Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Like A Little Child

Sermon preached on October 14, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, our observation of the Children's Sabbath:  Mark 10:13-31

First, my own paraphrase of this gospel passage:

People were bringing children to Jesus and the disciples asked them to stop, but Jesus rebuked them and said, "If you really want to find the Kingdom of God, you don't have any further to look. It's right here with these children. In fact the truth is, if you don’t approach the Kingdom of God like these children, you will never enter it."  And he continued to welcome the children and bless them.

Then it happened that someone came up to him and said, "Good Teacher, I want eternal life. What do I have to do?"  Jesus tried to teach him what he had just taught the disciples.  "Whether people call you or me good or not makes no difference at all. Only God is truly good.  Besides, you already know the commandments--do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness against another, do not be a fraud, honor your parents."

"But Teacher," he interrupted, "I have always done these things."

Jesus said, "OK, fine, but I did not finish.  The last commandment, as you well know, is not to covet your neighbor's possessions.  I suspect you might have a problem with that one, so it is this that you may lack.  Let go of your possessions and sell them and give the money to the poor.  Then you can follow me on the road to the Kingdom of God."

The man's face fell, and he turned and silently walked away. His possessions were too much of his identity.  His worth was his self-worth.

Jesus sadly said, "How hard it is to find the Kingdom of God when your possessions define who you are.  Imagine a camel trying to squeeze through an eye of a needle. It's that hard!"  The disciples were perplexed.  "Become like a child, give up all you have, squeeze a camel through a needle's eye! You are making it impossible for anybody to follow you!"

"The key," Jesus said, "is to trust in something other than yourself.  What is impossible on your own is possible with God."  Peter blurted out, "We have left everything to follow you!"  "I know," Jesus said, "You are part of a vision where everybody has enough. We are on the road there, but you have much to learn, and with the learning will come suffering, because in the Kingdom of God the values of the world are all reversed and upside down.  The first will be last and the last will be first. That is what I am trying to get you ready for."

When we think of this well-known passage about Jesus and children, we tend to think about Jesus loving children.  We sing songs about it that we all know.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong; they are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world:
Red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

We want our children to know these songs are true and I think Jesus does also.  And, to be perfectly honest, we also like to sing them ourselves because they are comforting, as well they should be.  But we must take care that we soak in the comfort and miss the challenge of this story, because the punchline of the story is not about how Jesus loves the children, but about how we adults must become like them in order to experience the Kingdom of God.  In fact, Jesus speaks almost harshly:

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

What does that mean?  Most of the time the answer to that question is presumed to be about trust.  We must trust God with a childlike innocence.  I think that's right, but I still want to ask what that means for us as adults.

That's where the next story comes in, about the man who asks what he must do to have eternal life.  We might be inclined to think that these two stories don't have anything to do with each other, but I am not so sure about that.

It might seem like a pretty straightforward story.  A man asks what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus tells him:  sell your possessions and give them to the poor. The man, however, is unable to do that.  So, we assume, he does not win eternal life.  But of course the story does not say that last bit, so is it really safe to say that we cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless we have no possessions?

No, of course not. Than what is the real point of the story?

It is about receiving the Kingdom of God like a child.

I showed my hand on this interpretation in my paraphrase of the story.  "His possessions were too much of his identity. His worth was his self-worth."  Another way of putting that is: it was not so much that the man had possessions, but that they had him.

So the "childlike" question is, "What is the source of your identity and self-worth?"  As a little child that source is your relationships, particularly with your parent or parents, other family, and hopefully a wider circle, including your faith community.  We have a responsibility as a parish to provide an atmosphere where the identity and self-worth of children (and all the rest of us as well) can flourish.

Of course it does not take long for the identity and self-worth of a child to come under assault.  And that assault most often comes from two different places (I say "different," but they are often related).  They are possessions and power.  Abuse of children--be it physical or emotional--is rampant.  It is an evil we too much tolerate, that robs children of their innate sense of worth.

The assault from possessions is even more widespread. In our culture, at least, it is almost universal.  It begins early on with our first sense of that most pernicious manifestations of what we call "original sin:"  the concept of "mine."  That begins a lifelong struggle for control with others and with God that tragically consumes and warps our self-identity and self-worth.  That struggle is only exacerbated by poverty.

In a world where possessions establish identity and self-worth, what chance does a child living in poverty have?  Yes, some are able--through strong support systems with consistent messages of positive identity and worth--to "rise above."  But do we really believe that every child living in poverty through force of her or his own will can raise themselves out of it?  It should be painfully obvious to us that a "lift yourselves up by your own bootstraps" social theory backed often by a simplistic prosperity gospel theology, is not enough.  If nothing else, it depends upon children having bootstraps to pull on.

I don't know the economic or political answer to child poverty. But I do know the theological and spiritual answer, and it is twofold.  First, "let the little children come to me, do not hinder them."  As much as we say we love children in the church, and we are constantly talking about wanting more of them, we are still a work in progress in terms of understanding that what we are doing here is not an adult activity that we are hopefully training children to do and to love, but a communal activity in which children are equal partners.

Second, "unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it." There is a strong sense in which children--particularly those living in poverty--desperately need us adults to stop acting like adults.  What I mean (and I think Jesus means) is to give up our precious sense of independence and self- accomplishment and ownership of all that we survey.  I remind you of the South Africa concept of Ubuntu.  "I am who I am because you are who you are, because God is who God is, because we are who we are together."

Our children do not have a chance until we are converted to a rock-solid belief that nothing belongs to us.  We are only stewards of everything, not owners, and the only identity worth having is that of a child of God, and until we are sacrificially working to raise everyone--especially the "little ones," we are part of the tragedy and not part of the promise.

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