September 20, 2015 – The Rev. James Richardson

A couple of years ago, Lori and I traveled to Jerusalem with a group of friends from Northern California.

When we arrived in the Holy City we could immediately feel the tension on every corner.

Armed soldiers were everywhere, and the resentments and suspicions were etched on the faces of everyone we saw on the streets.

We soon had the unfortunate experience having a camera snatched by a robber, and that led to the experience of seeing the inside of an Israeli police station in East Jerusalem, which is on the Muslim side of town and in the poorest section of town.

The police station was surrounded by armored cars. We had to get past a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers to get inside.

And once inside, the police station was packed with more heavily armed soldiers milling about, waiting for something to happen outside on the streets.

We breathed a huge sigh of relief when we got out, a huge sigh of relief when we left Jerusalem a few days later to travel north to the hilly shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Galilee is rural, uncrowded and calm, and it looks a lot like Sonoma County. It was easy to picture Jesus sitting in an olive grove, quietly teaching his disciples.

And that’s when our group collectively understood, in our gut, about why his followers were so alarmed that Jesus insisted they go to Jerusalem.

Why would anyone want to leave Galilee and go to that seething city?

In the Gospel of Mark today, the disciples know they are heading into the caldron of chaos of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the very last place they want to go, but they are afraid to ask Jesus: Why are we doing this?

But instead of asking the question eating at their hearts, the disciples fall into arguing about who is more important than whom, who out-ranks whom, and who will be in charge when Jesus disappears.

So Jesus tells them to knock off the politics.

He gives them an answer that he hopes will turn their heads around about not just rank, but about why they must endure what they are about to endure:

It is about the kids.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

His welcome of children is crucially connected to why he goes to Jerusalem and the Cross: To bring more people to himself especially those who are the most vulnerable.

In the day of Jesus, children were at the very lowest rank a human could be. Children were treated as barely human. Children were lucky to make to five years old. So when Jesus tells his disciples to welcome the children, he is telling them to welcome the lowest of the low.

Jesus is telling his followers you must open the doors to everyone, even the children.

This has always been the mission of the Church: to build this church for those who come next.

This is also our mission, to build this church for those who come after us. Others built this church for us. Now it is our turn.

Our mission is to build this church for people we have not yet met, for people not yet born, and give it all away – all of it.

William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the darkest moments of World War II, once put it: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

You can hear the Bible as the sweeping story of how the people of God widen their understanding of who is included in God’s grace.

And the long arch of church history can be heard as the next chapter in our ever-widening understanding of this same story.

We have come a long way just in our lifetime in the Episcopal Church. It was not long ago that women could not be ordained, nor serve on Vestries.

We’ve been ordaining women now for more than a quarter century, and the first generation of women priests has retired.

We’ve also come to a new understanding about an old taboo – homosexuality. We’ve been ordaining gay and lesbian bishops, priests and deacons for more than a decade.

The Episcopal Church this summer authorized new marriage rites for same-sex couples.

As hard as all these efforts have been, I would suggest to you hardest of all has been in finding ways to open our doors to new people across the boundaries of race, economic status and age.

Nowadays it is especially challenging to include young families with children and help them feel welcome. It takes all of us to do that.

That is why we are urging families with small kids to sit up front, and why we are urging parents with school age kids to bring them early for our Sunday School program.

Our major effort over the next year and beyond must be in bringing new people to our parish, helping them to feel welcome, and creating the space they need to feel they belong.

We have so much to offer here – we need to highlight it and give it away.

We are traditional but not rigid; we recite the ancient creeds, yet we are not dogmatic.

This is a place where people can bring their questions, their doubts, and explore those things that really matter.

We don’t all think alike politically, religiously, or in any other way. We need to celebrate our diversity, not hide from it.

Our liturgy and music gives people an experience of the holy that they might not find anywhere else in their life.

And at the altar, in our Holy Eucharist, we come as equals.

We need to share this treasure we have with a world that hungers for depth and meaning, but doesn’t know we are here.

We need to show them by word and example.

There are a few simple things all of us can do right now to welcome new people:

Please think about inviting a friend who doesn’t have a church home. I would guess that most of you know someone.

Please wear your nametag every Sunday, and go out of your way to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Give people a chance to learn your name.

We need to hear each other’s stories and learn about the gifts each of us brings here. We need to hear your story.

And we need to hear the stories of new people who come to us.

We will soon give everyone opportunity to do just that in a series of congregational meetings.

We need to provide more opportunities for people to live out their faith by serving the community.

Everything I know about congregations that are vibrant is that they serve their communities and the world beyond.

Those congregations that are outward facing grow; and those that turn inward and only think about themselves whither away.

I’ve seen this over and over.

Our mission truly is to love and serve the Lord, and every child of God. When we do we might even find moments experiencing the holy in ourselves.

Here again this promise of Jesus – and hear it as a promise:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” AMEN