September 20, 2015 – It’s Them Or Us – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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As you all probably know, this week has been full of adventures for the Boswell family. The flu that we thought Carroll had last Sunday turned out to be appendicitis, and by about 3:00 Monday morning his appendix had ruptured. It was kind of a close call, but God was gracious and Carroll is home as of Friday afternoon, and getting a little stronger every day now. And not only all that, but Monday night, while the doctors were finishing removing Carroll’s horrid little appendix, our daughter-in-law Christina was bringing a new little Boswell into the world – Naomi Fern, 8 pounds, 8 ounces, and completely adorable. What a week!
At times like these, the big times, life and death times, I think we all find ourselves able to see so much more clearly what is important in life. Suddenly we can see how unimportant the ‘stuff’ is that fills our everydays, the trivial things like money and material things and old grudges. And we realize with a fresh urgency what we knew all along – that what is most important are the people we love, the circle of people we think of as ‘us’. In our life and death times, we stop worrying so much about the ‘things’ of the world. We just want to draw these people closer around us, our family and our good friends, all those who bring us comfort and share our sorrows and our joys.
In times of great trouble or fear or joy it is natural for human beings to let go of the trivial concerns of our lives: material things or outward appearances or old grievances. These times of crisis are times when people are often finally willing and able to let go and to forgive. And we become more aware of, and thankful for, the people we think of as ‘us’ – our circle of belonging – our husband or wife, our children, our grandchildren, our good friends. That is really the greatest good of human life.
But what Jesus wanted to teach the disciples, what he wants to teach us, in the reading today is about a greater good. Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me doesn’t just welcome me; he welcomes the one who sent me.” Jesus is saying something really radical, something other-worldly, to his disciples here. It is natural for us to welcome, or accept, or approve – the Greek word can mean all those things – it is natural to welcome the people we love, the people who love us, who belong to us. But it is supernatural to welcome the people God loves, because God loves them.
I think it is really important for us to see that Jesus isn’t just telling the disciples to provide for the little child, or feed him, or clothe him, or protect him. Certainly Jesus wants us to do all those things. But this is a call to something more radical, something less natural to us. You can take care of someone without ever letting them belong to you. You can send money to ‘them’ or give canned goods to a food pantry for ‘them’. You can even, I think, pray for God to be gracious to ‘them’. But you haven’t welcomed a person, not really, until you see them no longer as ‘them’ – but as ‘us’.
Here’s the thing: in the kingdom of God, ‘us’ is no longer defined as the people we love. In the kingdom of God, ‘us’ is the people God loves. When we welcome another person in the name of Jesus Christ, we don’t welcome them into our family, or our circle of acquaintance, we welcome them into God’s family. And to put it in mathematical terms (in honor of my mathematical husband who isn’t here today) if ‘us’ is the set of people loved by God, then ‘them’ is the empty set – and that means in the kingdom of God there is no longer any ‘them’ because God is Love itself. God so loves the world. We welcome the stranger, because God welcomed us when we were strangers. We accept even those who count themselves our enemies, because God accepted us even when we counted ourselves his enemies. We love his children in their need, because he first loved us in our desperate need.
Paul wrote that the whole law can be summed up in one command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And to love someone as yourself means you allow them to be no longer ‘them’ but ‘us’. But it would be too big a thing for us to go forth today and resolve that henceforth we are going to welcome the whole world as our extended family. It’s too big, and it’s too general; it has no real meaning for us. That’s why Jesus brought that one little child into the midst of the disciples. Because we can’t welcome the whole world; it would be great, but it is beyond the capabilities of our little human heart. But we can welcome a real flesh-and-blood person. And that’s what Jesus means by ‘one such child’? It means the one he puts before us today, the one he brings into our midst. We can ask him, who are you holding in your arms and bringing to me today?
I believe he is bringing the thousands of Syrian refugees before us as the Church, the Body of Christ in America. If we welcome them in the name of Jesus, we are saying that they are ‘us’; their suffering belongs to us as well, in the same way that the suffering of our husband or our child or our friend is also our suffering. It isn’t something we can all do naturally, but we can receive them as our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children supernaturally, by the grace of God who will enlarge our hearts if we ask. And we can and must be praying for God to show us what we can do to help.
But as individuals, God brings people before us every day, one person at a time. For myself, as I was thinking about this teaching, I thought of a woman I met at the nursing home named Betty, who has dementia. She spends her days walking the halls and talking to herself, and she seems so very alone and lost. But when we prayed with her, she seemed much more at peace. Betty belongs to the family that I belong to as well; she is a child loved by God, just like me. The people that Jesus brings into my life are no longer ‘them’ to me, they are ‘us’, the same as Carroll or Naomi Fern are ‘us’ to me – Betty is a part of me, she has a place in my mind and heart, her good is joy to me, her pain is grief to me.
It is a huge challenge, I think, because it is so unnatural to us. The world would probably even find it offensive – it is natural to be loyal to our own family, our own little circle of close friends. But we who are the adopted children of God are called to extend our love to all those God has called his family, even those who have no value in the eyes of the world – especially those who have no value in the eyes of the world. This is not a one-time command we can do and check off our list; it’s a day-to-day journey we are called to begin, following in the footsteps of Christ, learning to welcome his children into the ‘us’ of our own lives. It’s more than giving to people; it’s more than doing for them. Welcoming someone means truly opening our hearts and letting them in alongside those who are most dear to us.
But then Jesus says the most amazing thing – that when we welcome the people he brings into our lives, we are welcoming him, and we are welcoming the one who sent him – in fact, we are welcoming God himself. God, who sent his Son to be born of a human mother, identifies with his children so intimately, so completely, so humbly, that when we offer a welcome to the least of his fellow creatures he accepts it as his own – just like we would be blessed by a kindness that someone offered to our little child.
It is a promise as well as a challenge: when you open your heart to the least of your brothers and sisters, you will find that you have invited God in as well. And he will be most pleased to accept your invitation.
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and not only me, but the one who sent me.” It’s a challenge for us, but the heart of what he is saying isn’t about us being loving or good. It’s about who we are. God’s children spend an awful lot of time and energy sorting themselves like sheepdogs sort flocks of sheep. We look for ‘like-minded’ churches, who believe the right things about sexuality, or who use the right liturgy, or who sing the right kind of songs, or avoid the right kinds of sins, or who carry the right political banner, as if it’s up to us to decide who’s in and who’s out, who’s ‘us’ and who’s ‘them’. But the truth is, our belonging is purely a gift from God. The good news of this teaching is that God has welcomed us into his family. ‘God sent his Son into the world so that the world might be saved through him,’ – that means that we are no longer separated from him. We have been given the right to pray ‘Our Father’. We should pray those words with a sense of awe and gratitude. And because he has welcomed us, he has invited us to extend his welcome to the world around us, to the last and the least, because he loves them, too, with all his heart.