Listen to our service and sermon below:
I’ve had a difficult week. I know some of you have, too. I’ve felt more fragile than I’d like. I know some of you have, too. And whether you’ve felt this way because of national events or personal life circumstances or both, it’s hard to feel so powerless. It’s hard to feel so little control over things that affect your life in big ways. Maybe you respond with grief. Maybe you respond with rage. Maybe you respond with determination to do what you have the power to do to make things better. Maybe you respond by pretending everything is fine. And none of those responses is necessarily wrong. But none of them is quite enough, either.
In my office here at church, I have a little ceramic figurine from Peru. I’ve had it since right after I was ordained to ministry. It’s a brown Jesus, seated and surrounded by three brown children dressed in traditional Andean clothing, each of them pressed against his legs, holding onto his knees, looking up at him. When I first got the figurine, I thought of it as an example of how I was supposed to be like Jesus – loving children, being tender with them and kind towards them.
And then one day, I accidentally knocked the figurine on the floor. But the floor was carpeted, and the figurine stayed intact. Except one of the little children lost his head. I found it and glued it back on, and to anyone who sees the figurine now, it looks fine. But I know. That child is not okay.
Jesus knows too. The kid looks fine. But he’s actually broken.
This morning, we heard the story that goes with that figurine. Unlike the way we in contemporary western society tend to romanticize childhood and idealize children – even though we all that the children in our lives are not necessarily living up to the ideal – ancient societies did not hold such sentimental notions. Childhood was a time of non-status; children did not really have full personhood, just as women and slaves did not. They were property, not people. Children, just like women and slaves, were vulnerable to the decisions, impulses, and actions of the men who ran things, whether at home or out in the world. And when difficult things happened to them as a result, maybe those children and women and slaves responded with grief, or maybe they responded with rage, or maybe they responded by pretending things were fine, but they didn’t have the power to do much else about any of it.
I wonder how things changed for them, once Jesus came to town.
He was traveling through Judea, and when people heard about it, great crowds of them began to gather around him. So naturally, he stopped to teach. And while he was teaching, some Pharisees showed up and interrupted him to test him with their questions. Later, when he and the disciples had gone home, the disciples followed up on the conversation the Pharisees had begun. And as Jesus was talking with them about big matters like divorce and marriage and law and love, people started showing up with their little children, asking Jesus to touch them and bless them.
I wonder if it was just the mothers who brought them, or if the fathers came, too. What were they hoping for? What kind of life were they dreaming of for their children? What kind of world were they envisioning for them? They had heard the stories of how Jesus’ touch could heal the blind, the deaf, the bleeding, the broken, the demon-possessed, the dying, the dead. What might his touch do for a young child at the very beginning of life?
The disciples tried to turn them away. They were just doing what any adult male in their world would do. And that’s the problem.
Notice that the disciples didn’t try to shut the Pharisees down, when they interrupted Jesus’ teaching. And that was in front of large crowds; this is just at home, with the disciples. But when it’s children who start pushing into the conversation – children with their loud, giggling, energy; children with their skipping and jumping, their straggling behind; children getting in the way and under foot – when it’s children who interrupt, the disciples try to put a stop to it.
And we get it, don’t we? Haven’t you ever shushed a child? Tried to get a little kid to act more like an adult? Made a child wait while you’re busy doing more important things? Treated a kid like an interruption instead of the main thing? The disciples are just doing what they think they’re supposed to do. They are getting rid of the problem, they’re stopping the interruption, they’re closing down the chaos, they’re sending the children away.
And Jesus gets livid. The angriest he ever got in all of Scripture is right here, in this passage. The word Mark uses for his anger means indignant, agitated, grieved. It’s the only time in all the gospels that this word is ever used of him, and it’s because of how his followers are treating children. Can you imagine Jesus furious? His fury is on behalf of the children.
And it is not because he, like we, had some naïve and sentimental view of kids. It is because he, like God, was always an advocate for the most vulnerable. For the last, the littlest, the least, the lost. Those who were treated like less than full humans. For the powerless. For the voiceless. Those who tried to have a voice but were silenced. For those shushed and shut down and shooed away by those in power.
And just because in our day we give children a more exalted and sentimental status than they once had doesn’t mean we have done a good job of protecting real children from a culture soaked in greed, deceit, and violence. Just because our own children may get treated to the latest technology and the coolest clothes, to summer camp and rooms of their own, doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable.
It is children who bear the brunt of our misplaced values. Our children have to practice lockdowns at school, because we can’t figure out how to keep them from getting shot. And while it may be school shootings that we most fear, most of the harm done to children is not done with guns. It’s done with words, or lack of them. It’s done through neglect and impatience and meanness and greed. It’s done through electing “leaders” who lead with insults, cruelty, and crudeness. It’s done through our inability or unwillingness to create a culture of care and compassion and respect and kind words. It’s done through our inability or unwillingness to challenge white supremacy or patriarchy or rape culture or oligarchy or any of the systems that damage or abuse or create inequality. It’s done through our failure to provide a community at peace, a world at peace, a community of faith, leaders who lead with compassion, wisdom, kindness.
Children take what we do to them and say to them and give or don’t give to them, and it shapes them, it stays with them, it traps them and then they grow up to pass it on. And at one point, we were the ones who were children. We were the ones who were vulnerable to whatever the adults around us decided and did and said. Most of us were loved. Most of us were also hurt. And some of us were hurt badly. Maybe you look fine; maybe you are also broken.
It was this vulnerability and malleability and breakability that brought out Jesus’ rage at those who would hold children back. “Let the little children come to me,” he demands of the men who had refused them. “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” The powerless, the lowly, the defenseless, the fragile. The children. Then Jesus pushes his shocked disciples even further. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
And at that, Jesus sweeps the children up in his arms, he lays his hands on them, and he blesses them.
The disciples had meant to shield Jesus from interruption as he taught them big, important things. But here is the real teaching, here is the true kingdom, here is the actual big, important thing – little ones, defenseless ones, lifted up and blessed.
I wonder what happened next for those children and their families, when they carried that blessing back home in their bodies.
I wonder what would happen next for you, for me, if we also could feel and know that we have that same life-giving, life-changing blessing in our lives, our bodies, our homes, our community, too?
It’s what he wants for us. It’s what he means when he tell us to receive the kingdom like a child. This is you, he is saying. If you want to be a part of me, this is you. Powerless – and you realize it. Fragile – and you accept it. Needy – and you know it.
He is not saying some sentimental thing about how we need to be childlike, how we need to be innocent and naively trusting and simple in our faith. He doesn’t call us to the former bliss of ignorance, before we knew how bad we or the world could be, before we were confronted with our big questions or deep fears. He holds up real children and blesses them and reminds us that we, too – despite pretending we have our lives together, despite pretending that everything is under control – we, too, are small and and fragile and defenseless and in need.
If you want to be touched by him, lifted by him, held by him, blessed by him, then you admit this first of all. You admit your vulnerability, which means you admit your need. You admit how small you are, how scared you are. You admit that there are things in your life that are still broken even though you’ve tried to glue them back together. You admit you need things you cannot provide for yourself. You admit you need him.
Maybe you are grieving. Maybe you are raging. Maybe you are plotting your next move to do what you can with the power you have. Maybe you are pretending everything is fine. In the midst of all that, can you also do this? Let Jesus hold you in the arms of his limitless blessing and love. Let him lift you up.
A blessing is not something you can control, demand, or predict. It’s not an order you place but a gift you receive. All you have to do is know you need it.
Let yourself be needy.
Let yourself be blessed.
Then let yourself, with all of us, become for others those same arms of blessing and love.