It’s a Friday evening in November, 1983. You’re a fourteen year old freshman in high school and your mom drops you off at church for the high school fall camp weekend. None of the kids from church go to your school and the one kid you have become friends with at church has backed out of the trip at the last minute. You walk into the large narthex of the church and can feel the buzz of anticipation as fifty or sixty kids are gathered into various groups laughing and talking—the athletes with their letter jackets, the New Wave music kids with their Flock of Seagulls haircuts and trench coats, the gorgeous cheerleaders who are way out of your league, the preps with their Izod shirts and Members Only jackets, and several kids sitting with their backs against the wall listening to their Sony Walkmen. You toss your sleeping bag and duffel bag onto the growing pile of luggage in the middle of the room, find an empty space off to the side and linger awkwardly with sweaty hands pocketed in your Levi’s denim jacket.
After what feels likes hours but was probably more like ten or fifteen minutes a lanky guy with a lumbering gait approaches you, smiles, and reaches out his hand. “Hey,” he smiles with a mouthful of braces, “my name is Rob.” You realize that he feels as awkward as you do and that, also like you, he is suffering from another humiliating flare-up of acne. You shake sweaty hands and then start talking and soon you are sitting together on the bus, geeking out about some of your favorite bands—bands the critics have dismissed but you still like—bands likeBoston,Styx, and Rush. You laugh as you take turns mimicking various guitar and drum riffs from your favorite songs.
And you feel so relieved because you have been personally and graciously welcomed and accepted J.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus has been walking with his disciples on a narrow path through Galilee to the town ofCapernaum. He has just told them that soon he will be betrayed, killed, and raised again—and in response the disciples were arguing heatedly among themselves about an entirely different subject: which of them was the greatest. You could say there was a slight disconnect J.
AtCapernaumthey enter a house and sit down, and Jesus then tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then He gently welcomes and accepts a child into his arms and continues, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Today I am preaching on one aspect of the gospel: Jesus personally and graciously welcomes and accepts you.
The word translated “welcome” in this passage can also be translated as “accept.” In other words, again, Jesus personally and graciously welcomes and accepts you.
To be welcomed and accepted is a universal longing.
As children some people experience such welcome and acceptance from their parents; others do not. The presence or absence of such welcome and acceptance from parents leaves a lasting mark on people.
Several months ago there was a moving column in The New York Times Magazine entitled “Meet the Parents,” by Lisa Lutz, who had been given up for adoption as a baby. She describes what happened when at age 25 she finally tracked down her biological mother and telephoned her:
“When I identified myself, she became angry. She’d initiated a private adoption, she said, so that her identity would remain secret. I apologized, she relaxed a bit and we spoke briefly. We noted that our voices were similar. She told me she never had any other children. Later, we exchanged a letter with a photo. There was a resemblance but not much of one. A friend noted, however, that her scrawl was as jagged and ugly as mine. I’d expected to find more common ground. After the letter exchange, we had no further communication.”
A dozen years later Lisa tracked down her biological father:
“Biodad was quite pleased to hear from me and arranged a slapdash family reunion. He picked me up in his windowless Jeep, and we drove to a mobile-home park in centralCalifornia, where I met my biological uncle and grandmother. I killed the afternoon going through pictures of people who didn’t look anything like me. During the two-hour ride back my biological father talked mostly about his motorcycle, his boat and working out. When we parted, he asked me if I wanted him to take me toDisneyland. I was 37. That was the last time I saw him… When I finally had time to take it all in, I felt like the result of a mishandled science experiment” (May 6, 2012).
Lisa’s attempt to fill the void she felt from being given up for adoption by connecting with her biological parents was a swing and a miss. And unfortunately this is also sometimes the case with many people who have not been given up for adoption, the longing to be welcomed and accepted by one’s parents is all too often conditional—there are strings attached.
In the 2004 film Spanglish Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni play John and Deborah Clasky, an affluent married couple living in Malibu, California with their teenage daughter, Bernice. In one scene John is hanging out with Bernice when Deborah excitedly bursts into the room with bags of new clothes for her. Bernice grins, “What did I do right?” Deborah gives her a big kiss, “I went nuts; I got so much stuff!”
