Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
There used to be a TV show called Kids Say the Darndest Things. It paired folksy Art Linkletter with kids, supposedly unrehearsed. Kids remarking on everything from their dogs and cats, to sisters and brothers, grown-ups, world events and even God. They were really funny, but also as Walt Disney commented, oddly wise.
A contemporary show called South Park does the same thing with little roly-poly cartoon character children, but on an entirely different level. The remarks by these pint sized, mouthy kids on mostly adult topics are wise and funny but in such an edgy and R-rated way that only an adult audience is appropriate. Here the truth out of the mouths of babes is not only meant to be funny, but to be confrontational. Pint sized humor that packs a wallop and knocks down adult icons.
For me the e-mail circuit is really the fastest way to take in the amazing ability of children to speak great truths about even the simplest matter. Here are some of my favorites culled from among e-mails friends have sent me. The following were under the category Great truths that little children have learned.
No matter how hard you try, you can t baptize cats.
You can t trust dogs to watch your food.
Never pick on your sister when she s holding a baseball bat.
When your dad is mad and asks you, Do I look stupid?” don t answer him.
Then there is the group under the introduction A nun asked her class to write notes to God. Here are some they handed in.
On creation Dear God: I didn t think orange went with purple until the sunset you made on Tuesday. I thought that was cool.
On creation gone awry Dear God: maybe Cain and Abel wouldn t have killed each other if they had their own rooms. That s what Mom did for me and my brother.
On prayer Dear God: Thank you for the baby brother but I think you got confused because what I prayed for was a puppy.
On love Dear God: I bet it s very hard to love everyone in the whole world. There re only four people in our family and I m having a hard time loving them all.
An then there are those stories which seem meant to really make us grown-ups look stupid in how we try to address really big questions. Like this one on birth and death.
One day seven year old Johnny asked his mom the question that parents dread, Where did I come from? His theologically astute mom answered, Johnny, you came from dust, and one day you shall return to dust. Fascinated by this, Johnny ran off to play, repeating over and over to himself, I came from dust, and I shall return to dust. Later that day Johnny crawled under his bed to retrieve a toy. He reversed himself in double quick time. He ran back to his mother, shouting, Mom! Mom, come here quick! There is someone either coming or going right under my bed!
We treasure our children. We treasure their wonderful, quirky, creative observations and their naïve but profound little comments on life. We stoop down to listen to them and respond at their level. We scoop them up in our arms and think how wonderful the world is when we can hold them and feel the freshness and newness of this little life that God has given to us. We realize in some profound way that they are, in some simple way, much nearer to God than we are.
But all this was not true in Israel and in the Greco-Roan world of the first century. Children, along with slaves, were at the bottom rungs of the household ladder and of society. Status? They had none. Children were socially invisible. A child was a non-entity. A child had little value.
You have to understand this first century reality, so different from ours today, to grasp the radical nature of what Christ is doing. Last week s lectionary passage set the scene. Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to the, Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. This touches us in our spiritual gut. We ve grown up on the wonderful words of Jesus, Let the little children come unto me.
But this scene would have startled and amazed Jesus first century disciples. Jesus is turning the image of who s important upside down. Putting a little child among these adults! Putting a little child on his lap! And drawing such a close connection between the child and himself, between the child and God! It just doesn t compute in the brains of these guys who had a few verses earlier been arguing about who was the greatest, the first among them.
It s a week later in our lectionary life and Jesus hasn t let go of the child.
If the disciples were startled before they are shocked now at Jesus words. If any of you put a stumbling block before any one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and thrown into the sea.
And then Jesus comments about cutting off a hand, cutting off a foot, tearing out an eye that is if any of these body parts causes one to stumble. Harsh! Vivid! I bet Jesus wasn t smiling when he threw out these images.
While we may be very different from the disciples in our attitudes about children, the message Jesus is delivering is just as relevant to us today, if not more so, than it was to the early disciples.
Do not put stumbling blocks between these little ones and me.
We live in a complex world. Jesus calls us to live in a radically different way than the world promotes. Jesus wants to turn some of our worldly priorities upside down as he did almost two thousand years ago.
I think Jesus is saying, Watch out! Some of the values the world and your society promote will get in the way of the blessed life, the Kingdom life, I want you and these little ones to live. And he s calling us, as the adults responsible for bringing up the children in our lives, to be very careful about what can interfere with the natural closeness children have with God, with their Divine Creator a closeness that the world, if not checked, can shatter.
We, as adults, are called to be worldly aware. We are to be aware of the values our society seems to promote that are antithetical to what Jesus teaches. We are meant to assess which of our worldly ways are appropriate to embrace and which are not.
The world too often teaches us to value success, power, status, looks, wealth, being first, self-centeredness, winning, getting even, dependence on self, mantras such as the end justifies the means. Christ teaches us to value love, gentleness, truth, justice, humility, forgiveness, dependence on God, reconciliation, simplicity, harmony, servanthood, shalem/spiritual health, shalom/peace.
We are the bulkhead, with God s help, between our children and those worldly values which, if unchecked, can erode or overpower the life abundant Christ came to bring us. The abundant and blessed life that is the divine birthright for all of us, young and old alike. To the extent we buy into and model those worldly values that can diminish the quality of life God wants for us we will be a stumbling block to our children s natural nearness to their Divine Creator. We are called to cut out that which leads us and our children astray. And we are called to commit to nurture and support not only our own children, but all children and those of our church family in their life in Christ.
At every baptism to every one of us is posed the question, Will you . . . do all in your power to support these children in their life in Christ? And the answer can t be a soft mumbled one, but a strong, clear and loud response, WE WILL! Backed up by our intention, by God s grace, to do so.
And how do we do this? Sometimes we need to quiet our own voices and simply listen to those of children opening our ears to the divine whisper speaking through them. And so I end, as I began today, with the words of a child.
A Sunday school teacher decided to have her young class memorize one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, Psalm 23. She gave them a month to learn the verse. One of the children, little Ricky, was excited about the task, but just couldn t remember all the lines of the Psalm. On the day the kids were to recite the Psalm, one by one, in front of the congregation, he was really nervous. When it was Ricky s turn, he stepped up to the microphone and started loudly, The Lord is my Shepherd . . . Then he paused. Everyone held their breath. Finally, after what seemed an eternity to his parents and grandparents, he continued, and that s all I need to know. Then he sat down.