22B Children and the Kingdom
Mark 10:2-16, Cape Girardeau, October 7, 2018
Jesus precedes Marion Wright Edelman as president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. While most people in authority in the first century ignore anyone shorter than their own kneecaps, Jesus intently looks to see what is going on down there. He observes toddlers hanging on to their mother’s skirts shrinking away from stray dogs, wagon wheels, and donkey dung. He sees them trying to keep up with the grown-ups, walking gamely at first but then quickly defeated,/ finally limping along with one arm pulled high almost out of joint by tall people with giant strides, developing what is described medically as nurse maid’s elbow.
In Jesus’ day, children are side items, not main events. They are gifts from God who will be useful later on to care for their parents, work the family business, bring money to the family from a marriage dowry. Meanwhile they are non–entities-fuzzy caterpillars to be fed and sheltered until they turn into butterflies. Children were more often treated as slaves than as honored members of the family.
But Jesus seems to like them just as they are, which is unusual for a man, especially a bachelor. He is not afraid of babies. He takes them in his arms and blesses them. He knows how to put his hand behind their wobbly heads, how to pass them back to their mothers without dropping them. Even the two-year old toddlers do not bother him. He never asks their parents to please take them to the nursery. When his disciples scold people for bringing their children to church, Jesus is indignant. This is how to enter the kingdom, he says. Children are showing us how to become full-fledged citizens of God’s realm, not later but right now./
This story is not as radical today as it was back then, for we are much more tuned into our children than first-century Palestinians were. Far from ignoring children, we sometimes tend to idealize them, dressing them in Strasburg fashions, putting them in first grade French classes, setting a place for them at adult dinner parties, spending our every waking hours taking them and cheering them on at sports events, and goodness knows we won’t go into what grandparents do for them. Maybe we lavish the attention on children we wish someone had lavished on us,/ or we see another chance to be a child again, but in any case, children are visible and audible in our adult world today, and we are better people because of their presence.
We know children are innocent, playful, probably our best role models of living in the present moment. But like adults they can be noisy, destructive, self-centered and sometimes surprisingly cruel. Jesus is not holding children up as moral examples for us to imitate. He tells us in order to come into God’s kingdom we must come as a little child. Barbara Brown Taylor describes this as a pretty amazing admission fee.
Do you want to spend some time with God? Then get down on the floor with little Zoe. Get finger paint all over your clothes and laugh at her words and funny faces and never mind that you have more important things to do, like finishing the laundry or earning a living. She is not a side item. She is the main event. Opening yourself up to her is better for your soul than finishing a project or getting a raise or even reading a whole book of the Bible.
There will be no paybacks. Oh, she may shout your name the next time she sees you and run to hug your knees, but you can not list her as a job reference or ask her to lend you money to get your car fixed. She is not in charge of anything. She cannot buy you anything. She will not even remember your birthday or invite you over for supper with friends. She has no status, no influence, no income, which makes her great in God’s eyes. She is just what you need. And you learn from her that it is what you do when you think no one is looking,/ with someone who does not count,/ for no reward,/ that ushers you into the presence of God.
Do you see what Jesus is up to? It is one more of his lessons in the topsy-turvy kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the last shall be first and everyone who thinks he or she is on the top of the heap is in for a big surprise…. And Jesus is not talking just about children either. He is talking about all the ones in this world with no status, no influence, no income… the working poor, the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, the sick, LGBT persons thrown out of families because they want to become the person God created them to be, immigrants, abused children, abused men and women, Third World persons. God is daring us to welcome all as bearers of God, to believe that God’s hierarchy is the reverse of our culture’s.//
This is Jesus’ second children’s sermon in two weeks. He must think children are very important. (the first was two weeks ago in Mark 9:30-37). Maybe it is because he recently found the disciples playing the “Who’s the Greatest” game on the road to Capernaum. These are like Jesus’ graduate students comparing GRE scores. They are his top-level managers who have just finished Harvard’s continuing education management course. They are wondering who will be picked to be at that top tier./ But they are really arguing about who is greatest because they cannot understand what Jesus has just been saying about being killed. They are afraid to ask, and so they go as far away from the subject as they can by playing status games instead.
We know what that is like. When we are scared of something. act as if there is nothing wrong. Change the subject, talk about something else instead, something that makes us feel big and strong. That is what the disciples were doing, and that is why Jesus sits them down, honors the children their mothers are bringing to him and gives his followers an advanced leadership seminar right then and there. When the disciples try to keep children away from Jesus, he says, “ Let the little children come to me. If you do not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will not enter it.” Instead of a power point presentation, he illustrates what he means using that old show and tell method. He takes a little child in his arms. They want to know who is greatest,/ so he shows them: twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, nobody. God’s agent. The last, the least of all.
Jesus is telling us that when we are organizing our lives, we are to look for the little child around us to be reminded that God organizes things differently. If we want to enter the kingdom and welcome God into our lives, there is no one whom we may ignore. In the topsy–turvy kingdom of God, the most unlikely people are most likely to be agents of God, the ones who live in the world below our kneecaps, the ones who are stuck at the end of the unemployment line, the invisible people we work with for years whom we know only by their first name/ if at all, those living at our state and federal prisons, the harried woman at the checkout counter at our grocery store, the server at our fast food restaurant, the orderly in the hospital, our friend in the nursing home we have forgotten…invisible people. Jesus calls us to start seeing the unseen, not because it is virtuous, not so we can congratulate ourselves on being the greatest. Start seeing the invisible because to receive them is to receive Jesus. This is where Christ likes to live. When we reach out to invisible people, that is where we will find Jesus . ///
Sam Lloyd also believes that there is one more reason Jesus keeps talking about first century children. They represent our honoring and welcoming the child within each one of us, that piece of us made for wonder, delight, and vulnerability. They represent our reclaiming our capacity for wonder—slowing down and taking the foot off of the gas pedal. They are our connections to the present moment, the Christ within us.
There are some brief moments in our service today where the children in our midst and this child within us makes an appearance. When we come to communion, as we walk down the aisle, kneel and hold out our open hands to receive the bread and drink from the cup, for that moment we surrender to become needy, dependent, childlike, ready to receive the Love we most need. That child within is hungry and so longing to be fed and to connect us to the God of Love.
As we leave that rail, if we want to continue to enter God’s kingdom, there are so many more ways, and we do not have to go far. Jesus calls us to go out into this needy world and find someone we, our society considers a nobody. Look into their eyes, really look at them, offer that same hand that once held that bread and …. say hello again to God within them.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All,” Bread of Angels, pp. 131-135.
Mary Hinkle, “Seeing Things,” Living by the Word, pp. 131-133.
Richard Donovan, “The First Children’s Sermon,” Sermonwriter Proper 20B, 2006.
The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, “Jesus and Children 20B, A Child at the Center, Washington National Cathedral Sermon.