Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Childlike"

Sermon 10/4/09, Mark 10:13-16

Be Childlike

Today we come to the third in a set of texts where Jesus draws children into the scene, draws children to the center of a circle of adult men, to the center of a circle of his most trusted colleagues, to the center of his teaching. In our first text two weeks ago, we read about the disciples arguing over who was the greatest, and in response, Jesus brought a small child into their midst, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Then, last week, we talked about stumbling blocks, and heard Jesus say, probably of this same child, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your heck and you were thrown into the sea.”

And today, finally, we get to this passage of four short verses. People are bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus. The disciples, apparently not having absorbed much from the conversations they’ve seemingly just had with Jesus, speak sternly to them. We’re not sure exactly why they are upset with these parents and children. But we can make some guesses – the children were distracting, Jesus was busy, teaching, doing something more important. The children were in the way, Jesus had a lot on his plate; the children wouldn’t understand Jesus anyway. But Jesus becomes indignant at seeing this happening – another strong response from him after some passages of strongly-worded teaching. He says, “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 takes the children in his arms, lays hands on them, and blesses them.

This passage is short, but powerful, as long as we don’t just skim the surface of what Jesus is saying. At surface, I think our impulse is, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, to conjure images of Jesus and children, which is fine, but not if the only response we can have is “how sweet.” Jesus is doing some serious teaching here. At the least, the passage hopefully causes us to think about children in the life of the church. How do we see children? What place do children have in the Body of Christ? I recently came across an article about a church that actually prohibits children under a certain age from entering the sanctuary. The church adamantly defends the practice, insisting adults shouldn’t have to be distracted during worship. They don’t seem to see any relevancy, apparently, between their practice and our passage for today. Beyond worship, though, are questions about how children are part of everything we do at church. Why do we want young people here and involved in what we’re about? Is it just for the survival of the church? Or because we want young people to experience God’s unconditional love? How do we welcome and bless children in our midst?

But still, Jesus pushes us beyond even those questions. He says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” We’re not just being asked to be nice and welcoming to children. We are being asked to learn from children, to in fact, ourselves, be childlike, so that we can receive God’s kingdom like they do. If we want to enter God’s kingdom, in this life or after, we need to receive it like a child. And that’s a little more challenging. What does that even mean? How do we receive the God’s kingdom like a child? How does a child receive God’s kingdom? What characterizes children, and how they approach things, and how they approach God? I spent some time considering these questions this week. Of course, when we think about children, we could come up with many different adjectives and descriptions. But thinking about children and God, children and faith, I’ve focused in on curiosity, vulnerability, and receptiveness.

Children are curious, aren’t they? From the moment they’re born, babies are curious – you can see the amazement in their eyes when they discover that their hands and feet are attached to their bodies, or when they become fascinated by a light on the ceiling, or a whirring fan. Children ask why. Why does this work that way? Why does this happen? Why does this rule exist? Why? Children ask until adults finally give in and say, “because I said so!” My nephew Sam is at the age where he can think the smallest thing is funny, and laugh at some new thing he has discovered over, and over, and over. On my vacation this summer, Sam spent an hour shining a flashlight into each of the adults’ faces, fascinated by seeing the light shine. Children are curious, and they are filled with awe and wonder.

As adults, are we curious? Do we have a sense of us? Do we look at the world around us in wonderment? Do we ask “why?” Sometimes, when it comes to faith matters, we’re afraid to be curious, and ask why, and wonder about what God is doing, and how God moves in the world. But actually, I think that some of our deepest growth in discipleship can come from asking questions. Not having any questions about our God who moves in such mysterious ways only says we’re not very interested in what God has going on. We need to wonder and ask. I think, as we get to adulthood, we’re afraid of not knowing the answers to questions. We’re afraid to be caught, called out, like a student called on in class who was busy daydreaming. I’ve certainly been in that embarrassing situation – you know, where you laugh at a joke but you haven’t even really understood what the other person was talking about? We’re so interested in appearing to know what’s going on, that we let ourselves miss out on fully experiencing things. We’d rather just pretend we know what is happening.

