Lectionary Sermon for Oct. 4, 2009, 27th Ordinary B, Mark 10:13-16

World Communion Sunday

Isaiah 2:2-4

Mark 10:13-16

All the Children of the World

13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

"pick me up"
"pick me up"

If you had to draw (or imagine) one picture for this text it would probably show  Jesus standing there cradling a young child in his arms, surrounded, like Santa at a department store on Christmas eve, by other children of various ages, anxiously awaiting their turn, while the parents lovingly look on.

Strong language

But that’s the picture you get from combining the beginning with the end of this small story, leaving out the center – which contains the central teaching.  In sharp contrast to that picture of a streaming line of parents approaching Jesus and the warm, loving embrace at the end is middle scene – everyone is upset.  The language is strong – both to describe what the disciples of Jesus were doing, speaking “sternly” to the poor parents, and the way Jesus felt about it: “indignant.”  The disciples were upset that their attempts to stage-manage Jesus’ public ministry were being overwhelmed by the demand, and Jesus was angry at them in no uncertain terms.

Was it bad for the children to have all of this adult anger displayed in front of them?  It is true that adult conflict increases children’s sense of anxiety – as when there is conflict between parents, but recent studies have demonstrated that when children are witness to the amicable resolution of the conflict, their anxiety levels drops back down to normal states.  I think we can safely say the children witnessed    a resolution here, and so, “the kids are alright.”

But let’s get back to the story.  Parents are brining their children to Jesus – clearly they are expecting something from Jesus – and they are correct.  Unlike the mis-understanding disciples, Jesus will consider time spent with children time well spent.  He will turn his attention to the children, notice them, reach out to them.  He will extend God’s touch of blessing to those children as if they were equal in value to the full grown adults.

Jesus forms our values – including about children

This perspective demonstrated by Jesus is significant all by itself, and we take a lesson here.  Our agenda is set by Jesus; our values are formed by Jesus; our values are molded and shaped, not by our culture or sub-culture, not by media, not by news outlets nor by entertainers.  Our whole vision of right and wrong, good and bad, important and trivial is something that we, as disciples (for that is what we are) keep working  to bring into greater and greater congruency with Jesus.

So, yes, for us, the church, children are important.  We make room for them, we value them – not because they act like miniature adults – but because they have value as children.  We baptize children in to the covenant community, and when we witness a baptism, we take vows to nurture that child in Christian faith.  Nurture includes providing opportunities for them to learn the language of faith, the habits of faith, like prayer and worship, and also learning the stories of faith – our family story, beginning with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, David – all the way up through the gospel stories.

All the children of the world

But we do not abruptly end the lesson we learn from Jesus at the church door.  Our values have been transformed by Jesus at a deep level.  We care about not just our own children, but, as the song says, “all the children of the world.”  We want to do what we can to make this world safe for children – all children.  We will work to provide food to children who are hungry because when we provide food to a hungry child, or to put it another way, “to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” Jesus said, “you do it to me.”  (Matt 25:40)

This is part of the reason we just had a Rummage Sale for the Christian Service Center – which is our vehicle for bringing real tangible help to families in need and the children in them.

This is the reason we participate in Family Promise ministry to homeless families.  This ministry is not attempting to help all the homeless, but is targeted specifically to assist homeless families with children so that those children have an opportunity to be fed, housed, clothed, kept in school, and shown a way back to wholeness.

Our values are formed by Jesus, and we value children – “all the children of the world.”

This is why it hurts so much to see the victims of the earthquakes in the South Pacific and the storm victims of the Philippines – when we see the children, our hearts go out to them and we respond.  Our Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program uses contributions from our One Great Hour of Sharing offering to bring relief, medical aid, medicine, and food to victims – specifically paying attention to helping children.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday.  We affirm that the differences between us of culture, language, and location do not undermine the fact that the Body of Christ is singular.  We are members, equally, of that body, the Church, along with believers in Samoa, Sumatra, the Philippines, Viet Nam and the entire world.  One day we will sit at table together in the kingdom of God with people who are not Caucasian, not affluent, not Americans, and certainly not Presbyterians, but who are loved by God and forgiven by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Today we affirm what our Lord taught us:

Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” And, as the choir sang,

He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

But we need to get back to the story.

Children: models for entering the kingdom

There is more to this small vignette than a call to value children; there is also a solemn call to look at children as  indispensable models for us.  After the disciples’ misguided rebuke of the parents who were brining their children to Jesus, and after Jesus’ indignation at them, then came his direct teaching:

14“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

“Truly I tell you” means, the following teaching is crucially important.  It is the New Testament equivalent of the authoritative declaration by the prophet, “Thus says the Lord.”  The mental picture we have of the soft warm hug Jesus gives the children should not distract us from the gravity and danger of this teaching.  This is a threat.  There is a risk here that is nothing short of horrible to consider.   There is a way to fail to enter the kingdom of God.  This is serious.

15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

What does this mean?  What does it mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child”?   Jesus didn’t explain it; he left it for us to struggle with.  In fact, there is a deep irony here: we have to approach this solemn teaching as intelligent adults who take responsibility for figuring it out and living accordingly.  It takes adult-level work to understand how to be like children.

As I have sat with this teaching of our Lord Jesus, I have considered the ways of children.  You could probably do better, but this is what I have come up with.

Needing without shame

Children have no shame about needing help beyond themselves.  The universal posture of a child – from any part of the world – lifting up their arms to an adult says, “pick me up; I need you.”  That expression of need for help beyond ourselves is step number one in the spiritual world.  I am a sinner: I need God.  I am a finite human: I need God’s people.  I need redemption, I need the daily power of the Holy Spirit, I need a supportive Christian community, I need scripture.  I need to be like a child who has no shame when saying, “I need….”

15”Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Making no enemies

Second, children do not know how to hate, or whom to hate.  Children do not notice differences of race or social standing.  Children do not divide up the world into “us” vs. “them”.   Children do not make enemies.

I will never forget the time I was in a small store with Benjamin who was only 5 years old, just after we had arrived in war-torn Croatia.  The cashier was trying out her English on Ben, and asked him, “You don’t like those bad Serbs, do you?”  Ben had no idea what to say.  Outside he asked me, “Daddy, what are Serbs and why are they bad?”  He had not yet been taught whom to consider “enemy.”

15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

These are only two examples of what it means to me to receive the kingdom “as a little child.”  The point still stands that Jesus did not explain these implications, he simply gave his solemn “truly I tell you” and left us responsible for figuring it out.  You and I are therefore responsible for plumbing the depths of this teaching  – in all of its nuances.

Resolution

Let us follow this story to its conclusion.  There were strong, adult emotions expressed in this story; the disciples were sharp in their rebuke of the parents, and Jesus was blunt in his indignation at them.  But there was also a resolution.

16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Jesus enacted the values he was teaching.  He really did take time for children, the least of these.  He really did treat them with value and dignity.  And he did cross a huge cultural, racial, ethnic, status barrier to welcome them: he came to earth, demonstrating God’s incarnational method of being “with” sinners like us.

On this wold communion Sunday we affirm that we are some of those “little children of the world” that Jesus loves, and in his name, we commit ourselves to being his hands, his feet, his warm embrace for “all the children of the world” that we can get to, starting right here in Gulf Shores.


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