Value #2: Welcoming Children
March 5, 2016 (Lent 1)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: Matthew 18:1-5; 19:13-15
What did it feel like to be that child welcomed into Jesus’ presence? Was it a moment of excitement, of joy, of awe? Were you afraid? Scared to go close? Did you not want to leave? Or did you find the whole task impossible – childhood is too far away, the weight of adulthood too deeply engrained? The disciples, wearing the mantel of adult responsibility, block the children from Jesus. Jesus welcomes them. “It is to such as these,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God belongs.”
A little over a month ago, when the Mission Study Steering Team presented a draft of our new congregational values statement to the Session, one of the elders suggested a sermon series on the values. Such a series would help the elders as they decided whether or not to adopt this draft as an official congregational statement. It would assist the rest of us as we try to incorporate these values into our congregational life. So, as we begin Lent, we start by considering the second of the seven values statements submitted in draft form to Session:
We welcome children into all facets of the church, from quiet worship to concerts and community programs; and strive to nurture their spiritual growth.
We will hit the remaining six in the following weeks.
Before we dive in, a brief comment on how this Congregational Values Statement came to be.
Back in November, the Mission Study Steering Team convened two open meetings with the purpose of discussing the values – both positive and negative – we hold as a congregation. Together we studied Colossians 3, did some general discussion and brainstorming and then broke into groups, with each group identifying core values our congregation should uphold. That discussion fed directly into the draft prepared by the Mission Study Steering Team, which went the Session for review and had since been circulated throughout the congregation.
At one point, Jesus’ disciples became engaged in a great discussion among themselves. Which one of us, they wondered, is the greatest? Which one of us will get the prize reward in this new kingdom Jesus is creating? Hearing their debate, Jesus called a child over to join them.
This little story I’m sharing is told in various forms by Matthew, Mark and Luke – and before we go further we must pause to note a remarkable fact. Jesus was teaching his disciples and there was a child right there, in their midst, close enough to be called over and used as an example. We tend to picture Jesus’ world as a man’s world, with him and his disciples forming the ultimate men’s bible study. But we know there were female disciples. And in this story we see the kids.
Later on, Luke – who also wrote Acts – blesses us with a scene in the Lebanese port city of Tyre. The apostle Paul has been in town for seven days. Now he’s off to Jerusalem. Luke was with Paul and remembers going to board the ship. “All of them,” Luke tells us, “with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we (We – Paul and Luke, others in their party, and the whole congregation including the children) knelt down on the beach and prayed.”
When a church I was involved in years ago decided to launch a Spanish language service the question of child care came up. Our Hispanic sisters and bothers were perplexed. What purpose was served by sending the kids out of the sanctuary? Instead they put up a table in the back and covered it with paper and crayons. As scripture was read, as the pastor preached, the kids drew. Soon the walls were covered with God’s word as experienced by the children – a sermon at least as meaningful as the pastor’s.
This faith thing, this following Jesus thing, has always been a whole family thing. Its not something we do in age appropriate bubbles. Its not something that adults do while the children are sent out to play and be entertained. Its something we do together. Together we listen to Jesus teach. Together we lift up our prayers. Sure the kids in the room with Jesus many have been listening while twirling and spinning and playing and being kids – but they are there. Sure some of the kids on the beach with Paul may have been playing in the sand or water instead of devoutly praying, but they are there. Watching, listening, learning, leading.
As the disciples preen their egos, Jesus calls a child over. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus tells his bickering disciples, “unless you change and become like this child, you will never enter the fullness I have in store for you.” We welcome our children because we need them to teach us how to follow Jesus Christ. We need our children to lead us into the kingdom of heaven. And when we welcome our children, we welcome Christ himself.
In a few moments we’re going to baptize Lachlan Rudd and promise to encourage Lachlan to “know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church.” Obviously if we don’t fully welcome Lachlan into community with us we cannot help him know and follow Christ – but fulfilling our baptismal obligation is not the main reason we should welcome children into all facets of the church. Neither is the need to attract the “core demographic of parents with children” – an idol laden fallacy that will someday get a sermon of its own. While we’re at it, lets also stop that nonsense about children being the future of our church. Our children are as much a part of the church as our elderly, as our recently retired, as our still workings, as our young adults. As adults we must welcome our children (and all other children) because they are church along with us. Us adults need our children to teach us how to follow Christ just as our children need us to teach them about Jesus. Without each other we are incomplete.
When Jesus came into our world, he chose to come as a child. When the esteemed rabbi Nicodemus asked Jesus how to access the deep mystery of the kingdom of God, Jesus told him that he must be born again, once again joining the ranks of children. The Apostle Paul reminds us over and over again that new life in Christ makes us children of God.
Children – wiggling and running, crying and hugging, focused and distracted, eager, ready to learn, ready to experience, ready to ask questions, ready to embrace mystery, open to the miracle and filled with awe, wonder and excitement when God breaks through. As us adults sleep walk through our jaded, ego driven, judgmental lives, we need our children to break the spell. We need our children to lead us into the kingdom of God.