“Welcoming Children”

September 7, 2014

 

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

Matthew 19:13-15

 

One day people brought some children to Jesus. They hoped that he would lay his hands on them and pray. It was a small request, really.

The disciples—who usually just didn’t seem to get what Jesus was all about—didn’t get it this time either. They tried to keep the crowd away. Jesus, after all, needed his space.

Jesus, of course, saw it differently. Many of us have known this since we were children and first heard this wonderful story. All of the other adults would push the kids away. But Jesus, we sensed even at a young age, Jesus was more grown up than the other adults. Jesus spoke those inviting words: “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the realm of God belongs.”

Do you remember when you first heard that?

Do you remember how good those words felt to your young soul?

Those of us who have been in churches for a long time have most likely loved this brief scene from Matthew since our childhoods. I hope that you have known this story of Jesus and the children for a long time. I grew up singing that old Sunday School song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…They are precious in his sight.” It was good and comforting to think that I, too, was included in that company.

That message was reinforced in other ways within the congregation in which I grew up. When I was in fourth grade I received a copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible from my church. It had in it a few full color illustrations that were probably drawn in the twenties or thirties, one of which showed Jesus and the children. From the Bible, from the congregation, we got the message: We were loved. We were loved by the One who was the very child of God. We were his sisters and brothers. Precious. Cherished. Of great value.

If you are one of the many in our congregation who have come to the Christian faith as an adult, however, this story might be new to you. Perhaps you can hear it with fresh ears and still be astonished by it in the way that those who originally heard it must have been. In the ancient world children generally had a very low status. And here is Jesus announcing to all who will listen, announcing to all who would follow him that children are as valuable as adults; that they show us something of the realm of heaven. They are precious in his sight.

A few months ago, when I started to think about preaching from this text on this day, my task seemed simple enough.

I would celebrate the ways we welcome children in this congregation. In our worship, in Rockwood Hall, they are both seen and heard and we are glad. Again and again you tell me: “It’s so good to see all the children here when they come up for the children’s message.” They help us as we offer our gifts to God. From the vows that we make during baptisms to support them as they grow in faith—a promise we will make again next Sunday when we baptize ­­­­_________—to our renewed and growing program of Christian education, we show our commitment to helping parents and grandparents here raise children in faith. Each week we welcome these little “strangers” among us who bring with them a new world and new ways of seeing for the new challenges they will face in the fourth, fifth, and sixth decades of this century.

Here at Congregational UCC children are welcomed, loved, precious.

But elsewhere in our country children have become very much a problem in recent months. They are flooding the borders. They are clogging the courts.

So far this year over 57,000 children have sought refuge in the United States.

“Do not send your children to the borders,” President Obama announced to parents in Central America back in June. “If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.” Writing in The New Republic, Oscar Martinez says that many of the Central Americans now coming into the United States never wanted to leave their country. They are not “migrating.”

They are fleeing.

They are running from gangs that are young and large and well-armed.

“Both of Central America’s major gangs were founded decades ago in California, by migrants who banded together to defend themselves from the gangs that were already there. In the mid-‘90’s the government decided it was a good idea to deport thousands of gang members. These gangs grew quickly and are still spreading.” The violence is horrendous and many have little choice but to flee.

The national staff of the United Church of Christ tell us that if these children make it into the United States, they are often “detained, disgraced, and deported—treated more like criminals, terrorists, and threats than children, refugees, and victims of unspeakable horror.”

Scripture tells us to welcome the stranger, to love the children. That’s not public policy. But it is our calling as people of faith.

In “The New Colossus,” that poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus imagines the Mother of Exiles pleading, “Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me.” That’s not public policy. But it is not still our calling, still our aspiration as people of this nation.

Our country needs strong borders because they provide the definition which is vital for us and for all nations. Around the world—in Ukaine, in the Middle East—we are seeing what happens when borders are ignored or break down.  We need strong borders

 But if the children are here, if the strangers are here, what are we to do?

Sometimes it is best to begin with memory.

The Hebrew people remembered what God had done. It was God who set them free when they were slaves in the land of Egypt. It was God who gave them food and water in the wilderness. It was God who led them in safety.

We can imagine the kind of response that people had to God’s providential care. We would like to think that they were grateful and faithful—just like we’d like to think we would be.

But the memory of the psalmist is honest.

In parts of Psalm 78 that we didn’t read this morning, we hear that the people “tested God in their heart,” “often they rebelled against God in the wilderness,” and that they “turned away and acted treacherously.”

The psalmist looks at the past without blinking so that the present can be seen clearly.

The treachery of the people is met with the forgiveness of God. The Psalmist continues: “Being compassionate, God forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; God’s anger was restrained often, and God’s wrath was not stirred up.”

The Bible reminds us again and again that God’s ways are not our ways. Compassion isn’t necessarily our strong suit and it is often easy to stir up our wrath. Look at the twisted faces of Americans on the border. Listen to the angry words that fill the airwaves.

No wonder we are so ready to forget our own past. No wonder it is difficult to be honest about our present  lives.

We trust in ourselves and in our own goodness—which we know is all too often lacking—instead of relying on the goodness of God. We try to get by on our own merit—because of what we do or don’t do, because of what we have or don’t have—instead of relying on God’s forgiving grace.

In contrast, the openness of the psalmist is startling. “We will not hide what we have heard and known from our children, but tell the coming generations. . .so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God.”

What will we do in our time to help the next generation see what God is doing?

What will we do in these days to show that children are precious, cherished, of great value?

We will start small so that we might go big.

We will start here so that we might go elsewhere.

We will bend over and help a child struggling to manage three donut holes and a cup of juice and in doing so learn to feed children.

We will stoop down and shake the hand of a child and in doing so learn to welcome children.

We will teach children the love of Jesus and in doing so discover what all teachers know—that by teaching one really learns. By teaching love we learn that we are included in that love. We learn how to love.

Welcoming children here prepares us to welcome children elsewhere. We are not on the border with all of the attendant problems and possibilities and we are not called to stand in judgment of those dealing with all the challenges and opportunities.

But as members of the United Church of Christ we are in covenant with congregations in the Southwest who are dealing with this situation first-hand. Congregations are sheltering children in Arizona and the UCC’s fund for Unaccompanied Child Refugees is helping at the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. Church World Service staff and volunteers are currently assisting with religious services and providing support at this same detention facility. If people like us can provide additional resources, they will establish a similar presence in other detention centers. Working with local partners, Church World Service is also helping provide food, water, clothing, diapers, medical care, housing and bus tickets for people being left without any means of support.

Churches providing simple, basic, and essential support.

We should let our own children know what we are doing for other children. We should let them know that we follow the Jesus who loves the little children and that we are called to do the same.

Who knows? As we do these small things, perhaps the children will teach us new ways of showing compassion as well.

We still hear Jesus saying: “Let the little children come to me…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Even as adults, those words touch our hearts. I know those words touch your hearts.

You  first heard them because somebody—a family member, a minister, quite possibly a teacher—told them to you. You heard them because someone else thought those words were important enough and you were important enough to speak them in your presence.

What you’ve seen and what you’ve heard need to be shown and spoken to a new generation. And you—each of you, all of you—are the ones who are called to do that work in this place.