Sermon preached October 7, 2012
Text: Mark 10:13-16
You all know, those of you who know me, that I like music. This summer, maybe because I had a class reunion, I started listening again to music from the 1970s and found myself rediscovering some songs from that time that I had forgotten. So here is a song I stumbled across on a CD called “AM Gold 1970.”
[Play the first part of Ray Stevens, “Everything is Beautiful”: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.]
Everything is Beautiful
Not a bad song for World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our connections with Christians from around the world.
Children. Last week I mentioned that one of my college majors was philosophy. The other was psychology, and psychology often finds children fascinating for a host of reasons. Psychologists want to know something about how we get from childhood to adulthood and what positive growth and development might be like. Freud postulated in his work that there was a lot more going on in children than most had previously considered.
One of the reasons I became a psychology major was the work of Abraham Maslow, work I first encountered in high school. Maslow’s focus was not on children per se, but on self-actualizing people. Yet Maslow had some interesting things to say about children. “The facts… seem to be that normal children are in fact often hostile, destructive, and selfish in a primitive sort of way” (Motivation and Personality, 121). Freud has postulated such things. Maslow goes on to write: “But they are also at other times, and perhaps as often, generous, cooperative, and unselfish in the same primitive style” (121). Which parts of a child predominate depends to a large degree, Maslow argued, on how well the child’s needs for safety, love belongingness and self-esteem were met. Maslow also argued that what we sometimes perceive as destructiveness in children is better considered curiosity. When a child dismantles something, she may just want to know how it works. Maslow notes, “children do not have to be taught to be curious” (50). Children have a lot going on, much good, some not so good.
Children. Jesus was not the first child psychologist, but he did pay attention to children, and, like Maslow, seemed to find something admirable about them. In a culture that did not really focus on children, Jesus embraced them warmly and held them up as examples. Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
While the Bible points us to children as examples, it does not do so uncritically. In I Corinthians 13, Paul writes: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
Jesus encourages us to emulate children, and Paul notes that there is a time to put an end to childish ways. One way we might helpfully think about the appropriate child qualities of faith is to distinguish between like and ish – childlike and childish. When Jesus encourages us to receive the kingdom of God like a child, I think he is encouraging child-like attitudes, and not childish attitudes. There are probably times in our lives when we are more childish than child-like.
So what characteristics might we think of as childish, those attitudes to be given up as we mature? Children can be impatient. Are we there yet? While there may be a place for a certain kind of righteous impatience at times, we would do well to understand that so many good things in life take time. The world is not the way I would like it to be – too much hunger, poverty, prejudice, war, cruelty. Change is needed, but positive change can take time. Long-time enmities between people do not end overnight. A lack of patience can lead to cynicism and burnout, and cynicism is the opposite of faith.
Children can be self-absorbed. The world of infants is small. When they are hungry or wet, they cry out. It takes time to develop a wider view, and acknowledgement of the other, and frankly it is a life-long task.
Children can be masters at blaming someone else. If something is broken, it must have been a brother or sister, or the next door neighbor. Sometimes children are really creative and the problem is caused by an imaginative friend. Failing to take responsibility for our lives is a common childish quality.
Children also have a tendency to wish it would be easy. This is Scott Peck in reverse. Peck, begins his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled with a simple statement: “life is difficult.” It is, but as children we don’t necessarily see that, and maybe that’s o.k. for children. Thinking everything will be easy is childish when we cling to that idea into adulthood.
When Jesus encourages childlike qualities in us, he is not inviting us to childish impatience, self-absorption, irresponsibility, or immature wishful thinking.
Instead I think Jesus is inviting us to wonder, welcoming, delight and a kind of mature wishful thinking - child-like qualities that we should nurture in our lives throughout our lives.
Wonder. Abraham Maslow in his work on self-actualizing people argued that one characteristic of such people is “continued freshness of appreciation” (163). “Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy” (163). Children have a marvelous capacity for wonder that we lose too easily as we grow older. God’s work in the world of nurturing love, encouraging justice, creating beauty, continues, but we are not always ready to see where it is happening. Everything is beautiful, in its own way, if only we will see with childlike wonder and appreciation. One final Maslow quote. “Getting used to our blessings is one of the most important nonevil generators of human evil, tragedy, and suffering” (163). Wonder at the beauty in God’s world, gratitude for the goodness of God and God’s creativity, is at the heart of God’s kingdom work. Wonder is a child-like kingdom characteristic.
Openness and welcoming. Children have a lot to teach us about welcoming others. We have to teach our children to fear others, sometimes for their own safety, but we often take the lessons too far. Children don’t seem bothered by differences in color or abilities or orientations. They see friends first of all. The New Jerusalem Bible translates Jesus’ words in Mark 10 this way – “anyone who welcomes the kingdom of God as a child.” Welcoming and openness to others is a child-like kingdom characteristic. Jesus loves all the children of the world. On World Communion Sunday we are invited to love as openly, as freely, as widely.
Joy, delight and playfulness. The psychologist D. W. Winnicott once wrote: It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self (quoted in Cherishment, Young-Bruehl and Bethelard, 207). Being able to give ourselves to joy, to delight in experiences, to be able to play are important child-like kingdom characteristics. They display a deep faith that God continues to be at work in the world. They help us discover who we are as God’s people. One of my concerns as I look at our society is that we are diminishing the role of play in the lives of our children. We are substituting instead competition. We don’t play as much as compete, and we need to ask what we are losing if all our playing is now competition. If we lose joy, delight and playfulness in children, we will be more hard-pressed to nurture these as adults. Joy, delight and playfulness are child-like kingdom characteristics.
Mature wishful thinking. Is there such a thing? Author, minister and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote a book on theology: Wishful Thinking: a seeker’s abc. Wishful thinking and theology? Christianity is mainly wishful thinking…. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking…. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth come true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. Curiosity, creativity and imagination are child-like kingdom characteristics. Doesn’t it take some audacious imagining to celebrate World Communion Sunday in such a divided world? We imagine that sharing bread and juice together here can help bridge differences world-wide. We imagine that sharing bread and juice bring Jesus closer.
Nurturing child-like kingdom characteristics, leaving behind childishness – this is not easy, but then life is difficult sometimes. Yet this is the Jesus way. It asks of us patience. It requires giving of ourselves to something bigger – God’s dream for the world. There will be failures along the way for which we need grace. The Jesus way is the way of childlike wonder, openness, joy and delight. The Jesus way is a way in which truth comes to us on wishful wings. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.