Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
It was a few Christmases ago when a daughter asked her father what the holiday really meant. He explained that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and the more they talked the more she wanted to know so the father purchased a children’s Bible and began reading it to her every night.
She loved it.
They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of Jesus’ sayings like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And the father said, “Jesus teaches that we are supposed to treat people the way we want to be treated. And with each passing story, the daughter became more and more enamored with Jesus.
They were driving around town a few weeks later when they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix on the front lawn. The giant cross and it’s dying figure were impossible to miss and the daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
The father realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how the person on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, so they did.
The daughter was silent for the rest of the drive.
A few weeks went by and when his daughter had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr the father decided to take the day off as well and treat his girl to lunch. And while they were sitting at a table waiting for their food, his daughter reached for the local newspaper, pointed at the figure on the front-page and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
It was Dr. King.
“Well,” the father began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher”
And she said, “For Jesus?!”
“Yes,” he said, “But there was another thing that he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat one another the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a minute and said, “Well Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The father said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it is just like what Jesus said.”
The daughter was silent for a moment or two, and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and she said, “Did they kill him too?”
There’s a reason Jesus said that unless we receive the kingdom like a child we will never enter it. Kids get it. If only the same could be said about us adults.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We love this little anecdote from the Gospel of Mark because we love thinking about children in church.
Literally, we enjoy actually seeing children among our ranks and it gives us hope for a future not yet seen. But even more so, we love to think about children being in church because it naturally corresponds with our imaginations regarding Jesus as a simple, lovable, leader of those who walk in the ways of life.
But this story, these handful of verses right on the other side of the Transfiguration should stop us dead in our tracks, because, like the disciples, we don’t really understand what Jesus is saying and we are too afraid to ask him.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee.
Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, as the one to save and redeem Israel. But then as soon as Jesus predicts his own passion and resurrection Peter offers a rebuttal.
“Excuse me, JC, but that’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do.”
“Get behind me Satan, for you’re stuck with a worldly imagination and not a divine imagination. If you want to join me on this world turning upside down endeavor, then you need to get you world flipped right now – those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their lives on account of my name will save them.”
And then Jesus has the bright idea to take Peter, and a handful of the inner circle up on top of a mountain upon which he is Transfigured and flocked by Moses and Elijah and a voice cries out, “This is my Son! Listen to him!”
They come down from the mountain with all sights trained on Jerusalem, Jesus heals yet another person in need and then, while passing through Galilee, Jesus drops some truth on his would-be disciples again.
“Listen, I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to the authorities, and I’m going to be killed. And three days later I will rise again.”
But the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask for elaboration.
Apparently, however, they had something else to talk about along the journey because by the time they make it to Capernaum Jesus asks, “So what was it that you all we arguing about on the way?”
They say nothing because they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.
Jesus is on his way to the end, to the cross, when all his disciples can argue about is cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God, they want to know who is the greatest.
These disciples have heard Jesus teachings, they’ve witnessed his miracles, and they’re still clueless.
“Pay attention,” Jesus says, “if you want to be first, you have to be last.”
And then he grabs a kid (from where?) and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes God.”
In the strange new world made possible by God in Christ, the master is oddly the one who serves, the greatest is the least, and the first is the last.
Luke and Matthew have this same story in their respective gospels, the dispute about greatness. They, too, record Jesus claiming that whoever wishes to be first must be last, but then they add, the great among you shall be like the youngest – one cannot enter the kingdom unless they do so as a child.
So, Jesus seems to say, we’ve got to welcome one another like children, and we’ve got to start acting like children.
That sounds good and fine, and even nice. But it makes me wonder if Jesus actually spent any substantive time around children…
I mean, this isn’t very good advice.
Can you imagine what would happens if all of us respectable adults started acting like children? Or, perhaps worse, what would happen if we let kids run the show we call church?
You know, my first week here, I asked our Youth what they would change if they could change one thing about the church, and you know what they said?
One of them made a strong case for installing a Hot Tub outside our gathering area!
Another one argued for us to renovate our back set of stairs because, if you ever need to use the bathroom during the service, everyone in the sanctuary can hear you walking down the stairs.
Seriously, and get this! Another one said that they would make us actually love each other and our neighbors.
Kids! They don’t know what they’re talking about! We can’t trust them with the church!
Soon enough, we’ll all be relaxing in hot tubs and actually living like disciples!
Jesus says if you want to be first, you have to be last. Which, in a sense means the whole apparatus called church is caught up in a confounding community in which the people with no qualifications are in charge, and those with all the power and prestige in the world have to take a back seat to the whole kingdom thing.
Did you know that the Methodist Church grew every year until we started requiring pastors to have Masters degrees. Interesting isn’t it?
