“Being Known, and the Love of Children”


A sermon preached on September 20, 2009 based on Mark 9:30 – 37, on the occasion of the baptism of  Samuel Ryan Winston.

I have the privilege and the burden of serving as a pastor.  The privilege is related to the fact that I am given access to people in intimate, holy times in their lives.  I am allowed in such moments to be a sign of the presence of God, in spite of my human frailty.  

The burden part for me has to do with the fact that people carry around various assumptions about pastors and how they think and act.   Often times people simply assume that I share their assumptions, which isn’t necessarily so. This can mean that people assume they know me, when they don’t really because their assumptions have gotten in the way.   

This can happen in the church setting, but it can also happen in other settings.  For instance, each week I spend time interacting in the makeshift community of parents from Bobby’s travel soccer team.   At some point word got around that I was a pastor, and suddenly  each person’s preconceptions about what a pastor is about came into play in their perceptions of me. 

So there are times when carrying the title of “Pastor” can make my life somewhat lonesome, in that it functions as a barrier to really being known as a person. 

What does it mean to say we really “know” a person?  My wife is the person who knows me best (although her knowledge of me pails in comparison to God’s knowledge of me.)  Sarah is more likely than others to be able to predict the feelings, thoughts and actions that will arise from me in a given situation.

Love means many things, but the deepest form of love involves truly knowing another person, and in that knowledge being for that person. 

Christianity is based on the unusual claim that truth with a capital T isn’t a set of doctrines, a set of laws, or even a book.  Truth is a person.   If you want to know Truth, then you’ve got to get to know Jesus in such a way that you can begin to predict how he would respond to a given situation.  Unfortunately, people routinely confuse “knowing Jesus” with merely learning certain words and formulas about him. 

The Gospel lessons this week and last show the difficulty the disciples had in getting to know Jesus because their preconceptions got in the way.  Last week we heard how Jesus raised up the question of their knowledge of him.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter responded with the right title, technically speaking:  “You are the messiah.”   Unfortunately, his preconceptions about what being the “messiah” meant made it difficult for Peter to really get to know Jesus.

That same difficulty is carried over in this morning’s lesson.  For the second time Jesus talks about his suffering and death.  Jesus is sharing intimate parts of himself, his understanding of what he is called to do, and he wants to be known in this way; but what he is saying is distressing and confusing to the disciples, and doesn’t fit with their preconceptions, so they don’t really take it in, nor do they ask further about it. 

On a practical level, the disciples quickly expose the fact that they don’t get Jesus.  As disciples their task is to model their lives on Jesus’ life.   He is going to Jerusalem to lay his life down as a servant, and they start jockeying for position as to who among them is the greatest.  It’s not surprising that they do this, since that’s what we human beings do.   Consciously or unconsciously, wherever we find ourselves, we establish pecking orders, seeking the higher position. 

At this point in the story Jesus takes a little child — like baby Samuel, or his brother Kevin – and, cradling this child tenderly in his arms, says that if you want to attain true greatness in this life, serve children such as this one.   If you want to serve me, as well as God, serve a child. 

So what is the significance of a child for Jesus?  I think a couple of things are in play.

Children are politically powerless.  Especially in the culture in which Jesus lived, children had no status or power, so a kind act on their behalf would have no possibility of being paid back.    A child represents someone to whom the service rendered will necessarily be given freely, and it is this freedom of giving with no thought of reward that Jesus is after.

Children are by nature very self-absorbed, as any parent knows.   Not only do they have no political power to pay you back for your service, they also don’t have the emotional or spiritual wherewithal to really get it about the service they receive.   Although children will have spontaneous moments where they express real gratitude, generally speaking, they are natural ingrates.   If we serve children with the hope of being appreciated by the children, we will serve in vain.   We may well be tempted to lecture our children regarding “all we’ve done for them,” but we’re really rather foolish in giving these lectures.   They won’t succeed in making our children more grateful for our service.  So if we choose to serve children, we must do so with a free spirit that isn’t looking for any kind of pay back, which, I think, is what Jesus was pointing us towards.

I suspect Jesus also appreciated the insights of modern psychology, which is that the adult person is profoundly shaped by the experience of their childhood; that if a child is well loved, the chances are far greater that they will grow up to be loving adults, and that children who are neglected or abused will more likely grow up to neglect and abuse others as well.  (Check out the childhood of Hitler.)

There are, of course, always exceptions:  people who appeared to have had childhoods that seemed marked by a scarcity of love who grew up to be very loving adults, and people who seemed to have been blessed by every advantage in childhood and grew up to be perpetually self-centered.  These exceptions point to the mystery of the freedom and responsibility that dwells in every human soul.  

