“To Welcome God”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
September 23, 2018
I have been blessed in that I have had a lot of wonderful children in my life. My two sons, who are men now, were a lot of fun when they were younger. They relished each day, loved playing games and learning songs, and were honest with me about their sadnesses as well as their questions.
They taught me how to be more up front, which is something my parents’ generation wasn’t very good at.
A friend of Tracy’s and mine just shared with us a video of her daughter riding a bicycle for the first time without training wheels. What an amazing and inspiring sight! It brought back a memory from my own childhood, my dad running alongside me as I pumped the pedals, handlebars wobbling. So exciting! I fell off into the soft grass and laughed and laughed as my parents cheered.
When a child has the courage to ride without training wheels for the first time, it shows us that they have faith… faith in themselves… faith in the adults who are with them… faith that they are going be OK… faith that they will soon be free of supports they don’t need any more… faith that the future will bring a new kind of freedom to go where they want to go.
I love seeing the kids come up front for the children’s message here in church. It’s so fun to listen to what they have to say because I always learn something from them. Of course, once in a while they respond to our questions with dead silence, but even then, they are telling us something — that we don’t understand their real questions and concerns.
When Tracy was in nursing school before we were married, she nannied for a young boy and girl named Alex and Lindsay, for five years. She was an important influence on them and a deeply caring presence in a vital time in their lives, and yet she talks about how they enlightened her as well.
They taught her that life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we adults so often make it out to be… that it’s easier than we think to show each other love… and that we can make any situation fun if we really want to. What precious wisdom Alex and Lindsay gave to Tracy, even though she was the adult and they were the kids.
Children are incredibly fun to be around and I am grateful that even though my own kids are grown, we have so many wonderful young people here in our church family. Whenever an infant or toddler calls out in the middle of the service, I know that the parents are embarrassed, but I rejoice because the sound of children is the sound of life and vitality.
When I was a twenty three year old seminary student, I served as the summer assistant minister in the congregational church in Ledyard, Connecticut. It was a huge growth experience for me. That summer, a four year old boy in the congregation passed away from cancer and I was the one on duty to help the family because the pastor was on vacation in Hawaii.
Needless to say, I did not feel prepared to provide adequate care for the family in their time of profound loss and pain. And yet, somehow, the Spirit of God and the spirit of this little boy, whom I’d had the chance to get to know, helped me to do what I needed to do. His courage gave me courage.
I know! I know that kids can be a pain. I don’t want to romanticize childhood. Kids can be selfish. Kids can be cruel. Kids are loud. Kids are needy. Kids won’t eat what you make for them. Kids walk in on you just when you want some privacy. Kids throw up. Kids pee and poop at just the wrong times. Kids demand treats even when they’ve behaved badly. Kids are dangerously honest and they often expose our weaknesses when we want to cover them up.
We know that.
But there is something in the child that Jesus recognized as sacred, as powerful, as key to connecting us with the Divine.
In our reading for this morning, Jesus is doing his thing, walking through the countryside, visiting remote villages, teaching and healing. And here, in Galilee, his home region, he decides to tell his disciples what he knows and they don’t: He is going to be killed by the Romans and that he will rise again.
And because of their ignorance and fear, instead of meditating on what this would mean for them and for the world, instead of talking about how they would continue his ministry together, they argue about who is the greatest (probably also about who would be in charge after Jesus was gone).
We know from the realities of our own day that there are plenty of people who spend their lives and their energies positioning themselves to be in power. Sometimes, they will do anything, say anything, to get to where they want to go and hold those reigns. Even dishonest things. Illegal things.
There is something within us all, I think, that wants to either be in charge or to have someone in charge who will protect our personal interests. It’s part of being human.
And yet, self interest is not the gospel message. Jesus makes that clear over and over again, in parable and in proclamation and in action after action.
He wasn’t looking out for himself when he told the parable about the father who welcomed home his wayward son. He wasn’t looking out for himself when he fed four thousand people. He wasn’t looking out for himself when he cast an evil spirit out of a mentally ill man or when he healed a little girl. He wasn’t protecting himself when we went to the cross because he refused to stop loving others in radical way and speaking truth to power.
And he isn’t protecting his position when he responds to his disciples, his best friends, arguing about who would take over for him. Ever the teacher, he puts a child in the midst of them, knowing that words had obviously not been adequate. He needs to show them. So he does.
And so he offers one of his crazy, upside down sayings, (Whoever wants to to be first must be last of all and servant of all). And then he takes a little child and holds it in front of his followers.
In a time and place when children are not valued beyond the fact that they can provide labor, Jesus uses a child to illustrate how important it is to be child like.
What are the spiritual gifts of children?
There are so many: an innate ability to trust, which is at the heart of faith… the ability to love easily.
But I would say that the most important spiritual gift children give to us is the capacity to wonder and imagine. God is a beautiful mystery and children can teach us to live in that mystery, not aways having to figure it all out, willing to just be in the unknown awesomeness of the Divine.
In one New Testament scene, Jesus says that we must be like children in order to really experience the realm of God. In today’s reading, he puts it a little differently. He says that whoever welcomes the child, welcomes Jesus and welcomes God.
Whenever we have baptisms here in church, I look out on your faces and you look different, transformed even. There is something about the presence of children in our lives that opens our hearts, creates a thread that connects us to our loving Creator, and helps us to imagine better days ahead.
Thanks be to God for children!