You start letting the people with the right pedigree up into the pulpit and it runs counter to the strange machinations of the Lord.
In the Gospels, Jesus is forever going from place to place, talking fast, dropping one bomb after another without giving anyone much of an opportunity to sit with and in this strange new world.
Notably, when Jesus calls the disciples he does so without a screening process, there’s no resume evaluation committee, he doesn’t stop to check anyone’s connections of legacy. All he says is, “Follow me.”
And then, later, he says, “Start acting like children.”
Who can know the mind of God? God is God and we are not. The finite can never truly comprehend the infinite. But there really is something to this bizarre proclamation, something that rings true even today.
When I was in the third grade, I was marched up to the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and some well-meaning Sunday school teacher handed me this Bible. It’s a tradition among mainline Protestants to give away Bibles to children, to kids, once they’re old enough to handle it.
But have you have read the Bible? There’s a whole lot of stuff in this book that is way beyond PG-13.
A woman rams a tent peg through the skull of a foreign general. (Judges 4.21)
A late night pre-marital rendezvous results in the eventual birth of King David. (Ruth 3.4)
And I won’t even say this one out loud, but go check out Ezekiel 23 sometime.
Yet, the church gives away Bibles to 8 years olds as if to say, “Good luck!”
But this is why the call to behave like children stands as a beacon of wonder in the church today, because children often reject the rugged individualism that our culture is so obsessed with. Children, unlike adults, cannot survive on their own and they always seem to exist as a group.
Children take their Bibles, they read these stories, and then they bring their questions to one another and to the church.
We, that is adults, on the other hand, feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community that teaches what it means to be who we are.
We’re so consumed by the idea of needing to think for ourselves that we’ve never dared to think, like children, of what it means to think together.
The witness of the church, straight from the lips of lips of the Lord, is that we cannot know who we are until God tells us. And then, and only then, can we live into that reality when a community of people persist in proclaiming that truth over and over again.
The world might try to label us based on external or even internal circumstances. You’re a Republican, you’re a Democrat, you’re fat, you’re old, you’re stupid. On and on and on.
But God, in Christ, through church, tells us again and again that we are the baptized, that we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone, we’re not labeled by what we wear or what we do, we are only who God tells us we are.
I’m not sure exactly how it happens, or even when it happens, but at some point we, adults, foolishly believe we have nothing left to learn.
Children, thankfully, remind us that there is no limit to the knowledge and wisdom that comes from God.
Oddly enough, we never really think for ourselves, no matter how much we believe we do. We are all captives to the thoughts and the instructions of others. We might tell children to think for themselves, we can even tell ourselves to do so, but all of us, eventually, will think like someone else.
Entire industries exist for the simple and sole purpose of indoctrination. All usually under the auspices of encouraging our intellectual freedom.
The never-ending push for individualism, for solitary adult like behavior, presents a version of the world as if people are actually capable of being alone, which forgets that we owe our entire lives and our ability to think, to other people.
Independence might be the carrot on the string dangling in front of our faces, but in the kingdom of God, dependence is the name of the game. Because, in the end, our insatiable desire for autonomy actually leaves us lonely and without any story by which we can make sense of the condition of our condition.
The Gospel, on the other hand, calls us to a dependent life upon which our hopes and dreams stem from being part of something bigger than ourselves in which God’s story renarrates our own.
In other words, the church, at her best, is an antidote to the loneliness of the world, and the loneliness all too many of us feel. It’s here, among the baptized, that we learn we have a story, they we are not alone, and that we are incorporated into something that is not of this world.
It’s not that we have an antidote – the church is the antidote.
What we do – worship, prayer, sacrament, mission, it is all of a piece in which the story of God reveals to us our dependence upon God and upon others. In this community of faith we live out the story revealed in the strange new world of the Bible and this becomes the training ground for those who call ourselves Christians. It’s in our living together, our being together, that we cultivate the habits necessary for understanding who we are and how we can live in the world.
Welcoming those like children implies a willingness to welcome ideas from the very kinds of people (and places) that we would never dare to imagine. It means being open to a future that we cannot yet conceive on our own. It means getting out of the way of the Spirit, and letting it rip.
If you ain’t first, you’re last – so says the world. From the time we’re young adults until the day we die its always this break-neck competition for firstness, greatness, foundness. But in the Kingdom of God Jesus does his best work, his only work really, with the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
When I was serving my first church I would gather in the sanctuary with the church’s preschool students every Wednesday morning for Chapel Time. Each week I endeavored to bring them on a journey into the strange new world of the Bible so that they could learn more about God and more about themselves.
