Sermon on Mark 10:13-16 for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, August 16, 2015
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.
Every year when school starts I get nostalgic. I remember walking to school on rainy days in second grade, with my yellow slicker on, the smell of new textbook pages, the sounds of the cafeteria; it all comes back every fall.
Today is the day we do the blessing of the backpacks; we send the children of this congregation off to a new year with God’s blessing and with great hopes. We are so blessed in our area, to have high quality schools, excellent teachers and administrators, extra-curricular music and sports, and blessed that our adults, over the years, have seen fit to fund all of this (at least until recently); none of it is free, but it is so important!
We had a wonderful summer around here for kids. The Summer Fine Arts Camp called Kaleidoscope was a great success, and so was our VBS. Children are important to us. They are fully part of the family of God. Very soon we will have a baptism of a child, which will be a great joy for all of us.
Jesus’ Solemn Pronouncement
We read the text from the gospel of Mark about Jesus and the children. It seems a bit bizarre in our day to imagine adults trying to keep children from him, but in those ancient times, children were expected to be silent non-participants at adult functions. Fully in keeping with Jesus’ outreach to all people who were marginalized, the poor, the sick, women, and foreigners, he also made a welcoming space for children.
One of the most beautiful images we have of Jesus is this one:
“he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
He not only blessed them, he had something to say about them:
“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.”
This is one of those solemn pronouncements that gets a “Truly I tell you” preface. I like the old King James version: “verily verily I say unto you”. It sounds even more serious.
I want us to think about this important, solemn pronouncement today. In what way do we receive the kingdom like children? In what way, as Jesus so categorically puts it, will we never enter the kingdom if we do not receive it accordingly?
I am sure there are many ways to reflect on this; today I want to reflect on one.
Children expect to grow and develop. Children know they are in process towards a goal that they have not yet reached. How many times have you asked a child their age and instead of a simple answer like “Four” you get “Four and a half.” Children know that the next level is coming; they are not there yet, but they will be, soon.
To receive the kingdom as a child is to always remain open to growing and developing spiritually. We know that all of us pass through developmental stages as we grow.
Erik Erikson has mapped out eight Stages of Psychosocial Development from the oral-sensory stage of infancy all they way to adulthood.
Piaget has outlined for us the stages of Cognitive Development, that describes how we move from thinking of everything in concrete, literal terms to being able to think abstractly.
Lawrence Kolberg has described six stages of moral development. All of us used to think of right and wrong only in terms of fear and punishment. Later we grew to understand that there were rules we had the duty to obey to maintain social order.
Eventually, for those who keep developing morally, we come to understand that there are moral principles that transcend human laws. It is right to resist the Nazi’s. Laws themselves can be immoral. It is right to stay seated on the bus and not move to the back. It is right to sit at the lunch counter and expect to be served, no matter what sign has been posted. It is the only moral thing to do, to make a wedding cake for whomever is being married. No human law can make discrimination morally good.
We consider justice to be a higher demand on us. We consider Love of neighbor as compelling to us, on a level right up there next to loving God, as Jesus taught.
Children know they are developing. They know they have not reached maturity. Next year they will be taller. Next year they will learn the next level of math that they could never comprehend this year. Some adults, however, get stuck at spiritual and moral levels far from maturity.
They get stuck in the literal phase, especially when they read the bible. If it says “seven days” in the creation story, then each day had to have twenty-four literal hours, even though there is no sun to mark time until day four.
It would be funny, if it were not also tragic. People who get stuck here end up believing in a god of wrath and judgment, more interested in condemning people than redeeming them, if the numbers involved indicate God’s interests. Getting stuck in the literal stage ends up being tragic.
Growth and development, that children naturally expect, are necessary for us to enter the kingdom that Jesus was announcing had arrived. We leave behind childish concepts of God as the great Santa in the sky, or as the old man with the long white beard, or the scolding parent with the threatening paddle.
We leave these childish concepts behind. We become open to paradox and conundrums as part of life. An adult, maturing faith must keep developing until it can accommodate both aspects of our experience:
– wonder and awe as well as suffering and tragedy;
– sunsets, and tsunamis;
– thin-place experiences of palpable presence, and the dark-night-of-the-soul times of agonizing absence;
– the feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the gifts we enjoy of security, technology, medicine, education, nutrition, healthy safe food, on the one hand, and the depressing knowledge that there are still many people who are food insecure, safety insecure, and who cannot even dream of living the lives we take for granted.
A maturing, developing faith also grows to understand that certainty is not ever going to be available. As the theologian Karl Rahner as said:
“If you are talking about God and you’re talking about anything that has to do with God, whether it’s ritual or sacraments or scriptures or morality or anything and you are sure you know what you are talking about, you are a heretic.”
The desire to be sure, to be certain, while all of us have it, is an immature quest that needs to be left behind in favor of embracing mystery and paradox.
Developing believers are able to chart a course from naiveté to deconstruction, to a second naiveté that can maintain faith in the allurement of Love, even in the context of suffering and evil; there is no certainty here; but there is hope, courage, and compassion.
A maturing, developing faith is also open to looking in the mirror, seeing how far we have to go in the basic spiritual practices like forgiveness and humility. Since we know we are still in process, still growing, like children are, we welcome self-discovery that comes from looking at the things that make us angry and offend us. We realize that most of them are probably evidence of our false selves, our egos that are still fragile and wounded, and in need of transformation.
When we do not get it to go our way, when someone else gets to make the decision or gets the honor, and we feel that “who do they think they are?” question, we realize that we still have growing up to do. When we hear ourselves saying, “you can’t make me; you are not the boss of me” we realize that this is our inner moral child reacting, and we smile, and laugh at ourselves; we expect to keep growing up spiritually.
A childlike approach that assumes development understands that it is never to late to begin new practices of spiritual formation that we become aware of. We embrace practices of silence, meditation, and wordless contemplative prayer because we know that spiritual development is not automatic; it is not produced by the clock nor the calendar, but by regular habits, practiced over time.
A developing, growing person takes more and more personal responsibility. We become mindfully aware that every choice we make is, in fact, a choice we make. Every forkful of food we bring to our lips is a choice with consequences – both personal and global. Every purchase we make, every investment we make, every use of our money, is a personal choice that we take moral responsibility for. Every vote we cast, every use of our time, every entertainment decision we make we are mindfully aware that we are responsible for. Even the words that come out of our mouths are choices we make, which can be words of healing, of welcome, of reconciliation and love, or not; and we take mindful responsibility for them.
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Like children, we expect to grow, to change and to develop.
You have heard the expression, “You cannot teach and old dog new tricks.” I have good news: we are not dogs. That expression may indeed be true for quadrupeded canines, but we are different. Brain scientists have told us about neuroplasticity. Our brains change with each new experience we have. And this process, scientists tell us, continues throughout our whole lives. It never stops until we breath our last.
The truth is that we are continually developing and changing.
The challenge and the call is to make it intentional.
So we are here to commit ourselves to entering the kingdom that is here, now, by means of a childlike acceptance that we are here to grow.
We are here to develop. We are here to put on our backpacks, load up the school supplies, and open the door to the future that is evolving, that is in process, welcoming the future, just like children do.