Sermon: “A Warm Welcome” (September 20, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Warm Welcome” (Mark 9:36-37)
September 20, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In today’s gospel passage Mark writes while teaching his disciples Jesus took a little child into his arms and said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37).

It all starts with a warm welcome.

In 1883 a poet name Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called “The New Colossus,” which was later engraved in bronze and mounted beneath the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those words welcomed a Swedish teenager as she finished her transatlantic voyage to America at the turn of the twentieth century. She took a train from New York to Denver where she married a widower. She was my great-grandmother. It all started with a warm welcome.

As a freshman in high school I attended a small private school. I was really shy, self-conscious about my buck teeth, embarrassed by my acne. My family attended an Episcopal Church in Northern Virginia that had a large youth group. In November the time rolled around for the high school fall retreat, and against my will I went. I was very intimidated by the other kids, especially those who attended the big public high schools. They all seemed to overflow with the self-assurance and self-confidence I wish I had.

I was dropped off in front of the church as dozens of high school students were gathering in the large narthex. This was in the mid-80’s—so think Member’s Only jackets, Levi’s jean jackets with the collars pulled up, girls with big hair, guys with hair parted down the middle, many with a Sony Walkman. The groups had already begun forming—the athletes with their letter jackets, the preppies with the Izod shirts and loafers, the punks with their piercings and dyed hair, the “brainiacs,” etc.

I tossed my sleeping bag and duffle bag on the growing pile of luggage in the middle of the narthex and stood off to the side, sweaty hands nervously clenched in my jean jacket pockets, trying not to appear as nervous and uncomfortable as I was. Who was I going to sit next to on the bus? What would be doing all weekend? Why did I have to go on this retreat in the first place?

Suddenly another student lumbered up to me—flannel shirt, braces, and (like me) struggling with acne. He smiled and extended his hand, “Hey, my name’s Rob. What’s your name?” I told him and he just started hanging out with me. To my relief we ended up sitting on the bus together, and although Rob was a grade ahead of me, as we talked we discovered we had some things in common. We were both huge fans of the Washington Redskins, and we both liked a lot of the same rock bands (classic bands from the late 70’s and early 80’s like Styx, Boston, The Cars, Rush, and Journey). We’d laugh as we’d mimic our favorite guitar riffs. I ended up having a total blast that weekend, and Rob and I became good friends.

And not only that, during the weekend I learned that many of the students who appeared to overflow with self-assurance and self-confidence in reality wrestled with the same insecurities and anxieties as me. For the next couple years I became quite involved with that youth group, and the positive ripple effects of that experience continue to impact my life. It all started with a warm welcome.

But graduating from high school does not mean we graduate from our need to be welcomed. That need never goes away. We experience it on the first day of college, the first time you meet your future in-laws, the first time you meet your new neighbors, the first day you begin as a rector at a new parish. Throughout our lives we need to be welcomed.

In the fall of 1982 one of the most acclaimed television series ever debuted, a show would run for eleven years and garner many awards. That show was Cheers, set in a Boston bar of the same name where people trying to cope with their lives regularly gathered. One of the reasons this show resonated with people was that everyone who walked into Cheers was welcomed, every time, often by name. This was reflected in the Cheers theme song:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came

You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name
You wanna go where people know people are all the same
You wanna go where everybody knows your name

The problem is we live in a world in which many people do not feel welcomed, but rather excluded, left out, like outsiders looking in. On a Saturday afternoon several years ago I arrived home from work, and I as drove down the hill of our cul-de-sac I saw an outdoor birthday party in our neighbors’ front yard, complete with a jump castle—kids jumping and laughing in the castle, others eagerly awaiting their turn.

But I also saw something else…on the other side of the cul-de-sac there were a couple kids crying at their bedroom window, watching the kids playing, wishing they could join the fun. These kids had not been invited to the party, and I later learned they had asked if they could please join the party, but were turned away.

These kids were on the outside looking in—and this happens with adults too, doesn’t it? On her Grammy winning 1994 album Stones in the Road Mary Chapin Carpenter sings about this:

I see them walking hand in hand, and my eyes just want to linger
On those golden wedding bands, wrapped around their fingers
By the time I turn away I feel it once again
I’m back in this familiar place, outside looking in…

And tonight I drove around, and the street came up before me
I took a turn and then I found this old house coming toward me
I heard the sound a heart must make when a memory’s caving in
Oh baby, what a hungry place, outside looking in

It’s the hardest kind of need that never knows a reason
Are we such a lonely breed or just born in a lonely season
Baby, it’s all in the eyes, it’s where the reckoning begins
It’s where we linger like a sigh, it’s where we long to be pulled in
It’s where we learn to say goodbye without saying anything
Standing on the borderline, outside looking in
(from her song “Outside Looking In”).

There is good news for those on the outside looking in—Jesus has invited you to the party, Jesus welcomes you. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus welcomed people who were not used to being welcomed by anyone. In his powerful book The Ragamuffin Gospel Brennan Manning describes this:

Here is a revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims, and even used-car salesmen. Jesus not only talks with these people but dines with them—fully aware that His table fellowship with sinners will raise the eyebrows of religious bureaucrats who hold up the robes and insignia of their authority to justify their condemnation of the truth and their rejection of the gospel of grace (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 22).

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus said, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

But for the most part, Jesus was not welcomed in return. Scripture tells us, “(Jesus) came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). Jesus was “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3) by religious leaders who therefore as Brennan Manning put it, “rejected the gospel of grace.”

But Scripture also tells us Jesus referred to his death beforehand—“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). And that is exactly what happened, for on the cross Jesus died in an unwelcoming world for unwelcoming sinners in order to welcome all people to himself. On the cross, like the Statue of Liberty, with silent lips Jesus cried, “Give me your tired, your pour, your huddled masses…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

And it did not end there, for in the same way in today’s passage Jesus took the little child into his arms and welcomed him, at Jesus’ resurrection God the Father took his beloved Son into his arms and welcomed him back from the dead—and because of that, from the scarred hands of our Risen Savior “glows world-wide welcome.”

How do we respond to that? Scripture tells us, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7)—so here at Christ Church, even if everyone doesn’t know your name, we are always glad you came.

So if any of you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, be encouraged by the good news of the gospel—Jesus welcomes you all the time, no matter what. You are welcome to come out from behind your bedroom window and leap into the jump castle to jump and laugh as long as you want. May the Holy Spirit minister this good news of the gospel to the deepest places in your heart where you “linger like a sigh” and “longed to be pulled in.”

It all starts with a warm welcome—and when you go to glory you will find that the same arms that stretched out on the cross to welcome sinners will stretch out anew to welcome you to your eternal home.

Amen.