I used the lights in the sanctuary and little hand held candles to talk with them about the gift of light that God gives to us (Genesis). We played hide and seek among the pews in order to remember the story of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the bushes of Eden (also Genesis). I even had them line up in the center aisle to play “Red Light/Green Light” and drew a somewhat loose connection to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (also also Genesis).
And then one particular Wednesday, I sat down in the sanctuary with the kids to teach them one of my all time favorite stories – Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. A brief refresher: Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to re-encounter his brother for the first time in a long time. But before Jacob can meet his fate in Esau, a strange figure appears late in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lessons. And it’s during this ordeal that Jacob receives a new name: Israel (which means: you have struggled against God and prevailed).
In order to really bring the story to life I had the kids line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wrestling match. Each of them came forward and gave it their best shot and I would pick each of them up and spin them in circles above my head. But when our final two-year-old came forward I let him knock me to the ground.
But, strangely enough, while all the other kids were cheering for my defeat, the two-year-old in question wrapped his little arms around my neck and whispered, “I’m sorry Pastor Taylor.”
And so it was that, without planning for it to happen, I was able to take him up in my arms and say to all of the kids, “God loves us so much that even when we wrestle with God, God never lets us go.”
To be a Christian today carries a degree of wrestling and struggling. It is challenging to take up the words of the strange new world of the Bible and compare them to this world; there is a friction between the Good News of scripture and the bad news that bombards us every day.
We want to know why bad things happen to good people, and why good things happen to bad people. We want to know that better days are ahead because we’ve certainly had our fair share of challenges. We want to know that children won’t fall asleep hungry at night, and that systems of oppression will be destroyed, and that justice will rain down like mighty rushing waters.
Jesus never promised that any of this would be easy – but he did promise to be with us, even to the end of the age. Thanks be to God.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
It was a busy Sunday morning.
The confirmands were getting confirmed.
The choir was trying out a new anthem.
The sermon was a sitting at a solid B-.
Nevertheless, I stood and addressed the people of God, all while constantly referring to the overstuffed bulletin in hopes that I wouldn’t, accidentally, skip over part of the service.
God gathered us. God spoke God’s word to us. And the time had come for us to respond. The confirmands were, finally, confirmed, and were therefore the first in line to receive communion. They, being the good and holy tweenagers they were, made silly faces at me when I offered the bread, doing their best to mess me up. I kept my cool, being all holy up at the front with my long robe and made a mental note to teach those kids some some respect after the service.
I kept distributing the bread with the solemnity required at such a moment.
Knowing head nods.
The subtle tap on the hand.
Until, the very end when the final person came forward to receive the body and the blood of our Lord.
I confess I was momentarily surprised to see Owen standing before me and below me in the middle of the sanctuary because Owen was barely three years old, a child from our preschool, and his family had never been to church before.
I looked around for his mother, and father, and little sister and found them frantically rushing around the back of the church as if they had lost something.
The something they lost was standing right below me.
“It’s my turn pastor Taylor,” he said, “I want some Jesus please.” And he opened his mouth like a little baby bird and waited for me to drop a piece of bread in.
So I did.
I then, of course, picked him up and carried him to the back of the church where his family expressed their gratitude for the lost having been found, and then I sprinted down the center aisle to get us back on track.
As the big, grown-up, entirely responsible, never child-like adult that I am, I am quite good at making myself the center of all things.
It doesn’t matter whether I’m at a dinner party or standing up in a space like this on Sunday morning – I get used to things going a certain way, the ritual of it all, the comforting domestication of life. So much so that I, occasionally, forget to pay attention to the Spirit who insists on defying and upending expectations.
God, bewilderingly, likes to drop road signs pointing us in the right direction, or smacking us in the face with stop sign to halt us dead in our tracks.
God’s ways are not our ways.
One day, Jesus was walking with the disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. All of them, being good and faithful disciples, were frantically taking down notes so as to not miss any of the important details.
But they were distracted.
One of them, perhaps Peter, interjected, “Lord, can’t something be done about all these kids who keep following us around? Shouldn’t we send them to the nursery, or children’s church, or maybe we could just put them down in front of an episode of Paw Patrol? They’re so distracting!”
And do you know what Jesus did? He plucked up the nearest kid and sat her down right in the middle of all of the disciples and said, “When you receive one such child… Surprise! You receive me also.”
One day Jesus was hanging out with his disciples in the Temple. Upturned tables littered the area and the money lenders grumbled in the corners. Meanwhile, the blind and lame came to Jesus and he cured them, he made them whole. But when the big whigs, the movers and the shakers, saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children singing out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became very angry with Jesus.
