Mark 10: 13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
Today’s Gospel story confronts us with two questions:
1) How are we doing by our children? Not only our own children, if we are parents, but by the children of our church family, whether we are parents or not? After all, Jesus made that matter sound mighty important when he said, “… to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
2) In what ways does Jesus want us all to be like children? That sounds pretty important too, for he said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
There’s more at stake than whether or not families visit this church and say, “Here’s where we want to bring our children.” I love it when that happens. But what’s at stake is Jesus’ desire to create the beloved community of which the prophets spoke, when they said things like, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Is. 11).
The true measure of a church, then, is not how high our steeples go, but how low does our attention go? Does it go all the way down to those about whom Jesus said, “Whenever you give a cup of cold water to a child in my name, it shall not go unrewarded?” The true measure of a church is not how many people God gives us to love, but how much we love each person whom God gives us. If we’re not doing right by the ones whom God has given us, especially the neediest, most vulnerable and dependent, why would he give us any more?
So for that first question–How are we doing by our children?– how do we stack up? I observe that we have some top notch Christian education workers here, who regularly go the second mile to prepare for their classes, even when their classes turn out to be two children, or one, or, some Sundays, none. People have also remarked on the ways we seek to include children and youth in the life and ministries of our church, and not just for our annual Christmas pageant. Some of us just followed the lead of our youth last night to gather and work at Feed My Starving Children. And we have a Safeguarding our Congregation policy by which we protect both our children and youth, plus their teachers and sponsors, from the risks of abuse, even from the mistaken appearance of abuse. So when someone signs up to be a youth worker or a Christian education teacher, no one should be surprised when they get that form for a police background check. Nothing personal; its just standard procedure, precisely so that it won’t be needed.
But let’s not let up. I encourage us to keep thinking of ourselves as something like a village, or an extended family. Even if we adults did not come here with children, I invite us all to think of ourselves as having some responsiblity toward all the children in this family of faith. If for example you see a child doing something here that could be dangerous or destructive, feel free to get down at their level and say something like, “I’m afraid you’re going to get hurt doing that. Where’s a better place to run?”
But the responsibility doesn’t lie with us adults alone. Kids, if you in your Christian Education class are memorizing some Bible verses or learning a song, how about reciting them or singing it for us during worship? We’d love it, and you’d be ministering to us. And youth, let me remind you of our mentoring program. We remind you of it every so often, but we don’t get many takers. What can I tell you that would help you get on board with that again?
So how are we doing by our children? Pretty good, I’d say, but there’s always room for growth. Now that first question: How are we doing by the children? was the easy part.
Here’s the hard part,: Question #2, In what ways does Jesus want his disciples to be like children? Especially since, elsewhere in the Bible, we are always told to grow up? Like in Ephesians 4, where we read, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”
Or when Paul says, in I Cor. 13: 11, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” By that he means love. So the Bible tells us to grow up and to be like children. How do we square growing up with remaining childlike? What gives?
Well, let’s consider: What are the qualities typical of children that we do well to keep? One would be trust. In our very earliest stages of life, one lesson we hopefully learn is trust. Its at the heart of everything else we must learn. We learn it if Mom and Dad are always there to feed us whenever we’re hungry, and to change our diapers, hold us close, carry us around, smile and sing and talk to us; make funny noises to engage us and draw us out into the world. Hopefully we learn that the world is an orderly, dependable, trustworthy, welcoming and loving place, at least the world that our families make at home. If we learn to trust in that time and that setting, we can learn to trust others well enough to love, in our marriages, if so called, in the church, at work, out on the streets where hopefully most people are obeying the traffic laws. And hopefully we learn to trust God, as the source of all love and trustworthiness. I think that’s one way Jesus wants us to stay childlike: trust, or faith.
No matter what our age, every stage and lesson of life forces us to choose between trust and fear. Get the lesson right in one major life event, and soon the next exam comes. If we’re parents, when it comes time to let our children go, we have to choose trust over fear, just as our children do. If we’re changing jobs or retiring, its trust versus fear again. And when the doctor asks us if our affairs are in order and recommends a hospice care center for us, its time to choose trust all over again. It doesn’t necessarily get easier every time. But it helps if we’ve had some practice.
But trust implies that we know how much we depend upon God and each other, a second lesson from childhood: embracing our interdependence. For children this sometimes poses as many problems as it does delights. Especially when we get toward adolescence and can’t wait to be as independent as possible, as soon as possible, even while the parents still provide for our basic needs. The title of a book captured that dilemma: Mom and Dad, Get Out of My Life,!!! But First, Will You Take Me and Cheryl to the Mall? Over time we hopefully grow to become more responsible and supportive to others. But we never become truly and totally independent. There are no self-made persons. So, knowing and embracing our dependence upon God and each other, and being dependable to each other, is the other side of the coin of trust, something childlike that Jesus wants his disciples to keep.
