A sermon preached on October 4, 2009 based upon Mark 10:13 – 16.
And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.” (Mark 10:13 – 16)
The story that little Cassie read for us this morning is one that most of us have heard many times in our lives – indeed, I refer to it every Sunday when I invite the children to come forwards. It tells us, of course, that Jesus loved the little children. But, pondering the story this week I realized that it contains the very heart of the Gospel.
To review the story, people were bringing little children to Jesus, in order for him to touch and bless them. The disciples, functioning out of the mindset of the world, judge the children to be unworthy of Jesus’ time. They see them as a distraction from the more important matters of his ministry, which begs the question: what makes a person worthy? In the eyes of the world, a person’s worth is based upon what the do, what they accomplish, what they achieve, and so from this viewpoint, children are pretty worthless. They haven’t accomplished anything by the world’s standards.
You can really blame the disciples, because they are simply functioning out of the normal way of seeing things, and they are trying to watch out for what they assume are Jesus’ best interests — keep these distractions away from Jesus so that he can focus on his real work. But Jesus rebukes them, a strong word, saying do not hinder them, for to such as these little children the kingdom of God belongs. And then Jesus goes further: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
How do these little children receive the kingdom? Well, the story concludes with this very tactile image: Jesus “took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.” They let Jesus take them up into his lap, in his arms, that he may hold them, bless them, love them.
It’s a powerful image, and one I found myself coming back to at least three times this past week, in experiences I’d like to share.
First, there has been the experience of eighty-eight year old Russ’s death. Russ was in the process of dying this past week. Thursday afternoon at the hospital he had a good day, visiting with loved ones, joking, singing songs. But in the early evening, Russ began to become agitated, assaulted by pain, along with his mental clarity falling away. Russ was in a great of distress, and Ruth called to ask me to come to the hospital, which I did. As Russ repeatedly cried out for help, Ruth was there, holding his hand, leaning in close, speaking softly to husband, singing him lulabyes, encouraging him to let go into the rest of sleep. She was so tender, so steadfast.
Eventually the proper medications were prescribed for the pain, and finally Russ was able to sleep. The next afternoon, Russ was brought home to the house he’s lived in for 40 years to receive hospice care. There Russ rested peacefully, and Ruth also was able to rest.
His passing was quick. At 10 on Saturday morning, Russ quietly passed into the arms of Jesus.
Ruth called me, and I came to the house. It was peaceful now, so unlike the evening two nights before. I was moved by something Ruth said: that she had felt Jesus holding her – during the ordeal of his death, and throughout her life.
The second memory from the week that seemed to connect so closely to this image of Jesus holding the little children was a conversation I had with a mother from our church. She shared how as a small child growing up in church she had caught hold of this understanding that even though God was invisible that God was real, that God was there for her, and that this conviction had been her rock throughout her life.
Her concern, now was for her children, pondering the mystery of what does it take for a child to catch hold of the faith with which she was blessed. She was grateful for the sermon I had preached two Sundays earlier when I had challenged the congregation to learn the names of all the children in our church, and indeed, more than the names, to learn who they are. She realized that she needed the church family for her children to catch hold of the kingdom of God.
The third experience of my life that connected to this tender image of Jesus holding the little children has been the opportunity given to me to get to know ten year old Joseph, who arrived just three weeks ago from Ghana to live next door to me.
I’ve been learning more of Joe’s story. Ghana is a very poor and conflict-ridden country. When Joe was 3 or 4, his mother Ese came to America in order to make money for the family back in Ghana, working as a live-in home health aide. The extended family in Ghana tends to be stronger than it is here, so Ese was able to leave Joseph, as well as her older children, in the care of her sister.
You may remember a while back the nothing-but-nets program where we raised money to send netting to folks in Africa to protect them from the mosquitoes that carry malaria. Well, Joe came down with malaria. He was fortunate to survive, but it required two stays in the hospital. When he was five, Joe went off to a boarding school. There he had more structure and opportunity to learn, but there wasn’t much love there, not of the sort conveyed by that image of Jesus holding the little children. It wasn’t possible for the aunt to come for visits. Understandably, Joe felt abandoned. Meanwhile, Ese was making the money that was keeping the family from starving.
Finally it became possible for Ese to bring he youngest child to live with her in America. He was thrilled to come, to be once again with his mother and to experience the opportunities that life in America provides. But as I’ve gotten to know Joe, I recognize that given his experience, it’s not easy for Joe to trust and let love in. And so I’ve thought about Jesus holding him.
The story of Jesus with the little children raised this question: Are we loved because of what we do, what we accomplish, or because of who we are? If this is how we understand the love we are given, it is a precarious love indeed, leading to constant anxiety about whether we’ve done enough. It leads us to a posture of defensiveness and hostility because the assessment of worthiness is constantly at stake. It isn’t a love you can rest in, like a child resting in the arms of Jesus.
The good news of the Gospel begins with the gift of love. We are loved not because of what we do but because of who we are. We are God’s beloved children, God’s cherished creations.
What God wants from us before all else is to allow ourselves to be loved. This isn’t as easy as it might sound, since we are so locked into this other way of viewing love. If love is something we earn, then in theory we can be in control of it – dutifully doing our job. The love God wishes to give us requires giving up this attempt at control. It requires letting go of control, which is precisely what most of us adults find so hard to do.
Prayer is many things, but I would suggest to you that the start of prayer should be akin to crawling up into the lap of Jesus. Before we begin to put our petitions before God, spend some time using your imagination to rest in the arms of God. In your imagination, bring all your senses into play. Be the child who is caressed in a loving embrace. From this starting point, a desire to share the blessing will naturally flow.
There’s this story about a little girl who awakens in her bedroom at night to the sound of lightning close at hand. She is frightened and calls for her mother, who comes to her bedside to comfort her. Her mother reminds her, “You know that God is always here with you.” The girl replies, “Yes, but sometimes it’s helpful having someone with skin on.”
When Jesus walked upon this earth, he was God with skin on. Now as the body of Christ, we are called to be God with skin on as well. “And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.”