When I first decided to do this summer sermon series on “The Gospel According to…” I thought it sounded like a fun, light thing to do in the summer months. But I had two other reasons. We know we see God in the beauty of the world around us—we feel close to God when we’re on the lake or sitting by the ocean. We also know that we see God in the pain of the world around us—in those who are suffering, those on the margins. We know we can see God in one another. But sometimes we forget that God’s messages can be found anywhere, everywhere. Did Paul McCartney intend to point us toward God? Did Dr. Seuss? Or J.K. Rowling? Probably not. And yet we have found spiritual messages in their writing.
My other reason was to help us dig deeper into the Bible and its message. We forget that the stories Jesus told were taken from the world around him—their version of pop culture, if you will. We’re so far removed in time and space that we can have a difficult time relating to those stories. So I’ve been trying to use stories and songs we already know as a way into the scripture. With this in mind, I turned this week to the Gospel According to Children . . . because nobody helps us see things in new ways better than children.
I’m sure we all have experienced times when a child made us laugh by saying something in an unexpected way. When he was three, my son came home from preschool one day saying, “Mama, I had a hard week today!” And I know that feeling! I have had days like that. But as much as I love the cute things my kids have said over the years, I can be absolutely stopped in my tracks when my child says something profound. But to keep this sermon from being a list of things my children have said, I asked one of my clergy Facebook groups for stories of children saying profound things. I received over 100 responses. (Don’t worry—I won’t share them all!)
I was surprised by how many of the stories mentioned the sacraments. A five-year-old, upon being told that one of her classmates was going to be baptized in a few weeks, asked excitedly, “Does that mean he will be my baptism brother?” How fabulous—to claim anyone who has been baptized as our baptism sibling.
Most of the sacrament stories, though, were about communion. Children have fabulous ways of understanding communion. I heard of one little girl who, when she wants communion, asks her grandfather, a priest, for her “medicine.” Somehow she understands that we can find healing in this meal. Another child called it “the bread of grace,” even though that wasn’t the language her church used. And another asked when she could have the God-food.
But for every positive story about a child and communion, there were two painful ones—stories of children being denied communion by well-meaning church leaders who didn’t think the children were old enough to understand. Their cries said otherwise. Here are a few of the phrases quoted to me as coming directly from children after not receiving communion: “Mommy, doesn’t Jesus love little children? If I don’t have Jesus’s body come into my body, how will I grow in love?” “Hey – why does everyone else get Jesus but me?” “How come I only get a pat on the head?” “I want some of Jesus too!” “But I want the Christ! I want the Christ!” The leaders in these churches were doing their best to protect the sacrament by not allowing it to be seen as a snack you get in church. They thought they were honoring the holiness of it, by not allowing children to partake until they were older. I understand that, and I don’t want communion to be taken without meaning. But I also don’t want any child’s first experience of communion to be exclusion. Besides, these children demonstrated that they understood it very well—perhaps even better than those who sought to protect it.
Our scripture is from Mark 10:13-16.
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
The disciples rebuked the people. The word translated as “rebuked” is a harsh word and is typically used in the Gospel According to Mark in reference to Jesus rebuking demons. So the disciples were behaving harshly. When Jesus saw the disciples turning away the children, he was indignant—another strong word. “It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.” Now, Jesus was often annoyed with the disciples, so the fact that this word is used only here is significant. Jesus is indignant, incensed, that his disciples would try to keep children away from him. He had just told them (in the last chapter!) that whoever welcomed a child welcomed him, and whoever welcomed him, welcomed God. That wasn’t clear enough for them?
Chances are, the disciples meant well. Jesus was a busy man with lots of demands on his time. Since Jesus sometimes had to go away alone to rest and rejuvenate, they surely needed to protect him from unnecessary drains on his energy. They meant well. I think. Of course, another option is that some of them gained a higher status level by being associated with Jesus—until he caused too much trouble, of course—so if Jesus was surrounded by children, well, that didn’t speak very highly of him, and therefore lowered their status, too.
