Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Welcoming God to an Unwelcoming World” (Mark 9:33-37)
September 23, 2018
Dave Johnson

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

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1994 classic Forrest Gump, a film saturated with the gospel.  Early in the film in a famous scene young Forrest, wearing clunky metal leg braces for his scoliosis, walks onto the bus on the first day of school, a lunch bag in one hand, an apple in the other.  The adult Forrest narrates in a voiceover, “I remember the bus ride on the first day of school very well.”  The bus lurches forward.  Forrest begins looking for a seat.

One unfriendly boy glares at him and scoots closer to the aisle, “This seat’s taken.”  A second boy in the following seat echoes, “Taken!”  Across the aisle a girl in a red and white dress looks at Forrest and shakes her head.  He is almost at the back of the bus and another boy covers the available space in his seat with his arm, “You can’t sit here.”  Now Forrest is standing on the moving bus, wearing his leg braces with no place to sit, and panic begins to fill his face.

The adult Forrest continues his narration, “You know it’s funny what a young man recollects.  ‘Cause I don’t remember being born, and I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas, and I don’t know when I went on my first outdoor picnic.  But I do remember the first time I heard the sweetest voice in the wide world.”  The young Forrest still stands in the aisle when a girl looks up at him and gently says, “You can sit here if you want.”  Forrest is stunned by how pretty and friendly she is.  “I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.  She was like an angel.”

The little girl continues, “Well, are you gonna sit down or aren’t you?”  Forrest sits down and the adult Forrest recalls, “I just sat next to her on that bus and had a conversation all the way to school.  Next to Momma no one ever talked to me or asked me questions.”  Jenny looks curiously at young Forrest, “Are you stupid or something?” and Forrest famously replies, “Momma says stupid is as stupid does.”  She smiles and reaches out her hand, “I’m Jenny.”  Forrest shakes her hand, “I’m Forrest, Forrest Gump.”  The adult Forrest continues, “From that day on we were always together.  Jenny and me were like peas and carrots.”

I remember the first time I saw that scene in the theater, wiping the tears from eyes and lying to my nephew who asked me, “What’s wrong, Uncle Dave?”  “Nothing, I’m good.”  The fact was that scene on the bus, which proved to be a turning point in the life of Forrest Gump (and of Jenny too) reminded me of a turning point in my own life.  When I was a freshman in high school our church youth group had its annual fall retreat weekend.  It was November 1983.  I did not want to go because I was the only kid from the little private school I attended that was going on the trip, and because other than a few names I did not know anyone else who was going.  But I had no choice in the matter.

I was dropped off in the front of the church and walked in to the large narthex where excited students were already gathering—talking and cutting up in anticipation of a fun weekend.  I added my sleeping bag and duffle bag to the growing luggage pile in the middle of the floor and with sweaty palms in the pockets of my beloved Levi’s jean jacket I took a place leaning by myself off to the side against the wall, wishing it was Sunday afternoon and the trip was over.

Then a guy named Rob Brown, who was a year older than me, wearing a flannel shirt similar to mine, walked over to me and with a braces-filled grin said, “Hey!  My name’s Rob.  What’s your name?”  I replied and he said, “If you don’t have anywhere to sit on the bus, sit with us.”  The entire two hour bus ride Rob and I laughed and talked about our mutual interests like our love for the Washington Redskins (who were actually a really good team back in the 1980’s) and rock bands that we both loved, like Rush and Boston and Def Leppard.

Rob and I and a few others ended up hanging out together the whole weekend.  The games, the worship, the crisp fall weather, the staying up late joking in the cabins—all combined in one of the most fun weekends I had ever had.  And from then on I was plugged into the high school youth group at our church, which proved to have positive ripple effects in my life that continue to this day.  It all started with the personal welcome from Rob Brown.

We all need to be personally welcomed.  We all need a seat on the bus.  On her Grammy winning 1994 album Stones in the Road singer songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose late mother was one of my favorite parishioners at Christ Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, described it this way:

Baby, all the tears between us couldn’t fill the spaces
And all the words we grasped at, they just fell away
I kept waiting on forgiveness to fix the broken places
But nothing even like it ever came my way
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
Just standing on the borderline outside looking in
(From her song “Outside Looking In”)

The gospel is good news for those who need a seat on the bus, good news for those who need to be personally welcomed, good news for those “outside looking in.”

In today’s gospel passage Mark recounts an episode during which Jesus and his disciples arrive in a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee called Capernaum.  During their walk there Jesus had been sharing about some very heavy topics: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  Mark notes that the disciples “did not understand what (Jesus) was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:31-32).

Instead of asking Jesus what he meant, the disciples, ironically enough, were arguing about something that had absolutely nothing to do with what Jesus was talking about, something that had nothing to do with Jesus at all: “Then they came to Capernaum; and when (Jesus) was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34).  Jesus had been sharing about his impending betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection.  And in response the disciples had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest—a rather major disconnect.

This is nothing new.  Throughout our lives—from toddler rivalry in the nursery about who controls the most toys, all the way to geriatric rivalry in the nursing home about who has the best grandchildren—we are exposed to and participate in all sorts of grandstanding and one-upmanship, all sorts of games to prove what the disciples were arguing about, who is the greatest.  There are many current G.O.A.T (the Greatest of All Time) arguments in sports about who is greatest NFL quarterback of all time, who is the best college football coach of all time, who is the best NBA player of all time…on and on.

And how did Jesus respond to the disciples?  Did he tell them which of them was actually the greatest and why?  Did he make sure they understood that as the Lord he was actually the greatest?  No, instead Jesus responded in a very different way:

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Then he 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 welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:35-37).

In other words, instead of arguing about who is the greatest, welcome the child who is standing alone in the aisle of the bus looking for a place to sit, welcome the child who is leaning against the wall by himself, welcome those who “long to be pulled in…standing on the borderline outside looking in.”

When you do that, Jesus says, you not only welcome that child, you welcome your Savior, and you welcome your Heavenly Father.

And all this welcoming Jesus commands of us is in response to his welcoming us—as Paul wrote to the Romans, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you (past tense), for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus welcomed those who were not used to being welcomed anytime anywhere—tax collectors and lepers, prostitutes and demoniacs, the blind and the lame, thieves and adulterers.  Jesus always offered a seat to the young Forrest Gump’s of his day.  Jesus always personally welcomed those leaning by themselves against the wall.  Jesus always welcomed those “outside looking in.”

And yet, more often than not, Jesus was not welcomed in turn.

Even at his incarnation Jesus was not welcomed to the inn, so he was born in a barn.  Scripture tells us that Jesus “came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11).  As the great Old Testament prophet Isaiah had foretold many centuries earlier, Jesus “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:3).

But in same way Jesus had told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” scripture also tells us Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

In his death on the cross Jesus showed that he is a welcoming God to an unwelcoming world.

And on Easter morning the first person the Risen Jesus saw was Mary Magdalene, one of the many people “outside looking in” to whom Jesus gave a warm welcome.

So today if you feel like you are standing alone in the bus aisle looking for a place to sit, or leaning by yourself against the wall off to the side, or outside looking in—remember that God is a welcoming God to an unwelcoming world, who welcomes you today, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew11:28).

In other words, the good news of the gospel is that even now Jenny’s words to Forrest are Jesus’ words to you, “You can sit here if you want.”