Pentectost 18 B- September 23, 2018
Hope Lutheran Church-Riverside CA
There is a new movie on Netflix, “Nappily Ever After.” It is the story of a woman of color and her struggle with personal identity. Because her hair was typical of her ethnicity, it was full of curl and kink, on it’s own, wild and wonderful. But she grew up in a world where she needed to conform to beauty standards that don’t embrace ethnic hair and she needed to straighten out the glorious curls to straight soft ones. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, there was a hair debacle, and she decided she couldn’t spend life trying to be so perfect to the world, that maybe the hair God gave her was what she needed to embrace and that is when the story really begins and she finds her joy.
It got me thinking of today’s gospel message in Mark and how as children we already know who we are. We already know we have the world’s greatest Dad or the kindest mom. We already know we have the best baby brother (or maybe worst, I mean, kids also know when they are pushed out of the limelight). We already know we look fantastic in our lime green shoes and bright orange sweater. We know we love big gentle dinosaurs and loving our babies and not broccoli or baths. We know we are great on the monkey bars and a little afraid of baseballs, but thrilled to try to hit them with a bat. We know our bodies are amazing and that band-aids fix everything. We know we are good at learning and our brains are soaking up the world.
When the world gets to us, we aren’t allowed to wear bright yellow galoshes and golfing hats to church anymore. We get told we can’t wear pig tails at 45 let alone in the pulpit, even though we love how it makes us remember life is too short not to have fun and remember our youth. We get told we can’t skip in the parking lot, to sit up straight, don’t pick, don’t fidget, and eat your Wheaties. We get kudos for conforming and time out for being our weird and wonderful self.
And then comes Jesus. Who already knows that the world has lied to us and taught us to value greatness over authenticity. In our Gospel for today he has told the disciples (for the third time) he is going to die and they just don’t get it . They are part of a world that values greatness, not sacrifice; world that is taken by power, not gentleness. They cannot imagine what he is telling them because they traded imagination for conformity and trust for power.
So Jesus pulls a child into the equation, gently putting the child in the midst of them, setting the trusting one on his knee as a sign of affection and value. And then tells them they have to be like this child to get in line for his kingdom.
Debie Thomas is with the Episcopal Church in Palo Alto and wrote about this passage saying that her years as a children’s minister have helped her understand what it is to be childlike the way Jesus is expressing. “Well-meaning people suggest that Jesus likens children to God because children are so purely good, or unselfish, or accepting, or meek. Well, I don’t know children like that; the ones I know are far more interesting. They’re feisty, clever, quick, fierce, generous, selfish, naughty, obedient, curious, bored, quiet, loud, challenging, funny, surprising, solemn, and exhausting. I think Jesus knew as much when he described children as trustworthy representations of God.”
She goes on to share 4 ways children teach us to follow God: imagination, risking hard questions, trust, and what divine power looks like. I took her themes and ran with them- making them my own in many ways, so really encourage you to read her blog on this topic as well.
Children are able to imagine God in such unlimited ways. They are able to see the world through eyes of imagination and they see God that way too. God is limitless. We cannot imagine God enough. And as adults, we have forgotten to imagine. It is the reason Peter Pan is such a hit. We forget to imagine. And God is so amazingly big and able to do so much that we lose out on understanding God when we forget to imagine. Let your preconceived notions of who God is and how God works in our world go. Because God is not limited our understanding. God is strange and wonderful and bigger than anything. Embrace your imagination again and let God be big enough to be the answer to all the questions, even if it doesn’t add up in your adult reasoning.
They also risk the hard questions. They aren’t afraid to notice when someone looks different or ask why something is blue. They keep on asking until they have an answer that works for them. They ask if they can have something not with greed, but with hope. They ask strangers for help and to be new friends. They ask why loved ones die, why some kitties are boys or girls and why we can’t stay and play instead of going to work. They ask with their hearts open and their trust on display. Just as we should with God.
And wow, do they trust. They trust that there is always enough. They trust that God is enough and that they are enough already in God’s eyes. They have a trust in God that is so much bigger than most adults because they have not held back part of their hearts from the world yet. Children ask for the whole world because they trust the whole world is still open to them. And so is God’s kingdom. God has given us the whole world and we need to love on the gift God has given us; take it everywhere we can, and show it to anyone who will look and see.
Finally, children show us what divine power looks like. It doesn’t look like the strongest or best, the first or the smartest. It looks like someone who gives up all the power to be the lowest. Because God did that for us in coming to be like us. God, in all God’s limitless power, consented to be small and low, vulnerable, and of no notice. So if we want to see God, we need to look at our children who are subject to our adult rules and limitations. Children whose bodies are used or abandoned at borders and alleyways. Who are sold for trafficking, and dying because we want more gun freedom than safety locks that protect them. Children who have no access or legal rights or power and trust us adults implicitly for healthcare, education, and even the meal on their plate.
Children rely on others fully to meet their needs in their vulnerability, and still keep their hearts open, their imaginations on fire and their trust in God boundless. They are not in charge. They are not in control. They cannot make one thing happen. But in them, in their small bodies and wide eyes that see the world as it REALLY is, we can see God.
Jesus is reminding us that we will not come to the kingdom with power and swords, with conformity and reasoning, but by giving up our control and power and leaning fully into our imagination, trust, and knowing who and whose we are. You don’t have to be perfect. You can wear pigtails to preach and imagine you are even wiser and more lovely for it. You can wear your bright yellow galoshes to church with your golfing hat. And you can trust in God . With all your heart. You can let go of what the world taught you, and trust that God gave you just what you needed the moment you were created- a love and knowledge that you are precious, beautiful, beloved and desired by God just as you are. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be you and let God do the rest.
Most weeks my sermon is mine, with obvious influence from 2, 000 years of other writers and theologians. But this week, I need to give some serious credit to another theologian and family ministry director, Debie Thomas of St Marks Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. Her essay on the gospel for today was so spot on, I could not avoid sharing it. It was too full of wisdom to deny. Read her essay here: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1948-welcome-the-child or learn more about her ministry here: