Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 25B/Proper 20B] - September 20, 2015 (Mark 9:30-37)

If you asked them, most pastors would probably confess to hearing more positive comments about their children’s sermons than their pulpit sermons. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (never in this congregation, of course!) something along the lines of “the children’s sermon always makes so much more sense to me.”

And, truth be told, I get it. I really do. Sermons from the pulpit end up being a little too in-depth and complicated, often biting off more than they can chew, at least in my case. Children’s sermons are typically more focused on one particular object or point. I do not like using the term “dumbed down” in this sense. A better way to say it, perhaps, is that they are just more distilled, made appropriate for a certain audience’s attention-span, which, I suppose, is just another way of saying that pulpit sermons are often too long.

But, let’s be honest: children’s sermons are also often comical. It is quite renegade to put a bunch of young children essentially on stage each Sunday for an impromptu lesson. And in a liturgical, traditional worship format, it is the only part that really feels out of our control, unleashed. An extemporaneous dialogue between a nervous adult and fifteen or twenty talkative, restless, curious children in front of a whole congregation? What could go wrong?!  In fact, do you know what music I hear playing in the back of my head each time I invite the children to come forward to the children’s sermon? The theme from Jaws. I think to myself: I’m gonna need a bigger boat.

In all seriousness, there is great truth and blessing to the children’s sermon and how we all receive them. There is a lot to be said for the spontaneous gospel interaction that happens here on the chancel each week. One of my colleagues says that if people really are getting more out of sermons we direct towards children, then maybe our pulpit sermons should start to look like them. Maybe things like props and guided dialogue help in getting a point across.

All this is to say, Jesus was in the same boat, too. Even he had to resort to a children’s sermon every once in a while. At least, that’s what seems to be happening on the road through Galilee in the gospel lesson this morning. Jesus has been traveling with his disciples for some time now, giving plenty of quality pulpit material, but they are still not comprehending it. He’s taught, for example, using parables to illustrate his kingdom—parables that use imagery familiar and accessible to them—and it’s still going over their heads. On several occasions he’s even explicitly laid out the parables’ meaning, carefully explaining the symbolism and allegory.

Most recently, of course, he has openly talked about the suffering and death that will stand at the fulcrum of his reign. For the second time in probably in probably the same number of days, he has mentioned in straightforward fashion that his power will be marked not by domination but by service, but it is clearly not sinking in. They are still caught up in old, earthly definitions of power and glory. Even after all of Jesus’ lessons about mustard seeds and five loaves being enough, they are thinking about Jesus’ kingdom in grand, worldly terms. And so Jesus distills it. He goes for the children’s sermon.

Interestingly enough, his children’s sermon involves a child. That’s because the disciples are debating their greatness, and Jesus needs to find the littlest, weakest thing he can to get his point across. The disciples are very likely arguing over who will be at Jesus’ right arm and left arm when he comes into his kingdom—symbols of power and authority—and Jesus grabs a child and literally puts those arms around it.

"Jesus and the Children" (Carl Bloch)
The rebuke of their pretentiousness would have been profound. Did you know that children are the only things we are told that Jesus takes into his arms in the gospels? On the one hand, a small child might be the only thing small enough to be held in a grown man’s arms, but in another way it is very significant. For if Jesus needs an object to illustrate weakness and lack of power, he could find nothing better than a child. In ancient times, children were considered to be little disease factories. Vulnerable and unvaccinated, children were susceptible to many sicknesses, and adults were often wary of them. They were also a drain on the family resources. Although their lives were in some sense valued, it was mainly it was thought that one day, if they made it to adulthood (and often 30%-40% of them did not), they would be able to contribute to the family well-being and income.

So here, in the middle of his most serious part of his most serious lesson to date, Jesus reaches and grabs a little contagious, annoying, likely snotty-nosed little child and pulls it to his bosom. It’s like he looks at this child, hears (as does everyone else) the Jaws music playing in the back of his head, and welcomes the child without fear. He leaves himself vulnerable to this most vulnerable of beings. He embraces the very kind of person that most would push far away.

If you are looking for a distilled message about Jesus’ kingdom, it would be difficult to find a better one. If you are looking for a nugget-like episode of what God’s kingdom is like, this is one to hone in on. Where can we expect the loving arms of God’s kingdom to show up but in the hospitality extended to those who are viewed as “less than”? When can we expect Jesus to find us at our most embraceable than when we’re cranky, sickly, feeling vulnerable and useless? Jesus’ welcome of this child is the perfect illustration for the cross. Because there Jesus opens himself up to true pain and mortal danger. There Jesus humbles himself, moves past all the theological teaching about service to others, and gathers all broken, hurting people to God’s bosom. God’s kingdom fully arrives when we, the children, so proud that we can think and act like grown-ups most of the time realize that our intellect or our ability to be quiet and respectful will never get us into God’s grace. It just comes.

And, as it happens, Jesus’ children’s sermon with the child gets me thinking about several things. For one, it gets me thinking about Epiphany’s long witness of receiving children, especially the reception of children through adoption and foster care. It is impossible for me to think of this congregation or understand its character without those examples of grace, those families who have opened themselves up to some of the most vulnerable children of the world. And gift of such life those children have nurtured among us!

It also makes me think about our own hospitality of children in worship, how as a congregation we don’t just love the children’s sermon, but also don’t get too bothered by the presence of children in worship. It makes me think about the possible connection between something we are so proud of—the way our youth share their faith—to the fact that many of these children and youth have been brought into worship for their whole lives. It makes me think about how each Sunday, while a preacher is up here yammering away about God’s kingdom on some high-falutin’ adult level, real-life instances of God’s kingdom are happening in the pews out there whenever a child gets restless or fussy and a parent or grandparent graciously takes that child into her arms.

There is absolutely nothing wrong about a parent’s choice to use the nursery on a Sunday morning. My wife often did, and I know she had to scramble to rush one of our two out of the pew and into the hall when things got past the point of no return. However, the presence of a child, even when it cries or fusses, can be a good reminder to me that no one really deserves to be in here, after all. And it is also a good reminder that worship is not entertainment where people need to hush up and be quiet so we can enjoy the show, but a work that we all are participating in, together. Just when we begin to think that worship is really only for those who can digest the food of the pulpit sermon, for those who are on our supposedly high level, then perhaps we need to have a child scream out and remind us that we’re embraceable, too. When Jesus sends us out into the world to behold and take part in a kingdom that happens in the reception of difficult and outcast, it helps when we’ve already started experiencing it and practicing it here in our worship.

Two or so years ago when we began asking people of the congregation to provide the bulletin artwork, children jumped at the chance. It’s still difficult to get adults to draw something, which probably says something about our uncomfortableness with our own vulnerability, but we have people—mostly small kids—lined up all the way through half of 2016. Last year, one child drew a picture of a cross and a crown for the front of the bulletin. It was not ornate or complicated. It was done free-hand. Things were a little lop-sided and the lines were crooked. It was probably not a piece of artwork that particular child’s parent would take note of, and I know I’ve certainly seen more elaborate crosses in clip art.

However, when that family showed up the next Sunday for worship, an retired gentleman who carves wood as a hobby presented that little child with a real 3-D replica of her drawing, complete with a small crown cut out of metal and glued to it, just like in the drawing. You should have seen the child’s face. Because once again, the kingdom had arrived. And the humble embrace of the cross had been right in the middle of it.

When Jesus sends us into the world to behold and take part in this kingdom, to put ourselves last, to humble ourselves in service to the least, it helps when we’ve already started practicing it here in our worship. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus says, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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