As children, we learn the song “Jesus Loves Me”. At the time, we probably didn’t think much about it. It’s was an easy song to learn, with a fairly predictable rhythm pattern. As children it didn’t matter if we sang it in the right key or got all the hand motions right. Most of the time what matter is that we knew a simple truth—that Jesus loves us. Perhaps the other thing that matter was that we got to sing it in front of the church…which surely must have meant that we were important! And of course we were important…we were precious, innocent, little chatter boxes that could make all the adult “ahh” and “ohh”. In many ways we continue this with our own children today. Let’s be honest; isn’t it wonderful when the kids play or sing music together? It doesn’t matter if it’s not professional quality; what matters is that we love them and honor them. We value our children and try to raise them as responsible, loving, children of God.
In 1986, Whitney Houston recorded the song “Greatest Love of All”. As an 11 year old girl, I would sing this song loud and proud in my bedroom. Why? Because as a young person, a child, it empowered me. The opening lyrics are “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier. Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.” The children are the future! The children will lead the way! The children are beautiful! I was one of those children! Whitney believed in my potential!
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about children. They are my hope. They are a reminder of God’s great love for the world…that creation continues through children. Most of the time, children make me laugh, they amaze me with their curiosity and intelligence, and I often find myself in great admiration and awe of the wonderful children I have encountered through my ministry.
But it hasn’t always been like that. Children haven’t always been seen as so wonderful. I’m sure many of you were told as children that “children are to be seen and not heard” when in the company of adults. I know my grandmother said that to me on several occasions. Not that she did anything wrong, but it was a reflection of how she was raised. Historically, children have worked in coal mines and factories with no safety protections, inadequate food, and very little medical protection. Families would have lots of children in order to keep family farms operating. Children were part of the labor force. They weren’t young, beautiful, brilliant children to write pop songs about. They were a way to keep the wheels rolling. And unfortunately, in some parts of the world, this is still true.
In the ancient world, children, unless born into noble or royal families, were among the lowest class. They had no rights. There was no system set up to protect them from family violence or abuse. The bearing of children was a woman’s most important task in life. And children were treated as property. Life for children was not easy; they quickly had to learn the tasks of adult life…weaving, sowing, hunting, cooking, plowing…all to keep the wheels rolling.
So when Jesus places a child among his disciples, he is doing a pretty radical thing.
Let’s look at the gospel text again. Two things are happening in Mark (9:30-37). First Jesus tells about his death, and then he teaches the disciples again what exactly it means to be a disciple. Since it appears that the disciples don’t understand Jesus’ predictions about his death, they become more interested on who is most important, most popular, Jesus’ right hand man if you will. Of course, they don’t see the irony in this argument…to be Jesus’ right hand man will without a doubt cost them their life. And so when Jesus confronts them about their argument, he says, “The first must be last and servant of all.” In case they were unsure of what that means, he gathers up a nearby child and uses the child as an illustration: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”. In other words, when you welcome this lowly individual, this person without rights, this person who is abused and violated, this unprotected one…then you welcome Christ, and ultimately God. So being the most important in Jesus’ group of friends means being willing to serve others, to go last, to lose your life, and to welcome the unwanted. Being a disciple isn’t about powerful leadership, but servant leadership. It’s about modeling a different way of being…in relationship with yourself, with others and with God.
Why would Jesus use a child to illustrate his point? Because he loved that child. In that child he saw all who are unprotected and vulnerable, and loved him. And in holding that child, he is reminding all of us--the disciples 2000 years ago and us right here—that we are children in the household of God. And being part of the household of God requires that we are responsible for each other. We are responsible to take care of each other, to protect one another, to serve each other. Maybe we do this by serving at FISH…making sure that everyone has something to eat. Maybe we do this by donating clothes for the Free Clothes for Kids project…making sure that everyone has something to wear. Maybe we do this by walking in the CROP Walk…standing in solidarity with others who have to walk miles for food and water. However we embody our responsibility to each other, we are welcoming Christ in our midst.
This week and weekend I’ve spent a lot of time working on music and prayer. Some people think the two are separate…you sing and then you pray. But more and more I’m coming to the understanding that sometimes music is prayer, and that prayer can be sung. Last Sunday I taught the song “The ocean refuses no river”. It was a prayer of affirmation...God refuses no one. This weekend I read that when we pray, we become responsible. So let’s go back to “Jesus loves me”. I’m going to ask that you sing it one time through and just sing it. Maybe you know some hand motions, it’d be ok to do those. Then I’m going to ask that you sing it again, and really focus on the words. What does it mean that Jesus loves you? Do you understand yourself as a child of God? And then I’m going to ask that you sing it a third time, and let the words wash over you. Is it a prayer of thanksgiving? Do you recognize your responsibility to welcome other children of God?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.