“WHOEVER WELCOMES A LITTLE CHILD”
September 14, 2014 Matthew 18:1-6
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix
I enjoyed last week’s worship service immensely, and that’s not just because I didn’t have to write a sermon! To hear Kaylee and Jonah and Janna and Caitlyn speak so positively about their experience at the Middle School Conference was reassuring and touching. When Kelli and Michelle and Jeremy also testified at how they loved the music and the worship, I knew that by sending them we had helped transform the lives of both youth and young adults. They saw Christ working at Massanetta Springs, and they brought back that infectious spirit to us in their words and those energizers that we struggled to perform. Yes, I enjoyed their presentation immensely. As I said, it was reassuring.
But today we will take a harder look at our ministry to the children and youth of our church and community. Members of the Christian education committee know that Sunday school attendance over the summer was meager, almost non-existent. Vacation Bible School attendance this last summer dropped by 30%. We struggle to have more than a handful of children in our classes and worship, and I am not sure there is enough interest in confirmation class to hold it this year, even though it is long overdue. We need to ask ourselves serious questions about the future of our Christian education program. We need to examine if we are fulfilling the scripture’s mandate to train our children in the way of righteousness and faith.
That mandate, that calling, appears in passages like the one we read from Matthew today. The passage actually has two parts. Each bears a distinct message, though the first leads into the second. Let’s look at verses 1-4 first.
The disciples have finally summoned up enough courage to ask Jesus a question you know has been eating at them since the day Jesus gathered them together: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Of course that could have been an entirely theoretical question, but more likely they looked at one another, this group of twelve, and wanted to know where they would stand when the time came for handing out rewards. In other words, what characteristics should they cultivate to get a better place than their competitors, to receive a place of honor from God?
Jesus, as he often does, acts out his answer: he calls a child into the midst of the disciples and then says: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now what does Jesus mean here? What qualities in a child is he pointing to that we should emulate? Maybe it is that children are innocent, non-judgmental. They haven’t learned prejudice yet, don’t discriminate between a black person or an Asian person or a white person as long as that person is ready to sit down and play or read them a story. Maybe we need to be more innocent, more accepting. Or perhaps it is the trusting nature of children that we must copy, their dependence on someone else, someone bigger and wiser than they are, like we should be trusting in the bigness and wisdom of God. And again, children are often excited about the future. They can’t wait until their next birthday. It seems so far away. They aren’t apathetic, defeated by the woes of the world, aren’t cynical. They are hopeful; they believe that the future will be great. So Jesus may want us to be less skeptical, more full of wonder and joy. I expect all of those virtues would help, but to catch the full import of Jesus’ words, we need to recognize that in the ancient world, even more than today, children had no status, no power, no rights. They might have been treasured within the narrow confines of their homes, but legally, outside those domestic walls, they were nobodies. Their legal status was the same as a slave or a non-citizen. They were the opposite of great and important.
So Jesus’ action and his words mean this, primarily: you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? To be great in God’s eyes, you must surrender any presumption that you are great already. You must recognize that in the eyes of God you have no special status, no inherent right to be honored. The paradox is this: to be great in God’s eyes you must stop thinking about being great and earning your way into God’s grace. God knows better. These children here, they know how dependent they are, how they would end up unless someone else cared for them and protected them and educated them. They haven’t done enough to earn their place in the world. They need help. Do you know that you need God that badly also? Jesus’ words to his disciples bluntly put them in their place, and they have the power to do the same to us if we dare listen to them.
Jesus promptly moves on the second theme of the passage. He says to the disciples: “… whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these … to sin, it would be better … to be drowned in the sea.” So first Jesus has called on us to purify our motives, to set aside our pride and realize our need of God. And now he emphasizes that these children need God too, need God desperately, and if we turn them away from the Lord, we are better off dead, for God’s punishment will be severe. That millstone he mentions – it is big, and heavy. You don’t swim back to shore if it is around your neck.
So, how are we doing? Are we welcoming children in his name? Or are we by our actions and inaction turning them away, casting them adrift, teaching them vices rather than virtues? What must our congregation and every Christian congregation do to lead children and youth to Jesus Christ?
First, the teaching ministry of the church must be preserved and enhanced. Since the early days of the Protestant Reformation, when John Calvin broadened and improved the academy in Geneva, we Presbyterians have emphasized education, both secular and Christian. The teaching ministry of our congregation is based on the belief that the written word of scripture is a link to the past revelation of God in history and to the present revelation of God in current events. To learn the stories of biblical figures is to preserve the tradition of truth that has withstood the onslaught of temptations through many centuries. We trust it will serve our children well too. So if we want to help our children have faith in God, let us learn those stories well ourselves, and then be sure we are equipped with exciting curricula and stimulating classrooms, teaching environments that make the children glad they came. The Bible is a gift from God to humanity. It is a remarkable act of grace placed in our hands. We must not surrender the teaching ministry that will place its truth in the hands of our children and youth.
