Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 2, 2022
Mark 10:13-16 Child-Like
This Tuesday morning as my clergy group was gathering for its weekly text study, we were catching up on life news as we settled in. One member of our group was tired and explained why. At the moment he is the primary caregiver for his 2-year-old son as his spouse recovers from surgery. The 2-year-old has been having a hard time getting to bed at night, and the night before our text study was no different. Sometime during the day he had lost his favorite toy, a small plastic horse from his Playskool farm set. He was resisting going to bed until the small horse was located, but eventually his dad coaxed him asleep by promising they would find the horse in the morning. At about 2am he woke up, woke ALL the way up, got out of his bed, and started banging on his bedroom door demanding his dad wake up and help him search for the small horse. My friend, knowing he was not going to win the battle to get his son back to sleep, got up and they spent the next hour searching the house, backyard, and car for the horse. It was eventually located on the table next to the changing table, right in plain view – of course. Horse safely back in his possession, the 2-year-old went back to sleep, only to be tired and cranky the next morning when it was time to go to daycare. My friend, tired and cranky himself, said that it was a good thing his son is really cute.
That story was followed up by another of our colleagues sharing a phone conversation she had had with her 12-year-old nephew who talked for 30 minutes straight about joining the math club at his school and regaling his aunt with math equations and solutions – which, incidentally, she said were mostly wrong. But she couldn’t get a word in, and just listened and make enthusiastic noises as he shared his excitement. My colleague had actually called to talk to his mother, but by the time she got her on the phone, she couldn’t remember why. At least, my colleague said, her nephew’s enthusiasm was charming, though exhausting.
And that story was followed up by another colleague who said her two teenagers had entered the cynical and questioning phase that all teenagers go through. They challenge their parents on anything and everything – demanding unimpeachable proof for every assertion made. “I don’t understand how you can be so naïve, mom,” was a quote that was shared. At least, my colleague said, her teenagers are mindful of current events – even though they are currently convinced their parents are close-minded, overly idealist, and completely out of touch.
The stories my friends shared of the children in their lives on Tuesday morning are nothing unique. Every parent or caregiver who has loved and nurtured a child understands that the children don’t always make things easy. Toddlers are demanding, adolescents are difficult to contain, and teenagers are…well, teenagers. But, we love them nonetheless, and see in them tremendous potential. We understand the demands of toddlers to be a growing emotional awareness and sensitivity. We value the enthusiasm of adolescents as growing passion and engagement in the world. And we recognize our own questioning and cynicism in the doubts and frustrations of teenagers. I listened to my colleagues and friends with sympathy, and laughed along as they told their stories with humor. And I thought more and more about how Jesus said it is to children the realm of God belongs.
This story of Jesus welcoming and blessing the little children is a favorite. It is almost universally liked. We love the image of Jesus gathering children around him, even if others said it was not worth his time. We like to imagine cute little kids, with angelic faces and perfect behavior gathering around Jesus to hear him speak and experience his presence. The artwork of this scriptural moment is abundant, and is the image our forebearers in this congregation choose for the rose window. But, we also know how incredibly unlikely this scene was. Not the fact that Jesus gathered children around him, that I believe happened. But that he was surrounded by cherub-faced little kids – all well-rested and well behaved – that is unlikely. The children of Jesus’ time were no different than the children of today. They were fussy, demanding, over-stimulated, and annoyed when their routines were disrupted. I have no doubt, that on the edges of this scene were parents whispering mild threats into the ears of their kids who were not interested in this strange man and would much prefer to go play than to receive a blessing. Every parent and caregiver knows exactly what I am talking about, and all of us who can remember our childhoods knows what that hot breath on our ear feels like as we hear those familiar words “straighten up and behave, you’ll thank me for this one day.” So, when Jesus says we have to be like little children to enter the Kingdom of God, is it possible he meant the full gamut of emotions and behaviors little kids have?
Traditionally this scripture has been interpreted to mean that in order to enter the Kingdom of God we need to find that innocence of childhood again. That we need to let go of all that learned cynicism and doubt. Further, we need to remember that we are dependent on God, much the way children are dependent on their parents. We can’t go it alone, we need God’s love and care. Those traditional ways of interpreting this story are the way I have interpreted it too. But, the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe it is far more complex than that. Because, while I do believe it is necessary that we must keep our learned skepticism and discontent in check, and that we have to accept our dependence on God – we are also humans created with the same big emotions of little children, the same exuberance of adolescents, and the same doubts as teenagers. But we have learned to cover them up, mask them over, or pretend for the sake of appearances that we aren’t experiencing whatever it is we are experiencing. Even more detrimental, some of us have fooled ourselves into believing that God doesn’t love those parts of us, so we try to hide them from God – which is, of course, impossible. The beauty of children is they haven’t learned that shame yet. They are exactly who God made them to be and they don’t try to pretend to be anything else.
So, perhaps Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are simply who they are, just as God made them, no matter what the rest of the world thinks or says. And perhaps Jesus is reminding all of us that every time we participate in the human inclination to make others conform to our ideas, we are getting in the way of God’s Kingdom becoming a reality. And, finally, perhaps Jesus is saying that if we believe God loves us, just as we are, then we must also believe that God loves everyone, just as they are – no matter what we think about them.
The love my friend feels for his 2-year-old is not diminished no matter how many nights he has to get up to look for a small plastic horse. The love my other friend feels for her enthusiastic and talkative nephew is not diminished even if she needs to take a nap after every interaction. And the love my third friend has for her teenagers is not diminished no matter how much they challenge her. In fact, they all agreed their love for those children only deepen – because love is meant to be active. It is meant to be full-bodied and all-encompassing. Love is meant to be something we are always working at and deepening. God’s love for you and me is like that too. No matter how whiny, over-whelming, distracted, or contemptuous we are, God’s love for us only deepens. God’s Kingdom is for us, all of us.
I have one final story that friends who are parents have shared with me – a story I have shared here before. They took their young daughter to the aquatic center and encouraged her to walk into the water, starting at the zero-depth entrance. As she walked in, the water started to get deeper, but her parents were there, and she trusted that, so she took their hands and kept going. Soon that brave little girl was swimming and laughing and splashing in the pool. She knew her parents were there, and she knew they were celebrating with her at each step she took. And she knew that she was loved and cared for, and that trust was all she needed to be brave. Perhaps we can all be a bit more like that little girl – taking steps into the unknown, but doing so knowing that God is always there. Amen.
Loving God, you created us like a loving artist – forming us with patience and care, crafting into us your love and devotion. You created each of us to be unique and beautiful, and unconformed to anyone else’s expectations. For this creation and love, we are grateful. And it is with this gratitude that we come to you now in prayer.
We give thanks today for all the children of our lives, but most especially the children who remind us that we are people created to be filled with emotions and joy and stubbornness and fortitude. Help us to celebrate that full spectrum of your creation at each step. And help us to resist any and all temptations to change ourselves or others to meet the expectations of this world.
God, for all those who have been told they are not good enough, we pray. For those who have been told to hide a part of themselves, we pray. For those who have fought for acceptance and inclusion, we pray. And we pray for the myriad of people who love completely and without expectation – we give them thanks and seek to be more like them.
We now open our hearts and spirts to you to offer the prayers which are too deep for words, knowing that in this silence you hear them…
Good and great God, you never let us go and always reach out when we pull away. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who gathered around him those who loved, showed love, and embodied love. We now lift our voices together in the way he taught…Our Father…