mohamed made headlines. The 15-year old Muslim boy, who wants to be an engineer some day, had spent the past weekend building a clock out of a pencil case. When he brought his electronics to school to show to his teacher at MacArthur High School, there was panic and he was arrested for building a fake bomb, alleged for perpetrating a terrorist hoax. “I felt like I was a criminal,” the teenager said. “I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called. Just because of my race and my religion.” In the matter of days, Mohamed’s face and name moved like wildfire across traditional media and social media channels alike. The young man is pictured wearing a NASA T-shirt, handcuffed and being led out of school.
Surely, Jesus would put someone like this in front of us. Someone of whom we are afraid. Someone who seems alien. Someone who represents a part of society that might be marginalized. It might be someone who is homeless. It might be someone suffering from mental illness. It might be someone from another race or culture or someone who speaks a different language. It might be someone from a different religion or political party or world view. It would definitely be someone who is totally at the mercy of someone more powerful than themselves.
The call, when we encounter one of these people is a single word: Welcome. Jesus said: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, In it’s essence, this word welcome has a spirit of gladness and enthusiasm in it. It implies a willingness to make an effort to understand the needs and comfort of the other and to provide for that comfort. It also implies that, as the welcomer, we in some way are acting as stewards, understanding that we are at home in this world—and have then an obligation to be hospitable to those who arrive, even if they are unknown or unexpected.
Our world is full of these opportunities, both far away and near. Earlier this month, Pope Francis asked every parish in Europe to adopt a refugee family to address the huge influx of immigrants and refugees fleeing homes filled with poverty and war in their own countries. Speaking to reporters as he was leaving on a trip to Cuba yesterday, Francis reflected on an encounter he had had with one family of Syrian refugees that had touched him deeply. He said “the world is thirsty for peace.” He implored the press to use their voices to build bridges. “A small bridge, then another, then another make a great bridge for peace,” Francis said.
Here in the U.S.,Mohamed—the young science student I mentioned earlier—also received his welcome from a variety of caring people. The engineering geek community banded together to defend him. Leaders at Reddit and Twitter offered him internships. Google executives offered him a place in their science fair, and MIT invited him for a campus visit. And Facebook founder creator Mark Zuckerberg also issued an invitation to company headquarters—saying in his post: “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed.”
It is heartening when people who have power and influence step outside their comfort zone and use their influence to demonstrate the strength of conviction and a willingness to welcome and empower those who have no power.
At the same time, there is so much going on in the world, so many strangers, so many opportunities to welcome. How do we know where to put our limited resources toward the best and most profound kind of welcome, the opportunity to reach out and welcome Christ himself? We struggle with this as a community, I know. At our Outreach meetings, we have found many worthwhile causes both in our own backyard and around the world. Individually, we are given a similar wealth of opportunities and we need to work toward discerning which are the ones that need the welcome we have to offer. Where can we have the most influence?
This may be where the “gentleness born of wisdom” that James spoke about in his letter comes in. James said: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Wisdom, though, is an odd sort of thing. It’s not something that is easily defined. Rather, it is something that we know when we see… that we trust with the deepest part of ourselves because we recognize it as something that is born of experience and grace that have been brought together. Writer Marcel Proust explained it this way: “We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us.”
Proust had it right in that we are each called to our own wisdom and our own discernment. At the same time, as we gather in community, we are helping each other in discernment and encouraging each other to grow in wisdom. We are creating a culture of welcome that eschews fear and helps us to recognize the children of God that of Jesus puts in our midsts. We are building a world that makes room for all kinds of people and all kinds of experience. We are inviting an important conversation to start in our world, a conversation that always starts with the same question: Who will we welcome today?
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Church of the Epiphany, San Carlos, on Sunday, September 20, 2015.