They said to him, “Do you hear what they’re singing???” Jesus replied, “Of course I can hear them singing! Don’t you remember what it says in Psalm 81? Oh, you don’t remember that one? Well, let me refresh your memory: ‘O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is you name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.’”
And then Jesus left them standing there with the jaws on the floor.
Stanley Hauerwas is famous for saying: “Beware when you hear a Methodist minister quote his/her twelve-year old in a sermon. When that happens you know you’re fixin’ to hear some baloney.”
Though, when he says it, he uses a much saltier expression than baloney.
That he says it so often is indicative of his desire for sermons to be about God rather than about us. For, when someone like me stands in a place like this regaling people like you with stories of “Kids Say The Darndest Things” moments, it is worth wondering what, at all, that has to do with the Gospel.
We aren’t here to hear stories that make us chuckle about the whimsy of youth.
We’re here to hear a Word from the Lord, from God almighty!
And yet, as Jesus so wonderfully reminds us today, the child sitting in the middle of the crowd, the kid who sneaks away from his parents in the middle of a worship service, the children singing in the courtyard of the temple, they are here to distract us from our big, serious, but utterly self-centered adult religion, all so that another kid, a baby actually, might get our attention about what’s really important.
How odd of God to chose a baby born to an unwed virgin to change the cosmos.
How odd of God to chose the baby turned adult to speak greater truth than we could possibly bear.
How off of God to chose children singing songs by the temple to shake up the religious sensibilities of those in charge then and now!
Notably, when Karl Barth (the great theologian of the 20th century) was asked to summarize the entirety of his theology he responded by singing: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”
Shortly before his wild temple tantrum, Jesus settled a dispute between his disciples about greatness by telling them, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!”
So, should there be any children paying extra close attention to the sermon today, the next time you hear an adult tell you to “act you age” you have pastoral permission to respond by saying, “Well Jesus says that unless you start acting like a kid you’ll never enter the kingdom!”
Of course, it’s not just about having a child-like faith. We’re not called to be naive about the world. But, at least according to this moment from Matthew, when Jesus spins a verse from his favorite playlist The Psalms, it has less to do with being small or unintelligent and more to do with the fact that even babies and children proclaim the goodness of God.
Consider, for a moment, what it is that the children are singing that day in the temple courtyard: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
Literally, “Save us, Son of David.”
The adults, the chiefs priests and elders, are all angry because they can’t stand the thought of Jesus being God, being the promised Messiah. They can’t stand to hear children confessing a truth that runs counter to everything they think they know. Perhaps they’re furious because they can’t imagine a world in which someone like Jesus, a wandering rabbi with a rag tag group of would-be disciples, could actually be the one to bring about the salvation of the cosmos.
But the kids… the kids that day see something more than the adults do, they hope for something more than the adults could wrap their heads around.
In Jesus, they see God.
They witness the abundant mercy of the Messiah who stoops to heal the sick, and the blind, and the lame.
They encounter the power of the Anointed One who rids the temple of its economic disparity for a reality in which all are welcome to worship no matter the size of their wallet.
They experience the King of kings who, in the end, rules from the hard wood of the cross and uses his final earthly breaths to declare, of all things, forgiveness.
Sometimes, kids get it better than we do.
It all began, the father starts his story, a few Christmases ago when my 4 year old daughter began asking questions about what the holiday meant.
So I began explaining to her that this was in celebrating the birth of Jesus and she wanted to know more about that so I went out and got a children’s Bible and we would read together at night. She loved it. She wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and his teachings and she would ask constantly about this one particular phrase and I would explain that it was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what it all meant.
One day we were driving past a big church and out front was this big crucifix and she asked, “Who’s that?!” And I guess I never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of fill the rest in. I told her that Jesus ran afoul of the Roman government and that his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities at the time that they came to the conclusion that he would have to die.
About a month later her preschool had the day off for Martin Luther King Day and I took off the day from work and we went out for lunch together. We were sitting and right on the table was the local newspaper with a giant picture of Dr. King on the front. And she said, “Who’s that?” I said, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. This is the day we celebrate his life.”
She said, “Well, who is he?” And I said, “He was a preacher.” She looks up at me and goes, “For Jesus?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah he was. But there was another thing that he was famous for. He had a message. He said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a moment and then she said, “Well that’s what Jesus said.”
I said, “I guess it is. I never thought about it that way but it is like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
And my daughter looked down at the table for a long time before she said, “Did they kill him too?”
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. Amen.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 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.
She was almost 8 months pregnant. Her ankles were constantly swollen, the fatigue was nearly unbearable, but every kick she felt made it worth it. She and her husband had prayed and prayed and prayed for this baby, and in a month the baby would finally arrive.
