Written for the 2016 World Day of Prayer, hosted by the Church Women of Franklin + March 4, 2016
Reading: Mark 10:13-16
When a child at St. Andrew is preparing for their first Holy Communion, we teach them about the sacrament with the help of a book by Daniel Erlander called A Place for You. The book tells the story of Jesus’s ministry: how he loved, shared, healed, forgave, and welcomed. It tells the story of the Church: how people continue to join Jesus’s family through the waters of baptism and how all kinds of people gather around the Lord’s table as the family of Jesus.
In Daniel Erlander’s telling of the gospel story, there are a group of characters he calls “the crabby people.” He introduces them by saying: “By loving all people, Jesus upset the crabby people who thought God only loves some people.” The crabby people reappear throughout the story. When Jesus eats with sinners, the crabby people say: “He should only eat with good people like us.” When Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people, the crabby people are in the crowd saying, “Some of these people don’t deserve free food.” When the Church continues the ministry of Jesus — welcoming outsiders and proclaiming that God loves everyone — the crabby people say, “I thought we put a stop to this! It’s like Jesus is back.” On one page there’s a tiny drawing of the crabby people in the corner saying, “We still don’t like this!”
In the story we just read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are being crabby people. Others are bringing little children to be blessed by Jesus, but the disciples snap at them. We can imagine them saying, “This great teacher doesn’t have time for little children! Move along!”
But Jesus reprimands his crabby disciples. Not only are the little children worth his time, but he tells the disciples that only people who will enter the Kingdom of God are those who can receive the Kingdom like a little child does. There’s something the kids have that the adults are missing — even the adults who spend all their time with Jesus.
There are lots of opinions about how children receive the Kingdom and what it is we adults need to learn from them. Some people point out how children had pretty much no social status in the ancient world; maybe we need to give up our craving for status, become humble, in order to better receive the Kingdom. Some point out how children are totally dependent on their guardians; maybe we need to learn to give up our protests of independence and admit our total dependence on God.
Today I am thinking about how children receive the Kingdom of God in terms of how children receive the people around them. Children are born receiving people like God receives people; they have to be taught to be crabby people.
Children are born ready to trust people and ready to accept people. After all, they don’t have a choice at first, when they are young and entirely dependent on the people around them. But as they grow, they are taught not to accept everyone. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like when we teach our children not to take candy from a stranger. Sometimes that’s a tragic thing, like when a parent neglects or abuses their child, and the child learns from that experience that she can’t trust people. Sometimes it’s an unjust thing, like when a child learns that people who look different than her, or grew up somewhere else, need to be treated like a whole different category of human.
An old Rogers and Hammerstein song comes to mind: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from the musical South Pacific.
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
When we teach children to draw a boundary between “us” and “them,” it’s usually out of fear and a desire for safety. Even the most hateful racism, I think, is a cover for (misplaced) fear. But children aren’t born with such fear; they have to be carefully taught.
By the time we are adults, most of us have become much less like children and much more like crabby people. We divide and choose “us” over “them” in so many ways. We choose people from our nation over people from another nation. We choose people who look like us over people who look different.
But when God looks at the human race — actually, when God looks at all of creation — God doesn’t see “us” and “them.” God looks and sees only children of God. God looks and sees a world God has made. God looks and sees one family. God is greater than our fear and our hurt and our distrust, and God sees beyond them to the picture of an entire world that is broken and hurting, an entire world that needs God’s love. And so God offers grace to the whole of creation and hopes that everyone and everything receives that grace.
And so the little child sees the world like the great God does. Our broken world hasn’t yet taught them to live out of fear instead of hope and love. So if the Kingdom of God is a way of life where hope and love finally beat out fear and hate, then the children enter it much more easily than we adults do. It is we adults who are more likely to say: Wait, they shouldn’t be here. Wait, I don’t feel safe around them. Wait, I thought they were the bad guys.
Jesus calls us to be more like young children. To live out of love and hope even though living out of fear seems like the more reasonable and even the safer thing to do. We need to take that risk, because so many are suffering on the other side of the boundaries we draw.
The liturgy for today’s worship reminded us of how the economic embargo on Cuba endangers the “health and growth” of children on the other side of that line, as well as hurting other vulnerable groups of people. The embargo prevents advancements in medicine and technology from reaching people who need it on the other side of the line. It too often stops efforts to bring aid to those who suffer. In fact the United Nations condemns this embargo because of the way it prevents help for those who desperately need it.
And if you are not so familiar with the situation in Cuba — I wasn’t until I started preparing for today’s service — I’m sure that by now you have thought of other examples of those who suffer because of the ways humans draw boundaries of “us” and “them.” At the very least you’ll be reminded when you turn on the news later and see images of refugees packed into camps, or another story of discrimination against people of color or foreigners, or another hate crime. Maybe you’ll be more personally reminded when someone puts you on the other side of a line.
We need to enter the Kingdom of God. We need to start living out of God’s love for all people and God’s hope for all people — for the sake of those who are vulnerable, those who are suffering.
The theme for the 2016 World Day of Prayer is “Receive Children, Receive Me.” That title should remind us of an earlier story from the Gospel of Mark, another time Jesus takes a little child into his arms. Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
Children are some of the most vulnerable people in every society, and they are the ones most unjustly hurt by the lines we draw. We need to remember that the way we welcome and care for them is the way we welcome and care for Christ.
For many of us, it is easier to welcome and care for all children than it is to welcome and care for all all adults. We tend to see children as innocent and in more desperate need of our care. But I wonder: can we learn to better see all people as children of God? Children of God who need care and grace, as much as we can give? Can we hear in the gospel news that God loves all people a wider, more demanding message? “Receive my children, receive me.” Or “Receive my creation, receive me.”
When we receive all people as God’s children, we enter into the Kingdom as a little child.
At the end of that book I was talking about at the beginning of the sermon, there’s a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has his arms spread wide in welcome over the Communion table, and crowds of people and animals are gathered around him. People with skin of all different shades celebrate together. The lion lies down with the lamb. People wear clothes from all sorts of cultures and time periods, and they’re hanging out with penguins and giraffes and squid.
At the bottom of the page is a question: “Can you find the crabby people? Are they still crabby?”
Nope. They’re standing right next to Jesus, in the middle of the family that welcomes in all people, and finally, there in the Kingdom of God, they are smiling.
On the back cover of the book, they are dancing with a little child.