Sermon for Oct 12, 2014, Pentecost +18 A on Deut. 6:4-9 and Mark 10:13 l-16
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But 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. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Are you feeling hopeful about the future these days? I am sensing a lot of pessimism from all kinds of places, and it is starting to get to me. World events could not be less encouraging – from the horrific violence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to the raging ebola outbreak in Africa.
At home, there is a severe drought in California, while in Miami Beach, they are investing in huge pumps to keep out the rising tides. And to top it off, even an innocent conversation about football spirals into the subject of domestic violence.
But it may be good to step back a bit and get some perspective. As horrible as ISIS is, it bears no comparison with a world war. As bad as ebola is, it is nothing like the plague in the 14th century, or even the influenza pandemic that killed millions in the early 20th century. And, as inexcusable as domestic violence is, at least we live in an age in which most of us, at least in the West, believe that it is inexcusable. That consensus was not the case, not that long ago.
Of course that still leaves the issue of climate change without a hopeful response; that issue is still on the table; historical comparisons only makes it look worse.
Hope and Children
Perhaps we can pin our hopes for the future on the children of today. Armed with a good education that is solidly values-based and scientifically-astute, perhaps they can help solve some of the problems they have inherited.
Hope in the future that looks towards children for its substance is what the ancient Hebrews expressed in Torah. Moses said:
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”
Science you can learn at school, but values are first learned at home. Moses wanted the children to first learn from their parents: “Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet.” They should learn from their parents to care for “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” because, as their wisdom tradition says:
“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” (Prov. 14:31)
It should be that it is at home, from their parents, they first hear, and often hear, as Moses also said:
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;…You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:17-18)
Children, raised in homes that instill these values, could possibly be the hope for the future. But children do not get to choose what they learn at home. You didn’t; I didn’t. Children are not choosers; they are recipients. They receive what is given whether it is violence or love.
And what they receive will most likely be what they will, in the future, also choose; violence or love. For children raised with violence, unless and until there is major intervention (we Christians call it healing, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation) the cycle that began with violence-received turns around to give violence. The victimized become the victimizers.
This is why childhood must not ever be idealized or romanticized. Christians can be guilty of this, particularly because of the the text we read. Jesus looks at the children gathered around him and tells us,
“for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
I have heard people say that this means things like being trusting and innocent as children. But we adults have trouble with being trusting and innocent, partly because of what we have experienced in childhood. Children are uniquely vulnerable to domination and victimization.
So, we must not romanticize children. Rather, receiving the kingdom as a child means simply receiving it as a given, the way children receive life. Why so? Because, “The kingdom of God has come near,” as Jesus liked to say. It is already present; so, to receive it as a child is to receive it as the given set of circumstances that you live in. It is there, to be discovered, like a treasure you stumble onto.
It is like a realization, an awareness, or an “ah ha” of enlightenment. The lights come on. There is a new clarity. All the old things look different.
And once having received the reality of the kingdom, then we look at the world and see what a broken, hurting, dangerous place that the kingdom has come to.
What does this mean for us? This given-ness of the kingdom, when discovered, and received as a child, immediately has two results: the first is personal, and the second is public.
Personally, receiving the kingdom means living in a broken world in which God is present and active already. It means that there is healing and redemption for all of the hurts, disappointments, and failures we have accumulated. There is hope for lost-ones. That is why the kingdom, Jesus tells us, is like the party the woman gave after finding the lost coin, the celebration over the lost sheep that was recovered, and the reconciled lost, prodigal son who found a family to come home to.
To receive the givenness of the kingdom means that we, who know ourselves as finite and mortal, and as sometimes weak, and other times, hurtful, can know ourselves instead as we were made to be, as children of God. We can know our true identity as sons and daughters of God, loved by God, forgiven, and transformed.
To receive the givenness of the kingdom means that we can be present to our lives in each moment, not resisting and fighting the moments we are given, but accepting and receiving them, as children receive life, confident that we are safe, ultimately; that whatever comes, it will be okay. God will be there for us; is here for us, in the only moment we are ever given – the present.
Receiving the kingdom as children is more than just personal; it is also public. Since the kingdom is a given for us, we look at our public lives from a kingdom perspective. This means we look and see the world as God does, with compassion.
The best way to see what it means to look at the world compassionately is to notice what Jesus does as he gives this teaching: he reaches out to children. He reaches out to touch and to bless those who are most at risk, uniquely vulnerable, unable to defend themselves, and he makes them the object of his concern.
This is what we do too, following Jesus: we turn our compassionate gaze towards the pain, towards the ones in need, towards the vulnerable. Naturally, we reach out to children.
We do not have many children of our own around us now. But we do have other people’s children around us, and we are reaching out to them.
It reminds me of the situation among the refugees of the former Yugoslavia we met. Croatians, driven from their own homes and farms to the south, were forced to find refuge in a house that a Serb from the north had abandoned to flee southwards. On someone else’s land they would till the gardens, plant flowers, and maintain simple crops. They would sometimes say that they hoped that someone who was living in their house, on their land, was likewise keeping it well.
We may not have our own children or grandchildren to care for, but we do have the children of others. We hope and pray that elsewhere, someone is looking after ours as well.
For many years this congregation has reached out to the children of our community by our after school tutoring program. As you have helped these youngsters do their homework you have done significant kingdom-work. You have formed relationships – some have even become pen-pals. You have shown these kids that someone loves them enough to take time for them. And you have helped them have success instead of damaging failure in school.
Right now we are hosting a pre-school and a whole variety of after school programs for the children of our community to help them develop positive values and skills for their future. This is just the beginning – we are actively planing more ways of reaching out as well.
As Presbyterians we are one of the support churches for the Presbyterian Home for Children that specifically ministers to children that come from places of great suffering and pain. And lives have been transformed. Bodies and hearts have been healed. Cycles of violence have been stopped. Hope has replaced hopelessness.
This is what we do. People who receive the kingdom as children, look with compassion at children – all the children of the world. We pray or peace, we get help to victims after disasters.
Around the world we build schools and hospitals, we send bright, intelligent, compassionate people to go for us to teach and to care for refugees and orphans.
We adjust our own lifestyles to be compassionate to future generations who will inherit the planet we leave for them, reducing, recycling, reusing, and supporting policies that protect our air, land and water.
So, yes, children are the future. But even more significantly, children are the present. They are here, now. And we are here, now. And one of the reasons God has put us here, is to have people of compassion to continue to do just what Jesus did when he said:
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”