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Let the Little Ones Come Unto Me
October 7, 2012
Children are everywhere in our worship this morning–setting the Communion Table, offering prayers, singing in the Sound of Angels Choir, being presented for baptism and welcomed to the Lord’s Table. In addition, our scripture reading this morning is the beloved story of Jesus welcoming the little children. On a day like today, it would be easy to let our worship slip into a sentimental aren’t-kids-cute Sunday. Yet something much more significant and transformative is in the air this morning. Today’s focus on children brings into view a vision of who God is and how we can enter more fully into the life of God’s Kingdom.
Let’s begin, though, on a somber note. Our passage opens with the disciples trying to turn the children away from Jesus. We can only guess why. Children do sometimes get in the way. They can be disruptive. Maybe the disciples thought Jesus had more important people to address. Whatever their reason, they turned the children away.
And their rejection of children reverberates to the present day. We are well aware of the many children around the world who, in one way or another, are turned away from the love and care that God yearns to give them. Far too many children are malnourished, living in poverty, abused, neglected, and denied health care and educational opportunities. Suffering among children is especially severe in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, as on any day, 12,000 African children will die from mostly preventable diseases. Forty million are still not in school, and about a million African children have been orphaned by AIDS.
In our own nation, more than one in five American children live in poverty. Drawing closer to home, Texas ranks 50th among states in health care coverage for children…has the most fatalities for child abuse or neglect among states … and ranks 50th in per-capita spending on child abuse prevention. On this World Communion Sunday, we lament how many children in our own community and state, as well as throughout the world, are turned away, brushed aside and denied the love and care they need.
But as we see in today’s scripture reading, God’s reaction is unequivocal. When Jesus saw how children were being treated, Mark tells us, “he was indignant.” Other translations say “angry,” or even more pointedly, “irate.” “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” As you probably know, there has been a centuries-long debate about whether or not children should be baptized. As we demonstrated this morning with Anna Cate, our tradition opted to welcome children at the font, arguing that this one verse—“let the little children come to me”—is justification enough. We baptize children, because Jesus welcomed the little ones declaring that they belong to God and already have a special place in God’s kingdom.
Today’s episode in Mark is one of those places in scripture where we see most definitively who God is. Through the words and actions of Jesus toward the little ones, a vision of God shines forth—a God who loves everyone, but who has a bias toward the weak, the vulnerable, and the powerless. This heartwarming, vivid picture of Jesus, arms wide open to the children, gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God.
Now imagine Jesus lifting his eyes from the children gathered around him, eye-balling the adults in the crowd, and saying to them, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” How do we who are no longer children enter the kingdom of God as a little child? In Matthew’s telling of the story, entering the kingdom as a child is associated with humility. Another early church document, Shepherd of Hermas, lifts up the quality of innocence as the mark of child-likeness. Others have suggested that Jesus is encouraging a child-like trust as essential for entering the Kingdom. All these play a part in our ability to enter the life of God, but in Mark the emphasis is on receiving the kingdom as a child would.
To illustrate, think for a moment about how human parents welcome their infant sons or daughters into their home. It’s unthinkable that new parents would place their child outside the door to their home and say to the child, “We’re going to have set some pre-conditions before allowing you to come in. If you grow up and do all your chores, make good grades and keep the Ten Commandments, then you will qualify for admittance.” Of course, that’s preposterous. Parents joyfully welcome the child into their home simply because he or she belongs to them and they have prepared a place where their child will be loved and cared for. Similarly, God–our True Parent–welcomes us into God’s Kingdom–our True Home–because God loves us and has prepared a place for us.
Today’s story In Mark’s Gospel is followed by the episode of the rich young man. Such a juxtaposition is telling. In very un-childlike fashion, the rich young man wants to know what he must do to enter the kingdom. Clearly he’s already done a lot. He has obeyed the law. He has been fair and just in all his dealings. His good deeds are commendable, and good works are necessary, but they are not a precondition. How can any of us enter fully into the life and kingdom of God? Jesus is clear in his answer: Only by receiving it as would a child…as a free gift of God’s love.
Our story ends with Jesus actually taking the children in his arms and blessing them. Yes, that’s a heartwarming image. But it is also signals a commissioning, a call, an example for us to imitate. As we fulfill our baptismal promise to guide, nurture, love, encourage and pray for the children in our midst, we recreate God’s embrace and blessing of the little ones. As Cathy reminded us in her ordination charge last Sunday, using the words of Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body but yours…Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.”
Friends, we are all beloved children of God. In response to the welcome that God has given us in Jesus Christ, let us be the hands that bless, the arms that embrace, and the hearts that beat for the well being of children everywhere. Amen.