September 19, 2021 - Proper 20 (17th Sunday after Pentecost)
The other day when Brian and I picked up Zak from after school care, I was reminiscing back to grade school. Zak’s class was marching from the play room back to the classroom, and one of his classmates got picked to be the line leader. I was thinking about how in second grade, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we all raced to our spots in the line to go back inside. Truly, the race was useless, because no matter who lined up at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. Luckily, I was in the middle of the alphabet, but I always felt badly for Michael Zygmunt. I’m sure he would have given anything to be at the very front of the line. Every day, he lined up with twenty-some heads in front of him, and no one was worse off than him.
Then, one day, suddenly, the teacher challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one glorious day, Michael stood at the front of the line. No one obstructed his view of the doors.
Standing at the front of the line feels good, and the benefits are innumerable. Being in front means that the tickets aren’t sold out. The celebrity hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The bathroom stalls remain unoccupied. The great casserole at the church potluck hasn’t been touched. Perks abound for those in front. Go to any store on Black Friday and witness the millions of Americans attempting to be the first in line for the opportunity to purchase a laptop for half off retail!
But these great benefits are all about ME. I get the tickets and the autograph and the casserole. I get the deal on the laptop. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me, and someone else is behind you, and countless others line up behind someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward like a herd of cattle, surrounded and yet isolated at the same time.
This isolation is the danger that Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about who among of them is the greatest (or should be the first in line). The prevailing culture of the line has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean. And so the disciples lapse into embarrassed silence when Jesus asks them about the content of their argument; they know that they have provided Jesus with what would become a “teachable moment.”
Jesus sits down – the preferred position of any self-respecting Jewish teacher – so we know that Jesus is about to impart some knowledge upon the disciples. The disciples expect something countercultural, and that is EXACTLY what Jesus gives them. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate the revolutionary nature of this statement, Jesus brings a small child and places the child among the disciples. Not before them. Not after them. Among them.
In the linear society of Jesus’ day, the child was the last of the last. The hierarchy of society placed children BELOW farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat or a cow than a toddler… and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.
But Jesus ignores this cruel stratification when he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus commands his disciples and us to welcome those whom society deems lowest of all. With this welcome comes the opportunity to see the faces and learn the stories of those who -- until now – were at the end of the line, too far removed from us to register on our radar. As we hear the stories of the lowest, we seek ways to serve them.
The Greek word used in the Gospel – dexomai (δέχομαι) – carries with it the sense not only of some generic welcome but of a literal receiving of someone into one’s arms. The picture we should have in our heads is not of someone in an airport holding up a “Welcome Home” sign on a piece of paper, but of a parent or grandparent down on her knees, arms open wide, waiting for the loved one to come running into those waiting arms. That is the kind of welcome Jesus wants us to give the lowly of the world.
One of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve. But this attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service attempts to supplant. With his command to welcome, Jesus doesn’t allow us to develop a mentality of serving first and asking questions later. Rather, welcoming provides the framework through which service leads to building up of relationships.
With his emphasis on relationships, Jesus changes the existing linear model into a circular one. In the line, you can’t welcome anyone because all you see are the backs of heads. You can’t serve anyone because the implied hierarchy of the line makes isolation the norm. You can only count the number of people ahead of you and become frustrated over your rotten place in the line. But in the circle, there is no first; there is no last. We are unable to quantify our position in the continuous round. And relationships have a chance to flourish because we look not at backs, but at each other’s faces.
This circular model of welcome and service stands in contrast to the current situation in our country. A poor economy makes people cling ever more tightly to their presumed spot in line. Distrust, belligerence, and hate disfigure our political landscape. Conversations about race and whose lives matter cause animosity, hatred and disgust for others who are unlike us as many become afraid that someone else is “cutting” in the line. The gap between the first and the last grows ever wider.
Jesus is challenging us to do something. And if his words don’t make us squirm, then we aren’t listening. Jesus says that to be first, you must be last and servant of all.
Friends, we need to let go of linear relationships based on power and ambition, and embrace circular relationships based on welcoming and serving others. If you are at the front of the line now, start walking to the back. Grab the hand of the last person in line and form the circle.
Welcome the least among us. Listen to their needs. Serve them – we are only as strong as our weakest member. Jesus commands us to accomplish these things. Let the least among us come running into our waiting embrace, and Jesus and the Father will follow. That is an image that boggles the mind with joy! And the good news is this: Jesus never issues a command to us without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to carry it out.
To every second grader lining up after recess, every congregant lining up to receive Eucharist, and every impatient person waiting for coffee at Tim Horton’s, and to everyone whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on their tiptoes at the back: Give up your place in line, and welcome the least among you. If you can take joy in their presence, if you can see worth and value and love in those very people whom so many others in society overlook due to their own misguided focus, then you, friends, have welcomed not only them, but also Jesus and the Father.