Nonetheless, it is true that if you want to have a positive impact on the world, giving love unselfishly to children is a really good place to begin.  It’s humbling work in so far as you very possibly will never get to see the fruits of your labor.  And the world we live in doesn’t value it very much.  (Compare the salaries of childcare workers with that of stockbrokers.)  But there is no more important work than the care of children. 

There is a natural arc to the life of human beings as designed by God.   We begin life as a baby as absolute receivers.  Love is poured into us.  As the child grows, the forms of the love become more varied and nuanced, including the disciplined love that corrects the child, but for the most part children remain primarily receivers in life.   This is as it should be.   

I watched this distressing documentary a while back entitled “Jesus Camp” that showed children at this Fundamentalist Church Camp that intentionally sought to shape the minds of children in a similar way that children are shaped in fundamentalist Moslem contexts.   Children were indoctrinated with a black and white version of the world, and pressed early on towards making a commitment of their life to Jesus Christ.   I remember what appeared to be a nine-year-old boy parroting the language he had heard adults use:  how his life had felt empty, like something was missing, until he gave himself to Jesus.    It was really creepy. 

Check the Gospels:  you will never find an instance of Jesus saying to a child, “Come, follow me.”   Following Jesus involves laying yourself down for Jesus.  You can’t lay your self down until you have a self.  Children are engaged in the process of growing a self, fed by the love they have taken into themselves from adults.

As we nurture our children, we teach them solid values, we teach them about Jesus and the Bible stories.  But we do them damage by pressing them for a Christian commitment prematurely. 

In the arc of our lives there comes a time – maybe at age 12, maybe 50, maybe unfortunately never – when a shift begins to be made from being primarily a receiver to being a giver.  The awareness develops of how blessed we have been, and the need in response to offer up our lives in service.    This is what conversion is about.  There may be a bright and shining moment in which the shift opens up to us, as when Paul met the glorified Jesus on the road to Damascus.  But generally speaking the shift involves an ongoing process in which we move from primarily receiver to primarily giver.  Along the way, mysteries open up to us:  the distinction between “giving” and “receiving” becomes blurred.  We find ourselves receiving wondrously in the midst of giving, and that sometimes we offer ourselves best by allowing others to give to us.  There is a great love flowing through us.

If a person fails to make this shift of focus, they are destined to live out a kind of spiritual constipation.  Scott Peck tells a story from his teen years in which he describes walking down a road and seeing a classmate  in the distance coming in his direction.  He had five minutes in anticipation of their meeting in which he devoted the energies of his brain to coming up with clever ways to impress his classmate with his wit and sophistication.   The meeting happened, and after their brief exchange, he proceeded down the road away from his classmate, spending the next couple of minutes accessing how he’d done.  Suddenly it occurred to him how incredibly consumed with himself he was — that no where in that ten minutes had he appreciated the reality of his classmate’s existence apart from his potential function as an audience and admirer of himself.  He realized that if he continued down this path, he would live an extremely shallow life.   He didn’t change the focus of his life in that moment, but an awakening began that allowed him to proceed the process of redirecting the energies of his life. 

With this arc in mind, the investment of time and energy (love) into our children can be seen as making it possible for them to reach that point of transition.   Unfortunately, there are many people who spend their adult life stuck in the posture of receiving, eternally questing for the love and attention they did not receive as a child.  

The most basic form of this neglect occurs when a child grows up without ever having really been known in their depths by the adults in their lives.  A parent’s most basic responsibility is to really know their child; to know their unique strengths and weaknesses, what causes them joy and what causes them pain.   It is a terrible thing not to be known. 

In certain ways the lot of children in society at large has improved over the last couple of centuries.   John Wesley and the early Methodists worked to help liberate children from workplaces – from factories and mines so they could attend school and have their childhood. 

But in one critical way I think that the experience of children has deteriorated, corresponding to the demise of the extended family and the enormous stress placed upon the nuclear family.   Nowadays relationships with adults are limited to mom and dad (at best,) with teachers coming into their lives a year at a time.   (The parents easily get maxed out between earning a living and caring for children, compensating for the limited attention by giving their children stuff, thereby teaching children the distressing lesson that things can substitute for love.)   Without an extended network of adults who are in the children’s lives long term and truly know them, the souls of children are deprived.   

Church ought to be a place where this trend is reversed.

In the coming year, I would like to propose we make it a goal to emphasize the place of children in the life of our congregation.   Jesus has explicitly directed us to do so, and there is no more important work. 

I want to put a challenge before each of you:  make the effort to learn the names of every child in our church family so you can greet them by name when you see them.  Go beyond learning their names – take note of the distinguishing character traits of each child, so you can recognize them as unique persons and encourage them accordingly.  

In doing so, we will have served Jesus, and the God who sent him.

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