Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Child in All of Us

Mark 10:13-16
Jesus Blesses Little Children
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

The Child in All of Us
More years ago than I like to think about, I stood at the pulpit in the York Chapel at Duke Divinity School. It was my third semester there, and I’d finally overcome my sense that all of my classmates were better prepared to be there than I was. I’d also started to talk to a friendly fellow student named Ben, but that’s a story for another sermon. We were in preaching class, and it was my turn to stand up in front of my professor, teaching assistant, and classmates and preach to them.
I don’t remember what the text was anymore, nor much of what I preached that day. I am sure it’s in a box somewhere, but I chose not to go back and look at it; like Rev. Goodwin last week, I think I might find that what I preached then in my enthusiasm might be something I’d need to apologize for today. On the other hand, I do remember quite clearly the teaching assistant’s criticism of a story I used to illustrate whatever point I was trying to make that day. She hated it, to put it plainly. My professor and my classmates liked it, though, and that TA made sure I’d never forget it—and so today, I’m using it again!
A woman was talking to her pastor, trying to understand how God could love every person in general and each person, specifically. The pastor tried many explanations, but finally hit upon this question: “Which of your children do you love the most?” (According to my TA, the “right” answer is that she loved them all equally. But that’s not the answer she gave.)
She thought about each of her three children, how they were alike and what made each of them different. She thought about special moments she’d shared with each child, and the times she’d comforted them after an injury or an insult. Finally, her answer came: “The one I love the most is the one who needs me most at any given time. That one gets more of my attention. But it’s not any single one of them…it’s all of my children. When they need me, that’s when my love shows the most.”
Her pastor seized on that answer and said, “God’s love is like that, too. He loves us all and would not choose a favorite, but in the times when we need God, there we can sometimes sense God’s love the most.”
This is one of the really hard to understand concepts about God—this love that makes no sense to us, because we like hierarchies, we like to understand our place, and we like to know who is beneath us, or who is excluded. It’s one of those ugly little facts about human nature: it’s a sign of God’s grace when we can get along, without trying to figure out where each one fits in to the Kingdom of God. And to us it’s one of the great paradoxes of our faith, not that God loves us—because what’s not to love, right?—but that God loves the people we don’t love. It’s less of a mystery that God loves people we don’t know, and thus don’t have a strong feeling about. It’s something else entirely, though, to think of God loving the people we have very strong feelings about. The ones we don’t like. The ones we feel we can’t love. The ones we feel don’t deserve love.
Each of us has been hurt in life, one way or another. Someone has said or done something to us that cut us to the quick, made us wonder about our own worth, made us question how such people could exist in God’s creation. I wish I had a good answer to that question, but I don’t. It is what it is. And it’s hard for us to think that in a world where terrible things happen in countries far away, in our own community, sometimes in our own homes, that God loves both the ones to whom the terrible things happen, and the ones who sometimes make those terrible things happen. How can that be? How can it be just, or right, or fair, or good, God to love the people that can do such awful, evil things? I don’t have a good answer for that either, except to say that God is who God is. God loves whom God loves. And thanks be to God for that!
Today’s reading is part of a larger series of stories that seek to answer the question, “Who does God love?” Immediately preceding the story of the children coming to Jesus is an attempt by the Pharisees to catch him in heresy over the issue of divorce, an area in which Christians have sometimes been cruel. Jesus responds to their questions by affirming the goodness of marriage as God’s design, but also the reality of human frailty, that sometimes it just cannot or should not be made to work. Elsewhere, Jesus acknowledges that breaking the covenant of marriage can be grounds for divorce. The Pharisees were looking for people to exclude from righteousness, from the favor of God. Jesus refuses to exclude anyone from God’s grace and love.
After today’s reading, the disciples and Jesus meet a rich man who wanted to follow Jesus but wouldn’t give up his wealth and place in the community. Jesus says that is impossible for us to be saved by our own efforts, but for God all things are possible. Jesus includes the rich man in the love of God, even though the man will not follow him, reminding the disciples, and by extension, us, that God’s love is not up to us, it is up to God. And God is nicer than we are.
This is a lesson the disciples struggled to learn, as well. In today’s gospel lesson, they had tried to turn children away from Jesus. Their parents had brought them to be touched by Jesus—perhaps for blessing or maybe for healing—and were met by the disciples, speaking sternly. One could argue that Jesus was a busy man and a noted teacher, certainly much too preoccupied to deal with mere children…but here, Mark tells us that the disciples had not quite heard the message of love and acceptance yet. Jesus explains to them, indignantly, that only those who come to the Kingdom as a little child will receive it, and that the children should not be barred from him, or God.
I’ve heard any number of sermons about having a child-like faith, about coming to God with the innocence and trust of a child, and so on. I’ve no doubt you have too. It’s a good word to hear, but I don’t think it’s all there is to the story, and this is not one of those sermons.
