A sermon preached on October 16th, 2011 based upon Mark 9:33 – 37; 10:13-16, and on the occasion of receiving seven adult members into membership, as well as celebrating the “Children’s Sabbath.” Twelve children read parts in the service, including sections of the new members liturgy.
Interesting things happen when you ponder two seemingly different things at the side by side. Today is such an occasion. This morning we received seven new adult members into our church, and we also are celebrating the “Children’s Sabbath”, which focuses our attention on the children in our lives and in our world.
So in short hand, what we have, in a sense, is adulthood placed squarely next to childhood, and the question, as in a lab experiment, what happens when we mix the two? Our inclination is to see them as two distinct and separate categories. Once upon a time we were children, and then we became adults, leaving childhood behind.
I remember when I was a teenager I was pretty focused on the distinction. I had reached a place where I longed to leave behind what it meant to be a child. Being a child meant being helpless and dependent, having to rely on parents or other adults for everything. It meant being vulnerable.
When I was fourteen, I discovered the joy of taking long bike rides. A big part of the pleasure of feeling like a free adult. I delighted in being able to hop on a bike with a friend and ride ten miles or more to places I’d never been to before – places quite different from my familiar, suburban neighborhood. I loved it. I loved the independence, the feeling of being able to determine where I would go, what I would see, of simply being out on my own. It felt great to be an adult. I was proud of myself, and rightfully so.
The bicycle trips got more and more ambitious. David Turner and I planned a month long trip on our own through New England; we took pleasure in doing all the planning ourselves.
One Saturday a couple of months before the big trip, I was out making one of my weekend practice rides, and on the way back from Hacklebarney State Park, I took a spill, resulting in an ambulance ride to Morristown Memorial Hospital to stitch up some pretty deep gashes on my body. Afterwards, I prided myself in the fact that through the course of the experience, I hadn’t cried, commenting on this to my mother, a memory she recalled to me years later. How determined I was to be an invulnerable adult. Big boys don’t cry.
But as the years passed, it almost seemed as though I forgot how to cry. I would go for years at a time without once crying. There was this vague awareness that deep inside there was a sadness that needed to be released with tears, but since the tears couldn’t come, the sadness stayed stuck inside. I’d gotten so good at being an adult that I couldn’t let go that way.
There were, however, rare instances when tears would come. I remember at age 18, coming home from my first semester at college, having spent that the semester pining away for a girlfriend who was far away at another college, clinging to the hope that she still loved me and wanted to be my girlfriend. I was at David’s house of all places, talking to her on the phone when she finally spelled it out for me that she didn’t want to be my girlfriend any more. After I hung up, I had a good cry for a minute or two—my first real cry in years, which is a testament to the trust I felt in David’s presence. Afterwards I felt amazingly light and ready to move on with my life.
As the years passed, the only place I was able to cry on occasion was in movie theaters in the safety of the darkness, lost in the story of the movie. The places in story lines where I would cry followed a certain pattern. It wasn’t simply where something sad was going on – it was as if sadness were expected. The tears would come when unexpected kindness and gentleness would show up to redeem the sadness – as if to say, it is safe to cry, there is a grace here that is ready to rock you till the tears pass. With the experience of tears being so rare, they had for me the quality of being almost a kind of religious experience. I heard it said somewhere that tears are the lubricant of the holy spirit, and it makes sense to me.
In the Bible, a life cut off from God is often described as one in which the heart is hardened, an image I resonate with. In the quest for leaving childhood altogether behind, my heart was hardened, but in those moments when mysteriously the tears could come, grace softened my hearts, or in Wesley’s term, my heart was strangely warmed. In such moments resentments and bitterness were released. I floated in the ocean of God’s love.
And so, in my experience I see that although it is natural to want to “grow up,” to become an adult capable to accomplishing good and useful things in this world, the truth is that we never really leave behind being simultaneously a child, and the belief that we should be able to do so is a dangerous thing.
It is often said, “children are the future of the church.” It is an admirable sentiment, focusing attention on the fact that the children of today will grow into adults, and they need to be nurtured today with an eye towards their future when they will become the leaders of the church. But there is something misleading about the statement, because children aren’t simply the future of the church, they are the present of the church as well.
