This weekend was our church retreat at Holmes. It was my first time being out there. A small group of us gathered Friday night. We arrived in time to play games and tell stories and laugh; we arrived in time to succeed at finding our cabin in the dark in time to fail miserably at making a fire, and in time to console ourselves with wine and popcorn and cookies.
About 35 of us enjoyed our time Saturday, full of Bible study and worship and hiking and napping, full of thinking about how we have each grown spiritually, and dreaming about who God might be calling us to be as a church today and into the future. I have to confess to you, as I was frantically packing for this adventure on Friday morning, I thought, I am just too tired for this. So, I’m not exactly sure when it happened. It might have been when teenagers covered in marshmallow informed me that my suggestions of making s’mores in the microwave was, in fact, one of the worst ideas in the world. It might have been when we sang favorite old hymns with melodies that soared into the rafters. It might have been when the co-chair of personnel led the way on a hike, or when the church treasurer kept a branch from smacking me in the face. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point it occurred to me—last weekend I promised to serve you; this weekend I realized how much I love you. Thank you for the gift of being your pastor.
During our closing worship service yesterday, I stood at the table, with bread and cup in my hands, and remembered I had not asked anyone to help me serve the elements. I surveyed the room, saw all sorts of elders and deacons, so simply asked for a volunteer. Before anyone else could move, Kathryn, one of our middle schoolers, stood up and said, “Me. I’ll do it.”
And so it was that a child served every one of us the bread of life.
It today’s gospel reading, it’s clear how Jesus feels about children, and it’s clear how he feels about those who try to keep them away. It’s a story we’ve managed to bathe in sentimentality, but like so much of Jesus’s life, it is more than a little radical.
People of all sorts are coming to Jesus for healing and blessing, and before long, they aren’t just coming themselves, they are bringing their children, too. The disciples, however, chastise them and try to turn them away. They think they were doing the right thing. They think they are clearing the way for Jesus to do his real work. They think children should be seen and not heard, and, actually now that you mention it, maybe not seen, either. They think Jesus will say thank you. Because you see, in Jesus’ day, children were almost always considered inferior. Nearly half of all children born then did not live to see five years old. It wasn’t until they were 13 that they were really viewed as full human beings. So, the disciples try to save Jesus from wasting away his energy.
But Jesus says, “Let them come to me. Because the kingdom of God, it belongs to them.
Robin Maas has studied Jesus’ reaction to children as much or more than anyone else. She says she can find no other place in scripture where the kingdom of heaven is said to belong to anyone, except right here. Yes, in many places scripture says we belong to God, that by God’s grace we belong in the kingdom of heaven, but it is only to children that the kingdom of heaven belongs. She believes this is because children understand God in a way the rest of us do not.
I remember preaching my first sermon back in Kansas City. I remember it less for anything I had to say and more for what a little girl had to say. After the service was over and I was shaking hands in the Narthex, Layla, who would become a sweet friend of mine, shyly handed me a picture. It was full of bright colors, clearly drawn with enthusiasm. “It’s beautiful!” I said. “Can you tell me about it?”
“I tried to draw God,” she said, “but God’s hard to draw.”
“I bet so,” I said, “since we don’t really k now what God looks like.”
She looked at me, studying me. “Oh,” she said. “When did you forget?”
It’s possible to write that off as a cute story about how kids say the darnedest things. But I can’t do that. I can’t explain it any further than I already have; I just know not everything about who God is and how God is present among us can be or needs to be explained.
It was about two months ago, back when we were holding Fellowship Hour down in the Parish Hall, during that time some of you had already started referring to as The Great Flood of 2018. I walked through the double doors and was greeted immediately by Christopher, one of the younger members of our church family. He ran up to me and shook the sleeve of my robe. “Guess what, guest what, Jenny,” he said. “I ate the bread that makes you so happy, and it made me so happy too!” And he jumped up and down, saying again, “It made me so happy to eat the bread!”
And I thought, in a way clearer than I ever had before, “The joyful feast for the people of God. The joyful feast, indeed.”
