Sermon: "The Kingdom Belongs to People Like This," January 28, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Epiphany
Ingrid Brown

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.
— Mark 10:13-16 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now, if you know me, you know that I care deeply about Children’s Ministry – that I do not see children as the churches future but rather as the churches present.  And I could probably give you really good 20 minutes up here about the importance and value of investing in excellent Children and Youth ministry from our text today.  I’ll save that one for another day. 

I don’t know about you, but when I read this scripture, I have a certain image that comes to mind.  Jesus and his disciples are on a sunny hillside, and he is seated on a stump (don’t ask me why) with the disciples sitting around, and he is teaching them, something fabulous no doubt.  In the distance, the sound of children’s laughter. Enter onto the scene a small gaggle of laughing, lovely children, skipping along the path towards Jesus.  One of the disciples jumps up, tries to block their way, and Jesus shoos him to the side, welcoming the children onto his knee and at his feet – everyone laughing, smiling, having a good ol’ time with Uncle Jesus – ah how wonderful it is, truly we find heaven in the face of a smiling child!  End of story, lesson is: be like a child, filled with wonder and joy.  Isn’t that tidy?  How nice.

But.  These children in my minds eye aren’t really like any of the real children I know.  They are the ones of storybooks and after school specials.  And that doesn’t jive with the Jesus I know in Scripture.  The Jesus I meet in Scripture talks about real life stuff, the messy, nitty gritty, blood, sweat and tears of real life.  So, either Jesus is way out of character here or this image is waaaaay off. 

Like most bits of the Bible, there are so many layers here.

First, a little context. 

We are in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel with this story, and just before this in chapter 9, Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about and they are totally embarrassed because they were fighting over which one of them was the greatest.  Yikes, not their finest moment.  And he says, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Then he picks up a child and says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”  So then we have today’s reading where people are actually bringing children to Jesus and the disciples speak sternly to them, turning them away.  Jesus sees this, and the text says that he was indignant.  Indignant – feeling or showing anger at unfair or unjust treatment. Indignant Jesus calls the children to him saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who come to it like little children.  What is this about?

It is important to know that children have zero status in ancient Israel – less than women, less than foreigners, less than just about everyone.  They aren’t even considered people yet.  They have no power, no influence, no rights.  Especially these children, who we can understand to be children of some of the lowest classes of adults.  There is a certain invisibility of children.  This is a different context than we live in today.  While children today are not always seen and valued for who and what they are, they hold a much different place of regard today than they did then.  I think we can see this more clearly at the loss of a child’s life.  We are all touched by tragedies, but tragedies involving children tend to hit us somewhere deeper. Perhaps we hold well to the promise that children embody – the possibility inherent in their little bodies. 

Another key thing to know in learning about this story is how important status was in the ancient world.  Even to the disciples – Jesus rebukes them over and over about their status seeking, about their focus on distinctions of rank and of their self-understanding as holding a superior ethical standard.  This one is not quite so different from today, is it?  We might hear echoes of this in our own attachments to job titles or letters after our names, the neighbourhoods we live in or cars we drive. 

So as the writer of Mark’s Gospel tells it, the disciples try to bar the children from having access to Jesus and Jesus’ indignation at this barrier teaches us a lot.  Some of the least important, most marginalized want to be with him.  The ones learning at his feet try to keep them away: Jesus sees this as injustice. “Let them come to me,” he says, “do not stop them.  This is who the kingdom of God belongs to.”  NOT the disciples, following him around, listening to his teachings.  The ones on the outside.  Jesus makes it known to us here that the ones who society calls outcasts, not enough, not right, the ones that society pushes to the edges, to the margins are the ones, the very ones, who find belonging in God’s kingdom, in God’s precious family.  Last week we heard the story of the mustard seed – The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – the smallest of all the seeds that grows into the biggest bush that offers shelter to all the birds of the air. Now who do the seeds belong to?  The ones out there.

Now, I want to go back to this idea of storybook children. Because when we see depictions of this story, they are like this, and we have Jesus saying, ‘whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And so then we can be mislead into thinking of a requirement of blind obedience, of willing participation, of unquestioning acceptance. 