Her parents lived states away, and she and her husband decided she should fly home for a quick weekend, one last chance to spend time with her parents before she herself became a parent.
The airports were challenging as she carried around a bunch of extra weight, but every eye that darted to her belly, and every strangers’ smile was enough to keep her moving forward.
Her parents enveloped their baby girl in their arms knowing that soon they would be grandparents and that their prayers had been answered as well. The time at home was destined to be a joyful reunion filled with the hope of the coming days, weeks, and months.
The day before she was set to fly home to her husband, she sat at the breakfast table with her parents. She held her mother’s hand on top of her belly, hoping for a quick kick that would surely bring forth a tear of unadulterated happiness, when the door bell rang.
In walked a young professional looking man, who walked straight over to hand her a large manilla envelope. But as his eyes moved to her belly, he froze in the middle of the kitchen. He muttered a barely audible, “I’m so so sorry,” deposited the parcel, and walked out of the house.
The parents and soon-to-be-parent slowly opened up the envelope.
She was almost 8 months pregnant.
Marriage is weird. Out of all the people in the world, among all of the possible conversations and interactions, some of us are brought together in a way that we believe we should make a covenant to be together for the rest of our lives.
It’s pretty strange when you take a step back to think about it.
I had a professor who loved to say that we always marry the wrong person. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the individuals we marry, but that we don’t really know who we are marrying or what marriage really is until we do it.
Marriage is the weird and wild journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
And, for as many marriages as I’ve been blessed to preside over, I can’t help but wonder why people get married at all; particularly today. I’ve heard all of the reasons: “We love each other, “It’s the next logical step in our relationship,” “I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”
But is that what marriage really is?
Love and logic ain’t enough.
A successful marriage, whatever that means, will never be contingent on the whims, or the romantic feelings, or the love, of those who are married. Love, as strong as it can be, is not enough to sustain couples in the midst of great tribulation. Love cannot make up for horrible lapses in judgment, terrifying domestic violence, or disturbing amounts of adultery.
Marriage is always about more than love. Marriage requires endurance, patience, hope, conversion, renewal, forgiveness, sacrifice, and reconciliation.
Marriage isn’t easy.
And that’s why more than half of all marriage end in divorce.
In the US the top three reasons for divorce have to do with money, children, and ironically enough, church itself.
All of these particular hangups stem from poor, or totally absent, communication. A couple disagrees about how to budget their money, or one of them gambles it all away without telling the other.
A couple disagrees about how to discipline a child or whether or not to have children at all.
A couple disagrees about the role the church should play in their relationship or their religious convictions can no longer harmonize with each other.
In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 per day, 16,800 per week, and 876,000 per year.
Divorce is one of the most remarkably prevalent occurrences in our culture and society to the degree that most of us have become numb to it, and we almost never talk about it in church.
We don’t take it very seriously.
Many are quick to end their marriage whenever the first hiccups are experienced, but as Christians we are called to hear what Jesus had to say about divorce, which can be a bitter pill to swallow.
So, for just a moment, imagine if you were standing up here with me looking out at everyone else. If the church is at all average, half of the married people in the room either have already been divorced, or will be by the end of their days.
That is a frightening reality considering Jesus’ words.
Some Pharisees tried to test him regarding the law on divorce because Moses allowed men to write certificates of dismissal to divorce their wives. And during the time of Moses, and Jesus, receiving that certificate was just about the worst thing that could happen to a married woman because she would effectively lose all of her rights. She could easily find herself on the street begging for food or prostituting her body for income.
Jesus was deeply deeply concerned with the marginalized people within his community, and in this particular case women who were handed a signature that destroyed their lives.
Of course, we can all admit that things have certainly changed since the days of Jesus – but maybe they haven’t changed enough.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that day is one that still casts a great shadow over families, churches, and communities: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus talked about this kind of stuff A LOT, and yet we in the church often avoid it at all costs. Probably because half the people in the church have, in all probability, experienced divorce.
But let us at least consider something Jesus said that is of paramount importance: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
God is the one who does the joining; we are the ones who do the separating.
Or maybe a better way to put it is this: Divorce is certainly not what God intends or hopes for, but there are times when there might not be another option. Times of horrific physical abuse, or traumatic adultery, can be nearly impossible to move through, but plenty of people get divorced for some of the most mundane reasons:
“Our interests have grown apart.” “We no longer communicate effectively.” “I’m not in love anymore.”
As long as we are human beings, divorce will be a reality. Which is to say, as long as we are sinners we will sin against each other. However, we worship a God of impossible possibilities who believes in us even when we do not. We follow a first-century Jew who believed in the sanctity of covenants even when we do not live according to them. We are empowered by a Spirit of truth, and renewal, and reconciliation.