As we think about what we know about Jesus from the gospels and the kind of people he chose to associate, we can put them into three categories: first, those who believed that they could on their own achieve righteousness and closeness with God; the Pharisees, mostly, fit in here. Next are those who, like the disciples, see something new in Jesus, a sense that while doing all the right things is not enough, or even possible for that matter, God still reaches out to include us, and last, there are those who think that there is no relationship with God for them, no love, and no real way that they can do anything about it—think about the woman at the well, the lame man by the pool at Bethsaida, the woman accused of adultery, the ten lepers, the Gerasene demoniac--all feeling powerless, vulnerable, left behind or pushed aside by the people around them. Think of the children, whom the disciples treated as beneath notice, yet Jesus saw their weakness, their vulnerability, their need, and welcomed them.
And perhaps this is what it means to come to Christ like a little child: not child-like in the sense of innocent and trusting so much as vulnerable, needy, powerless. Maybe God truly does love us most (or at least in a way we can sense sometimes) when we need God most. Maybe the good news of Christ is that everyone is loved by God, and is invited to love God in return—even those who think they don’t deserve it, those we think don’t deserve it. Perhaps to be like a little child means that God is somehow especially near to us when we need protection, hope, love, someone bigger than we are to soothe our hurts and comfort our weary hearts and spirits. Perhaps it’s not about what we deserve—who, honestly, wants that?—but on whom we depend.
This casts a whole new light on who can come to Jesus, who has the love of God, doesn’t it? When God’s love and grace don’t depend on us, God accepts even those we would exclude…even ourselves.
Some time ago, I had a conversation with someone whom I wanted to join the church I pastored at the time. She was a lovely woman who was very active in a number of the church’s ministries, faithfully attended worship, and was a fully participating member of the church in every way but one: she had never joined our church. She was a member in a church in a community where she had lived for many years, but had been many years with us, and still had not taken this last, small step to being a part of our church family. When I asked her about joining, she said she didn’t really know why she had waited so long to move her membership. We had become family to her, and she felt loved and accepted with us. But somehow, in a little corner of her heart, she was afraid she wasn’t good enough to be called a member of that church.
Of course I told her she was being silly, in as loving a way as I could. She was already a member of the church, in almost every way that matters. And being in the roll book counts less for me than the ways she had proved herself a faithful member over and over again. And I told her that just because she didn’t think she was good enough for us didn’t mean that she wasn’t good enough for God to love, and to make her a part of his family. I’m honored to say that she joined the church just a week or two later. And I believe it’s true to say that in her doubt of herself, God blessed her with an extra reminder of his love as the church welcomed her that day.
What if coming to God like a little child doesn’t mean pure and innocent? What if coming to God like a little child means coming with all our doubts, insecurities, and failings? What if God is less interested in what we have to offer him, and more interested in the relationship he has to offer us? What if we have nothing to offer but ourselves, ragged and worn though we may be? Can it mean that God doesn’t love us anyway, or in spite of what we have done, said, and been through, but simply because loving us is what God does, is who God is? And in loving us, what if it’s God who changes us, who doesn’t demand that we change first, who loves us and in that loving, helps us to become a little more worthy of that love?
So many questions. I don’t have answers to them all. But I know this: God has seen me through and in some places I wish I hadn’t gone. I thought for years that what I’d done and what had been done to me had made me unclean, unfit, unable to be loved and accepted by God. And then one day, in the depths of my fear and despair, I had an experience of God’s love that shook me right to my core. I wish I could say that my eyes were opened, that I understood God’s love for me, and accepted it, and let it change me, but I can. I spent several years afraid of that love, running from the One who loved me so…until finally I quit running. After years of my own prayer and that of others for me, a light finally dawned and I saw God’s love for what it is: a gift without price, without strings. I understood that God asked me not to come to him perfect, but to allow God to begin to perfect me. I made a choice I’d made over and over again: to join God in a relationship founded on love and grace, to know and be known by God, and in that knowing be accepted, with all my sins and sorrows known and accepted and forgiven.
Although he didn’t use these words, part of what Jesus came to teach us is that love is not a transaction, it’s a relationship. Love is not saying, “Here, I’ve made myself perfect. Here are my accomplishments. I’ve earned your love.” Neither is love blind, ignoring our faults and flaws. Instead, love sees our weakness, our failings, our struggles, and loves us anyway, even in part because we are weak, and we struggle, and we fail. God’s love accepts us as we are and invites us to become something new, something different, as we receive God’s love and let it change us.
Whatever it is that we think makes us or someone else unworthy of God, we’re wrong. Whenever we think that we are loved by God, but someone else is not, we are wrong. That is not to say that God simply looks past sin or removes from us the consequences of our own and others’ actions—far from it. But there is nothing we can do to make God not love us, nowhere we can go that God cannot find us: with Paul, I am “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, who loves the child in each of us.”
And that is good news, indeed.

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