WELCOME THE CHILDREN OF GOD: Part One
A Sermon on Mark 9:30-37
Last week, while I was getting ready to leave my house in Memphis and visit a clergy friend who is now in hospice, I decided I needed to spend some time in prayer. I sat down to pray. Soon after I had become quiet, I heard the voices of children. You see, we live across the street from a church. If you look out our front door, you can see the church playground.
Most of the time, I love children. This was not one of those times. I thought, Why can’t you play later? Don’t you know some people need to be quiet and pray? I’m about to go and visit a friend who’s dying, for God’s sake! I did not want to hear the Gospel message we’ve heard today.
When Jesus scooped that child up into his arms, it was unheard of. Men had all the power in Bible times. Servants, wives, and children were expected to be obedient to those powerful men. Servants were at the very bottom of the power pyramid, followed closely by children, then women.
In one, simple, radical act, Jesus turns the cultural expectations of his disciples and of their world upside down. He welcomes a child, and then, he dares suggest that, if his friends do the same thing, they’ll be welcoming Jesus himself! He seems to be saying, Do you want to see what God actually looks like? Do you want to find God right here? Are you curious about real spiritual power and greatness? Then, welcome this child. Welcome this child, and you will welcome me. You will also welcome God.
One seminary professor of New Testament calls Jesus’ disciples the Knucklehead Club. That’s because they really don’t understand Jesus or his ministry. They’re slow to grasp, slow to act, and afraid to ask Jesus about what he says will happen to him. They’re willing to serve, but only from a position of power. They’re willing to minister, but only as long as they’re in charge. Did they really want to see God in a child, let alone welcome God?
The question is: Do we want to see God? Do we want to welcome God? When I went off to seminary in New York City and began to navigate my way along the streets there, I learned how some of the most vulnerable people around me could be demanding, even dangerous. I learned I didn’t always want to see the God in those marginalized people, let alone welcome the God in them. But wasn’t that what Jesus wanted me to do?
When my daughter Hannah was a toddler, she used to love running in church. Mostly, her running was limited to Sunday mornings. When I would say, “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” she would leave her mother’s side and tear up the center aisle, all the way to the altar, so she could give me her great, big, vulnerable hug.
Some people at that church said they thought Hannah was irreverent, running and coming up inside the altar rails, a place where only the trained, reverent older children and adults should be allowed to be. I don’t think Hannah ever felt like she wasn’t welcome at that church, but her mother did. I still think it’s a miracle her mother ever went back to church.
When we are ready to see God, then we will dare to look. We will dare to look at the child. We will dare to look at the abandoned child in an alleyway. We will dare to look at the child in detention at the border. We will dare to look at the child who has been molested or trafficked. We will dare to look at the child dying of gunshot wounds in her kindergarten classroom. We will dare to look at the child who has no healthcare, no good education, no real dinner tonight. We will dare to look at the child who feels like she is drowning in anxiety or depression.
When we are ready to see God, we will dare to look at the weak, the small, the simple, the vulnerable, the helpless. We will dare to look at the ones who are not in charge. We will dare to look at the tiniest faces, and see God, the God who came to live among us as a child. Perhaps then we will dare to believe we can and need to welcome these children, because we now believe that all children everywhere represent God’s image, God’s likeness, God’s greatness, God’s power.
In some cultures, children are socially invisible. In others, they’re legally unprotected. In all cultures, children are at the mercy of those who are older, bigger, and stronger than they are. This shocking portrait of vulnerability is the portrait of God Jesus offers us today.
Speaking of portraits, later on – after we have finished this celebration of the Holy Eucharist and we go through these doors to the right to say our fond farewells to our friend Rosa Lindahl – this evening at five o’clock, there will be another celebration. We will remember and celebrate the life of Julia Starke, a woman who was a member here, a woman who, in her final years, became marginalized, a woman whose joyful, childlike art adorns the walls along two hallways of the education wing of this church.
My friends, the Church of the Ascension has something I have never seen in any other church, anywhere. If you go through these doors to the left, you can go down and walk along the first floor, where the day school is. Or you can go up to the third floor, where you’ll find classrooms and the children’s chapel. If you do, you will see the colorful renderings, all the way up and down the halls, of the biblical story, both Old Testament and New.
There are many renderings of Jesus, but the one you might miss is a painting, hanging on the wall upstairs in the foyer. It portrays Jesus as he welcomes little children. In that portrait I see Jesus truly enjoying those children, while they enjoy him. I see what I did not want to see or hear last week while I was trying to pray, instead of welcoming children at play.
From time to time we all act like members of the Knucklehead Club. That may be why, in our Baptismal service, we pray for the newly baptized person to be given “the gift of joy and wonder in all (God’s) works” (BCP, p. 308). That beautiful phrase describes a child or an adult who isn’t afraid of what Jesus may have in mind for them. Joy and wonder describe someone who isn’t afraid to laugh or to be curious, regardless of what happens in life. Joy and wonder – dare we believe it? – is meant for each and every one of us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, joy, laughter, wonder, curiosity – that’s the life I believe Jesus wants to see in his disciples, including us. My prayer today is that we learn to look, more and more, at the children and to the children in our midst. Today and every day, may we dare to look at all the children of the world. May we dare to welcome the child, in whom we can see God, in whom we will surely find Jesus.
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black, brown and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.