On 14 August, the Church remembered Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest killed in Auschwitz, after ten prisoners were chosen randomly to die in revenge for what was wrongly thought to be an escape. One man cried: "My wife, my children! I will never see them again," and immediately Kolbe stepped forward to take his place, saying: "I am a priest; he has a wife and children." Two weeks later, when his companions had died, and the cell was needed for more condemned prisoners, he was given a lethal injection.
The prisoner whom he had saved returned home at the end of the war, and was reunited with his wife, but, tragically, his sons had been killed. Every 14 August for five decades, he returned to Auschwitz to honour Kolbe. He said that he felt remorse for effectively signing Kolbe's death warrant, but came to realise that a man like him could not have done otherwise, and, as a priest, he wanted to help the men condemned to starve to death to maintain hope.
Kolbe's instinctive reaction to value that prisoner's unknown wife and children was the fruit of a lifetime of perceiving and knowing what he ought to do. By embodying Jesus's teaching, he publicly reversed the "values" of the Nazis.
In and of themselves, our children aren’t a cause for hope. They are just people, like the rest of us. Just because children might have more time ahead of them than we do doesn’t mean that they are going to make things better for humanity as a whole. Cuteness doesn’t bring about sufficient change or the world would be far lovelier by now. But that isn’t pessimism. It’s just rejecting sentimentality. I don’t think that Jesus pulled the child towards him to gain the ‘ahh factor’ or to make a sweet point about innocence.
Hope comes from a greater truth than mere youth. Hope comes from the capital T – Truth that lives with us and within us and works before, between, and behind us all - God. Mark shows us Jesus as Truth, capital T, declaring that things change if we welcome the children rather than childishly bicker about rank. We see our world’s priorities tipped topsy turvey on their head, which is so often God’s way. Worrying about status turns our gaze inwards on our own perception of self which will only get us tangled up in lonely ego.
Welcome is vital for Christian community. I’ve said it before - the most important person in a successful company is not the CEO but the receptionist. The quality of the welcome you get as you come in through the door colours and dictates the nature of your ongoing relationship (or lack of it) with that company. It’s true for us as church - it’s being open to others, being aware of their comfort – or discomfort – with a situation and setting aside our own priorities to offer them love and comfort. Like Maxamillian Kolbe, it is about us embodying Jesus’ teaching, and living out the welcoming love of God in Christ who, the Scriptures remind us, left the glory of heaven to come to search people like us out.
And, of course, it’s bigger even than our children as important as it is welcoming them. And we should welcome them, not because they are the potential church of tomorrow or even because if we get them we get their parents - like church is some sort of recruitment drive.
Jesus expanded the concept of “neighbour” to include everyone who needs us, and I think that the word “children” on Jesus’ lips this morning means everyone. Everyone who is smaller and weaker or needy and hungry, and maybe less courageous, or lonely, or struggling, or tired, or sad. We all need to feel at home and welcomed into the presence of God by Jesus.
The Reverend William Ball of Westminster Presbyterian Church Ottawa, recently posted this fantastic welcome on facebook. It comes from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community and William found it here. It’s a long one, but it’s worth wall-space in any church lobby.
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or if you can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes one such in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’