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For To Such Belong The Kingdom of Heaven

October 9, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday, October 7, 2012

 Isaiah 11: 1-9        Mark 9: 30-3710: 13-16

About a decade ago, southern writer Ann Ross published her first book, called Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. Described as a southern “comedy of manners”, Miss Julia is about a Presbyterian woman in the south, who late in life, finds her own voice and learns to speak for herself. After a lifetime of deferring to the men in her life to think and speak for her, everything changes when she takes in a young boy to live with her, a boy who, as it turns out, is the bastard child of her late husband Wesley Lloyd: Elder, banker, and pillar of the community.

About halfway into the book, Miss Julia and the boy, little Wesley Lloyd, are preparing to go to church together for the first time. Miss Julia has just finished tying Wesley Lloyd’s tie, and the following scene takes place. Miss Julia narrates:

He studied his reflection some little while, touching and smoothing the tie, with an expression that was solemn as a judge.

“I wish  my mama could see it,” he finally said. “She likes pretty things. I thank you for it, Miz Julia.”

“You’re welcome, I’m sure. Now let’s go before we’re late.”

I handed his jacket to him, then stopped to adjust my hat. Wearing a hat to church makes me old-fashioned, I know, but it also makes me obedient, according to Paul and Pastor Ledbetter.

“Before I forget,” I went on, “you do know how to act in church, don’t you?” For all I knew, the child had never darkened the door of a house of worship.

 “Yes’m, I do.” He frowned in thought as his glasses slid down his nose. “Sit still. Be quiet. Pay attention. And behave myself.”

He looked over his glasses in my general direction, fuzzily searching for confirmation. “Very good,” I said. “That’s advice to live by.” I stopped dead in my tracks. I’d been sitting still, staying quiet, paying attention, and behaving myself all my life, and look where I was now. “On second thought,” I said, “one of these days, when you’re old enough, I want you to think for yourself. Now, are you ready?”

“Yes’m.”[1]

Now there is nothing wrong with behaving yourself in church, and everything right about paying attention. But, and least in my mind, Christian Education and Christian Worship are about learning to think, and to see God; they are about finding a way to live that is pleasing to God; and when we forget that children do this at least as well as adults, we have lost not only something very important, but the kingdom of God.

Jesus instructed his followers to welcome little children, because “to such belong the kingdom of heaven.” Children actually show us how to receive God’s promises. There is something important about the playful, creative and imaginative way children can make work into fun, and ordinary experiences into adventures, that teaches us about the kingdom of God. Children help us find the holy in the ordinary.

And children also call our bluff – they know when we’re not being honest with them. They express their emotions freely. They are relentless when it comes to insisting on “fairness.” In these ways our children also have much to teach us about what we need and want from God and each other.

The Christian life is about leading one another into faith. Children and adults lead one another. For in God’s classroom we are all learners and we are all teachers. God speaks to and through each one of us for the good of the whole community.

Most of us are familiar with the childhood “bloopers” which circulate through our email boxes. As adult we enjoy stories where “children say the darndest things.” And we like stories where children are cute. But kids wrestle with and often find appropriate solutions to very difficult problems. I try to remember that when a child’s problem may seem insignificant compared to an adult’s problem, the problem of each is likely as larger as their world. And there is often real theological content that shouldn’t be trivialized just because it comes from children.

One of our children recently told me that communion has to do with community: “Communion. Community. Get it?”

And Jesus blessed the children. I have always found that one of the most exciting aspects of living and working in the religious community is that the life of a Christian congregation is one of the few places in our society where different generations gather together not only for special occasions and celebrations, but for weekly worship and everyday activity. We live and grow and learn and work together. Children are not only blessed in the Christian community, but they bring blessings to the rest of us. It is a joy every day when the children in our nursery school pass through the hallway.