Marriage is a strange and serious thing – it is perhaps one of the most strangely serious thing that any of us will ever do.
And we know the strangely serious dimension of marriage because it is one of the preferred metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people.
Marriage is not normative for Christian people, and is certainly not the expectation. If any us discover someone in whom we believe God can keep us covenanted with, well then good for us. If we find ourselves moving through life without ever coming to altar to make that particular covenant, then good for us too.
But marriage, whether we experience it or not, is something we are all called to know because God has covenanted to remain with us.
God stands before us again and again knowing full and well how we have failed to respond to the promise. We regularly pursue our own desires, we sin against neighbors, friends, and strangers, and we forget what God was willing, and is will, to do for us.
Jesus was able to speak with such ferocious certainty and conviction about the virtues of marriage because Jesus is the one who holds fast to the covenant even when we do not. It was in holding on to the promise that Jesus found himself nailed to the hard wood of the cross while abandoned by the bride which is the community we call the church.
Marriage is a strange and serious thing. And so is divorce. Which is why we need to talk about it.
In every marriage there is the strange discovery of realizing we don’t really know the person we married. We move through tragedies and hardships, we experience mountaintops of joy and deep valleys of sorrow, and if we are still married in the end it is because we found the true nature of the God of covenant and hope.
Marriage, though we sometimes forget, is a radical and countercultural endeavor. Jesus subverted the expectations of marriage with the Pharisees because he believed married couples should exists in plains of equity. No longer would the patriarchal norms in which women had no autonomy be present in something like marriage (though we clearly still have work to do).
Marriage has to be more than something that can be ended with a simple piece of paper. But as long as that option remains (as it should in some circumstances) the church is the place where that broken covenant can be redeemed.
After she opened the envelope, it felt like a tornado ran through the house. Every part of her hopes, and dreams, and expectations felt shattered and annihilated.
The covenant was broken.
She moved back in with her parents for the remainder of the pregnancy, and when the time came to go to the hospital she was surrounded not by her husband, but by her parents and friends.
Every bit of her life felt lifeless until she held her baby girl for the first time. And though it certainly hasn’t been easy, and she still feels the sting of pain and betrayal and hurt on a regular basis, every time she looks into the eyes of her daughter she discovers something beautiful that came out of the darkness.
Weddings take place in the church because the church is strange compared with the rest of the world. While others might ebb and flow like a kite in the wind, the church stands for something that resists our subjectivity. The church is a willing witness to the sanctity of marriage, particularly in light of Christ’s willingness to beckon us back to the throne over and over again.
The church is where married couples learn what is means to remain faithful to something that they never really could’ve imagined.
The church is where divorced individuals discover a community that will remain steadfast even if their partner didn’t.
The church is also where the sinful partner can one day find a new home and hope of redemption on the other side of repentance.
The church is where single people who never feel called to the covenant of marriage embody similar covenants with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
The church is where the virtues of marriage and the destructive nature of divorce can be laid on the throne because being together is never really about us; it’s about God. Amen.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.
Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.
And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.
We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.
We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.
The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.
And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.
Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.
For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”
We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.
But not today.
The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.
1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.
So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.
Or, we could just play…
(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I love to read. I love reading fiction in order to jump into a world I could never imagine. I love reading theology to help open my mind to all that God has done, is doing, and will do. And I love reading out loud to others.
I’ve often joked that if the whole “being a pastor thing” didn’t work out, I would love to be paid to make audio recordings of books. Between making up voices for particular characters, and adjusting my pitch to reflect the tone of a sentence, I just love reading out loud.
So when I was invited to read to a few classes at Featherstone Elementary School this week (to celebrate Dr. Seuss), I jumped on the opportunity.
My first class was filled with excited four and five year olds who mistook their teacher when she informed them that I was there to read Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham; they thought I was Dr. Seuss.
So I went along. And, for what it’s worth, they really liked my book.
My second class included those throughout the school who are autistic. I sat on the floor, and began reading The Cat in The Hat, when the teacher asked me to say something about the characters in the story. I tried to unpack the concept of character as best I could and then I resigned myself to just ask the question, “What is a character?”
Each of the students gave it a whirl, some of them getting closer to a definition than others, but then the last student spoke and this is what she said: “Character is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”
I know that I froze for a few seconds as her theological wisdom percolated in my mind.
Of course, she was referring to one’s character and not the character of a story, but her answer was so profound that I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
In church I, or any leader, might say something like, “let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord” and though we specifically mention being in the sight of God, what we really mean is that we hope we say and do the right thing in front of everybody else!
