Fr. Andrew Armond – The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, October 3, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.As someone who parents children, as well as someone who communicates the Gospel to children professionally, I have had the good fortune to reflect often on the ways in which children show up in the Scriptures, and what they are doing there.Frankly, there’s really not much there: and I think that for many of us, the more we dig into the Scriptures, the more we find that there is not always an abundance of stories that we can freely and readily share with children. I must confess that it has taken me a while to find a good Children’s Bible. It is a delicate balance, to communicate what we feel to be the most important and essential truths about our faith while also realizing that many of the stories and concepts in Scripture are often either too complex or too inappropriate for children!At the same time, when children do show up in the Scriptures, it is often in one of two ways. One is the appearance of actual children, which we see in the Gospels only a few times, but in quite significant ways, and the other is our being named as the “children of God.” We see both of these in our readings for today.People were bringing their children to Jesus “in order that he might touch them,” according to Mark, and the disciples kept them away. Perhaps the gatekeeping of the disciples parallels other ways in which we also gatekeep the presence of children. Maybe they were rambunctious. Maybe they were silly. Maybe they were not heavily invested in having deep conversations about the implications of Jewish law. Whatever they were, they were kids being kids, and that was enough for the disciples to throw up the same tendency that many of us have around children, myself included, when we are having Very Important Grownup Conversations: tell them to be quiet. Tell them to be still. Tell them to stop squirming and wiggling and sit up straight and listen.Yet Jesus’s response is one of the few times in the Gospels that we see him truly angry. “Indignant” is one way to translate the word, but it should really probably be translated with a word I shouldn’t say from the pulpit. The vision we get of Jesus in these verses is a quite human one. He is angry and frustrated, but for what he believed to be not just a mistake on his disciples’ part, but a true injustice in the way the world thinks about children. Children have access to God, first of all, Jesus indicates. There should be no humanly-constructed barrier between us and God, period, but especially, Jesus says, there is no barrier between a child and God. One of the reasons we baptize children in our communion is that this passage leads us to understand that age is no barrier to the reception of God’s grace, freely given to us in Christ.Mark records a complex and difficult conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus about divorce, and then a follow-up question from the disciples about the same conversation. It is, for lack of a better term, a “grown-up” conversation, involving “grown-up” matters that belong to the realm of marriage and divorce. (As an aside, I don’t want to avoid this part of the conversation, but it’s not where I want to go today. By all accounts Jesus is doing his best, within his own culture, to protect women, who were often left destitute and helpless if divorced, as we might say “without cause.” It seems to be yet another instance of Jesus focusing on the humanity of applications of Jewish law instead of following the law for its own sake.)I wonder if, in juxtaposing the divorce conversation with the story of the children coming to Jesus, Mark is trying to show us something about what Jesus believes to be the most essential thing about following himself, about entering the Kingdom of God. Not that Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce is unimportant; not that it should be ignored; but that it is the kind of conversation that is not necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. There is something, in other words, even more important, something that we all need to learn from children, something essential that shows us what it takes to follow Jesus. Indeed, as Jesus says, the Kingdom of God actually belongs to little children. They offer us the best picture of what God’s Kingdom really looks like.What is their secret? I could talk to you about the faith of a child, or I could talk to you about simple trust, but I’m not sure that’s everything Jesus meant. The word used for “children” in Mark seems to refer to very small children, perhaps even infants, or those who could not consciously perform acts of “trust.” Maybe we have to dig a little bit deeper.What if Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to infants? To babies? To toddlers? Perhaps the key lies in that word “Receive”: Jesus says that we must receive the kingdom of God as infants, or we will never enter it at all. In some real sense, all an infant can DO is receive. Infants are not productive members of society. They don’t contribute to the economy. They drain time, energy, and attention from their parents and caregivers. But we care for them and give them our love precisely for this reason. They cannot help themselves. They are in need. And they cannot return the favor–they cannot give the same things that they receive, they can only respond with gratitude. It is not a reciprocal relationship; there is no quid pro quo involved in caring for an infant. Only a generous and giving heart.Likewise, Jesus implies, to enter the Kingdom of God–that is, to truly see God for who God is, to participate actively in God’s work in the world, right now, we must recognize our own helplessness. We must not impose our own ideals onto the Kingdom. We must not presume that we can enter God’s Kingdom through our own efforts.And we cannot seek our ultimate solace and comfort in anything outside of God, our heavenly parent, who knows us, who calls us each by name, and who invites us into the participatory grace of the Kingdom. We must respond in gratitude with open hearts and open hands, receiving that which is a gift.Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom in this way echoes, as it typically does, the words of Isaiah the prophet, who invites God’s people into abundant life, saying:
Listen! Every one who is thirsty, come to the waters. And you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread? Why spend your pay for what you do not enjoy? Listen well to Me, and eat what is good. Find joy in the best food. Listen and come to Me. Hear, so you may live.To come to God’s Kingdom as a child is to buy wine and milk without money and without price, for the economy of God’s Kingdom is a child’s economy, a gift economy, not based in the exchange of money, or goods and services, but in receiving all things as a gift, unearned, unmerited, free.Our culture has taught us, and with good reason at times, to suspect anything that is free. It’s the first principle of economic theory: there is no such thing as a free lunch. There are always hidden costs. And so, as adults, we often make receiving a free gift more complicated and difficult than it has to be. One of our best modern prophets was Fred Rogers, who modeled, in his life and on his television show, the Kingdom of God in precisely the way Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Mark. In an interview, he once said “I see that people who are not the fancy people in this world are the ones who seem to nourish my soul, and I want to learn how to be the best receiver I can ever be. Because I think graceful receiving is one of the most wonderful gifts we can give anybody.”Graceful receiving is the heart of the Gospel. It means a heart open to God, ready to share in God’s good gifts, a grateful, peaceful, confident hope and trust in God and in God’s purposes for the world.We are all familiar with Psalm 23, especially the closing lines, which state “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” But the 17th-century hymn writer Isaac Watts penned a version of the psalm that ties the image of the “house of the Lord” specifically to the understanding of receiving God’s grace as a child. He closes the Psalm this way in his paraphrase:
“The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may thy House be mine abode and all my work be praise // There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”Like a child at home: this is the heart of the Gospel. In receiving God’s grace and favor without assumptions, without preconditions, we find the peace and comfort of our Heavenly Parent, who invites everyone–everyone–to come and rest in God’s Kingdom, God’s Home.AMEN.