These are not the children I have met in real life!  Certainly not my own children!  Come on over to my house for dinner and see!  My children question and challenge just about everything that comes out of my mouth.  Come downstairs on a Sunday morning, and hear the conversations we have sometimes!  Wow! 

Now, as I mentioned before, the Jesus I know meets me in the sticky messy reality of what it means to be human, and so his insistence that we come at faith like children comes from that grounded and earthly, human place.  So, forget about storybook children.  Forget about children are seen and not heard.  Forget about some Leave it to Beaver depiction of children. Let’s talk about real human children.  The children I know wonder deeply.  Ask, frequently, laugh fearlessly.  The children I know are wildly concerned with justice, fairness, equality.  The children I know feel deeply.  Exuberant joy.  Crushing frustration.  Powerful anger.  Fearless love.  And, the children I know are dependant and vulnerable.

This paints a different picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Jesus doesn’t tolerate our questioning, our challenging, our big feelings, our intense vulnerability.  He requires it. 

So, we have these two bits here:  the kingdom of God, that peace and justice in the hearts and minds of all of creation, the reconciliation of all things, belonging to the ones on the outside.  And the reality of how Jesus calls us to be , the truthfulness he demands of us. 

In these three little verses, Jesus is all about how to be in relationship with God, flipping societies’ expectations on their head.  He says, this ain’t no insiders club – truth, is, its easier if in all the rest of your life you just don’t fit.  Jesus also says, the more questions, the better!  Jesus tells us to bring our real selves, no faking it.  Children don’t fake it. 

Now, there may be bad news here for some of us sitting here in church today.  For those of us who do have status.  White, middle class, educated – Jesus is kind of saying to us here, this might be harder for you to get.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have been blown away by the faith of you folks since I got here.  I think most of us here are incredibly faithful, justice seeking, Jesus followers.  And, as most of us do hold a certain amount of privilege, Jesus challenges us to confront the places where we are conforming to the way society expects us to, and not conforming ourselves to Christ.  It might be uncomfortable, to consider who we might like to keep pressed safely to the margins.  It may not be children for us – maybe it is – who would we like to keep just out there?  And what if we heard Jesus say, nope, not you sitting in the pew there, that one, that one just outside, that is who the Kingdom of God belongs to.  This is likely an uncomfortable consideration.  But it is ok to feel uncomfortable – these are just feelings, they wont harm you, they just want to be felt and then they will pass.  I watched a TED talk this week that said “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” 

Jesus calls us to confront ourselves.

So then it is worth wondering, perhaps as a child, who are we in the story.  If we take a minute, where are we here?  Are we the disciples?  Arguing over who is the greatest, trying to keep Jesus to ourselves?  Making barriers to the most vulnerable to make it to Jesus for his blessing?

Are we the children?  Not the story book children, but real bruised and laughing, arguing and challenging children we know?

Last week, for no discernable reason, I was in the state of mind of a child – I dropped Xander off, and ran back to the car, humping off the curb – I got in the car and Ella said to me – you looked like a kid when you did that.  And I bet it did.  I felt joy, I was unafraid of who saw me, I just felt full and happy.  A few days later, I was getting Ella ready for her dance photos – its my first year as a “competitive dance mom” and I just felt like I didn’t know what I was doing – I was afraid of looking stupid and forgetting things and getting something wrong. 

I suppose who we identify with in this story changes all the time.  Sometimes I am the storybook child, ignoring the truth of who I am and what I feel.  Sometimes I am the real child, prodding, laughing, wondering.  Sometimes I feel completely vulnerable and dependant on God.  Sometimes I am the disciple, concerned about what others think of me, wondering about my rank and place. 

What I can be sure of though, through it all, what my own experience tells me, what the Scriptures tell me over and over and over again, is that I am – that we are – adopted as God’s own children through Jesus Christ.  And that we are loved and nurtured as we are.  And that, just like Jesus did with those children on that hillside that day, we are scooped up into his loving arms and blessed.  May we dare to live into the truth of this awe-some, real love.  Amen.