My thanks to Lori Robinson for permission to reprint her sermon from September 23, 2012 at St. Timothy’s Danville. Her work with the children of our parish is truly God’s work through her hands. Her sermon wove together the story from the appointed reading from Mark 9:30-37 with the reasons we have as a parish invested so much heart and treasure in creating an environment where we can give our kids a faith foundation that will endure their lifetimes.
Listen with your heart:
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me
but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:37
If you do a Google image search on your computer with the phrase “Jesus and children” you will see dozens of inspiring pictures of Jesus surrounded by adoring youngsters. In some pictures there’s a child in his lap. In others, he stands facing a group of children with outstretched arms. In every picture, Jesus is beaming at their upturned faces and the whole scene is bathed is a warm, glowing light. These charming pictures project an image of innocent children playing at the feet of a gentle and loving Jesus. The message these pictures convey is clearly that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!
But this familiar scene of Jesus with children is a very modern interpretation of attitudes towards children. The idealized vision doesn’t accurately reflect the actual relationship between children and adults in the New Testament era. Social scientists and religious commentators point out that the children of ancient Mediterranean culture weren’t valued in the same way we value children in modern Western culture. Children in Jesus’ time had little status within the community. And like so many other low status groups of every time and place, children were treated as if they didn’t really exist; as if they were invisible. A child of this era was most likely viewed as a “non-person” – particularly by the male population. (1) It was adults – not children – who mattered.
So, for Jesus to tell his disciples to welcome a child in his name probably doesn’t give his disciples a very warm and fuzzy feeling! It is – at the very least – shocking and probably insulting to them. And it’s another example of how Jesus challenges the people around him to be in relationship with those who are the most powerless and vulnerable. Jesus uses a lowly child to teach that God’s kingdom is not like the world the disciples are used to. God’s kingdom is a reality where everything is upside down – where the last are first and the least are to be treated as the most welcomed.
Today’s Gospel doesn’t have the shock value for us that it had for its earliest listeners. We aren’t the least bit insulted at the thought of paying special attention to a child. Indeed, our culture values children in a way that was inconceivable at the time that Mark’s Gospel was written. We promote childhood as a time of innocence – we don’t want our children to grow up too fast – we don’t want them to be exposed to the challenges of the world too soon. The desire to treasure our children is deeply embedded in our modern culture and in the church. So, how are we to understand this use of the imagery of children presented in today’s gospel in a contemporary context? Is it possible that we too sometimes fail to see – and welcome – the children in our midst?
The spiritual nurture of children is one of the values the church promotes – it’s why we have Christian education programs for children. But as much as we claim to value children, I sometimes wonder if we are misguided in how we view children within Christian community. In a culture that encourages children’s participation in all kinds of activities – even on Sunday mornings – commitment to bringing children to church on a regular basis has dwindled. And even when children are at church, the ways in which we interact with them is often lacking. It’s not that we don’t “do” things with children at church. Parents want and churches provide all kinds of programs for kids. But I wonder if we – as Christian communities – ever take the time to be self-reflective about how to fully support and nurture the spiritual growth of the children in our community?
Spiritual growth is a core value for all Christians and it begins for many people in their childhood. Take a moment to think about your childhood experience of church if you went to church as a child. What was that like? Did you feel safe? Did you feel loved? Did you feel seen and heard and valued for who you were as a child? Were questions allowed? Were you encouraged to explore and express your own thoughts and ideas about God and Jesus? Was the God of your childhood one that sustained you into adulthood?
Questions like these matters because what we think children should get out of church shapes how we treat children in church. Having lots of programs for children may look like a great thing. But having programs for children is not the same thing as being in relationship with children. One of the biggest misconceptions about children and church, in my opinion, is that if children are seen “doing” lots of things, the assumption is that we are doing our job of raising them as Christians. And “doing things” seems good in a culture that values busyness over idleness. But it may not be very good spiritual formation for a child. Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about:
- It’s a common occurrence in churches to ask children to perform for us. It’s wonderful to see children singing an anthem or playing a part in the annual Christmas pageant – and some children love doing it. We praise and applaud their efforts. But is it possible that performing for adults, even if it’s in church, is simply that – a performance; a way to be noticed for those children who love being actors or singers? And does having children perform for us result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
- Oftentimes children are asked to create something to be used by the church or to give as a gift to someone. Many children are very creative and having things made by children is very cute. And who doesn’t love to see a child’s artwork on display? We praise and applaud their efforts. But does having children create something for someone else result in deeper spiritual formation for the child?
- Most – if not all – churches have space dedicated to children. Children are used to being segregated into a different space than adults. And segregation has its advantages. It allows adults to have an experience together without the distractions that children naturally provide. And it allows children to have experiences together without being overwhelmed by adults. But when we separate our children from ourselves, we run the risk of communicating the unspoken message that they are not welcome to be part of the community – at least temporarily. What does that do to the spiritual formation of the child?
Please don’t misunderstand me! I’m not saying that any of these scenarios are necessarily bad. Singing a song during a church service can help a child feel more connected to the worshipping community. Being Mary or Joseph or a shepherd or an angel can help a child experience the sense of awe that is at the heart of our faith story. And having time and space where children are the focus of attention and able to build community with one another is important. But it is also important to examine the assumptions we make about children and how our actions affect children.
I hope that we can all agree that the wellbeing of children matters to us – both in the church and in the world. So, our obligation to support and honor children also extends beyond the doors of St. Timothy’s. And we don’t have to look very far to find other children whose needs should be just as important to us as the needs of our own children. Just go outside, look across the patio, and you will see Noah’s Ark – which is St. Timothy’s preschool. Noah’s Ark is an important part of St. Timothy’s outreach to children and families in the San Ramon Valley. And this very special preschool honors the whole child – including the needs and challenges of individual children – in its philosophy of child development. It has experienced, dedicated teachers who work unbelievably hard to help children grow socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
Noah’s Ark is a wonderful model of how to provide the care and nurture that all children deserve. And yet I wonder how connected we are to this critical ministry to children? There was a time when Noah’s Ark had over 100 children attending the school with more children on a waiting list. But times have changed. The combination of the recent economic decline and the introduction of a transitional kindergarten in the public school system had a tremendously detrimental effect on preschools including Noah’s Ark. And no matter how dedicated the Noah’s Ark staff is or how hard they work to provide a program with integrity and respect for children, they need help to remain a vital outreach ministry for this church community. So, I wonder what we can do to support Noah’s Ark as they endeavor to support deeper spiritual formation for the children in their midst?
Whether it’s a child in here or out there, we are called as a community to nurture and foster the wellbeing of all children. We are called to support children on their faith journey. And we are called to appreciate children for who they are, not what they can do for us. That is what it means to be a servant to all – especially the youngest and most powerless among us. Where do children feel welcomed? Where do they feel excluded? And what can we do to support, empower and treasure each child as a gift from God given to our care? These are questions that matter because how we welcome and include children is the measure of how we welcome Christ into our church and into our lives – and not only Christ, but also the One who sent him…..
(1) Malina, Bruce J. & Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (2003). Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 336. Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN.
© Lori Robinson, Associate for Family Ministry
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church