As Bernice begins pulling out the beautiful new clothes from the bag she tries to put on a new jacket and notices that it is a size too small. Then she looks at the tags on every piece of clothing and sees that each one is the same size, a size too small. Bernice tries to hold back her tears, and Deborah continues, “Come on! You’re gonna do it and you’re going to look beautiful… you’re going to lose that weight.” Naturally the daughter is devastated, and she retreats by herself to the bathroom. “Please excuse me,” she stammers, “I just need to be alone right now.”
This longing for welcome and acceptance of course extends beyond one’s parents.
When I was in high school I delivered papers for The Washington Post in our neighborhood each morning. Every month I went door to door to every house on the route to collect the subscription fees. Some people were gracious and welcoming every time I showed up, from the first time and throughout the four years. They would invite me in for a minute, ask me how school was going, thank me for my work, give me a nice tip—I looked forward to seeing them each month. Others were standoffish at first but eventually warmed up. And then there were those who were rude to me every time I came, every month, all four years. I dreaded going to their homes each month, knots in my stomach when walking to their door, immense relief when walking away.
There was one couple who was particularly rude, downright mean in fact. The biggest knot in my stomach was reserved for this house. I was never invited in but I could see through the door that their house looked like a museum, gorgeous furniture, immaculately clean. They had aChihuahuathat believe it or not was even more hyper-active and wound-up than a normalChihuahua, which before then I didn’t believe was possible. ThisChihuahuaappeared to be washing down boxes of No-Doze with cups of espresso. I could simply look at it and cock my head sideways and it would jump several feet into the air, barking and growling and bouncing around like there was no tomorrow, which in turn evoked a tirade of invective and coarse language from the mean couple. It was delightful.
Well, after a couple years of this couple’s being rude to me each and every month I decided to have a little fun. The biggest paper of the week of course was the Sunday paper, and I learned that there was a certain way you could drop it that would make a booming sound. And so each Sunday morning I would take an extra few seconds to walk all the way to their front door and drop the paper at just the right angle to create a resonating boom, launching their crack-addictedChihuahuainto an insane fit of barking and growling while I continued down the street. This became a highlight of my Sunday mornings J.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus personally and graciously welcomes you every time you come to His door—whether it’s once a month or once an hour or just Christmas and Easter or only when you are in a crisis—it doesn’t matter, He will always graciously welcome you—no need to have a knot in your stomach. In fact, He goes a step further because the Bible tells us that Jesus actually comes to your door (Revelation 3:20).
This is good news because the longing for welcome and acceptance is carried past the home and neighborhood into schools, athletic teams, the workplace, cocktail parties… any gathering of people. I’ve even heard that apparently at many colleges, young men and women will jump through all sorts of hoops and endure all kinds of hazing in order to be welcomed and accepted into a fraternity or sorority. For those eventually welcomed and accepted it is simply a rite of passage; for those who are not, it can leave a gnawing wound of rejection or sometimes even cause them to change colleges in search of welcome and acceptance somewhere else.
People especially need to feel welcomed and accepted at church, particularly when beset with a major crisis—perhaps a death in the family or financial collapse or terminal diagnosis or divorce or arrest or something else—and they need more than ever to feel welcomed and accepted at church.
One of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs is When the Levee Breaks, the final track on their fourth album. Robert Plant opens with these words:
“If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s going to break
If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s going to break
When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay.”
When the levee breaks in people’s lives they need a place to stay, a place where they are welcomed and accepted no matter what—and when people feel like they are not welcomed and accepted by the church, they sometimes mistakenly assume that they are not welcomed or accepted by God either.
In an early scenes of the classic 1994 film Forrest Gump a young Forrest, hampered by leg braces, is walking down the aisle of a school bus on the first day of school, looking for a place to sit. As he passes by one seat after another with only one kid sitting in it, that kid would slide near the aisle and glare at him “You can’t sit here… this seat’s taken… can’t sit here either.” As Forrest lurches toward the back of the bus he begins to panic, wondering if there will be a place to sit, when a girl named Jenny looks at him. Overflowing with welcome and acceptance she softly says to Forrest, “You can sit here if you want to.”
