Oct 10

Toward a Theology of Hospitality – a sermon by Intermountain Board President, Rev. Marianne Niesen

[This sermon was delivered in worship at St. Paul’s UMC in Helena, Montana on Sept. 20th, 2015. Rev. Marianne Niesen serves as Sr. Pastor of St. Paul’s UMC as well as the Chair of the Intermountain Board of Directors]

The Rev. Marianne Niesen

The Rev. Marianne Niesen

In Africa, the Masai are known as the fiercest of warriors.  Interestingly, though, they greet each other not with hello, how are you? Not with how goes the life of a warrior? They greet each other with how are the children? The Masai, warriors though they be, know that if the children are well, all is well.  They know that the well-being of the community’s children means the prosperity of the whole tribe.

The elders of the Hopi nation have related something similar.  When a decision-making moment in the tribe comes, the whole community sits around a circle called a Medicine Wheel.  Around that circle are representatives of all the different aspects of the community . . . the fool,  the hunter, the creator, the shaman, the politician, the cooks, the weavers, and so on.  And in the center of the circle is the children’s fire.  Next to the children’s fire sit the grandfather and the grandmother.  If you want to build, say, a condominium in the community of Spirit Lake, you must enter the Medicine Wheel in the East, at the position of the fool.  You ask, may I build a condo on Spirit Lake?  The fool takes your question, turns it around backwards, and asks what would Spirit Lake say about such a thing? Then you take the question to everyone around the Medicine Wheel. Each will respond according to their position in the community.  Finally, you must approach the grandparents who guard the children’s fire. If these two decide that the request is not good for the children’s fire, then the answer is no. They are the only ones in the circle with veto power. The point is simple:  does it hurt or help the children?  If it can past that test, then it can be done. (1)

And some 2000 years ago, in a region called Galilee, among a people called Jews, there was a teacher named Jesus.  He had followers with him, disciples, who were learning from him a way to relate to the world.  Blessed are the poor, he said.  And he fed the poor and the hungry and he took time to heal the sick and he included women and outcasts and even children in the community.  His teaching was difficult for many.  And at times, puzzling.  One day, he said:

“The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God.  They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.  They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”  The silence was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was the greatest. (from The Message)

This Jesus was puzzling.  Suffering. Death.  How could that be if they were on the ‘right’ side?  And they were embarrassed that Jesus seemed to know they were mostly concerned about positions.  Who was best?  Who was loved most? Who was closest to God ?  I imagine them all squirming a bit as . . .

Jesus sat down and summoned the Twelve.  “So you want first place?  Then take the last place.  Be the servant of all.  (see Mark 9:30-37, The Message)

He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me – God who sent me.

The wisdom is ancient and cuts across cultural and religious boundaries.  From the Masai to the Hopi to our own tradition, we hear that we will know best how we are doing in the important things of life by how we are doing with the children.  Jesus knew the Romans were a problem.  He knew the injustices in the governmental and religious systems that were crushing people under taxes and oppressive laws and he addressed himself to many of those things.  But, when it came to the very personal questions like how do I know I’m doing the right thing?  How can I attain greatness – of any kind?  How can I be sure I’m on the right track? When it came to those questions, he said look at the children.  How are the children?  If the children are well, you’re heading in the right direction!

Unfortunately, Jesus’ words have all too often been reduced to a “be-kind-to-the-kids” message.  Or even a ‘become like a child’ message.  In fact, in a similar passage in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does hold up a child as an example and says unless you become like this child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). But that is not what was going on in Mark’s gospel.  In Mark, Jesus issues a challenge to embrace the children.  And to fully understand what he was calling his followers to do, it is important to understand the status of children in the first century.  Children in Jesus’ day were not like Gerber babies – cute, cuddly symbols of future promise.  They of course did hold promise and I believe most parents loved their children – but, nevertheless, they were a liability.  Among oppressed people living in poverty, the liability was obvious. Children then as now needed food and attention long before they could reciprocate or ‘carry their part of the load.’  And, apparently, among the Romans who were of higher status than those they ruled over, children’s lives were of even less value than among the Jews.  But, for all of them, until they were an age when they could assume some responsibility, the lives of children were seriously ‘at risk.’  Once commentary said it like this:

Childhood in antiquity was a time of terror.   Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent.  Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen.  Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation . . . (And of course that is still true – and we see it on the news every day as we see heartbreaking pictures of refugees massing on the borders of Europe today.)
Children had little status within the community or family.  A minor child was on par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate.  The term ‘child/children’ could be used as a serious insult. (2)

In other words, when Jesus placed a child before his friends, he was calling for a re-focusing of values – indeed it was a radical re-ordering of how things were.  For, to embrace a child meant embracing the neediest among them.  With that simple act that seems somewhat benign to us, Jesus actually startled those around him to a radical hospitality toward the most vulnerable.  And, as if to be absolutely certain that people understood what he was doing he said so . . . if you really want to be first, if you really want to be the best, care for the last and the least. That was precisely what the child represented.

We, at St.Paul’s United Methodist, have been doing a lot of celebrating this year as we observe our Jubilee.  For 150 years, we have been right here, growing and serving in Helena.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what life must have been like in those beginning days.  It couldn’t have been easy.  This was a gold mining camp. Things were rough.  The bare necessities of life were hard to come by. Some people may have gotten rich through gold but the vast majority of the people here lived on the edge.  Very early in our history, in 1872, into this rough and tumble world arrived a young passionate pioneer preacher.  He was the Rev. William Wesley Van Orsdel and his ‘pastoral plan’ was “to preach, to sing, and encourage people to be good.”  And with that basic message and a good singing voice, he plunged into preaching and singing his way through Montana territory. Of course, quadruple names didn’t last long around here then so he quickly became known as ‘Brother Van.’