A third thing would be a sense of wonder. As we grow up, we risk getting to the point where we think we’ve seen it all. Unless we push ourselves into new experiences, we can get to where we think we know everything, and everything is ho-hum. Been there; done that; seen it all. But little children have neither the lifespan nor the temperament to act so jaded and cynical. So in second grade, when suddenly the chrysalis in the terrarium on the teacher’s desk starts to break open and a monarch butterfly starts to emerge, there’s no dignity to protect by playing it cool and saying, “Whatever; Big Deal.” There’s no keeping the children quiet; there’s no keeping them in their seats, nor any reason to.
This kind of childlike awe and wonder is what the Proverbs and the Psalms mean whenever they say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Think holy fear, in the sense of amazement, appreciation, yes, wonder, reverence and awe. Its the difference between despising the world, or grabbing at the world, to own it and crush it, and cherishing it, protecting it, and holding it gently in the palm of your hand. That childlike sense of awe, wonder, and delight is another thing to sustain thoughout life.
A fourth childlike thing I’d recommend is play, or playfulness. Because we adults can get so drop-dead serious sometimes. Yes, I’m preaching to myself here. Of course we have serious, important responsibilities. But not everything has to be a terrible crisis, a dreaded threat to our dignity, our well-being, as though life were a zero-sum game in which no one can gain without someone else having to lose. So when disagreements, problems or complications arise, we are tempted to draw upon all the fears, disappointments and complications of our past and say, “Oh man; Here we go again; Why me?” The biggest example of that seriousness run amok is war.
Or we can say, “Well, it looks like we woke up human again today.” Anxiety is the biggest obstacle to creative thinking; nothing shuts down more options and slams shut more doors than heavy, deadly seriousness. Anxiety cannot be overcome with more anxiety. Some playfulness, humor and oddball, off-the-wall thinking can go a long way toward helping us deal creatively with many difficulties and disappointments.
That was part of the genius of the direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. The marchers and demonstrators knew they would likely go to jail for integrating lunch counters or refusing to move to the back of the bus. So, in their civil disobedience training, they prepared people to go to prison with an open, confident and peaceful attitude. You may even come out better for it; freer and stronger they said. Fifty years later, some of the marchers still say they had some of the best times in jail. Southern jails got full to the bursting with people who spent their time singing hymns and worshiping, telling stories, praying together, teaching and learning, making lifelong friendships and connections, sometimes even with their prison guards. Sometimes both the jailers and the inmates were sorry to part company. Because they refused to add anxiety to an anxious situation, they turned prison cells into freedom schools. That kind of openness or playfulness is also something childlike that Jesus would want us to keep.
But Paul says, “When I grew up, I put childish things away.” And that’s what I want us to remember today: the difference between being childlike and being childish. Childlike is good; childish is bad, at least according to our stage of growth.
Here’s what I mean: You ask a three-year old, Why is it that, while you’re riding in the back seat of the car at night, the moon seems to follow you? Everywhere you go, as long as you’re heading in the right direction, the moon is there moving along with you. Why? A three-year old is likely to say, “Because the moon is my friend.”
Aaaaaw. For a three-year old, that’s so sweet. Their’s is a magical universe, with themselves at the center. When they’re even younger, they are the universe. But for your average fourteen year old or a forty-year old, that kind magical, wishful, self-centered thinking is not only dumb, its dangerous. I don’t think Hitler ever outgrew it.
Or if you ask a two-year old why they should obey their parents, often they’ll say, “Cuz they’re bigger than me.” That’s a toddler’s first take on morality: might makes right. Fortunately, that doesn’t last. Its not long before you hear them saying, “But that’s not faaaair!” (That was our youngest daughter’s first complete sentence, by the way). So the childish things we have to relinquish, as we grow up in Christ, include self-centeredness, lack of self control, magical, wishful thinking, and this might-makes-right thinking, among others. There’s more, but I don’t want to start another sermon.
So, in summary, as we grow up into the fullness of Christ, into adult Christian maturity, the choice before us is either to become more childlike or more childish. Will we be childlike, in the sense of trust, interdependence, wonder, openness and playfulness, or will we be childish in the sense of the magical, wishful, self-centered thinking that so often masquerades as faith? Life has a way of forcing that question upon us, again and again, at deeper and deeper levels of the soul. But don’t worry: as the children’s hymn we sang today put it, “Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever. Unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth.”