Maybe you have experienced welcome and acceptance in your family… maybe not—or maybe you have in your neighborhood or at school or at work… maybe not—or maybe the welcome and acceptance you have received over the years has always been conditional, hoops to jump through, weight to lose, the sense of being a “mishandled science experiment.”
Some people even have a hard time with self-welcome and acceptance, and can’t even give themselves a seat on the bus.
Hopefully you feel welcomed and accepted here atChristChurch. I’ve been on staff here over five years now and in spite of how neurotic I am (for real), I have always felt welcomed and accepted here. I hope that is the case for you too.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus always welcomes and accepts you—He already has, does now, and always will.
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry He personally and graciously welcomed and accepted people, especially people whom the stuffy religious types refused to welcome or accept—tax collectors, notorious sinners, Roman soldiers, the mentally ill, and, as we see in today’s gospel passage, little kids.
Jesus also welcomed and accepted outcasts and outsiders, people like the Samaritan woman at the well whose reputation was shot, and the lepers who had to live alone outside of town. Even as He was dying on the cross Jesus welcomed and accepted the penitent thief who was crucified at His side, assuring him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
And Jesus welcomes and accepts you, and this is based on nothing you have ever done, are doing now, or ever could do—nothing.
In his book, The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, Brennan Manning puts it this way:
“God does not condemn but forgives. The sinner is accepted even before he (or she) repents… God’s love is based on nothing (we do), and the fact that it is based on nothing (we do) makes us secure. Were it based on anything we do, and that ‘anything’ were to collapse, then God’s love would crumble as well. But with the God of Jesus no such thing can possibly happen… We have Christian Atlases who mistakenly carry the burden of trying to deserve God’s love… I’d like to say: ‘Put that globe down and dance on it. That’s why God made it’” (p. 22-23, italics added).
Again, Jesus always welcomes and accepts you.
Last year I watched Cameron Crowe’s fascinating documentary about the bandPearlJam. Pearl Jam’s front man, Eddie Vedder, considers The Who to be the greatest rock band ever. After Pearl Jam’s meteoric rise in the 90’s Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who, wrote Eddie a letter saying The Who wanted to play with Pearl Jam, but Eddie was too intimidated to do that.
Later Eddie changed his mind, and he chokes up as he recounts the first time he met The Who’s lead guitarist, Pete Townsend: “I was terrified and the first thing (Pete) said to me was ‘I’ve waited so long to meet you.’” This is followed by an image of Eddie and Pete embracing on stage (from Pearl Jam Twenty).
Jesus came to the world as the littlest kind of child. And although He spent His earthly years welcoming and accepting others, He was often neither welcomed nor accepted in return. From being born outside the inn in a barn to being considered illegitimate to being rejected in His hometown to being betrayed to being crucified outside ofJerusalem—more often than not, Jesus was neither welcomed nor accepted. He was instead, as the Bible tells us, “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3).
And although on Palm Sunday Jesus was welcomed and accepted as a king, the people changed like the weather, and metaphorically it began to rain and it kept on raining as He was betrayed and arrested—and it kept on raining as He was beaten and mocked—and it kept on raining as He was given a purple robe and a crown of thorns—and it kept on raining as He was nailed to a cross and mocked and jeered again and again. And it kept on raining and raining and raining… and the levee broke.
And when the levee of rejection and sin broke, there was no place for Jesus to stay, except on the cross.
And the good news is that He indeed stayed on the cross—and that in His death He atoned for all your sins, each and every one, so that you can be assured that no matter what, you will always be personally and graciously welcomed and accepted by Jesus Christ.
If you are standing off to the side with sweaty hands in the pocket of your denim jacket, Jesus walks toward you, smiles, and offers you His hand.
If you are lurching down the aisle of the bus, hampered by the circumstances in your life, Jesus softly says, “You can sit here if you want to.”
If you are terrified about meeting your Maker, Jesus embraces you with welcome and acceptance, and reassuringly says, “I’ve waited so long to meet you.”