A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 23, 2018 (Proper 20B)
When I was a kid in Sunday School, all the children filed past a large painting of Jesus on the way into the classroom area. In the painting, Jesus was sitting in a field, surrounded by young children about my age; speaking with them, engaging with them; interacting with them. He was even holding a small child in his arms. I came to really like that painting and it was an important part of my experience as a young Christian. I’d look up at Jesus and know that he was always watching over me; and that he wasn’t for adults only. Over the years the painting became a familiar, comfortable, and visible sign that when I came to church, I was in a safe place.
But as I got older and learned to read, I had a startling and troubling epiphany. You see, there were words underneath this painting, a Bible verse. And suddenly I could read them. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” it proclaimed.
“Wait a minute,” I thought. “Why would Jesus want little children to suffer?” That wasn’t my experience with Sunday School. I liked going; I liked learning about God, I liked my friends. All the teachers seemed nice, but maybe we were all just being set up for some great suffering to come. Maybe one day, I’d walk in and instead of a doing a craft and singing a song, we’d be strung up by our feet and tortured with boiling oil.
Fortunately, my parents talked me off the ledge, and I soon learned my first lesson about the King James Version of the Bible. In old English “suffer” meant to permit or allow. So this verse didn’t have anything to do with children suffering in Sunday School, but was translated as “Let the little children come to me.” Now that, I could get behind, and suddenly all was again right with the Sunday School world.
This morning, we get a similar verse, one in which Jesus again interacts with children. He picks up a young child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Some cultural context is helpful to see just how radical a statement this was. In the ancient world, children weren’t valued nearly as much as they are now. We hold our children in great esteem, caring for them, giving them trophies, and spending endless hours stressing about their futures and making sacrifices in our own lives to give them things we never had. The children of Ancient Palestine weren’t going on school trips to Hawaii or getting ferried to hockey practice in the back of a Cadillac Escalade.
I’m not saying these are bad things or that our approach is wrong, I’m just saying things were different back then. There was no Babys-R-Us in the Biblical world and the concept would have been completely foreign. Childhood was not particularly valued, partly because the infant mortality rate was so high, but also because unwanted children were seen as a huge drain on a family’s resources. There was no child tax credit or government assistance for families and there was certainly no birth control. So child abandonment was relatively common and there was no real social stigma around it. Some died trying to fend for themselves, others were forced into slavery, or what we would now call the sex trade. Simply making it to adulthood was a feat unto itself.
Sure, many people of faith saw every human being as a precious creation, made in the image of God. But Jesus took this to another level. Because even when children weren’t being abandoned, they were still considered of little value. Children had no rights, no social status, no standing in the community. The Biblical shorthand for the most vulnerable population is “widows and orphans.” You hear this phrase again and again — and with good reason. Neither widows nor orphans had anyone to protect them or care for them or meet their basic human needs. And this is precisely the population that Jesus advocates for and ministers to and lifts up time and time again.
You know, when I had young kids I often found myself on the kitchen floor for no apparent reason. I mean, there was a reason — we were playing with trains or roughhousing or drawing on the Etch-a-Sketch. But eventually they’d get distracted and move on to the next thing. And I’d find myself all alone on the floor. Invariably, Bryna would then wander in, stare at me, shake her head, and leave.
Now, the kitchen floor is a great place to have an existential crisis or reflect on the meaning of life, but being on the floor is actually a great posture for being more child-like in our relationship with Jesus. Just as we get on the floor to engage kids at their level, Jesus does the same for us. In grand theological terms, the Incarnation was all about God entering the world at our level. But practically speaking, Jesus wants to engage with us, to be in our lives in very real and tangible ways, to mix it up with us and be in relationship with us.
As adults, this is the spiritual challenge. We don’t want to appear undignified or child-like, but this is precisely the way we need to approach Jesus. On the floor, as vulnerable children. Open to the wonders and joys of creation. Accessible to a relationship that has the power to move and transform us and fill us with that awe-inspiring feeling of being loved not for what we do or accomplish but for who we are as beloved children of God. We need to hear that message again and again and again.
When we’re hurting or in need of emotional or spiritual healing, there is no need for us to “suffer” in isolation. Regardless of age, we are all being watched over by a God who loves us not hesitantly or conditionally or with reservation, but with reckless abandon.
Here at St. John’s, our children may not encounter a painting with a confusing snippet of Scripture, but we’ve undertaken a bold painting project of our own in the Sunday school wing. We’ve engaged a local artist to paint words and phrases from the Bible and the Prayer Book in the hallways in a fun, colorful style. It’s about halfway done and you’ll see this as we hold Coffee Hour downstairs this morning as part of our Sunday School Open House. Now, I’ll warn you that the art is a little edgy, a bit out of the box, as you might expect when you hire a graffiti artist — which we did. But I think it’s fun, it adds “a little sparkle” as Fr. Noah put it when he took a peek this week, and I’m grateful to Alexis and the Sunday School Leadership Team for dreaming up this concept. I also literally had a dream the other night that the artist got confused and started painting the walls up here in the church.
One of my mantras for ministry has always been “Children having fun at church is a good thing.” And I’d like to think this project reflects that. It highlights just how much we value the spiritual education of our children while at the same time allowing them the space to explore their faith in fun and creative ways.
We talk a lot about becoming more Christ-like as a sign of spiritual maturity; of growing in our faith and living it out in ways that impact those around us. But we could also stand to be more child-like in our approach to the Christian life. To embrace that sense of spiritual wonder and awe that comes naturally to children but that often feels beat out of us as adults. Spend some time on the metaphorical floor, interact with Jesus in playful, creative ways. And know that when Jesus says, let the little children come to me, he is also speaking directly to you.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018