And we can get caught up with doing that in our relationship with God too – we’re worried about not looking like good disciples. We’re worried that we don’t seem to hear God’s voice as clearly and confidently as the person in the pew next to us seems to. We’re worried that our questions about God mean our faith isn’t strong. We worry that because we don’t know the Bible well, or don’t know our history well, or don’t know enough about our denominations, that we are somehow failing as Christians. We must be curious! Eager to ask about God and God’s ways. You have to rest assured that despite appearances, everyone one of us here, including your pastor, is filled with questions about God and how we are meant to follow God. We’re in this journey of faith together. So be curious, be filled with awe, and wonder.

Children are also vulnerable. In fact, humans are dependent and need the care of adults longer than virtually any other species on the planet. Newborns depend on others for every single thing in their lives. And any parents will know that children continue to depend on you for the next 18 years at least, but probably more like the next 25 years, or 30 years, or more. But seriously, children are vulnerable. They must put their trust, faith, confidence in others every day. Their very life is dependent on someone else providing for them every day.

As adults, one of the last things we want to be is vulnerable. In fact, in this society, we value our independence and our privacy so much that we’d usually rather not have to ask anyone for anything. And we certainly don’t want to appear vulnerable to others. If you think way back to the primaries before the last presidential election, you might remember a time on the campaign trail when Hillary Clinton started crying in response to a question someone asked her about the demands of her candidacy for the presidency. With the media coverage, with the incredible response – supportive or critical – of Clinton’s tears, you would think that the capacity to cry, to be moved to tears, to have an emotional response to something, must be some very, very rare thing. That’s how much we dislike being vulnerable in front of one another. And I can relate. I have long hated crying in front of others. I may be in extreme emotional distress internally. But externally, I will do everything I can to keep it together.

And why? For what purpose? Why are we so obsessed with seeming like we have everything together in front of others? What would be so horrible about being vulnerable? Perhaps we know that others are sometimes not gracious in their responses to our vulnerability. We close up and self-protect because we’ve been hurt. But with God, things are – or can be – different. God is merciful, and gracious, and gives us strength, where we see weakness. If nowhere else, we need to learn how to be vulnerable to God, and stop trying to put on a show for God of how together we are. When we’re vulnerable, then God can actually reach us, shape us, and change us.

And children are receptive. And I mean this in some very literal ways. Children have the ability to receive things, to receive gifts, with ease and openness. Children love receiving presents, and they delight in every part of the gift, from the shiny wrapping paper, to the box, to the item inside all the wrapping. They don’t worry about getting too many gifts. They don’t even really mind getting a lot of the same gift. Hopefully they say, “Thank you!” But hopefully, the joy with which children receive gifts is in itself a ‘thanks’ to the gift-giver.

Adults seem to have a hard time accepting gifts. We worry that there are really strings attached to gifts that we receive. We worry that something is expected of us in return. We worry that we don’t deserve the gift. We only want certain kinds of gifts. You remember this summer when I was talking about making a wish list for Christmas and birthdays. We go beyond that really – for weddings or baby showers or other special events, we actually register for the gifts we want, just to encourage people to get us only the things we’re asking for. Or we give each other gifts that we would never want ourselves, because we’re giving out of obligation, rather than generosity. Giving and receiving gifts, something that should be easy, and all about showing love and affection for others, becomes a tricky and stressful endeavor full of proper etiquette to uphold and unspoken expectations.

God is the best giver of all good gifts. God gives to us never out of obligation, but always out of love. And God gives to us as one who knows us completely, knows what we want, and what we truly need. And God always gives us the best. But so often, we’re not receptive to what God is giving us. God gives us talents and skills and abilities, and we neglect to use them, fail to appreciate them, act like they are a burden to us, and wish we had some other gifts or talents instead. God gives us forgiveness, grace, love without condition, and we feel like we have to earn the gift, do something to pay for it, be good enough to have received what God wants to give freely, not so that we will be in debt to God. If we are receptive, open to God’s gifts, God’s abundant generosity will overwhelm us, and satisfy us more completely than we can imagine.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day when we rejoice to know that Christians all over the world, despite our different practices, structures, and theologies, we are members of the One Body of Christ. Today as we share this meal, let us come, childlike. Come and be curious and filled with wonder at how God can be present in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. Come, be vulnerable, and open to God changing you through the simple meal. Come, receive these gifts, freely given, given with love, offered without price. Come, like a child, and receive the kingdom of God. Amen.

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