Year B Proper 22: Little children

A sermon for my first Sunday at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio – October 7, 2012

I think that, with your indulgence, I’ll save talking about Jesus’ take on divorce and remarriage for when we have got to know one another a little better. For now, I’ll simply say that when Jesus talks about hardness of hearts, he is talking about a state that we have all lived in, lived through, because, God knows, we are none of us perfect.

And that brings me to what I would like to talk about this morning: how we can live more fully, more hopefully, more perfectly into the promises that God has for us, that Jesus offers to us, into the kingdom of God.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’”

It is to such as these, it is to the little children, that the kingdom of God belongs, and to enter into it, we need to learn from them.

There has been a thread running through the readings of the past few weeks in which the disciples of Jesus persist in getting themselves into a grumbly sort of trouble with him. Actually, I think it goes back to when Peter made his leap of faith and told Jesus that he believed him to be the Messiah, the Son of God. And just after that he said some other stuff that caused Jesus to call him Satan! Then there were the arguments about who was the greatest, and Jesus told them off and told them to look to the children to see how discipleship was to be done. And then last week the disciples told someone off for unauthorized good works, because he was not one of them, and Jesus gave them a lecture for that.

It appears that the disciples, emboldened by their true and brave realization that Jesus is the Messiah, have grasped an authority and a role in leadership in which – as good as those things are – they have forgotten what they had learned before, about service, about kindness, about inclusion, about healing and touching and feeding and forgiving. They have become drunk on power, acting like gatekeepers to Jesus’ love and attention, and they have forgotten that the only power that they have derives from following him and sharing the good news of him.

They need to re-learn that childlike wonder and humility, dependence and joy, fear and curiosity that had brought them to this place of faith in the Christ; otherwise they are in danger of hardening their hearts and missing the point, the hope of it all.

It’s too easy for any of us to become hardened, to let cynicism drown out the voice of the little child.

A little child looks to the adults in his life for safety and care, for food, for warmth, for knowledge and security, for love. Hopefully, he finds it in his parents and family, in his teachers and guides. Hopefully.

We look to our leaders with different eyes. We are cynical about those who have the power to affect our lifestyles, and those who hold our paychecks. We struggle to trust the right people, and to discern which are the right people to trust; we either withhold our faith from them all, or we put too much faith in one or another individual to save us all – elect the right person, and restore our future.

We forget that only God is really the leader of the free world, that only God can hold it all together. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t do the best that we can to elect good and trustworthy leaders, and to improve the conditions of our families and our fellow citizens, and to do the right thing. Speaking of which, if you are not yet registered to vote, you have until this Tuesday to make that happen, to have that say in how we wrestle with these problems for the next four years.

But the next four years of this country, or, for that matter, the next four years in the life of this parish, are not the same thing as the kingdom of God, and when we get cynical and tired and fixated on one detail or another, we miss that bigger picture, that God is in the midst not only of this country, of this parish, of our lives, but of all life, that God is in the midst of our whole lives, and that our whole existence is dependent upon God’s loving care.

When the disciples tried to restrict the grace that Jesus offered, Jesus called them out on it, and brought the children in.

We need to be sure, in our work as disciples, in this parish, in our daily lives, in our prayer and in our families, that we are doing that work of God, the work of welcoming and caring for the little ones, the ones who cannot care for themselves. We need to be sure that we are welcoming the ones who are confused and curious, who are joyful or who throw tantrums, who get smelly (that’s characteristic of very small children, I’m told), who are difficult to understand and to reason with, who are afraid of the dark and of the monsters that hide under the bed.

We do not get to discriminate, to judge, to gatekeep for God.

It’s a challenge, to receive the kingdom of God as a little child, to ask questions as though we don’t know all the answers already, to be frank and forthright about our feelings and our friends as little children are, to admit that we are dependent on one another and on God, that none of us can stand all alone, without any help, any comfort, from the people around us.

It’s a challenge for our new relationship together; it’s a challenge to trust, to be hopeful, frank, and loving with one another, little children of God together, believing that God has work for us to do together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

And there is joy in it as well, there is a playfulness and a lightness to be found in little children, to be found in being little children of God.

Do you remember, when you were a little child, and the grown-ups would ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up, and the possibilities seemed limitless – astronaut, president, farmer, lion-tamer – nothing was impossible or beyond your reach?

Little children know how to live with boundless belief, with hope beyond measure, with a fierce and joyful faith. They have not yet learned what is beyond their reach, and they know that, with the right help, they can achieve anything. We can learn a lot from them, as individuals, as a church, about believing that with God, all things are possible, that with God’s help, we can do great things we have yet to imagine.

And here’s one more thing: have you ever noticed how children have the ability to make you smile just by being? A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a church and there was a baby in front of me who feel asleep before the sermon, and slept like, well, like a baby the whole way through it, so peaceful, a baby who knew the peace that passes understanding, and every time my eye fell on him, I just had to smile.

There are those who talk about the children that Jesus received as the poorest of the poor, as having no power or influence, or even value in that time; but I don’t know that that’s true. When God’s Spirit fell upon Jesus at his baptism, and God said, “This is my Son,” that was an expression of delight and love. When those childless parents in the Bible prayed desperately for children of their own, they were asking for something of infinite value.

Jesus took the children in his arms, and blessed them. To accept the kingdom of God as a little child is to accept the blessing of Jesus, to accept God’s love and delight in us. It is to know that we are beloved of God, infinitely valued by God, who has made us barely a little lower than the angels.

And yes, we sometimes get it wrong, and we give up on happily ever after, and we forget to hope and to trust boundlessly; but God loves us anyway, and welcomes us back with loving arms. God smiles at us, just because we are. And that’s good news that we can, and that we are called to share with anybody, and, like little children, with everybody who will listen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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