It is good to teach about God and the stories of scripture. But there are many dimensions of the Christian faith that are not so much “taught” as they are “caught”. Children “catch” them as they watch other Christians walking their daily walk of faith, performing their ongoing roles as children of God.
One of these times for “catching” the faith is in worship. One key way for a child to learn Christian faith is simply to come and worship with others. Yes, most of the service will be above their heads; yes, maybe the youngest among them should be in nursery; yes, we may expect to hear from them that the hour drags and they are bored. But I will never forget the statement made by a young man entering the ministry. He said there was a turning point in his life, about age 13, when he could either continue to complain about the worship service to his parents or he could start paying closer attention and learn what actually was happening and why. He chose the latter, and it led him to want to serve the church as a vocation. When children worship, they will learn without even realizing it that they are part of a Christian people praising God, growing more humble in the presence of a holy Lord, discovering mystery through the sacraments, experiencing harmony through singing together. Those are lessons we want them to catch. So even if the very youngest head off to the nursery, let’s welcome the others in our midst, tolerate their squirming, and gather them into a worshipping community where they know they are welcome.
What else do children “catch” from us in the church? They discover how to care. From the first time they get a birthday card from a member, or are congratulated in church when they receive a school award or have their picture in the paper, children know that the church cares about them. And then, what’s more, they learn it is their own job to start caring for others as well. Mentioning the names of hospital patients and other prayer concerns may take up worship time and seem temporarily distracting, but it teaches our children that we care about people with problems. Taking them with us when we go to Stagecoach Manor or letting them carry in the food bank contributions show youth and children the central Christian practice of self-sacrificial caring and service. This will draw them closer to Christ. This caring ministry is every bit as important as the worshipping and teaching ministries of the church, and all of them are means whereby we welcome children in the name of Christ. This is what a local congregation like ours can do.
But of course if we are honest, it isn’t just what the church does that matters. Children are influenced much more by our nation’s cultural values that they encounter 15 hours a day, 6 and ½ days a week than by the values they learn at church on half a Sunday. So, switch scenarios for a moment and ask: what can we do to keep our children from sinning due to the influence of destructive values that run rampant throughout our culture? We feel so small in the face of violence in the media, of fast-paced life that steals time for family dinners, of cyber-bullying and the temptations of alcohol and drugs. What can we do?
We can take our stand in personal relationships, that’s one thing: we can refuse to buy our kids and grandkids violent video games that teach disrespect and callous disregard for life, like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. We can tell them why we believe these games, exciting as they are, are harmful to their soul, and substitute a more wholesome gift. We can slow down our family lives enough that we become available for the young instead of neglecting their development because of our or their business. Who says that kids need to be involved in three extra-curricular activities at once in order to succeed and be popular? Why is that better than helping them respond when an elderly neighbor needs companionship? And do our families really need two full-time incomes to prosper? Is that more important than one of the parents being home when a child returns from school? These hard decisions at a personal level may show our children a different set of values than what our overly competitive and overly stressful society offers.
We can also move beyond decisions in personal relationships to advocacy on a political and social level. Maybe the local chapter of M.A.D.D. needs a secretary. Maybe we lobby the school board to start classes later so our children can get enough sleep, even if it means shorter sports practices and drama rehearsals. Maybe we rally local pastors to reclaim Wednesday night for religious activities at churches and mosques and synagogues. Maybe we talk to realtor into providing a vacant lot to start an urban garden, so fresh vegetables can grow in the middle of a food desert. When our children and our neighbors’ children see these community efforts supported and successful, they may draw back from the modern temptations that lead them into sin and depression and violence.
Whether in personal relationships with children we know well, or in community efforts on behalf of children we will never meet, or in the churches from which we draw our Christian values, we are called by stirring words like these of Jesus to welcome children in his name and protect them from the seductive temptations of sin. The church cannot do everything, but it can do something. Individual Christians cannot do everything but they can do something. Community groups cannot do everything but they can do something. The problem is not new; it is old. It will not go away. But if we are inspired by the words of our Lord, we will not sit back easily and see our church school crumble and our families disintegrate and our children drown in commercialism and popularity contests. We have been drawn by Christ into the family of God. Let us be sure the young receive the same welcome. Amen