Welcoming the Child
A Sermon on Mark 9:30-37
Last Sunday, with great help from our new Worship Team, Rev. Jessica and I trained acolytes, chalice bearers and lectors. Children were learning about the liturgy from adults. Adults were learning how to carry the cross. If you missed the training, we'll have another session tonight at 7 and one next Sunday at noon. Even if you're just curious, please join us.
As you might expect, there were questions last Sunday. Questions like: “Why do we wash the priest's hands before she blesses the bread and wine?” (Answer: It reminds us of an ancient practice.) “When do we start to process down the aisle?” (Answer: It depends on whether we're coming in or going out.) And then, there's the question some grown-ups were undoubtedly thinking silently, but not speaking: “Why do we need to go through all this training?” The answer to that question, of course, is, “Because we can always learn something new about liturgy. Besides, some adults never got the chance to serve as acolytes when they were children. Some adults, especially women, were never allowed to serve as a child.”
When my daughter Hannah was two years old, I was called to a new church. About a year after my family and I arrived there, someone complained that Hannah was being irreverent at the main Sunday morning service. My daughter, of course, had not yet been liturgically trained. She wasn't old enough to serve in worship. But she did have a consistent spiritual practice whenever we exchanged the Peace. Every Sunday Hannah would run from her seat right up to the altar, so she could have a hug with her dad. For some, that felt irreverent.
Hannah's practice was, for me, almost matter-of-fact: father and daughter embracing. I always enjoyed it. I never thought too much about it, until someone complained. I've learned how clergy kids – often called “P.K.'s” for preacher's kid – often come to feel a certain freedom. I suspect it has something to do with feeling a bit privileged, having a mother or a father who is a priest. That freedom can, of course, lead to a bit of rebellion.
Here's another example of that kind of P. K. freedom: Years earlier, also at the toddler stage, Hannah's brother John suddenly felt free, at the seminary's morning Eucharist, to thrust his hands out – spontaneously, for the first time – to receive Communion bread and consume it. This was before I had a chance to think, let alone say, “WAIT! I haven't prepared John yet! He doesn't understand what he's doing!” The next year I learned in theology class about some of the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Christian church, writing tons of theology about things like the sacraments. On his deathbed, he is reported to have said something like, “I don't understand the Eucharist.”
Eventually, I came to understand that my children, at a very early age, understood. They were, in the words of today's Epistle from James, the “wise and understanding” ones (3:13). “They knew that being hugged or fed was a need others did something about, and they wanted to be part of it. Like all of us, at some deeper spiritual level, they were hungry for connection, with others and with God, and they weren't afraid to claim it. Hannah and John felt free to ask for what they needed. Again, paraphrasing James, they had because they asked (4:2). And they were fed, they were connected, despite any fear on their father's part, despite any shame an adult might want to cast on them.
Freedom from fear. Unafraid to do what they need to do. Freedom from shame. Unashamed to do it, no matter what adults might think or say. Before adults try to teach them about the world, to be aware of their surroundings, to be safe, our children are unafraid and unashamed. Now, please understand what I am saying. I am a “Safe Church” trainer. I teach adults how to protect and safeguard all our children and adults from harm, here in church and elsewhere. But taking an unsafe risk is usually different from taking a leap of faith. In an Orange Alert world, I believe our children still want to believe in a God who asks them to step out in faith, to be unafraid of spiritual connections, unashamed to get closer to the God who loves them – and us – unconditionally. And I believe they will have faith in our God, if we do.
Unafraid. Unashamed. It's what children naturally are. It's what children do when they feel totally free. It's what children can teach us adults to do, again. We can learn from them about a healthy lack of fear and shame, when we feel free to be who we truly are, who we have always been and will always be – children of God. We are still God's children. Just like them.
In today's Gospel story the disciples are traveling alone with Jesus, through Galilee. Since we have skipped 29 verses in Mark's Gospel account since last Sunday, a little background may help. At the beginning of chapter 9, Peter, James and John had been to the mountaintop with Jesus. After he was transfigured there, God commanded the three to “listen to him!” Jesus charged his three friends to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man – he, Jesus – was raised from the dead (9:2-10). Peter, James and John knew they needed to keep this event to themselves, but they did talk a bit with Jesus about it, while they came down the mountain and joined the other disciples – just in time for an argument.
