Sunday, August 13, 2017

Entrance Exam--a sermon on welcoming the kingdom like a child

Rev. Teri Peterson
Entrance Exam
Mark 10.13-16
13 August 2017

Psalm 100
Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Serve the Lord with celebration!
    Come before him with shouts of joy!
Know that the Lord is God—
    he made us; we belong to him.
    We are his people,
    the sheep of his own pasture.
Enter his gates with thanks;
    enter his courtyards with praise!
    Thank him! Bless his name!
Because the Lord is good,
    his loyal love lasts forever;
    his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.

Mark 10.13-16
People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever does not welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.


I wish I had a hard time imagining the disciples scolding parents who brought their children to Jesus. Unfortunately, I think it’s still quite common in many churches for parents and children to be met with judgmental looks and shushing, or with instructions on how to find the crèche or a crying room, or even with the clear statement that worship and study and prayer are for adults, and young people are meant to be somewhere else—somewhere soundproof. It seems that we have been attempting to control access to Jesus for thousands of years.

That’s what this is about, of course. The disciples in today’s gospel story believe that Jesus is too important to be bothered with mere children. They are not worth the time they take, nor the resources required to minister to them. Children in the ancient world were decidedly at the bottom rung of the social ladder. The first couple of boys born in a family would be a sign of God’s blessing, of course, but ultimately all children are something of a liability in the early years—they cost a lot, without producing much. They mattered a great deal as they grew older and could contribute to the household, but until then, they were simply property. They had no status, no value in themselves. They were definitely not worth Jesus’ time.

Or at least, that’s what the disciples thought. But that assumption made Jesus angry. The idea that there is anyone not worth his time, even the lowliest of children, is enough to warrant anger at his closest friends and followers. They wanted to control who had access to him, and instead he moved them aside and flung open the doors and invited everyone in, starting with those who had been shushed or told to come back when they were able to sit quietly and understand everything.

And then he said something astonishing: whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.

What does it mean to welcome the kingdom like a child?

It could be a statement about our mindset—children have curiosity, openness, and wonder. They often accept people for who they are and the barriers we build as adults seem meaningless to them. They aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they are perfectly willing to play with others who are different, at least until we teach them to be afraid or discriminating. And children don't care much about not having social status. They don’t spend their time and energy trying to improve their position or to look good on their CV. Those are adult concerns. Children are far more likely to do as the psalm says—to shout to the Lord, to give thanks, to celebrate, to feel they belong to God. The rest of us are more likely to tone it down a bit and to wonder if we’ve been good enough to be considered one of God’s people. 

So perhaps Jesus means we need to be less concerned about our own status, less worried about whether we are earning our way into heaven, and more accepting and curious and full of wonder and praise. To become like children—who believe themselves to be loved unconditionally, and in turn reach out and love others, without concern for worthiness or standards or reputation.

Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it, Jesus says. 
This could also be read as welcoming the kingdom of God like we welcome a child—in other words, about our practice of hospitality. After all, he was addressing the disciples who believed they could control and limit who had access to him, teaching them that all are welcome, not just those they want to welcome. Ultimately Jesus is the only one who gets to decide who is in and who is out, and over and over again he widens the circle. Foreigners, lepers, women, Gentiles, prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, and now children…it seems there is no one Jesus won’t let in. Perhaps he is saying that how we welcome the child is a reflection of how we welcome God’s kingdom. How we extend hospitality to those the world deems “least” or “lowly” or “outcast” is how we welcome God. 

Jesus says that when we close the circle of God’s love, we will find ourselves on the outside, not the inside where we intended. This is not to say that God won’t let us into the kingdom, but rather that when we shut people out, we will have also shut ourselves out of experiencing the reality of God’s infinite love and welcome, because our actions and words and lives are to be a reflection of the grace we have received…if we think some people are worthy of grace and others are not, or some are welcome in the church family and others are not, or if we are more excited about a new member with qualifications than about one who struggles with life, then that is a reflection of the idol we worship. And again and again Jesus shows us a God whose boundaries are much different than ours. As an ancient philosopher put it: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Whichever way we hear those words, it’s hard to imagine how they fit into the world we know today. A world where some nations’ leaders casually toss around the threat of nuclear war, and where white supremacist groups carry torches and weapons through the streets, and where people fleeing for their lives are turned back in the middle of the sea. These things feel far away, and yet they betray the same kind of thinking that led the disciples to turn away the children and scold the parents, and on a smaller scale we all do it. We have a mental checklist, which is often subconscious, or even unconscious, it's so ingrained. It tells us who is in and who is out, who we want in our community and who we don’t. 

Keeping the wrong sort of people away—whether they are the wrong sort because of their nationality or skin color or religious practice or language or job or family configuration or financial reality or age—is unequivocally against the gospel. If there’s one thing we can safely say of Jesus, it’s that he did not keep anyone away, and when his disciples did, he was angry about it and turned around and not just welcomed those who had been scolded by the disciples, but embraced them and blessed them.

The good news is that means we too are embraced, and blessed…because all those who are outside, including those who put themselves there, are welcomed in. The circle is always expanding, because, as the psalmist says, God made us, we belong to God, all of us. And we are called to enter God’s courts with praise and thanksgiving, with the joyful shouts of children who know themselves to be loved and accepted, with the open hands of mature faith that has learned to break down barriers, as reflections of the image of God whose faithfulness is from generation to generation.

May it be so. Amen.

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