Stories about Brother Van abound.  His energy and commitment to the gospel made a huge impact for good in the wilds of the west.  And Helena is no exception. It was here in 1909 that Brother Van’s passion for the gospel and the needs of the community came together in a particularly amazing way.  Perhaps it was this very scripture from Mark that inspired him. Whatever it was, it was indeed right here in Helena that Brother Van challenged the church to do something for the children.  As in the time of Jesus and as is true today, children were disproportionately affected by poverty. Too many were hurting and hungry and homeless.  His preaching was direct . . . “we dare not let ‘the suffering of children go unchallenged.’” Indeed it was a vision inspired by Jesus himself when – with a simple but direct reprimand – he confronted his disciples, his friends, who wanted to ‘have the gold’ of being big and great and better than anyone else.  If you want greatness my friends, take care of the children.  Start there.  That’s what Brother Van did.  Like Jesus, he embraced the child and challenged the people – and, wisely, got some good women (the Deaconesses) involved – and that’s how Intermountain was born.  Brother Van preached and sang and dared people to be good!

Of course, Intermountain was no state-of-the-art-world-renowned-treatment center then.  But it was nevertheless a place of healing and safety for those who had little else. It was where committed adults – the deaconesses, supported by ordinary people like us – provided the gold that was really needed – some food, a bit of shelter, a basic education and a lot of love for the most vulnerable.

The Intermountain of today continues that ministry.  It has of course, changed and developed with the times (which is why it is still here).  But, that basic vision of embracing the child, of was making connections that heal, continues.  Brother Van would I think be proud of the work of Intermountain – and at the same time saddened to know that even now children are too often the victims of adult dysfunction. Far too many children begin their lives without a positive relationship with adults. During the critical first 18 months of life, too many children are abused, abandoned and ignored.  However it happens, too many children are still living on a real or figurative ‘edge.’  It is called ‘relational poverty’ and these children display an inability to connect, to bond even with people who eventually do care for them.  On average, children who come to the Intermountain residential program have experienced one unsuccessful family placement for each year of life. That means a 7 year old has had seven different homes and seven failed attempts at being part of a family.  Children arrive at Intermountain afraid, sometimes drugged and usually with little reason to hope for an outcome different from what they have come to expect. The issues and the treatment today are very different from what Brother Van and the Deaconesses knew but the overall mission remains the same.  It is to heal through healthy relationships.

In the residential program, the treatment is intensive.  It usually takes about 2 years. It is expensive and it is exhausting – for the children and adults alike.  And though that program is phenomenal, it is not for everyone.  That’s why Intermountain has expanded to offer school based services for children in several of our public schools and a day treatment program at the Intermountain School for children who cannot function in the local school system.  Intermountain works to return children to their birth families if that is possible and, if not, they have developed an adoption system to find and then train and support families willing to adopt children who have come through the rough waters of treatment and are ready for a ‘forever family.’ Intermountain now also has a Community Services Center that provides a whole array of services for families who are struggling with addictions and mental health issues.

Sometimes, when we have a program close to home, we take it for granted or assume it is what it always used to be.  There is a lot Brother Van would not recognize at the Intermountain of today.  What began as a rather small support home for children suffering from the ravages of poverty in a gold mining town now provides residential and community-based services to more than 1300 children and families throughout Montana.  But one thing he would recognize – children are still taken seriously, loved unconditionally, and equipped for a fruitful and faithful life.  Intermountain is still  a place that seeks to make sure the children are getting well.

When Jesus set a child before his disciples, he was not posing for a family photo.  His was a radical action that continues to challenge all who would be his followers.  Because the question is still . . . how are we doing at caring for the most vulnerable among us?  How are we making our world more hospitable for the littlest and the last and the least and the lost?  We can be proud of our long partnership with Intermountain and, as the founding denomination, we want to continue our support.  In fact, Liz Kohlstaedt, the clinical director at Intermountain, signed up last week to host the first Wednesday night dinner of the season – this Wednesday – on behalf of Intermountain.  So, be sure to come!  In your bulletin, I’ve included a prayer card that I hope you’ll take home. Each one has a prayer from one of the Intermountain children – and, for all the differences of time and circumstance, I don’t think the prayers you’ll read there are really much different from the prayers of those first children Intermountain served.

But, of course, the challenge is bigger than any one ministry.  That is why we as a church community participate in Family Promise, serving families who are homeless.  It is why we partner with the Lewis and Clark County Health Department and have a Diaper Sunday to assist families struggling to provide for their babies.  It is why the UMW has a bazaar and raises money for outreach and mission.  It is why we send our youth group to Guatemala and why our Youth Leadership Team works with the children of Intermountain every month as part of Chaplain Chris’ program.  It is why we send a mission team to the Amazon and serve a meal at God’s Love.  The list goes on. To be a follower of Jesus is still about creating a culture of hospitality toward the most vulnerable among us. We cannot do it all but we can each do our part.  And in so doing we will indeed become faithful followers of the one who so long ago embraced the children and challenged us all to do the same.

(c) Rev. Marianne Niesen, 9/20/15, used with permission


(1) As heard from the elders of the Hopi Nation and quoted by Kathleen A. Guy in Welcome the Child. Found in Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, vol. 1, Kenneth T. Lawrence, ed., United Church Press: Cleveland, OH, ©1994, p. 32.

(2) Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, as quoted in The Ministers Annual Manual, 2012-2103, Logos Publications, ©2012, p. 72.