We continue our sermon series on the Three Great Loves that flow from the great love God first shows us. Last week we talked about how love of neighbor is expressed though this congregation and its members in hundreds of ways that elevate people’s behavior to a higher level. Today we talk about love of children, and our calling to care for those who need us most. As National Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman says, “If we don’t stand up for children we don’t stand for much.”
In our scripture Jesus talked about our need to have a service above self-mentality that welcomes children and looks out for the most vulnerable among us. The context of the passage is worth noting. Jesus had just given two big lessons on the need to adopt an attitude of self-sacrifice, and living for higher goals than just your own comforts and conveniences. And then the disciples have an epic failure that resulted from their unwillingness to pray. So on the heels of this epic failure of all twelve disciples they hike to a new town and on the way they are squabbling. When they get to town Jesus asks what’s up, they sure seemed to have a passionate debate on the journey. They didn’t answer, the text says for they were arguing about which of them was the greatest. Which is really funny because they’re all a bunch of failures.
Can you imagine? Andrew saying, “I’m the greatest because I brought more people to Jesus than any of you.” Matthew pipes in: “Oh, yeah? I’m the biggest turn-around. I used to be a tax collector now I’m part of the inner circle.” Peter says, “Jesus called me the rock.” Oh yeah? He also said, “Get behind me Satan.” And on it goes. Bragging and self-congratulation are ugly in any age.
As near as I can tell they had some kind of a scoring system where they measured the worth of one person against another. If they are anything like we are, each person would have had their own measure of defining greatness. How would you define greatness? Greatness to them meant ignoring failure and embellishing their successes.
I’ve been playing with a little story Ann Herbert told that may give some insight about the reason why the disciples were having such a hard time figuring out what Jesus was trying to tell them.
Once upon a time, people lived in a beautiful garden.
In the garden, they were given a word: enjoy and respect each other.
And they did enjoy life — together.
They frolicked in the garden — together.
They waded in the streams — together.
They helped each other climb through the both the valleys and the mountains.
They cheered for each other.
Each saw it as his or her job to try to bring out the best in each person they saw.
And each person desired to do their very best for those around them.
Together they accomplished amazing things.
But then one day, a snake came along and said told them they weren’t really having fun.
That the way to have real fun was to divide up and keep score.
At first it didn’t make too much sense to the people, even after it was explained.
So then the snake said that the one who was the best would get a prize — an apple.
Things were different after that.
We became divided. We rooted against each other.
Those who had higher scores were liked and flattered and loved.
Those with low scores were cast off: looked down upon, forgotten.
And pretty soon, it seemed like most of the day was spent against each other instead
of uniting together and bringing out the best out of each other.
And people stopped accomplishing such amazing things.
Some things became totally unimportant.
After all, you can’t keep score in activities like frolicking and listening.
So work became all important. Money became just one of many ways of keeping score.
There was recognition, there was counting other’s wrongs, even lovers were tallied.
And one day, God came and saw what was going on in the garden.
And he was angry and kicked them all out.
And said we couldn’t return until we spent more time enjoying what God had
given than we spent dividing ourselves over it.
And what’s more, we are all going to die anyway, but in the end our scores
won’t mean a thing.
So Jesus told the disciples to stop worrying about their scores. Stop fussing about who has more, or done more, or seen more. In the kingdom there is no ladder that goes higher than anyone else. People are to be together. In fact, the way back to the garden is to get rid of the ladder kind of thinking and become as a child: open, trusting, and loving.
To counteract the disciples’ mindset, Jesus finds a child and brings him or her right into the center of their inner circle and Jesus tells them they must become like the child and welcome and look out for children and all those who are on the bottom of ladders.
To feel the full weight of Jesus’ teaching, you have to understand that times were different then. In New Testament times, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. They weren’t considered important and viable until they were teenagers. In fact, there is an ancient document that details the priority list of who should be saved first should a fire break out in your house. First save the grandparents, then parents, then your wife, then your brothers, then your sisters, last of all the children.
And a teaching circle of men, the disciples and Jesus, would have made sure that the kids were kept far away so they could discuss their important issues. The circle was closed. By placing a child in their midst Jesus seems to be saying that the center of God’s concern is the small and powerless, the dependent, the vulnerable, and needy in our midst. Jesus is looking out for those who would be considered invisible. Jesus’ emphasis is not on how important you are but on how you receive those who are not important at all.
