Jesus has places to go and people to see. It’s a busy time in his ministry. He’s traveling all over the Judean countryside teaching and healing wherever he is. There’s an air of urgency about his travels with his disciples now that he has predicted to them twice that he will be betrayed into human hands, killed, and then rise again three days later. Things had gotten real, so every moment was crucial. Every word he spoke, every action he took could be his last. And kids, well, things never move as quickly as most adults would like when kids start to come around. I always imagine that some of those disciples who left their families behind also left some children behind. At least a few of Jesus’s “handlers” knew what could happen if they let the kids get near. Kids are great at a lot, but efficiency is not often one of those things. Things never seem to stay on schedule when kids are thrown in the mix.
And besides, children didn’t have the same sort of value in the ancient societal structure as they do today and have been gaining in the last couple of centuries or so. Children were loved and cherished and desired, we see that through the Scriptural witness, but they didn’t really enjoy the kind of attention and focus we have given them more recently. Children were as important if not MORE important for their place in the economy (maybe in some sense that hasn’t changed). Children were the workers a family needed to tend the land and care for the animals. Children were the retirement plan and the pension fund. Parents didn’t retire, buy a condo, and move south. They moved in with their grown children when they could no longer work, so children were a necessity in the family structure, but there wasn’t this semi-romantic feeling about children who need to be encouraged to discover their futures, supported in their developing interests, taught to expand their minds and dream big dreams in the general mind of society.
So, what Jesus said was something completely contrary to the rest of his culture. Children weren’t regularly included in as important participants and learners in public religious dialogue. Even in the gospels while children are the focus of healings and miracles sometimes, they are mostly treated as insignificant background objects until here, until now. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said when the people tried to bring them. “Let the little children come to me,” he said when the disciples tried to shuffle them off to some more age-appropriate space. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.”
Did you hear how Jesus focused himself there? “Let the little children come” is a hope or an invitation. Jesus expresses what he would is permissible or what he would like to see happen, but then in the second part he gets more serious about it, “Do not stop them.” Grammatically he moves from the subjunctive to the imperative, from a wish to a command. He gets more serious. Letting them come is almost haphazard maybe a pie in the sky ideal, but DO NOT STOP THEM – do not stop the children and do not stop the people bringing them – that’s concrete. Do not get in the way, Jesus says, and in fact, clear the road so they can get through. THIS, the presence of children, is important.
Even though the culture had a mostly economic view of children, this isn’t the first time in Scripture that children are given some value in the people of God. In fact, in passage we heard from Deuteronomy placed children in a pretty important position. Moses is about deliver to the people of God the law by which they shall live before God, the commandments and covenant that will bind them to God as they enter the Promised Land for which they have been waiting. He entreats their attention and appeals to their sense of legacy and immortality through the generations that will follow them. “This is the commandment,” Moses tells them that he has been charged to teach “so that you and your children and your children’s children” may respect the Lord and “your days be long…. [i]n a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Then he gives the command to recite these words to the children, talking about them at home and away, when they lie and when they rise up. Children are valued here for their legacy, for their future, for their representation of the longevity of God’s relationship with creation. Children are valued because of what is put into them – commandments and knowledge – and what is entrusted to them – the covenant and the future. They are a vessel that ensures something important will be carried safely.
What Jesus does is expand on the ancient teaching of Moses. What Jesus does is point out that children aren’t only valuable because of what adults can give to them, but because of what they can give to adults. Do you hear that kids? You are valuable, you matter, you are 100% a part of the life and the kingdom of God, not because we have all these stuff we need to cram in your heads and your hearts. You are valuable, you matter, you are 100% a part of the life and the kingdom of God because you have things to teach, too. “DO NOT STOP THEM,” Jesus says, because we have so much to learn from them.
A number of folks from our congregation were a part of the youth triathlon that took place here in Hudson yesterday. We’ve told the story in our church before, but I’ll tell it again. Emma and Rob Moody asked for their parents help a couple of years ago when they decided they wanted to raise money for a children’s hospital where a friend of their family had received care. An athletic family, the kids pledged to run fifty miles in fifty days and received sponsorships to do so. That first summer challenge has expanded over time, and this weekend our church was one of the co-sponsors and the turnaround point for the run portion of a triathlon which was raced by about 70 kids ages 5-15. Ten of those kids were our own, and we had at least that many adult and older youth volunteers, even more, out on the course encouraging them and keeping them safe along the route
Pardon me if I get a little choked up here, but it was an amazing day and a day that stands as a teaching moment about what we have to learn from children and how they stand up to a challenge. The youngest participants (Emily Van Ausdal, Lilli Wagner, and Karoline and William Anthony) swam 50 yards, then biked for 2 miles, then ran a half mile. The intermediate division (Rob and Emma Moody, Sammi Stidham, Matthew Van Ausdal, and Ryan Arthur) swam 150 yards, then biked for 4 miles, then ran one mile. The senior division (Anna Arthur) swam 250 yards, then biked for 6 miles, then ran two miles. Some of these kids train regularly for these athletic events, other just got out there and tried their hardest. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,” Jesus said. We adults better pay attention to how these kids face challenges, how these kids respond to a difficult call because Jesus says that’s who we need to emulate when we respond to the call to participate in the kingdom of God.