How often do we do what we do so that we might be seen doing what we are doing? Do we do the right thing even when no one is watching? Or, perhaps it’s better to put it this way: Do we do the right thing even when God is watching?
The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the second part of the evening, we invited Diana to join us at the front and she explored the the ramifications of announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the importance of the second Advent, human agency vs. divine agency, and how to teach children about the already but not yet of God’s Advent in Christ. Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Advent Longing
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.
A father was with his five year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about this “Jesus” so the father bought a kid’s bible and began reading to her every night.
She loved it.
They read the stories about Jesus’ birth, the miracles he produced, and teachings he offered. And the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “love your neighbor as you love yourself” and “blessed are those who mourn” and “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” They read and the read and at some point the daughter said, “Daddy, I really like Jesus.”
Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a huge Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”
The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began telling her how it was Jesus on the cross, that he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop him was to kill him, and they did.
And the daughter was silent the rest of the ride.
A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the father took his daughter out to lunch on Martin Luther King Jr. day because her school was closed for the holiday. While they were sitting at the table waiting for their food, the daughter saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. She quickly point to toward the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”
“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.” And she said, “For Jesus?!”
“Yeah,” he said, “For Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like love you neighbor as yourself.”
The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it’s just like what Jesus said.”
And the young girl was silent for a minute or two, starring down at the table, but when she looked up at her dad she had tears in her eyes and she said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”
It doesn’t happen often, but I love when a passage from scripture is straightforward. With the daunting amount of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that remain frustratingly ambiguous, it is refreshing to encounter a text that is so simple with its claims and expectations.
Listen up! Open your ears to what I am about to say regarding the mighty acts of God! I will declare the stories from the past, and we will not hide them from the children. They must hear about all the wonders of God. The Lord commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so they would teach their children, so that none of us would forget what God has done. Listen! We cannot fall back into the problematic rhythms of those who came before us, a stubborn and rebellious generation. We have to tell the story.
What follows in the psalm for today is a record of Israel’s history in song. The psalmist sets up a challenge: to remember the mighty acts of God for future generations, and then the psalmist declares the story of God with God’s creation. The narrative is so strong that the psalmist will not depart from it. The old old story has become so important to the psalmist that sharing it with others is the most important thing in the cosmos.
We have a member here at our church named Glenn who has dedicated himself over the last few years to rebooting our Children’s ministry. But he never really wanted to do it. It’s not a passion he’s had his entire life.
It actually all started when he volunteered to be the bible storyteller at Vacation Bible School a few years ago. Every morning he got the right costumes and ushered the kids into the strange new world of the bible through his stories. And one day, without really thinking about it, he simply asked, “Who is Jesus?”
The room was silent except for one girl who was brave enough to raise her hand with any semblance of an answer.
That was enough for Glenn to be jolted toward the importance of telling the story. That was enough for Glenn to commit himself to sharing Jesus with as many children as possible. That was enough for Glenn to hear the words of the psalmist echo through the sands of time: we will tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord.
There was a time when asking children about Jesus would’ve been unnecessary. There was a time when most families in a community went to church on a Sunday morning simply out of habit. There was a time when preachers could preach on a text without providing context.
But that time is gone.
Instead of embracing God’s story as our story, we’ve embraced other narratives. We don’t tell our children about Jesus, we expect the church to take care of that for us, much like we assume that schools will make them into perfect little citizens.
On Tuesday morning Lindsey and I brought Elijah to our local polling location to vote for Virginia’s next governor. I held him in my arms while Lindsey went to sit down and scan over her ballot, and while I was standing off to the side one of the poll workers gave me a little wave and said, “It’s so precious that you’re teaching your son about the value of voting!”
Is that what I want to instill in the coming generation represented by my son? Am I pleased to know that he will inherit a political structure that celebrates divisiveness while degrading cooperation? Am I more inclined to teach him about a political race than about God’s grace?
The psalmist, long ago, believed in retelling the story to help shape the people of God. The psalmist believed that in going back to their origins, remembering who they are and whose they are, the people would always find the living God. When we tell the story that is our story, we become shaped by the Word to be Christ body in the world today.
But what is the story?
When we open the scriptures we are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who is love. And then Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing on the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what will come in the days ahead.
We are with Noah kissing the earthy ground after the flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water still being sucked into the ground. We hear the promise of God to never abandon creation again. We believe in Noah there is a new creation, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we hope for something better in the days ahead.
We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord commanding him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear the promise, “I will make of you’re a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story continues lurching forward.
We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a burning bush. We heard the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We participate in the beginning of a call that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know the story, and we think it might be about us, but it’s about God.
We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.
We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him wisdom.
