Little neighbors

It was a hot summer day in the neighborhood, but not quite hot enough for Mr. Rogers not to wear his iconic cardigan. He had taken off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and now we see him sitting outside, cooling his feet in a plastic kiddie pool. Officer Clemmons, the local police officer, comes by, and Mr. Rogers invites him to join him. The two enjoy the water together for a while, then they dry each other’s feet off with a towel.

“It was such an easy thing to do, profoundly simple and easy for two friends to sit down and put their feet in the water to relax on a hot summer evening,” says François Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons. This scene aired in 1969, during the end of the Civil Rights Movement and about a year after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“White people did not want black people to swim in [public] swimming pools and were putting acid and other kinds of poisons in [them],” Clemmons says. “So it was dealing with something that was very serious in this country. But here we were, showing an alternative, a different way, an option, saying to people, ‘You know you don’t have to do that.’”[1]

It was the most gentle of radical statements one can imagine. I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers, but he comes to mind when I listen to Jesus talk about welcoming children. Do you remember how big everything was when you were little? What a magnificent thing a chair was, and what an adventure to climb on it? And when you finally sat on it, how you felt like you were on top of the world? I remember rooms full of adults, on various occasions, they were tall as trees, chatting away way up there, oblivious to my presence and my brave effort to find a way across, through a forest of legs, to the other side. I remember sitting at the children’s table at every family gathering. It was great fun, usually, I don’t think any of us ever felt excluded. But I also remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had to put one of the firm pillows from my grandma’s couch on my chair to bring me up a few inches, but I had arrived, I had made it, I was sitting at the big table. I was still short, but I was no longer one of the little ones.

We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to sit at the grown-up table is easy, it’s just a matter of time, all you have to do is eat your veggies and keep growing. Getting to hang out with the people you really want to hang out with at school is a lot tougher. It’s like you have to fit in and stand out at the same time. And getting a seat at the tables where decisions are made about our life together – whether that’s the neighborhood, the city, or the country – can be a formidable challenge for those outside the circles of belonging. From a very young age, people around us encourage us to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves that seem just a little beyond our reach, to work hard, to get up and try again, to meet the right people, and to make something of ourselves.

The disciples hadn’t been looking for Jesus when they met him, but somehow it felt like they had found the one who would set all things right, and so they followed him. They heard him teach, they watched him heal, they were amazed at his power and his grace, and now, after all the time they had spent together in Galilee, he was talking about going to Jerusalem. They were staying in Capernaum, and all he did was teach them. No more wandering from town to town, no more disruptions by desperate parents, no more wilderness picnics with hundreds and thousands of guests — just the disciples and Jesus and his teachings. And he talked again about the Son of Man and how he would be betrayed into human hands and killed, and after three days rise again. They had heard the words before, but they did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask? Perhaps for the same reasons you and I might be afraid to speak up. We don’t want to show our confusion or our doubt, we don’t want to appear slow or clueless or spiritually immature. We’ve been around long enough to believe that it’s best to project confidence and make everybody else believe that we have it all together. Fake it till you make it. It’s all about appearance and perception. Don’t let Jesus or your fellow followers think you’re not a top-notch disciple.

The disciples in Mark’s story — instead of asking questions, instead of digging deeper into the mystery of the suffering and death of the Son of Man — the disciples were jockeying for positions in Jesus’ kingdom administration. Two of them had been talking about sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. One of them probably never missed an opportunity to mention that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer.  They were afraid to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection, but they had no trouble imagining their seats at the big table and their names and titles on the letterhead.

Jesus, we know, is never afraid to ask. “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Why the sudden silence? Had he asked them in private, individually, they probably would have mentioned Theophilus who “thinks he’s the greatest” or Bartholomew who “is dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about his being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death and killed, and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because being a disciple of Jesus is so tied up with that particular path that leads the Son of God to the cross. We don’t understand and we’re afraid to ask not just because we want to keep up the appearance of our intellectual brilliance and our deep spiritual insight. We don’t ask because we’re afraid he’ll turn our world upside down. Because we want Jesus very much to be part of our world, but we hesitate to let ourselves be part of his.

He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, those at the top of the ladder often lord it over those at the bottom. But in the world of God’s reign, earth and heaven do not touch at the top, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all who come to the table. On the way of Christ, greatness is defined in terms of welcome and service, and the path doesn’t lead up and up and up — it remains at ground level, at kiddy pool level, and it leads to us, always to us, whoever we are, wherever we are.

We all start out little. We all start out completely dependent on being welcomed. We all start out little, needy and helpless, and we all need somebody to see us and hold us and care for us. How much of our drive for greatness, do you think, has to do with that deep need to be seen and welcomed?

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 welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Who knew there was a child? Who noticed? We were engaged in important matters. We were making sure our voice would be heard, our contribution recognized in its significance, and our claim to greatness respected, and Jesus puts a little child among us.

What do you see? A precious, cuddly little sunshine or one of the rascals from Capernaum Elementary who is sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week and whose parents dread opening the home folder, afraid there might be another note from a teacher who is at her wits’ end? Mark doesn’t tell us, because it doesn’t matter. This is no photo op. Politicians pick up little children all the time; it looks good on the news and in campaign ads, it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does all his work at ground level to draw our attention away from our high-altitude ego trips and power pursuits.

If you want to be great, notice the little ones outside the circle and bring them in. You don’t have to be great just to escape invisibility. You don’t have to be great to be seen and welcomed. You don’t have to be great, or appear to be great, to belong. You belong because you are loved; you belong because you are forgiven; you belong because you are made in the image of God. You are loved for who you are, just the way you are. Rest in the light of God’s loving gaze, and don’t be afraid to shift your attention to the ones who are not great by any common measure, and welcome them.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcoming those who are so easily overlooked at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God. Much of our religious tradition has taught us to wonder and often worry, “What must I do to be worthy to be welcomed by God? Who do I have to be? What kind of person do I have to become? How can I work my way up?”

But Jesus looks us in the eye and says, “I see you. I know you. I love you.” He invites us to live in the world of God’s reign, where even our religious tradition is turned on its head. He turns our attention away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status, and toward each other. He stops our lonely ascent to the top and guides our feet into the path of grace where we learn to see and embrace the little neighbor inside and in the other.

[1] See In Nashville, as in most southern cities, public pools were closed rather than integrated; see

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