So here’s just some of what I learned from the youth at the triathlon yesterday - -
- They are willing to try new things without knowing how it will turn out. As far as I know, Rob and Emma were the only kids from our church who had ever competed in a triathlon. Eight of our own youth and many others yesterday were doing this for the first time with no idea how they would finish, how they would feel, and maybe even how they would get through the race, but they did it anyway. They were willing to try something new with no guarantee of the end result.
- When things got a little hectic and a little hairy in the organization department, when those of us who were organizing our first race ever missed a few details here and there and had to piece together what was coming next a little bit on the fly, the kids were flexible and forgiving. They didn’t get grumpy. They didn’t stand around complaining. They were patient. They went with the flow, and they let the main thing, the race, stay the main thing. They didn’t get distracted by details that in the long run were largely insignificant, but kept a positive attitude and kept pushing toward their goal.
- And talk about pushing - - The strength and endurance these young people displayed was unbelievable. From the youngest who had to peddle like crazy just to get up the hill on Vine Street east of the YMCA to the oldest who were striving to beat each other, the clock, and themselves, everyone, as they say, left it all out on the course. They hung in there when their bodies hurt and their spirits were tired. They dug deep when they had to turn around at the cone and go back out for another two miles loop on the bike. I bet many of them didn’t know they were so strong, but when the challenge was before them they just kept trying. I bet many of them didn’t know they could endure, but when it seemed like the road would never end and they would never get where they were going, they just kept moving forward.
- Lastly, they had no fear, or if they did, they didn’t let it stop them. It was an entirely new experience for everyone, even for the racers who have competed elsewhere because this was a completely new course, and while there were certainly nerves at the starting lines, everyone overcame their nerves and jumped in that pool. Fear isn’t the enemy in a race or in discipleship; letting the fear stop you is.
At First Presbyterian Church we have declared that one of our core values is that we value children. Let’s do it like we did last week. Repeat after me, loud and strong, “We value children!” Scripture shows us two important aspects to how we put action to that declaration. We do it by sharing what we have received, by passing on what we have learned and experienced through the faithfulness of the generations before us – the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. But we also do it by receiving what the children have to offer the whole community. They have something to teach us.
Children are willing to take risks, and risk-taking is what the kingdom of God is all about. Being a disciple of Jesus and living according to kingdom reality instead of earthly confusion means that we will be asked to put ourselves out there. We will be asked by God to try things we have never done before. We will be asked to do things for the sake of Jesus when we have no idea how they will turn out. We better learn how to do that from the children.
Children are pretty naturally forgiving. I know we all know some very stubborn young people, a few who really like to hold a grudge, but that’s learned behavior. They don’t start life doing that. Children forgive, forget, and move on pretty quickly unless they get a signal from someone else that digging in their heels is a better option. When we gather as the community of faith, the people of God, we sometimes step on each other a little bit. We sometimes forget things we have promised. We sometimes have to make choices about whose idea or opinion or even belief is going to carry the day. We adults need to unlearn our rigidity and our tendency to hold grudges, and take a lesson from the children among us – forgiving one another as we have been forgiven by God so that we can get about the important kingdom work before us.
Children are strong and endure through hard times. They have this ability to dig down deep inside to strength we can’t even imagine. When she was learning to ride her bike without training wheels a week before the yesterday’s race, as she was being blown by the wind, one young girl began to say to herself, “The wind is strong, but I am stronger. The wind is strong, but I am stronger.” Who teaches them that? I don’t know, but they can teach it to us. Trying to faithfully follow the way of Jesus as individuals and as a church is like being blown around in the wind sometimes. We can change that mantra for our purposes, though, “The wind is strong, but the Spirit is stronger.” Oh yeah, we can learn from that child.
Because it is this kind of self-talk, affirmation of the truth of the gospel, that will allow us to acknowledge our fears, but not be bound by them. It is in remembering what we have been taught by the faithfulness of those generations that have come before, who kept God’s words, and recited them to us when we were children, who observed them and showed us how to do that same, that we have courage to face the challenges of fearlessly following the Holy Spirit in a world that changes DAILY.
The young people among us have gifts of the Spirit that the more seasoned folks have long lost when we became slaves to responsibility and reason and predictable outcomes, but it is the spirit and attitude Jesus calls us to put on when we are standing before the most unpredictable reality of all - -the upside down, inside out, last shall be first, rich shall be poor, kingdom of God. Do not stop them, Jesus says. We need them to be whole.