Jesus’ response was to say, “Truly I tell you anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Writer John Petty explains this well. He writes: “The saying is not about the ‘simple faith’ of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust. It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status. (60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.) … Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it. Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom…. Whoever receives a child receives me, Jesus had said (9:37). In the kingdom of God, which is to be practiced here on earth, children are to be ‘received’ they are to be accepted. Children are not to be ‘hindered.’ They are not to be turned away just because they are small and powerless. Quite the contrary, in fact. Turn a child away–turn away those who are weak–and you are not in the kingdom.”
I did not plan to speak this morning on anything controversial. This was supposed to be a nice, happy sermon about the lessons children teach us. But when studying this passage, how can I possibly ignore the cries of immigrant children? How can I not remind us of our responsibility to welcome them—and their parents—into our country? Instead we, the United States of America, have separated children from their parents. We have turned people away. We have called their legal actions illegal so we can deport them. We have held them for weeks without showers, clean water, and enough room to lie down. U.S. citizens have been arrested and held in detention for weeks simply for speaking Spanish. One young man told of losing 24 pounds in 23 days in detention. Anybody who has ever tried to lose weight knows you don’t lose a pound a day for three weeks just cutting carbs! We are creating trauma in children and adults—trauma that will forever change their lives. We are also creating terrorists. All because we are trying to “protect” our country.
And Christ is appalled. Christ is indignant. And we better be, too. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” And I know you know these things. I trust that you are getting your news from reliable sources and that you’re keeping up with the atrocities that are happening. I don’t want to beat us all over the head with this on Sundays, especially for those of you for whom church is the one place you get peace. But I also can’t ignore my responsibility to speak truth, when what we’re doing is so far out of step with what the Bible teaches. These facts need to be spoken in church so we can hold them up to the light.
On the flip side, I’ve been so proud of our city, proud of the people of the Greater Portland area, because when we had a mass influx of asylum-seekers, we stepped up. We are stepping up. Unfortunately, the easy part is over. How are we going to meet the ongoing needs of people in our community? How are we going to find housing for these families? I don’t have the answers. But I know the answers must not come from a place of fear.
Of course, immigrants are not the only vulnerable ones, nor is the application of this scripture only about one issue. There are many ways we shut people out. I keep remembering the stories about communion that I shared earlier. I keep hearing those cries: “Mommy, doesn’t Jesus love little children? If I don’t have Jesus’s body come into my body, how will I grow in love?” “Hey – why does everyone else get Jesus but me?” “But I want the Christ! I want the Christ!”
There are people who want the Christ. Oh, they may not know that’s what they want. They want community. They want a place of belonging. They want some place to go when the world gets too harsh or too cold. They want a place to bring their burdens. They want people who will rejoice with them. They want unconditional love. They just don’t know that the church is one of the places they can get these things. They don’t know that their hunger can be satisfied by communion bread and a potluck supper. They don’t know because—well, the church has not always been a safe place. Plus, over the years, the church at large has put up so many barriers for people to get past: insider language, unspoken dress codes, an unwillingness to adapt to changing times. This is not to say that if we fix these things, people will come flooding to the church. That era has passed. But we—the church at large and this congregation—can do a better job of preparing ourselves to meet the needs of people who haven’t even found us yet. AND we can’t just sit around waiting for them to come through the door. We have to keep trying to increase our visibility so those who are seeking know we’re here. And once they find us, well, then we have to be who we claim to be: followers of Christ, and bearers of God’s extravagant love.
One of the stories told to me this week is about a preschooler who didn’t quite get the words to the Lord’s Prayer right. Instead of “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” she said, “Our Father, how to be thy name.” And isn’t that the million-dollar question. How to be thy name, how to be God’s name, how to be Christ’s body. For me it starts with our scripture: “Let the little children come to me.” The little children. The vulnerable. The powerless. Those in the greatest danger. Let them come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
I have one last story for our Gospel According to Children lesson. A preacher wrote to me saying, “During the Children’s Time, I was about to begin the story of The Publican and the Pharisee. I wanted to highlight the wordy, showy, prayers of the Pharisee, so I asked the children, ‘Have you ever known someone who just talked and talked and talked, like they knew everything?’ A little five-year-old raised his hand and asked, ‘Do you mean like Preachers?’” J