The other disciples had been arguing with the religious leaders and members of a crowd about why those disciples could not heal a boy who was demon-possessed. For a moment Jesus expresses what must be his exasperation with those other disciples. “How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” It seems the disciples weren't being very grown-up. In any event, Jesus heals the boy and tells his disciples the reason they could not cast out the boy's demon: this kind of healing cannot happen “by anything but prayer” (9:14-29).
Then, today, while taking a break from the hard work of ministry, we hear Jesus tell his disciples – for the second time in two Sundays! – about his passion, death and resurrection. Once again, none of them understands this. No one asks a question or says anything, because, the Gospel says, they were afraid (9:32). They just don't feel free enough to ask Jesus about this strange and disturbing chapter of their Master's plan. In fact, no one on earth understands what it means for a Messiah to also be a Son of Man, a human savior, a suffering servant.
When they come to Capernaum, Jesus asks, “What were you discussing on the way?” He knew they were afraid. And what did his disciples do when they were afraid? Often, they argued. But now, the disciples get silent. Again. They are afraid, and maybe they're ashamed. Ashamed to answer, because they have been arguing about who gets to be in charge when Jesus is gone. They have been acting like children – that is, children who have already learned from adults how to protect their turf, how to try harder and win at all costs, how to want to be the greatest – or at the very least, to be better than someone else. The disciples are being childish, not childlike. They had learned as children how to strut around, feeling important. And they had learned as children how to, as the Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer puts it, “mislead others with (their) silence” (p. 848).
What does Jesus do? He takes a little child and puts her right smack dab in the midst of his disciples. Amidst their silence, without them saying a single word, he had “heard” them. Since they had been arguing about being the greatest, Jesus starts with, “Whoever wants to be first. . .” and finishes with a concept they also did not understand. Paradoxical words that, as 21st century followers of Jesus, we are used to hearing. To be first we must be. . .LAST. To be first, we must be like a. . .servant. And not just a servant. A servant of all. Do we understand?
Remember: children in Jesus' day were regarded as non-persons, or, at best, not-yet-persons. They were possessions of the father of the house. Possessions, like their mother, like servants or slaves. When Jesus held up a child as a symbol of what it means to live in God's household, he challenged all their social norms. He turned their culture upside down.
Jesus is still doing that. Jesus calls his disciples – including us – to be like a little child. But what does that actually look like? To be like this child, Jesus explains, is, simply, literally, to welcome the child. It means to stop being childish, to put away the “Who's the greatest? question. To become childlike again, Jesus says, is to become the servant of the servants of God – to serve any child in God's world. When you do that, Jesus says to his disciples and to us, then you will welcome me, then you will serve me, then you will love me, as I love you.
In simple language, taking the word apart, to “welcome” the child, to welcome anyone is to say, “Come, be well.” To welcome all God's children is to say, “Come, be well with us. No matter who you are. No matter how small or poor you may feel. No matter how marginalized or possessed you might be. Come, there is a place for you here, a place for you to be well, a place for you to be your true, your well, your childlike self in God. With us. Like us.”
Several years after my daughter was described as irreverent, Hannah came to me one evening while I was getting ready for a weekday Eucharist. She wanted to serve at the altar and this time, she was old enough. So I found vestments that fit her pretty well, and she came to the altar with me. After she helped me set the table for Communion and I was beginning to start the consecration prayer, I heard, “Psst! PSST!!” I walked over to Hannah and bent down. “Yes?” In words that were in no way a question, she declared, “I want to crack the bread!”
Last Sunday at the liturgical ministers' training event, no one cracked the bread. But the adults did sit through lots of questions some acolytes were asking. Reflecting on this, I realized those adults were being asked to be childlike grownups – to be, in a way, like children again. The adult chalice bearers, lectors, worship team members and clergy were trying to practice – perhaps reluctantly or impatiently, certainly imperfectly – what Jesus is talking about today.
Being like a child in God's eyes may mean being far more adult than some adults are. At the very least, welcoming a child of God, as Jesus shows us how to do, means taking them seriously. They remind us of who we are: children of God. Children of God forever. AMEN.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 1, 2012