I routinely hear people in our congregation say that the children’s time is their favorite time of the service. (For instance, three of our new members mentioned the children’s time as being part of what they love about our church.) Interestingly, the folks saying this aren’t the parents of the children themselves, who, in a sense you might assume would be most focused on this part of the service, since it is designed to benefit their children. They’re stressed out about what their children might say! No, it is adults who either don’t have children of their own, or whose children have long since grown up who find such pleasure in seeing the children interacting with me. (The preference for the children’s sermon speaks to me in particular: I spend a great deal more time preparing my “adult” sermon than my children’s sermon, but often times it is the children’s time where people hear God speak more clearly to them, a time I frankly put rather little time planning. It is the spontaneous, playful quality of these “sermons” that make them so appealing.)
The point here is that our adult hearts find a blessing, even a healing, in being able to watch and listen to these children respond so spontaneously. It calls forth the child buried inside our adult selves. We adults need contact with children in order to experience the wholeness God has in store for us.
I remember that when I went through my divorce, it was the presence of my two year old son Andrew who gave me access to the tears that led to the healing of my heart. Without him, I wonder if I would have cried at all.
There is a scene you may remember in To Kill a Mockingbird in which Atticus Finch decides to spend the night sitting out in front of the jail, because he is aware that in the course of the night an angry mob of white men is likely to come down to the jail house to try and lynch the black man inside that Atticus is defending against charges that he raped a white woman. The narrator of the story, Atticus’ six year old daughter “Scout,” decides to go down town in the night to visit her father, arriving at the same time as the mob arrives, intent on committing a terrible deed of darkness. She recognizes some of them – they are the fathers of her playmates at school. She speaks to them, asking them to say “hi” to her friends, asking them why they are there. In the presence of this child, the men cannot commit the act that their adult selves tell them is expedient, the execution of this black man. The crowd disperses, saved from evil by the presence of little child.
Atrocities are committed by people who have lost touch with the child.
In preparation for “the children’s Sabbath,” I entered the word “children” into a Bible search engine to see all the verses in which the word “children” appears in the Bible. As you would imagine, there are quite a few. But the striking thing to me was that although there are a number of references to children in the usual sense of the word: you know, vulnerable younguns who need to be taken care of by adults – the majority of times the word “children” gets used in the Bible, it refers to human beings in general in our relationship to God. In other words, even as “adults” we are still children in relationship to God. You repeatedly hear the expression “children of God.” Never once do you never hear the expression “adults of God.”
The two little stories the children read for us this morning suggest a similar challenge to our notion that children and adults are two distinct categories.
In one, the disciples seem to be engaged in a competition to be the most grown up – the most competent, most significant, the most adult. In their minds, this is greatness. Jesus takes a child and places that child in the midst of them, and says that to be great you must welcome a child such as this, you must honor a helpless little child like this, and that in welcoming one such child you welcome Jesus himself.
Later the people are trying to bring children to Jesus, and the disciples act out of the assumption that children are only adults in waiting, and figure Jesus’ is too important to waste his time on children. He rebukes the disciples and says, “Unless you turn and become like a little child you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Adults don’t enter the kingdom of God. Only children.
I thought it beautifully expressed this truth today when we had children participate in the new members’ liturgy, blessing the adults who were humbling themselves like children, bowing at the kneeler before the altar of God.
So this morning: Jennifer, George, Glen and Norma, Marissa, Diane and Richard, you are doing a very adult thing by publicly professing your faith and taking the vows of adult membership. This is a place where you can be competent and adult and do some good things that contribute to the greater good of our church and this world.
But you are also joining yourselves to a fellowship of children. It is a fellowship, for instance where it is safe to cry, as well as to laugh.
My wife tells a story of how, when she was going through the breakup of her first marriage, and feeling absolutely heart broken, she went to a church near her home seeking some comfort. Something in the service opened up a faucet of her tears. But the striking thing for her was the non-verbal message she got from the people around her in that particular church: that tears were grossly inappropriate there. She felt like some sort of contagious leper that people needed to avoid lest they, too, be rendered unclean. No one acknowledged her tears – no one sought to comfort her.
A little girl was delayed on her walk home. Her mother asked her what caused the delay. She explained to her mother that she had met a friend who was crying over her beloved doll that was broken. “O, so you stopped to help her fix the doll?”
“No, mommy,” she said. “The doll couldn’t be fixed. I stopped to help her cry.”
This is a place where it is safe to cry when tears need to be shed, knowing the freedom to weep brings with it the freedom to laugh, and that after every crucifixion there is resurrection.