We are with Isaiah when the coal is placed on his lips.
And then we are there when everything changes; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word becomes flesh. When a man and a woman flee to save a child’s life. When that baby grows to be a man who was like no other man. When His words are cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: “Follow me!”
And they do.
Through him the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the hungry eat, the powerful are humbled, the poor are made rich.
And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear His final words and we feel a faint echo of those first words from so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.
We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We witness the Spirit fill their mouths with words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We feel the water of baptism and new birth. We smell the bread being broken and we taste the wine at the table.
And we know it is for us.
We tell this story because it is our story. And, of course, this isn’t just about teaching children the story. It’s about all of us, whether we’re eight or eighty. We come together in this place, all of us, to remember over and over the great acts of God in the world. We vacillate between creation and redemption, back and forth, to remind one another what God has done for us, and what God continues to do through us.
Telling the story pushes us further through the narrative that has no end. In it we find people and places that boggle our minds. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of what is real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. And we find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.
So, tell the story. Tell the story when you are up and when you are down, when all is well and when all is hell, tell the story when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Tell the story. Amen.
I just finished leading Vacation Bible School for Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA and the experience led me to write 5 tips for a fruitful VBS:
Learn The Names
There are few things as important as learning the names of the participants at Vacation Bible School. Whether the kids are regulars in worship or if it’s the first time they’ve entered a church, learning names shows that the church cares about who they are. I am new in my current appointment and am still learning the names of most people but I’ve made it a priority to learn the names of the children and the youth. We are blessed at the church I serve to be situated in a very diverse community and therefore the children at our VBS are all very different. It is good and right to learn the “Sallys” and the “Jims” but it means that much more when you take the time to learn how to appropriately pronounce the names of the children from other countries. On the first day of our VBS I called a couple of the kids by name and they responded with surprised looks and huge grins. Over and over again in scripture we learn about God calling people BY NAME! If we cannot learn the names of the children who come into our buildings for VBS, then we are failing to be the church God is calling us to be.
Ditch The Phone
Go to any restaurant, or any large area of commerce, and you will see individuals (and families) with their heads down in their hands. The proliferation of portable devices has greatly transformed the cultural landscape in a tremendous way such that an entire family can sit down for a meal without ever uttering a word. At Vacation Bible School the phones and the tablets should completely disappear. Unless it’s an emergency, there is nothing so important that it should take attention away from the children and the youth that have arrived to learn about the love of God. By ditching the phones we are showing them that we, like God, care about them and we love them. Whereas many of them will return to homes with parents and older siblings sucked into the deceptive worlds of Twitter and Facebook, the participants can experience a little slice of being known and cared about in God’s kingdom at VBS if we believe our literal and physical relationships are more important than our digital ones.
Get On Their Level
At VBS this week I have been the storyteller and have been tasked with sharing stories about David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost. But before ever helping the children and youth enter the strange new world of the bible, I asked them about their favorite movie (almost all of them said Moana), or about their favorite meal (mostly chicken nuggets), or about their superhero (Wonder Woman). The Bible no longer offers an instant connection for children today and it is often experienced like an ancient relic from the past. By showing them that we care about what they value, and then demonstrating the value of scripture for our lives, it makes a connection between the things in a way previously unknown. Regardless of age, racial, and socio-economic divisions there is a need for connection between leaders and participants that can be achieved simply by getting on their level.
VBS does not end when the children leave for the day. When they return home or move on to the next activity they are still absorbing what they’ve learned and experienced. Similarly, the church is tasked with making connections between sessions such that the kids know we’ve been thinking about them as well. For instance: one of our kids this week shared that he was excited about going to football practice after VBS ended that day. The next morning the first thing I asked him was: “How was your football practice yesterday?” The boy responded by staring at me and then saying, “How did you remember that?” (as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world). The children and youth that attend VBS are more than the means by which we can grow the church, they are more than numbers on a piece of paper, they are more than the hope for the future. The children and youth that attend VBS are very much the church RIGHT NOW and they deserve to be known and heard just as much as anyone else in the church.
Invite, Invite, Invite
Today, at least in the United Methodist Church, “invite” seems like a dirty word. Rather than offend or inconvenience anyone, we’ve simply stopped inviting people to church. Whenever leaders from the UMC get together we hear about a frightening statistic that should leave us shaking in our boots: “The average person in a UMC invites another person to worship once every 33 years.” At the very least the children and youth at VBS should be invited to attend worship the following Sunday to share a few songs they learned during the week. They should know that we want them to join us, not to increase numbers or to fill pews, but because we want them to continually know and experience the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to church, particularly young children and youth that have been running around the church for a week, but it must be done with love, care, and with intentionality.