The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. A beautiful day for a neighbor, could you be mine? Would you be mine?
So began every episode of Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rodgers was a student of child development. He always focused on the whole child and everything that makes a child unique. He recognized that whole children need whole adults in their lives and he demonstrated that belief every day.
Fred Rogers wasn’t original in this thinking. He knew Jesus.
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
When I was a child, I loved this image of Jesus, defender of the children, welcoming them to gather around him, placing one lovingly on his lap.
Some commentaries warn preachers not to over sentimentalize this Gospel moment, to spend more time discussing the message Jesus really intends for us to hear
In order to prepare ourselves for servant ministry, we must humble ourselves like a child, not compete to be the greatest, to welcome being the least. And this is certainly an important lesson for the day.
Other commentaries suggest focusing on the second foretelling of Christ’s death and Resurrection in this Gospel. Jesus is relinquished into human hands, forsaken by them. This is a message central to our faith, an important part of our salvation story. Who are we relinquishing and forsaking today?
Yet I want to return to the children.
Not to sentimentalize, trivialize this message or tug at heartstrings. Or even to remember Mr. Rodgers.
I spent most of my adult life working with children, and as a parent, have always measured the health of a society by how well a society cares for children.
Children occupied a precarious position in first century society.
In Jesus’ time, children weren’t very well-regarded. They had no status. They were often left to fend for themselves. One might even consider them a nuisance to be avoided.
In ancient times, extended families lived together, the men in one part of the shelter and the woman in the other. The children would toggle back and forth between the men and the woman telling one group what the other group was saying. Perhaps this is what motivated the Apostles to be annoyed, the children were underfoot. They might spread unfortunate gossip about Jesus.
Most children born in Jesus’ time didn’t live very long lives.
More than half of the children never reached puberty. They died of diseases and malnutrition.
They were sometimes loved, sometimes exploited depending on how they were perceived to benefit the family.
Roman law gave the father absolute authority over his family – which extended to life and death. As late as 60AD a son could be put to death by order of his father.
Children were considered to hold the lowest status in society in the ancient world
The apostles seem to buy into the prevailing view, children were of little importance. So the apostles attempted to keep them away.
Hebrew teaching challenged this perspective, elevating the family and children. All children were considered gifts from the Lord.
The Gospel writer known as Mark shows a further elevation of children by Jesus in this passage.
Jesus was indignant, translated from the Greek- it means Jesus was “much grieved” about how the apostles’ and how society treated their children.
Perhaps Jesus, an observant Jew, understood the Talmud – “A Child tells in the street what its father and mother say at home.”
In today’s language, “What children learn from us in our society, our homes, and in our faith institutions, is what they too begin to understand about their worth to society.”
Clearly Jesus valued children.
He often uses them as examples in scripture. The Kingdom is for those who are poor, hungry, dispossessed, those without rights, without esteem, and those who lack status.
The Kingdom of God belongs to people who are imbued with the characteristics of children, trust, receptiveness, simplicity, a childlike heart. One should humble oneself as a child to inherit the Kingdom of God.
Jesus blesses the children in this Gospel passage because of their simple hearts, not because they fasted, made sacrifice, or knew and followed the law.
In a culture that honored power, individuality and those with wealth, Jesus embraced those who had no power, were subject to others’ whims and totally dependent on others for care. The Kingdom breaks through in the least likely of places.
It makes me wonder how Jesus feels about our own treatment of children.
For those of us who live comfortable lives, have raised or are raising our children with every blessing, you may be questioning my thinking. I understand the perplexed reaction; I spent most of my adult lifetime working with children who for the most part had many advantages. It’s easy to be insulated and not to understand this problem.
Yet, let’s look at some facts.
Children remain the poorest age group in America with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty rates.
More than 1 in 3 children live in households burdened by housing costs, more than 15 million children enrolled in public schools experience homelessness.
Millions of children live in food – insecure households, where not everyone has enough to eat. Black and Hispanic children are twice as likely to live in food – insecure households.
Millions of children under the age of 19 are without health care insurance. These rates are particularly high for Hispanics, undocumented children, and children in families with lower income.
America’s schools, a particularly painful reality for this educator, continue to slip backwards with deep racial and economic segregation, a form of Apartheid, perpetuating achievement gaps.
Nationally, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native families are disproportionately impacted by the child welfare system.
A disproportionate number of children of color are incarcerated in our criminal justice system. Black children are 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than white children.
Gun violence continues to be the leading cause of death for children. Black children and teens are more likely to die from gun violence than their white peers.
LGBT students describe persistent patterns of isolation, exclusion, and marginalization that make them feel unsafe or unwelcome at school. Students describe how hearing slurs; lacking resources relevant to their experience, being shamed from having same-sex relationships, and being regularly misgendered make school a hostile environment, impacting health and well-being.
And the harmful effects of our pandemic, living in the shadow of the cross, have had a profound impact on children worldwide.
The effects of the pandemic are not distributed equally, with most damage occurring to children in the poorest neighborhoods, for those already in disadvantaged and venerable situations.
Approximately 150 million additional children worldwide are living in multidimensional poverty, without access to education, health care, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water due to the COVID pandemic.
It’s not hard to believe that Jesus is feeling “much grieved” as he looks on our own treatment of children.
“Our children, Fred Rodgers offers, are extensions of ourselves. We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s all too easy to say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.”
We need to step out of the shadow of the Cross, into the light of Resurrection, we need to live life in community.
Google “Children’s Advocacy” today, become involved in outreach efforts in our neighborhood, our city or the world, welcome a child in Christ’s name. Our life as Christians is more than beautiful worship on Sundays. Bishop Chip Stokes of the Diocese of New Jersey aptly reminds us to get out of our comfort zones, to engage in outreach that not only eradicates the need, but the injustice that causes the need in the first place.
So, let’s make this a beautiful day for our children and for all children because they are all OUR children. Let’s look at ALL children as ours, “would you be mine? Could you be mine?”