Rev. Bass Mitchell told about a famous preacher they had in the church when he was growing up. The preacher had one of those James Earl Jones voices. Bass didn’t remember the sermon. But he does remember going out of the church and standing in the line to shake his hand. He said, I know that the adults did not mean to do this, but they kind of pushed me aside as they were anxious to meet this important personage. I felt even smaller than I was. All I could see were knees. As a child you have to look up to everyone.
I recall saying in a loud whisper, “But I’m important too!” And right after that I felt a large hand on my head and one on my shoulder. That important man was looking down at me (he seemed a giant) and then he knelt and got eye level with me. “Yes, you are important, too.” He said. “You are as important as any person in this church. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.” And with a smile, he ruffled my hair (a kind of blessing, I suppose) and instructed me to stand beside him. I felt very tall, very important that day.
And since that day, I have made it my business to try to make everyone feel that way, especially the little ones who sometimes get pushed aside.
There’s not a lot of shushing children and putting up obstacles to children really feeling connected and a part of what’s going on in his congregation. They realize everyone really is important. Every soul, no matter how lowly or insignificant to others, is of infinite value and worth to God and must be to us too.
When Jesus had that little child, he lifted her up. And said, we must receive all the little ones, all the ones who feel unimportant in this world like Jesus does. We are to accept the other as someone who might bless us.
In some Jewish schools, the old rabbis bow to the students every morning before they begin their lessons — for the Messiah might be one of those students. I would want to say, what Jesus taught us is that he is in all the little ones. The Messiah is in all of us, and we need to bow to one another — always.
Furthermore, we must learn to see those who feel invisible. Not just children. Do you know what I mean by invisible? People who are average, people who don’t stand out in a crowd, people who are taken for granted. People who work and serve but don’t thump their chests. People who feel that they are so flawed that they dare not do anything to draw attention to themselves no matter what. Ever.
Jesus is calling for servant leaders who will become great by seeing the invisible. I remember getting into arguments about superheroes. Flash was fast, Hulk was strong,
Batman was crafty, Superman was invincible. But Jesus gives us the power to see the invisible. To look and see who is outside of the circle, asking: Who is weak, who is vulnerable, who cries, who does no one pay attention to? He give us the power and to see the invisible.
As we embrace our great calling of faith—to love children, let us tend to the invisible kids. You may not have noticed but in our culture the house is on fire. Think of the millions who are homeless or hungry or abused or made to feel ashamed or in fear of violence. For those who don’t have access to good education or health care.
Marian Wright Edelman often says we do not have a youth and children problem in America. We have an adult problem. We are in charge. We are the ones called upon to protect the children and raise them right. You want to do something great? Be an advocate. See and respond to the needs. Pay attention and vote and hold leaders accountable for looking after all kids. Kids don’t always do what we tell them to do but what they see us doing they do. Be great—stop normalizing greed and violence and meanness. You want to be great? Be a servant.
One of the best things you can do to embrace the greatness to which you are called is support Bay Shore Church. We have tons of stuff to support kids and families—not only our own programs but also many others from the community. From scouting to education to music to fellowship to mission work. This church is all about it, all the time. Katy Collins whom we celebrate today was at the forefront of the effort to hold our feet to the fire and make all that happen. Who will rise up now? Let us rise and stand together for children because if we don’t stand for children as a church we don’t stand for much.
A family went out to dinner, and the youngest child volunteered to say the grace. So the kid bowed his head and prayed, “Dear God, thanks for this food — and please make sure we get some ice cream for dessert. Amen.”
Well, there’s a bit of low laughter from the tables around this slightly embarrassed family.
In a rather loud voice, a man from the table behind the family says, “Hmmph — that’s what’s wrong with our world today–they don’t teach kids how to pray properly anymore.”
Well, a rather odd theological debate springs up in that restaurant. Another man, hearing both the grace and the cry of disgust that, “kids don’t know how to pray,” comes to the family’s table, winks at the embarrassed boy, and says in a low voice: “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer. In fact, it’s a little known fact that ice cream is good for the soul.”
When dessert comes, the boy looks at his dish of ‘vanilla-surprise’ for a minute. Then he gets up and takes the ice cream to the table behind him — the one from the guy who didn’t like his grace. The kid says, with absolutely no sarcasm intended, “Here, this is for you — my soul is okay.”
And Jesus said, “You must become as a child if you are to enter the kingdom of God.”