St. Philip Lutheran Church
19 September 2021 + Lectionary 25b (Pent. 17)
Rev. Josh Evans
If ever there was an early affirmation of my calling to pastoral ministry, it happened in the pews at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Shelby Township, MI.
Growing up bi-denominational as I did, that particular weekend I was attending mass with my grandparents at their home parish. Being quite young, I didn’t fully understand much of what was going on during the service – and, to be honest, it was all rather long and boring.
At one point, as the priest was praying, perhaps in an effort to amuse myself, I abruptly shouted out a rousing and precocious “Amen!” All eyes turned to the young boy sitting with his grandparents – both of whom, mind you, were quite well-known and involved in the congregation. My grandma played guitar and helped lead the weekly prayer group, and my grandpa was a regular usher and a member of the local Knights of Columbus chapter. I imagine “embarrassed” might be a good word to describe what they were feeling in that moment.
“Amen!” I shouted. To which the priest, without missing a beat, instantly responded: “That’s right!” as he smiled in my direction.
Instead of making me feel like an interruption or a distraction, the priest did something remarkable by acknowledging me and making me feel included in the liturgy. That kind of welcome is so simple yet so profound.
“Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.” This is a lesson in welcome and hospitality and who gets to be included in what Jesus is up to.
Children have something to teach us about the kingdom of God, if we let them. This is not about filling our pews and membership rolls with “young people” and “young families.” This is about being drawn into a deeper, more authentic relationship with God and with God’s people.
As theologian Debie Thomas suggests, children show us what God’s power is like. Think about that for a moment. Children are vulnerable, and in some cultures – including Jesus’s own – even invisible. Children are dependent on those who are older, bigger, and stronger than they are. In a word, children are less a symbol of power and more a symbol of powerlessness.
This past week, the church commemorated Holy Cross Day – a liturgical observance dating back to the 4th century that celebrates “the triumph of the cross,” as our worship commentaries say. It’s a peculiar thing though – to celebrate an instrument of torture and death, the ultimate symbol of powerlessness, as its victims succumbed to total vulnerability and humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Roman Empire.
But the central claim of Holy Cross Day is that the cross is precisely where God’s power is … with the vulnerable, the humiliated, the suffering, the dying, the lonely, and the afraid.
God’s power is, paradoxically, in powerlessness, as the cross itself becomes a subversive symbol of God’s victory over death.
To make space for that kind of powerlessness feels so counter-intuitive though. It doesn’t make any sense.
And yet, Jesus, in lifting up a child, one of society’s nobodies, makes intentional space for all who feel ignored, overlooked, rejected, lonely, and cast aside. In this simple yet profound act, Jesus acknowledges the powerless and says to them: “You belong here.”
At St. Philip, we claim that we are committed “to fully including every child of God.” It’s right there in our mission statement. It’s one of the things that attracted me to this community. When we make space for kids and their families (and their joyful noises) in worship, and when we cross the barriers of generational differences in faith formation learning, we begin to live into God’s vision of an expansive welcome.
That welcome has profound implications for those who look to us as a witness in our community. Does our welcome really include them? For the young transgender teen who questions their worth as they struggle with living into who they are. For the parent of a child of color who worries if they’ll make it home safely today. For the older person who’s lived alone since their spouse died and worries about becoming an invisible burden.
That welcome is the kind of welcome we seek to embody as a community of faith because that is the kind of welcome that God wraps us in.
It’s a kind of welcome that doesn’t really make any sense. Where else can such a random assortment of folks from so many different walks of life find belonging and community together? It’s a kind of welcome that doesn’t make any sense, but one that makes all the difference in the world.
Thanks be to God that we have a God who welcomes imperfection and who embraces disruption – not as things to be avoided, but as reminders of the very nature of God.
Thanks be to God that we have a God who calls us all to God’s self, who invites us to this table and sets a place for us, and who calls us all children.