What the Children Know

By Emily Rowell Brown

17th Sunday after Pentecost~September 20, 2015

Readings:  Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, Mark 9:30-37

I have a confession: when John, Weezie, and I were deciding who would preach this Sunday, I wanted to preach on Jeremiah.  But as we talked about the lectionary readings, we realized that today’s gospel was just too perfect to let pass, so I’ll save my Jeremiah sermon for another time..  For one thing, since we have just changed the St. Mary’s Sunday schedule to include children in the entire service, it seems especially appropriate to think about Jesus’ message to welcome–and learn from–a child.  And for another thing, since I have been told that I am practically a child myself, who better to speak about children?

I did actually answer the door to the house I shared with my husband Dan a few years ago, only to be asked if my parents were around.  Granted, I was clad in sweatpants and a ponytail, not my best look, but true story.

All joking aside, one of my favorite parts of my previous job at St. John’s Church in Georgetown was putting together children’s sermons.  We would occasionally preach children’s sermons in our early morning, family-friendly service, and it thrilled me–and everyone involved, I think–to hear the children’s instinctive responses.  Whoever preached would usually invite questions, and the replies we received were uninhibited, creative, and entirely unpredictable.  What grown-ups would never dare to say (or even think), our children would blurt out unashamedly.  It was wonderful.  It was real.

I can think back to the time that we read the creation story–the second one, about Adam and Eve–to learn from an upper elementary-aged girl that God of course created Eve from Adam’s rib because the rib was in the exact center of the body, meaning that they were to be entirely equal, neither one higher or lower, greater or less than the other.

And I remember the time that we discussed the prodigal son story, and we used play coins to explain the idea of an inheritance.  At the end, one boy (firstborn, no doubt) yelled out, “But that’s not fair!”

Whatever the lesson, whatever the story, whatever was on their minds, they said.

So it is with all children: they ask questions, not worrying about whether they sound silly or ignorant.  It’s not just a hunch that children are so inquisitive and curious: a study found that children ask, on average, as many as 390 questions each day–and that’s only counting the questions to their mothers![1]  How much time do the disciples spend confused in today’s gospel, afraid to ask their questions, when maybe they could instead let go their concerns about their image and reputation and vocalize their frustrations and lack of understanding to Jesus?

But we train that kind of curiosity out of children, out of ourselves, in our culture–and that extends to church.

Years ago, a dear family friend (who is now all grown-up and in college at UVA) showed me her drawing.  She was about five at the time, and she had filled the paper with blotches of color and swirls and glitter.  “It’s perfect!” I exclaimed.  “Let’s hang it up on the refrigerator.”  I will never forget what she said next.  She sighed, a bit exasperatedly, as though I had no clue what I was talking about.  “Nothing is perfect, Emily.  Only God is perfect.”

I have thought back to that interaction often in the years since.  I cannot imagine that her reply was instinctual; rather, it likely had been trained, ingrained into her.  I understand the sentiment–everything pales in comparison to our astonishing God–but I find the impulse misguided.  Should we throw out all our wonder over God’s creation simply out of fear of belittling or offending God?

We all can remember back to the times in elementary school when we became more self-conscious about who are friends were, how we dressed, whether we were cool.  Sometimes those who used to be our best friends fell away, not because we no longer liked them, but because we realized that they were not the right kind of friends to have.  The disciples obsess over who is greatest or least, completely missing the point about how rank did not matter one iota[2] to Jesus.

If you delve into historical studies of ancient Roman society, you’ll hear about how little children mattered.  Partly, the custom was practical: No one knew for sure if they would survive into adulthood, so it did not make sense to invest too many resources into ones who may not live to see the following year.[3]  Small bodies possessed only limited capacity to work and contribute to the household, and it was not until children entered into adolescence that they were considered full members of society, worthy of respect and dignity.  Knowing this about ancient culture, then, allows us to hear Jesus’ words differently than we would if we only take into account our contemporary associations about children’s status.

So for Jesus to welcome a child was to welcome a nobody, a non-person, one who had no prestige or power or usefulness whatsoever.  Jesus deemed the child one deserving of honor simply for being–for being one of God’s own.

We know this, right?  That is the Christian way: being inclusive, being kind, being loving to everyone.

While it’s helpful to understanding the full import of today’s gospel to study the historical context, it is useful to explore further into the suggestive potential of the image of a child.  Children know in a way that we do not.  They know that the urgent and immediate can be important.  Rules and labels and boxes can make our world more clear and understandable but can also close us off, help us put up walls and separate ourselves from what really is going on.

We adults intellectualize the situation about the refugees in Syria instead of voicing what my six-year-old nephew exclaimed when he saw a picture in the newspaper: “But that’s so sad!  That’s wrong!”  Or we respond helplessly to disease and conflict and inequality instead of doing something, anything, like creating a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research or using 33 dollars earned from doing chores to feed the hungry–the logical, action-oriented responses, of course, of a young boy and young girl.

Naïve?  Maybe.  Authentic?  Absolutely.

These kids knew that God wants our whole selves, not edited versions, but what’s real.  This is a lesson not unlike the examples we have in the Psalms–expressions of anger, outrage, despair, and confusion.  We heard Jeremiah pronouncing harsh judgment and warnings of Jerusalem’s impending destruction, and if we were to keep following his story, we would see him approach God with worry and complain about the persecution he endures. Even Jesus hints in today’s gospel at what later is in store for him on the cross, and when he does experience his final moments on earth, he too cries out in pain and hurt, wondering where God has left him.

See, these ugly parts, these naïve parts, these natural, unchecked parts of ourselves are what God invites and craves, as we see from the diversity of ways of relating to God captured in our scriptures.  Think of the intimacy you experience with your spouse or a really close friend the first time you cry together, or when you laugh a great big belly laugh and allow yourself to snort in their presence.  Next time you speak to God, know that you may approach with a similar level of intimacy–even more so.

Let’s try this together.  Let’s worry less about doctrine and creeds and formulas for what we’re supposed to think about God (all good things, but barriers sometimes), obsess less over who has it most right, and instead delight more in feeling close to and comfortable with God.

It’s ironic, paradoxical, but everything with Jesus always is.  Sometimes to deepen and intensify our faith, we must regress to our childhood years. That is the challenge of today’s gospel: not only to welcome those whom society deems unworthy of love and respect, those who are the least among us, but also to welcome that part of ourselves.  Let’s be real.

[1]See “Mothers asked nearly 390 questions a day, a study finds,” The Telegraph,  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9959026/Mothers-asked-nearly-300-questions-a-day-study-finds.html

[2] Fun fact: An iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. The expression “not one iota” comes from the Bible (Matthew 5:18): “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

[3] For further reading, see Linda Gigante, “Death and Disease in Ancient Rome,” http://www.innominatesociety.com/Articles/Death%20and%20Disease%20in%20Ancient%20Rome.htm