Series: “Discipleship Camp”
World Communion, October 4, 2015
William G. Carter
This is our second week of Discipleship Camp. For a while this fall, we are listening in to the conversations between Jesus and those who want to follow him, and they are learning from their bad example. And the brief passage for today goes like this:
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.
“Let the little children come to me.” That’s what he said to the twelve disciples who acted as bouncers to keep the under-aged ones away. As far as they were concerned, you have to be an adult – just like them. You have to understand the Lord’s deep wisdom; an elementary comprehension won’t do. The unspoken rule in that first century culture may sound familiar: keep the kids out of sight, don’t let them interrupt the Teacher, put them down the hall where nobody will hear them.
And Jesus looked at this and thought it was stupid. “Allow the children to come to me.” Get out of their way. Don’t stop them. God’s kingdom belongs to them. This is what he said. For the moment, he prevailed.
“Let the children come.” But that’s easier said than done
A couple of weeks ago, I left this pulpit for the pew. I went over the mountain to the church where my wife plays the organ and I sat in the back of that congregation. Pretty soon, I saw one of the church’s celebrities. She had to be about three years old. I never caught her name, but I’ll call her “Alice.” Alice with the cute blond curls.
She and her mother walked down the aisle. Everybody seemed to move out of the way. Nobody was going to keep her from coming. The organ music began. I leaned forward for a quiet prayer, and there was a “thunk.” Looking up, still in a spirit of prayer, there was Alice with the cute blond curls. She had dropped the Bible on the floor and now she was standing on the chair, looking at me. She laughed and dipped down to hide in the seat. Peaked over the seat to make sure I was looking, and then she giggled loudly. My prayer had pretty much evaporated.
The mother of Alice with the cute blond curls was paying very close attention to the service. Her parents sat on the other side of the mother, just out of reach. Every once in a while, Grandpa would shoot a dangerous look at Alice with the cute blond curls, but she didn’t care. She was having fun in church.
She had a big pink bottle of water. We stood to sing a hymn, and she stood on the seat of the chair. Then she dropped the water bottle behind the chair. I think she did it “accidentally on purpose.” Maybe she was hoping for a baptism. But no problem. She climbed over the back of her seat and jumped to the floor. Retrieving the pink water bottle, Alice with the cute blond curls crawled under the seat, and climbed back up. That was fun, so much fun, she dropped the pink water bottle and did the whole thing again.
This continued, until her Mom pulled a ring of keys out of her purse. Alice with the cute blond curls shook the keys, shook them hard, and they went flying into the hands of a kindly man named Irv. He smiled at Alice with the cute blond curls, and handed the keys back to her. His wife murmured, “What did you do that for?” But he said, “Shhh … isn’t it great to have kids here?”
When the preacher began her sermon, it was the text from two weeks ago, where Jesus says “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:30-37). That was my cue to settle down and listen. But not for Alice with the little blond curls. She had a baby doll. As the preacher talked to us, Alice chattered to her doll.
When we stood to sing another hymn, Alice with the little blond curls stood on her seat and moved the arms and legs of her doll to make it dance. The baby doll dove down behind the seat, so Alice climbed again over the back of the seat, dropped to the floor, retrieved the doll, and commando-crawled back under the seat.
I’ll bet when she got home, she was tired out from church.
After the service, I said to the preacher, “I had a hard time concentrating on your sermon about welcoming the child, because I was too busy pondering how to welcome the child.” The preacher was my friend Virginia. She smiled and said, “Yes, she was pretty good today, better behaved than some days. Isn’t it good to see her?”
“Let the children come,” says Jesus. “Don’t stop them.”
The people who study such things are telling us why our twenty and thirty-year-olds don’t go to church. You know what they discovered? The number one reason is that when we brought to church, we didn’t let them stay with us. We sent them to another room. The research is sobering. We thought maybe if we had separate programming for different ages, if we gave the stressed-out parents an hour of peace and quiet, we could keep the parents here. That’s one of the reasons why we lost a lot of kids.
Do you know how many times I’ve had a kid in confirmation class who had hardly ever been in a worship service? So we tell him he has to come, as a class assignment. He has to come and collect a dozen different worship bulletins to prove he has been here. But that’s really hard for him – he’s twelve, thirteen years old, his parents have kept him over-programmed, he never has to sit still anywhere, and here, to appease his parents who have made him a deal that if he endures confirmation class and joins the church, he won’t ever have to go back.
“Let the children come,” says Jesus. “Don’t get in their way.”
An Australian educator named Stan Stewart came to Allentown. He led a workshop called, “How to get children into your church.” Here’s what he said: bring them. Bring them every week. Don’t keep them away. If they see their parents in church, they learn by the time they are eighteen months old that church is important to their parents. It leaves an impression.
In fact, said Stan Stewart, if you really want to welcome children into the church, get rid of the nursery, or at least use it only the most extreme of situations. Teach the congregation that they have to welcome kids - - or they will die. If a baby cries, let them be a child. If they keep crying and you are the caregiver, step out for a breather if you must, and then come back in. You won’t bother the rest of us. We will treat it as joyful noise and an interruption of the Holy Spirit.
The children are not the future of the church. They are the church. Take a look at the children’s bulletin in your pew rack. It is our worship service for our children. The worship bags are full of ways for children to take part in what the rest of us are doing. They are part of us. We will baptize two little ones next week, and announce that they belong to God.
“Let the children come,” says Jesus. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God comes.” Ahh – God comes for the little ones. Like that man I loved more than life itself; as his memory diminished and his reasoning slipped away, he became like a little child. At the end of his days, he couldn’t spell his name or dip a spoon in a bowl of yogurt. But he knew how to love and he let people take care of him. Just like a child! The kingdom of God is for him.
Fifteen years ago, a search committee said to me, “Would you like to come to our church? We have a wealthy and important church. It’s right next to a major university. Our people are sharp and capable. Would you like to find out more about us?” We were sitting downtown in a booth at Cooper’s. I said, “Yes, I’d like to more about your church.” They smiled and leaned forward.
I said, “Here's what I would like to know. Tell me if your congregation has a place for teenagers with learning disabilities, children with cognitive differences, adults who are recovering from strokes, and people who, for one reason or another, cannot be overachievers.” It got kind of quiet. The interview pretty much fizzled out right then. That’s OK; I didn’t want to go there anyway.
But I guess I felt a holy obligation to mention that God’s kingdom comes for the little ones, for those who have daily needs, for those who are hungry to know that Someone loves them in heaven – and on earth. It’s just as Jesus says: the blessing of God is for the poor in spirit, not the prestigious and the capable. The Christian community does not live by its expertise. It lives by its hospitality.
So we welcome the little ones, the children of God. We don’t hire experts to welcome them for us. We welcome them ourselves. If they wiggle, we respond with words and gestures of welcome. If they can’t find the right hymn, we find it with them – and then show them the words that we are singing with them. If the parents are struggling to manage the kids, you are all hereby commissioned as Honorary Grandparents. Step in and help out. As Jesus said in the text last week, all of us are in this together.
So we welcome the little ones, the children of God. Let them come. Get them here where they can hear about Jesus, and let them come. Let them come and hear that the blessing of God is for them, and for those who began like them, and those who will end their lives like them. The blessing of God is for the children and all who wish to be like them.