Sometimes children understand God in a way the rest of us do not.
It was late one summer evening, when I had been called to the hospital. It was a case of appendicitis, not caught fast enough, and Brandon’s appendix had burst, and in the surgery to repair the damage, they’d discovered he couldn’t handle anesthesia very well. I sat around Brandon’s big hospital bed with his parents and his younger brother, Scott. I offered to pray, and we held hands as I said the words. As I finished, I said, “Amen”—but Scott interrupted me.
“Wait, Jenny,” he said. “God isn’t finished praying yet.”
“What?” I said.
“God,” he said. “God is praying for Brandon, too. You probably shouldn’t interrupt him.”
“How do you know?” his mother asked him.
“I just do,” he said, and turned back to his coloring book.
Sometimes children understand God in a way the rest of us do not.
Back in 1996, my friend Rodger visited northern Uganda with Marj Carpenter, who was then moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. They were waken up around 3 am one night, and a pastor told them they were going to a refugee camp in Sudan. They drove for eight hours, to be welcomed into a refugee camp housing thousands of Sudanese Christians. They had fled their homes in hopes of saving their lives. They had been told the American Presbyterian moderator was coming to see them, and they had cleared some space in an open, dray, dusty area, with a tarp strung up for some shade.
Rodger says he can’t remember ever being so hot. He also can’t remember worship ever being so quiet. He looked around and saw countless numbers of children, held in their parents’ arms. “Marj,” he said, “can you believe how quiet the children are? American children do not behave this well. I don’t hear a single one of them. The only thing I can hear,” he said, “other than preaching, is the buzzing of the flies.”
“Rodger,” she said, “look at them….Look at them,” she said again. “They are quiet because they are too weak. They are too malnourished to cry. Their bodies are not strong enough to cry. They are dying, Rodger, in their mother’s arms, and they cannot make a sound.”
My friend looked around and began to understand.
“And Rodger,” Marj said, “the next time you are preaching, or the next time you are on an airplane, and you hear a baby cry, you give thanks to God that the baby is strong enough to make noise enough for you to turn your head.”
Ever since then, Rodger says, when he hears a baby fuss or cry or otherwise make their presence known, he prays, “Thank you, Jesus, for that holy sound.”
But it is not only in the Sudan that children face dangerous circumstances. Nearly one billion children will go to bed hungry tonight, and 15 million of them are here in the United States. Countless parents are at a loss, unsure how to explain to their children that they are in charge of their own bodies, and only their own bodies, and that mistakes carry consequences. And with numbers far higher than we can bear to imagine, we have been reminded that not even in the church can we assume the safety of our children, for sometimes even boundaries that ought to be sacred are cast aside and compromised.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, because children understand God in a way we do not. So, we need our children. We need our children to remind us who God is and what the kingdom of heaven is like. And our children need us to take care of them. To protect them. To treat them with gentleness and respect and dignity. To fight for them and stand up for them and insist that others do the same, the way Jesus insisted that his disciples change their ways.
“Let the children come to me,” he said. “Let nothing stand in their way.”
At the 11:15 service today, in just a few minutes, we are going to baptize two little ones—John James and Henry Keyser. Their parents will make some promises: Promises to bring them to church. Promises to raise them in the faith. Promises to teach them about Jesus. But we are going to make some promises, too. We are going to promise to help with all of that. We are going to promise to surround those children with our love. To welcome them and make space for them. We are going to promise to tell about this day, their baptism day, later, when they are older. To tell them stories about Jesus that hold us up on our hardest days, and the stories that make us jump for joy on our best days. And to remind them, always, that they matter, that they are good, that they are valued, that they belong to God.
And, if we keep those promises, Madison Avenue, John and Henry—they will be better for it. But, so will we. Because these little ones? It is to them that the kingdom of heaven belongs. So, keep your promises. Come alongside them. Remember that they are not the church in the future, they are the church right now. Give thanks for them and get close enough to look them in the eyes. If you do, maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something of the face of God.