About this time last year, on a Saturday night, as I was putting my finishing touches on Sunday’s sermon, my sister Cathy texted me with a picture of my great-niece Cadence, who was in the process of celebrating her sixth birthday last night. In the picture Cathy took, Cadence was presenting her two arms outstretched, with (washable) tattoos covering both arms. Which I texted back to tell Cadence how cool I thought they were. And then, as I looked more closely at the picture, I noticed that, at the top of these two little tattooed totem poles, on both arms, was a little guitar – in honor of her Uncle Boogie (that’s the name she gave me at three years old) who wasn’t able to be at her party.
They have a way of melting your heart in the most surprising ways.
Jesus teaches his disciples that we have to become like a little child in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Isaiah prophesied that it would take a little child to lead us into that peaceful kingdom.
Somehow, as we age, we risk losing the capacity to experience the reality of that peaceful kingdom; we become increasingly distracted by the complicated realities of life; we get too `grown up’ to take time out for we come to think of as whimsical thinking, or day-dreaming; too busy to allow ourselves to be carried away on the currents of life’s mystery. To busy to simply “be” in God’s presence.
Palmer Parker tells about a three-year old girl. She was the firstborn and only child in her family, but now her mother was pregnant again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new baby brother.
Within a few hours of the parents bringing the new baby boy home from the hospital, big sister made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new baby brother in his room and with the door shut.
Even though their little girl’s insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut kind of gave her parent the willies, they decided to let her to do so. They had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the new arrival, so they could let their daughter go into her baby brother’s room alone, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything was amiss, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.
So they let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door, and then hurried to the other room to listen over the intercom. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, looking down; and then heard her say softly to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.”
Maybe that’s why Jesus had such an affinity to children. Because their hearts were still uncluttered; in their unsullied innocence there still remained some deep, visceral resonance with the place they had come from – and the Presence they had for so long been in – before coming at last into this world.
Barbara Brown Taylor has a wonderful take on Jesus’ love for children:
While most people tended to ignore anyone shorter than their own kneecaps, Jesus saw what was going on down there. He saw toddlers hiding behind their mother’s skirts and shrinking away from strangers. He saw them in the market trying to keep up with the grown-ups, gamely at first but then soon defeated and limping along with one arm being pulled half out of its socket by some tall person with giant steps.
He saw how adults coo-cooed little ones when there was nothing else going on, but quickly lost interest in them the moment another adult came along. Children were time fillers, not the main event. They were gifts from God that would be useful someday—to look after their parents, hold down responsible jobs, have children of their own so the parents could have grandchildren—but in the meantime they were little non-persons . . .fuzzy caterpillars to be fed and protected until they could turn into butterflies.
But Jesus seemed to like them just the way they were, which was truly unusual for a bachelor. Even though He didn’t have any of His own, Jesus wasn’t afraid of babies. He knelt down to their level; took them into His arms and blessed them. He knew how to put His hand behind their neck to support their wobbly heads.
Nancy Mitford once famously said, “I love children, especially when they cry. For then someone will take them away.”
But even two year olds didn’t bother Jesus. He never asked their parents, `Would they please take this child to the nursery?’
In fact, just the opposite; when the disciples scolded people for bringing their children to church, Jesus indignant.
“The Kingdom belongs to such as these,” He said. They are full fledged citizens of God’s realm; not later, but right now.
Now, all of this might sound a little foreign to us, because we’re much more in tune with children today. We don’t ignore children like first century Palestinians did. Americans tend to idealized them: dressing them up in Ralph Loren jeans and plastering their picture on billboards, pushing them out on stage at six to show off three years of dance lessons, handing them a script and putting them in commercials on network TV.
Children are much more visible, and audible, than they’ve even been in the adult world before. But even today there are limits to our tolerance of children: when they keep talking longer than we want them to or bring up something we don’t want to talk about. When they hit their little sister square in the mouth, or mercilessly tease the family dog.
Yes, children are innocent, playful, vulnerable, fresh-faced, and loving, especially if you’re only around them for about fifteen minutes a day.
But anyone who has spent more time with them than that knows that they can also be noisy, clinging, destructive, self-centered, and surprisingly cruel.
The best kid will pull the whiskers off the cat and flush the goldfish down the toilet if you don’t keep an eye on them.
But Jesus wasn’t lifting children up to be romanticized; or holding them up as moral examples for us to imitate. He just said that when we welcome them in His name, we welcome Him, and that when we welcome Him we welcome God.
Now, that’s a pretty amazing equation when you stop to thing about it.
Do you want to spend more time with God? Then get down on the floor and get finger paint all over you with Emily.
Or share a silly knock-knock joke with Jason.
Or play chop-sticks with Tessa.
Or take a few minutes to be amazed by Nathan’s upside-down-cross handed rendition of ragtime piano.
Or play catch with Nick.
Or watch Frozen (for the hundredth time) with Rachel.
Or sing another lullaby to Wiley or Conner.
Never-mind that you have a million other things to do; like finishing the laundry, or cutting the grass, or balancing the checkbook, or making a living. Because children aren’t time fillers or distractions from what’s really important. Jesus said they are the main event.
And opening your heart to one of these little ones is better for your soul than finally finishing that big project, or getting that raise you’ve been praying, for or reading a whole book of the Bible, or not missing a single Sunday service in twenty-five years.
There will probably be no payback. Oh, one of them might run up and hug your knees the next time he sees you. But they’re not in charge of anything. They can’t write you a letter of recommendation. They can’t contribute
to the building fund. They have no status, no influence, no income, and no power; all of which makes them great in God’s eyes.
And which makes them just what we need. Because they give us the chance to work on our own greatness, by discovering that it’s what we do when we thing no one is looking, for someone who doesn’t seem to count, and for no reward whatsoever, that ushers us into the true presence of God.**
**Occasionally, I will come across an extended passage from a highly esteemed preacher which I think is worthy to share intact with my congregation. Grateful acknowledgement to Barbara Brown Taylor for her insight, inspiration and content (somewhat paraphrased & adapted) for this sermon. To God be the glory.