Matthew 19:13-15 NRSV
There is so much that the Church can learn from this wonderful passage of scripture.
Little children were being brought to Jesus.
Before children can come to Jesus, someone, or something has to bring them. They usually to do get to this place on their own. It may be a parent, a grandparent or another relative. It might be a neighbor, a Sunday School teacher, or just someone who cares. A good question for the church to ask is: what are we doing to bring children to this place? Or are we merely waiting for children to come.
Churches make the following mistake all the time: Oh, we don’t have a youth minister any more, because we just don’t have that many children. Have you ever considered that not having many children is the best reason to have a youth minister?
I believe churches bring children to church by working hard to have all sorts of theologically-sound learning experiences and hands-on missional opportunities for children. We don’t wait until we have enough children to have a vibrant children’s ministry. We create the very best ministry to children we can to bring children here.
I believe churches bring children to church by allowing children to participate in and even lead worship, for children have much to teach us. We also bring children here by providing separate opportunities for smaller children during worship, as our education committee is currently planning.
I believe churches bring children to church by having a safe-church policy to protect children, and dedicated, compassionate, and screened volunteers to love and nurture children.
Little children were brought to Jesus that he might lay his hands on them and pray.
Children should always be brought here with a specific purpose to be loved, accepted, embraced, and supported. Children are to be the focus of our prayers. That means that children are to be the subjects of our most personal and intimate conversations with God.
Ask yourself this: how many times are the children in our community truly the main focus of our prayers?
But the disciples spoke sternly.
We think: who in the world would speak sternly preventing children from coming to Jesus? The answer surprises us, but at the same time, doesn’t surprise us. Matthew says that it was his very own disciples.
As a part of the Church for over 50 years, I have experienced this in many more ways than one.
When I was growing up I remember hearing offended church members sternly say terrible things about my home pastor when he supported having basketball goals installed on the church grounds. They criticized us playing ball at the church for many reasons. One, all the running around the goals was going to kill the grass. Two, we might leave drink bottles or other trash on the grounds. And three, the basketball games might attract the wrong type of kids, and by type, well, you know what they meant.
My pastor was also criticized by church members for sending our church bus out to pick up children who lived a few miles away in a trailer park (again, wrong type of kids), He was also criticized for asking the church to pay for children that they picked up on that bus to attend camp in the summer. And the four times each year we has communion, I always heard people grumbling about the pastor for not prohibiting children who had not been baptized to take communion.
As a long-time pastor, I have experienced similar criticisms, never by people outside of the church, but by people on the inside claiming to be disciples. There have always been people in the church who for some reason or another think it is their God-given, moral duty to put restrictions on who can and who cannot get to Jesus.
People have and will always be offended by Jesus’ revolutionary words:
Let the children come.
Let the children come to a safe place of welcome, a place of grace, a place of love, a place of nurturing where they can learn and grow into the people God has created them to be. And let all of them come. Let all children come to a place where no one is judged, treated unfairly, or ever feels excluded, second-rate or second class.
Do not stop them.
Do not let anyone or anything stop them. Do not let that one with money, power and prestige who thinks God has made him the gatekeeper of the church stop them, and do not let condescending words, snooty looks, or self-righteous expectations stop them. Do not let appearance, dress, ethnicity, documentation, race, size, gender, sexuality, health, class, or disability stop them. Do not let their families’ past or current situation, tax bracket, beliefs or lack of beliefs stop them.
That Jesus said this about little children speaks volumes about how we as the Body of Christ are to welcome all people.
For little children are people—
Before they are old enough, before they are strong enough, or before they are smart enough to help themselves or anyone else for that matter. Little children are folks who are not yet able to contribute to society, pay taxes, earn their place in the world, or deserve any sort of commendation. This means that the arms of the Body of Christ are to be open wide with a grace most extravagant and a love most radical.
It is the same love that parents have for our own children. We love them more than anything simply because they are our children. So extravagant and radical is this love that there will be always be those, probably those who call themselves disciples, who will be so offended that they will speak and even act, sternly.
To such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.
This, says Jesus, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is what eternity looks like. This is what the church should look like. And this is what the church should help the world to look like. I believe one of the great purposes of the church is to show the world, through our words and our deeds, how to be people of extravagant grace and welcome, of radical love and acceptance.
But sadly, the church has been guilty of doing the opposite, have we not? People go to church looking for grace and acceptance, and all they find is judgment and condemnation.
Somehow, we have been preaching the gospel the wrong way. In fact, I believe we have a tendency to actually preach the gospel, not just the wrong way, but we have a tendency to preach it backwards.
To share Jesus with others, we often start with what is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all people are sinners. I just don’t believe that is where we should begin the conversation or the sermon.
Our sermons usually have three points, and point number one is: All people are sinners. Point number two is: God sent Jesus to die for us. And point number three is: if we believe this, then God will forgive us and love us as God’s children forever.
I believe we should preach the same sermon, but proclaim it the other way around. And I believe the way we bring children here, to a place of grace, acceptance and welcome is the way to help us turn it around, to preach the gospel the right way.
I believe we should always begin with God’s love for all people. We should make our number one point, the first and foremost point of our sermon that God loves us as God’s children and wants nothing more but to love us forever.
The second point should be that God loves us as very own Children so much that God came and loved us so radically, showered us with grace so extravagantly, that it offended the organized religion of his day. They sternly spoke out, “crucify him,” and they sternly acted out with a whip, a crown of thorns and a wooden cross.
And we should make our third and final point that God did this while we were yet sinners, before we earned or deserved anything, before we contributed anything, even believed anything.
Do you see the difference? Instead of preaching that all people are born sinners standing outside of the grace and love of God until they do something, say something, or pray something to earn forgiveness, we are to preach that all people are actually born standing inside of the grace and love of God without doing, saying or praying a thing to earn it. For this is the gospel. This is what we want people to believe and accept— that all people are welcomed into God’s gracious and loving arms—they just may or may not know it.
Jesus put it this way—Point #1: For God so loved the world. Point #2: God gave God’s only son. And Point #3: So that all whosoever believes may not perish by their sins but have everlasting life.
If we keep teaching this, continue preaching this, if we keep welcoming children, all children, making the church and a place of extravagant grace and a place of radical love; then, before you know it, we are going to change the whole world. We will start seeing people differently. Instead of seeing people first as sinners who deserve hell, fire, and eternal damnation, we will begin to see them first as God sees them, as God’s “little children,” who are to be embraced, accepted, prayed for, nurtured, and loved.
O God, thank you again for all of the children in our midst and for the wonderful ways that they remind us of your grace and love. Amen.
Invitation to Communion
Christ welcomes all to eat and drink from this table,
And the arms of Christ are open wide.
There is nothing here that can stop you sharing this meal.
There is no sin so great, no shortcoming so large, no wound so deep, and no mistake so wide that it does not fit inside the arms of his grace. In the eyes of Christ, no one here is second-class or second rate. All are God’s beloved children. All are welcome.