Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Welcome Like a Child

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
Bailey Pickens
Children & Youth Sunday (May 13, 2018)

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Luke 18:11-17

How many of you here today have ever done a trust fall? Where you stand up on something and close your eyes and fall backwards and a bunch of other people are supposed to work together to catch you? This is a real question–can I get a show of hands? Where did you do it? Go ahead and yell out.

So some of you have done this recently, others, not so much. This makes sense, I think.
For a while, when I was in middle school, it really seemed like some group I was a part of was doing a trust fall like every three weeks, just constant trust falling, and now I haven’t done one for almost twenty years. I don’t even know if I trust anyone I’ve met since 1999.

But to tell the truth, I always hated them. Someone definitely got dropped once, and at this point I don’t even remember whether it was me or someone else, but the major takeaway for me was that if you got properly caught before you hit the ground, you were lucky. I know it was supposed to foster trust between all of us in the church basement, but frankly then, as now, it seemed obviously foolish to put yourself in the hands of someone you can’t even see.

So when I was younger, I found the story of Samuel’s “call” pretty weird. For one thing, he’s a kid; he has lived in the temple, serving Eli the priest and learning to serve God since he was a toddler. It was my understanding that God spoke to adults, who would be in a better position to understand what She was saying. Samuel doesn’t even know that it’s God calling until Eli figures it out and tells him what to say.

When I was a kid, the only reason anyone would be yelling my name from another room was because I was in trouble. I don’t know what Samuel’s relationship with Eli was like; maybe he had a different reaction. Maybe he was worried about Eli, who at this time was very old and needed help. I don’t know. But I wonder if Samuel was scared when he heard his name in the middle of the night. I wonder if he was scared when he said into the air of the temple, “Speak, your servant is listening.”

And what a reward for that courage! When Samuel finally gets God to speak, what God says is really terrifying: She is going to destroy the house of the man, the priest, who is raising Samuel. “Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.” NO KIDDING.

But Eli already knows; he has already received this prophecy in the last chapter. What Samuel says is no revelation at all. The big thing happening here is that God is establishing Samuel as someone She speaks to, whom She uses even to communicate to the high priest. Because Samuel will go on to become the preeminent prophet in all of Israel, the one to anoint kings and intercede for the people before God. Samuel is God’s, and that begins before Samuel is able to know who it is who is speaking to him, when it is just a voice in the night, when he is alone.

Now many of us have probably heard the story of Jesus welcoming the children approximately eight billion times; we have heard many a sermon reminding us of Jesus’ love for them, his welcome of them, their importance to him. We have probably have heard about it being a radical thing for Jesus to acknowledge them at all considering the low status of children at the time. And indeed, the loving regard that Christ has for small children helps us to see God’s total regard for us, from cradle to grave, that we do not need to grow up to be someone of whom God takes notice. All of this is good and true.

But I’ve always wondered about this ending phrase, “welcome as a child.” Jesus says “whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Another version says “whoever does not receive God’s kingdom like a little child.” What does that mean? To welcome as a child?

It’s a difficult question because for adults, children often stop being people and become symbols, or avatars for virtue: innocence, purity, hope, potential, etc. This is bananas, because I know every adult here can remember at least one moment as a child when they were profoundly unkind. The total regard Jesus shows them isn’t about kids somehow being life-sized Precious Moments figures–this is a thing grownups want to do, to make children simple. Sometimes children are able to accept each other without prejudice; sometimes they gang up on the new kid and make them miserable because they’re different. Sometimes children are generous; sometimes they’re selfish. Sometimes they love purely and totally; sometimes they are mean in ways that would take your breath away.

They’re a lot like adults in this way.

It strikes me this time, reading this beside Samuel, and reading Luke’s accounting, that perhaps the point is not about some character trait all children are supposed to have and adults should have too.

Luke’s account of Jesus blessing children–I’d prefer to call it Jesus Admonishing Adults– comes after a story Jesus tells about two people in the temple. A learned religious person gives thanks to God for his virtuous life, and another person, employed in a somewhat shady and exploitative industry, mourns and begs God for forgiveness. It is the mourner who was justified, says Jesus, not the virtuous man well aware of his virtue. The humble will be lifted up. It does us no good to rely on our achievements.

From here, we see Jesus affirm children for being children, admonishing the adults who imagined themselves better suited to come into the Lord’s presence. What’s the difference?

One big stone in the foundation of being a child, for better and for worse, is that you depend on someone bigger and stronger than you to give you what you need. And not only are you dependent in this basic way, you’re dependent and that’s fine. We spend a lot of our childhoods learning not to be children anymore: to clean our own rooms, to make our own lunches, then our own money, then our own decisions, then our own lives; no one, we know, is going to provide any of this for us.

But when we were children, the fact is that someone did provide it. Someone made lunch for us, someone helped us get dressed, someone took us where we needed to be. And if no one did, we would all agree that someone should have, that a child is to be provided for as a matter of course. And none of that makes a child any less themselves.

As adults, I think, sometimes, even unconsciously, we fear dependence, having been practicing independence for so many years. We think that the only things that can happen for us are things that we make happen: We work to eat, save to retire, if we’re lucky. Captains of our own fates. And this is the starkest difference between adults and children: Not that children are good and we are fallen, but that we look only to the strength of our own hands, and children take as a matter of course that good, necessary things will come to them that they did not procure themselves. Dinner comes, new clothes come, comfort comes. That is simply how their lives are ordered. It is not some kind of referendum on their sufficiency as human beings; it is a fact of the world, like gravity. It just is.

Perhaps children are able to be near to God just as adults can, perhaps even better, because they have not yet learned to be suspicious of the encounter. Do you imagine God’s voice sounded to Samuel just like Eli’s? And yet Samuel does not convince himself that he was hearing things. Children came to Jesus in the arms of their parents, and the example Jesus pointed to was not the parents carrying but the children being carried.

“Trust” is a loaded word, it seems, like it is something we choose to assent to intellectually. “Trust, but verify,” you might have heard, and “trust” seems more like a tentative belief. But trust most simply is relating to something as a given that does not need examining: like gravity, like so many pounds per square inch of air pressure the atmosphere lays on us all the time. Trust is just what it is, what it always is, and we can live inside of it.

I do think that children live inside that kind of trust. I think we all did, for a time. But doesn’t take much to lose it–a few years, one good betrayal–and then it’s hard to imagine living that way. Like closing your eyes and falling backward, expecting a bunch of people to catch you. Like responding to a voice out of the darkness with “Speak” instead of rolling over and going back to sleep.

There has always been and may always be a real gap between what “church” is and what it should be. But even so I think it is a place where we might practice that kind of trust, a trust that looks a lot like dependence but carries none of the shame. I think this might be a place where we can practice being trustworthy, providing, caring for, and practice trusting, being provided for, being cared for without the cringe of embarrassment at somehow failing to be self-sufficient. Because no one is, really. We were not made to be self-sufficient; we were made to welcome the Kingdom of Heaven as a gift from nowhere, the same way all good gifts come.

May this be a place where we might practice the supremely foolish thing, the existential trust fall–backward into the arms of God our maker and our provider, the giving ourselves to someone we can’t even see, responding to the distant voice in the night with “here I am.”