“Like a Child”

Mark 10:13-16

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

In this morning’s gospel lesson, people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that Jesus might lay hands on them and pray. The disciples speak sternly to them. Jesus rebukes his disciples. “Let the little children come to me! Do not stop them! The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these!” Jesus resolutely welcomes the children into his presence, and unwaveringly welcomes the children into God’s kingdom.

Jesus goes on to say “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Mark Hoffman, a biblical studies professor at Luther Seminary, points out that the Greek can be understood in two ways here. The NRSV translates this as a nominative case noun, “Welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it,” but it can also be translated as an accusative case noun “Welcome the kingdom like you would welcome a child.”

In the nominative form, we hear the importance of a simple, child-like faith. Simple and child-like does not mean saccharine or sentimental faith like we sometimes associate with this passage. I say simple, because often children are able to boil theology down to its essence, even when adults might get bogged down in the details. And I say child-like, because children can accept the mystery of faith in ways that adults often have trouble accepting.  Children have much to teach us about faith. When I went through the training for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the curriculum for our Sunday evening atrium, I learned to respond to many questions with “I’m not sure. What do you think?” Hearing the answers to that question from our children over the years has been clarifying and life giving on so many occasions. When we dedicate our children, we often hear Chuck say something like “who can say what all this child will learn from us, and who can say what all we will learn from this child.” That is not just a promise for the future when the child becomes an adult, but a promise for here and now. We splash in the deep, wide ocean of faith when we welcome the kingdom, like a child welcomes it.

One Sunday morning, I was in one of our children’s Sunday school classes.  One of the children was playing with Nativity nesting dolls and I sat down beside her to play. She took apart the Joseph doll, looked at me and said “This is Jesus’ dad.” Then she took apart the Mary doll, looked at me and said “this is Jesus’ mom” and then she arrived at the tiniest doll, which was the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and said “this is baby God.”  It was the clearest presentation of Jesus’ dual nature that I’ve ever heard. She was 4.

We must welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it.

If we look at verse 15 in the accusative form, we hear the importance of welcoming children.  If we were reading Mark in one sitting, when we read about the people bringing the children to Jesus in verse 13, we would likely be drawn back to Mark 9, where Jesus takes a child in his arms and calls his disciples to welcome the child in his name, because as Jesus says welcoming a child, is welcoming Jesus, and welcoming Jesus is welcoming the One who sent Jesus. Northminster welcomes children in many wonderful and beautiful ways –we visit new babies in the hospital and honor them with a rose on the table, we take meals to families, we promise ourselves to families as helpers on children’s faith journeys; we offer loving childcare as often as the doors are open and provide excellent opportunities for spiritual formation, we help provide after school and summer care for children at the Yellow Church, we provide opportunities for the children at Spann School, we welcome our first graders into worship, help them learn to participate in worship and honor many major milestones as they grow.

We teach our children that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; it starts small and is always growing. Our welcome too, should always be growing. We plant ourselves firmly in a grounded faith, when we welcome the kingdom like we welcome a child.

A few weeks ago in Girls of grace, the girls worked on the concept of the Kingdom of God.  I normally teach Girls of Grace but I was out of town on this particular Sunday evening, and gave them the assignment of creating a book that described God’s kingdom. On Monday morning, I went downstairs to the Children’s area to look at their work and was overwhelmed by the beauty of thought I found represented there.” The kingdom of God belongs to everyone. The kingdom of God is beautiful. The kingdom of God has many different people.  The kingdom of God is like a castle where everyone on earth can live.” Those are the thoughts of our fourth through sixth graders.

We must welcome the kingdom like we would welcome a child.

I’ve found many a children’s books to be helpful in thinking through big theological constructs. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written some lovely  children’s books. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his lifelong struggle to bring equality, justice and peace to his native country of South Africa.  In 2008, he wrote a children’s book called God’s Dream.

“Dear Child of God, what do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams? Do you dream about flying high or rainbows reaching across the sky? Do you dream about being free to do what your heart desires? Or about being treated like a full person no matter how young you might be? Do you know what God dreams about? If you close your eyes and look with your heart, I am sure, dear child, that you will find out.  God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one another’s hands and play one another’s games and laugh with one another’s hearts. But God does not force us to be friends or to love one another. Dear Child of God, it does happen that we get angry and hurt one another. Soon we start to feel sad and so very alone. Sometimes we cry, and God cries with us. But when we say we’re sorry and forgive one another, we wipe away our tears and God’s tears too. Each of us carries a piece of God’s heart within us. And when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole. God dreams that every one of us will see that we are all brothers and sisters – yes, even you and me – even if we have different mommies and daddies or live in different faraway lands. Even if we speak different languages or have different ways of talking to God. Even if we have different eyes or different skin. Even if you are taller and I am smaller. Even if your nose is little and mine is large. Dear Child of God, do you know how to make God’s dream come true? It is really quite easy.  As easy as sharing, loving, caring. As easy as holding, playing, laughing. As easy as knowing we are family because we are all God’s children. Will you help God’s dream come true?”

Tutu knew that we welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it. We welcome the kingdom like we would welcome a child.

I don’t know about you, but this week growing God’s kingdom hasn’t seemed easy to me. There has been trauma, and name calling, pain and hurt, and a whole lot of un-careful speech. We have a wide umbrella in this congregation, and there are people who sit in this room on every side of every line that has been drawn this week, and in all the weeks before it. That is a large part of what makes us Northminster. All are welcome. Dr. Whaley, our first interim pastor suggested this creed in Northminster’s early days, “We agree to differ, we resolve to love, we unite to serve.” Northminster is the church where people from every part of every spectrum can love one another.

Sometimes that’s really hard, and it’s almost never simple. It’s definitely too much to solve in a sermon. But that’s what we have, a sermon, and then a table set before us. This table, where we commune with God, and with one another. This table of repentance, and forgiveness. This table that represents the kingdom of God.

Jesus took the little children in his arms and blessed them.  There is no one on any side of any line that is beyond God’s reach. While we all have work to do, deep and meaningful and difficult work, soul work, there is no one who is not welcome at God’s table. We come, not because we are whole, but because we are broken.We come because we are hungry for God’s love and grace. We come with questions and wonder.

We come because there is enough. The table of the Lord is a table of abundance, so as we gather at the table this morning, may we find a way to live out of that abundance. There is enough peace to share across the lines that divide us. There is enough forgiveness to find our way forward. There is enough compassion to reach across the aisle or around the world.

It’s going to take time to make God’s dream come true. It’s going to take all of us examining our deepest selves to make God’s dream come true.  Coming to the table represents our willingness to do the work, our willingness to let God’s kingdom come.

May we welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it. May we welcome the kingdom like we would welcome a child.  Every child.