The gospel is all about reversals– the last are first. But these reversals happen in the context of the whole community of young and old. And so I want to suggest to us that we act as if children are a full part of our church – just as in their baptism we say they fully belong to God. That doesn’t mean romanticizing them or dumbing down our worship to a kiddie time or ignoring other needs in the community. It does mean thinking about children as full members of our community – just like everyone else. Nearly two years ago when this congregation voted to call me as pastor of this church, Leah V., who was in kindergarten then, took out a piece of paper and made her own ballot, complete with a box and check mark in order to vote for her pastor. I still have that paper framed on my office wall as the most important vote I received that day. How many of you have received communion from the hands of a third grader on Emmaus Sunday? Or heard the faith statement of a confirmation student? And weren’t we all inspired by the actions of those who participated in the mission trip this past summer, when members from 13 years old to 80 years young worked together to lay the foundations for an arts center at Stony Point?

Thinking of children as full participants in our community means designing programs, worship, and fun activities as a whole church which include our little ones, not just as an after thought – “child care available” – but as a forethought “what do our children have to contribute to this program?” and not just assuming, but asking them to contribute.

Sometimes when we call something “child friendly” or even “intergenerational” adults say, “Oh, this isn’t really for me.” But too often for our children there doesn’t need to be a sign to tell them that this is not for them. As the church, we are a church for people of all ages, tall and small. There are some programs just for adults and some just for children – this is good, we all have special questions and needs. But there are places in our common life: all church gatherings, mission, budget decisions, and worship where the way we include or exclude children will either fulfill or distort the gospel vision for us as a people.

When the prophet Isaiah had a dream about the kingdom of heaven, he imagined a place where people are wise, love God, share with the poor and care for the earth – where no one is hurt and it is safe for children to play because the dangers of the world are rendered harmless. He imagined a community in which children are the leaders: in fact his image is of a mountainside full of animals living in peace, led by children.

Photo: Church School children sowing carrots in our church garden.

Now, the vision of Isaiah is a vision of a world that is not – or at least is not yet.  Animals that devour one another live together in peace.  Nations at war with each other seek peace and mutual security.  And the most vulnerable member of the community, the child, leads.

But what if we allowed the needs of our children here in America and around the world to be the measure of the morality of our human community? What if we made ensuring their welfare our top priority? What if we dedicated ourselves to making sure every child, every child, not just our own, was safe, well fed, educated, healthy, and loved? How would our world be changed? How would we be changed? Can we even imagine such a world? It seems as absurd as Isaiah’s image of a child playing over a snake pit. But you know, it’s really just about priorities and will. Maybe the place to begin is not with the problems, but with the children.

I have been teaching to Ten Commandments in church using my fingers for years. Here’s a true story about a young girl who was in kindergarten when this event took place. One day this girl was riding the bus to school a few days after I had taught the Ten Commandments in worship. It was Wednesday. And on the bus she found a dollar. She didn’t know who it belonged to, so she took it up to the bus driver and said “I found this dollar, and I don’t know who it belongs to.” The bus driver said “Why don’t you keep it for yourself. Finder keepers, you know.”

But our little girl knew this wasn’t right. So she took the dollar to her teacher at school. The teacher and the little girl then went down to the principal’s office. The principle took the dollar and put it in an envelope and sealed it and said “I’ll try my very hardest to find out who the dollar belongs to”.

When she came home, the girl told this story to her parents, and when she tried to explain why she was honest and did the right thing, she used to the Ten Commandments. She said “I knew I shouldn’t want what doesn’t belong to me. I shouldn’t have the gimmees.”

The next the day the principle came down to her classroom and told this girl that he just couldn’t find the owner of the dollar. And he gave the dollar to her as a reward for being honest and doing the right thing. But if you think that’s the end of the story, you would be mistaken. The following Sunday, this little girl, Emily was her name, brought the dollar to church and put it in the offering plate, because, she said, that way she knew the dollar would find its way to someone who really needed it.

What this story demonstrates better than I could imagine writing about it is that good theology, good thinking about Christianity occurs when we are trying to figure out how to live, finding a way to live that responds to God’s presence in life. The best questions are questions asked when we are really involved with living the question. And living the questions is something we do together as a community of faith.  And it is something we need each other to do.

So as we go to the communion table together, as our younger members return from their classes to join us, let us remember that we are young and old together, all learning, all teaching, all beloved children of God.

 

[1] Ann B. Ross, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (Harper Perennial, 1999), page 93.

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