Welcoming the Children

September 23, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Our reading from Mark’s Gospel today is a story  that demonstrates the importance Jesus placed on the children in his midst and reminds us yet again that children are our responsibility, that we are to care for them, value them for who they are, and respect them, ensuring too that our world creates a safe place for them to grow and flourish.  Jesus teaches his followers that we have to become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of God, and we recall that Isaiah, the prophet, said that it would take a little child to lead us into the peaceable kingdom.  Let us pray, Living God, you come among us each day in the presence of children in our lives.  Inspire us to care for them and help create a world where they may live in safety, in peace and where their gifts will be cherished.  Amen.

Hopefully, we each have positive memories of having been loved as a child; I wonder if we can remember the innocence of childhood, if we were fortunate to have had times of innocence and of being carefree as young people.  Somehow, as we get older, we too often lose the ability to experience the realities of that peaceable kingdom.  We are increasingly distracted by the busyness of our days, anxious, perhaps driven to achieve or accomplish tasks or important goals and we lose the ability to reconnect with the best parts of being a child: day dreaming, fantasy, mystery and adventure; our days become filled and we become too busy to just be in God’s presence.

There’s a story that I have heard in the past and I’m sure many of you have heard it before, but it is worth retelling.  It’s a wonderful story and it has been shared by the writers Marcus Borg and Parker Palmer. It’s a story about a three-year-old girl who was the only child in her family. Her mom is pregnant, and this three-year-old girl is very excited about having a baby in the house. The day comes where the mother-to-be delivered, and the mom and dad go off to the hospital. A couple of days later they come home with a new baby brother. And the little girl is just delighted. But after they’ve been home for a couple of hours, the little girl tells her parents that she wants to be with the baby in the baby’s room, alone, with the door shut. She’s absolutely insistent about the door being shut.

They know she’s a good little girl, but they’ve heard about sibling rivalry and they’re not sure about what they should do. Then they remember that they’ve recently installed an intercom system in preparation for the arrival of the new baby, and they realize that they can let their little girl do this, and if they hear the slightest weird thing happening, they can be in there in a flash.

So they let their little girl go into the room. They close the door behind her. They listen carefully to the monitor. They hear her footsteps move across the room. They imagine her now standing over the baby’s crib, and then they hear her small voice say to her two-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God. I’ve almost forgotten.”

The great writer Charles Dickens once said, “I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”  Jesus clearly understood that when he welcomed the children into his midst.  He seemed to have such a connection to these children, probably because he understood that “their hearts were yet uncluttered and in their sweet 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.” (Rev. Tom Oak)

Children always provide us with a sense of hope for our world, because we welcome the new birth of a child with great celebration, excited to imagine who this child may become, what gifts they may offer to our world.  I see the faces of people in this community when we have young ones among us, how much joy it brings to our faces as we, for just a little while, enter into their world.  Many people have told me that they often get more from the Children’s Sermon than they do from the central sermon; maybe it is because it touches some place of simplicity with us or takes us back, if even for a moment. to a way of seeing the world that is more innocent, more hopeful, more open.  Children are the future and the more that we can welcome them and provide places for them to come to know who they are, the best of who they are, and share our wisdom, our faith, our hope, the better that future may be.

I think it goes without saying that, like any of us, children are not always angels and at times, they can exhibit so many of the qualities that cause others distress that adults may model for them, but there are many lessons that we can learn from the open hearts and open minds of children, of the unconditional love and utter dependence that they exhibit, and they can call us back to a time of innocence, of simplicity, of simple faith really.  I doubt that Jesus romanticized children either, but he said that whoever welcomes them, welcomes him, welcomes God.

The other important lesson in this passage from the Gospel today is about leadership.  Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader and man of faith had a kind of power that he possessed within himself that some called “soul force.”  He had a deep connection for his people, especially those who were the most vulnerable in that society, the so-called “untouchables,” the lowest caste, those who needed to be cared for.  Gandhi understood where true power lies, it is within one’s soul, and our capacity to respect those who are most vulnerable in our midst…whether they are the children or the most vulnerable.  He displayed a very different kind of gentle, if formidable, leadership.  Jesus understood this too as he tried to explain to his followers in the passage as they were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest.  Sometimes children in families joke among themselves in this way; Mom or Dad likes me better than you…or I’m the favorite.

Jesus explains to them about what he calls the Way and he emphasizes that  it includes a kind of leadership he has been trying to model,  a style of leadership that is not how we typically understand leadership in his time or in ours, but in fact, the leadership to which he is inviting them is shown by servitude.  If you wish to be first, you must serve the others.  When Gandhi traveled about, he apparently wouldn’t speak unless the ‘untouchables’ were there; he cared about them and was trying to model this very important lesson about what is most important in a way that Jesus also shared.  We must include, we must welcome; we must respect the youngest ones, the most vulnerable, the most downtrodden, the ones with the least power; that’s what it’s about if we really want to be connected to God.

If we really want to deepen our spiritual lives and reconnect with some of our own childlike innocence, perhaps we need to remember how to play again.  We need to get down on our hands and knees and be among children, look at the way they see the world, keep things simple, be in the moments, not worry about who is the greatest or about all that we have accomplished or yet need to accomplish and remind ourselves that like the little children, we are good enough in the eyes of God; we are and always will be children of God.  As Mark writes, “Taking a child, he placed it in their midst.  Putting his arms around it, he said to them “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me.”

The earlier story I shared about the little girl who is worried about what she is already about God may lead us to reflect upon our own lives.  We may wonder what we have already forgotten about God, not just before our births but from the times of our childhood when we possessed the time to day dream and imagine amazing things or we might have felt a presence of great comfort and mystery.  Is it too late to reclaim that piece of ourselves?  What may we still learn from the children in our midst about the Holy One?  How might we watch over these children so that they may flourish and become who they are supposed to be, with their unique qualities and gifts to offer us, to offer our world.