It sure doesn’t feel right to have a Children’s Sabbath when no kids are in our church building. I miss sitting with the children for young disciples. I miss high-fiving kids on their way to Sunday School. I miss little fingers snatching more donuts than they can eat off the donut table in Vickrey Hall. I miss Lilly dancing to the organ prelude, not so much for us, but for herself and the divine that she feels in the room. I miss how kids teach us, enlighten us, bring us joy, and increase our wonder. We need the inclusive and welcoming values of children in our lives right now.
Another thing I miss is seeing the kids circle up in Godly Play. In the four years that the Gregg family has been here at Royal Lane, Amanda has been the Godly Play storyteller dozens of times. Somehow, she always teaches the lesson on Abraham and Sarah, and she has a love/hate relationship with it. She loves the imagery in the story of God coming close to speak with Abraham, the quiet reverence the children afford the deaths of Abraham and Sarah, but there’s one part of this lesson she despises – the sandbox. You see, this particular Godly Play lesson utilizes a rolling sandbox to represent the desert of the Middle East and help mark the migration of Abraham’s family. Little hands cannot help themselves! Everyone wants to touch, dig, fling the desert all over the room. At the end of each Godly Play story, the storyteller asks a series of “wondering” questions: I wonder where you are in this story? I wonder what part we could leave out? I wonder what you like best about this story? Always and always every child’s favorite part of the Abrahamic calling story is THE SAND.
Sometimes even the grit and harshness of this world, the deserts and deserted places, are wonderful when seen through eyes of children. Children are so inquisitive and honest, aren’t they? They help us see the world in unique and lovely ways. They are filled with vital values that are worthy of the kingdom of God. On this Children’s Sabbath Sunday, we have so much to learn from our children. Robert Fulghum, a retired minister, said that most of what we need to know about living is learned in kindergarten. “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Take a nap in the afternoon. When you go out in the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”
Did you learn all of that when you were kindergarten-aged? I sure did. Think about what a better world this would be if we were more like our kindergarten selves; if everyone shared their belongings, apologized to each other, and took a nap when tired. How much more just and peaceful would the world be if everyone agreed to play fair, not to hurt people or take what didn’t belong to them? How much healthier and cleaner would the world be if corporations and nations had a policy of putting things back where they found them and of picking up their own messes? And how much happier would we be when we go out in the world if we would just hold hands and stick together? If we really did all that – no matter how old we are – we would see that the kingdom of God had finally come to earth! Kingdom values in kindergarten. Maybe there is something to what Jesus was saying after all. Maybe we should do our best to learn from our children and not hinder them.
A church was gathered one Sunday for communion and the minister was beginning the familiar words of the communion service. She explained that this is the Lord’s Table and that Christ invites all faithful people to come and share the meal with him. Suddenly a young child who was sitting next to her mother rushed out of the pews and ran up towards the communion table. Her mother, horrified and embarrassed beyond words, came running after her and caught the child just before she reached the bread and cup. As she carried her squirming daughter back to her seat, the little girl cried out for everyone to hear, “But I want to eat with Jesus! I want to eat with Jesus!”
In every church where I’ve served, inevitably someone would raise the discussion about the noise of children in worship. And it has always been my response that fidgeting, laughing, and fussy children make joyful noises and that we should never hinder them. But I imagine, just like the disciples in our text, that some of the grownups in that story I just mentioned about communion were gushing their disapproval at this unruly child and at the mother who “failed” to keep her in line. Maybe they were saying, “Back in my day, children didn’t act like that. They were more under control and better behaved than they are today!”
But, I think, that girl had kingdom values. That little girl yearned to be near the welcoming Jesus – the one whom she knew from stories, the one whom she knew from Sunday School, the one whom she knew would always love her and protect her, the one whom she knew by watching you. I wonder how many of us should be emulating the spirit of that little girl as she rushed towards the communion table. I wonder how many of us are as excited to receive the bread and cup as this little girl was. She was eager and innocent, filled with joy and anticipation. She didn’t come to the table burdened by the hostilities or resentments which so often divide us; she wasn’t distracted by the anxieties and hurts which accumulate when we watch the news or stay isolated and shouting in our echo chambers. All she wanted was to eat with Jesus. All she wanted was to run to Jesus, into his welcoming arms. We must not hinder the children.
One of the things we need to remember in this Gospel text for today is that Jesus was extremely angry at the disciples for holding the children back. “Let the little children come to me; and do not hinder them.” Many of us grew up learning that verse in the King James Version and its flowery Elizabethan English. “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not.” By using those strong words, we, of course, have no reason to think we are forbidding children to find hope, healing, love, and acceptance. Who would knowingly forbid a child’s coming to Jesus? None of us would. But don’t we often hinder the children? Don’t we often delay, hold back, and obstruct progress in our nation and in the world, that seeks to help children live and thrive? We hinder our children by neglecting their religious lives. We hinder the children of our community, our nation, and our world by our provision of nothing but lip service on their behalf. We hinder our children when we model prejudice and anger. We hinder our children when we waste our country’s resources on war and imperialism. We hinder our children every single day.
In his book “The Moral Life of Children,” Robert Coles tells the well-known story of Ruby Bridges, now a civil rights activist. Ruby was six years old when a Federal judge ordered that an elementary school in New Orleans be integrated. Ruby and three others were the first black children to enter the all-white school. Every morning as she arrived at school and every afternoon as she went home, accompanied by federal marshals, over one hundred people met her at the door. They shouted obscenities, threatened to kill her, and they spit on her. Dr. Coles was researching what happens to a child living under that kind of stress. Coles was so sure that Ruby would crack under the pressure that he asked her teachers to watch for signs that she was emotionally deteriorating.
One day a teacher noticed that Ruby was talking to the angry people who frequently attacked her at the door of the school. The teacher asked Ruby what she was saying to them, but Ruby consistently denied talking with them. So, the teacher called Dr. Coles to report what might be the first sign of emotional distress. And when Coles met with Ruby, what he discovered was that each morning and each evening as she passed the crowds, she was not speaking to them, but praying for them. “Why Ruby,” he asked. “Why would you pray for them?” “Because they need praying for,” she said. Coles replied, “You know, frankly Ruby, I don’t feel like praying for those people.” Ruby said, “There are sometimes I don’t feel like praying for them either, but you should pray for them even if you don’t feel like praying for them.”
That was a child who was not hindered from Jesus. That was a child who had kingdom values. There will be no real progress, no genuine hope for America’s children, for all of God’s children, until some sense of urgency forces us to reconsider our values. That our national leaders would want to give the richest people in our country tax breaks while so many millions of American children do not have food is unbelievable. That some of our national leaders want to strip healthcare away from families when many children already cannot get adequate medical care is unconscionable. The ultimate pride of any community is not the power of its armies or the size of its gross national product but the condition of its children. Richard Louv, author and journalist, says “that if we desire a kinder nation, seeing it through the eyes of children is an eminently sensible endeavor: A city that is pro-child, for example, is also a more humane place for adults.” So, you see, if our children prosper, our society prospers. If our children are corrupted, if they suffer, if they die from abuse or neglect, our future as a nation is in trouble. We can do better.
How would Jesus feel about the condition of the children of our world today? Would Jesus see us as well-meaning disciples, holding back the children from health, security, and love? Or would he see us as a church that lets all children run to the table, to eat and receive communion no matter the age, to dance in the aisles to organ music, to sing a little off tune, or read Scripture a little slowly? Are we people that are ok with mistakes and imperfection knowing that our children are growing in grace and learning in love?
Do we, like Ruby Bridges, pray for a day when we, as disciples and followers of Jesus, do not hinder children anymore? Do we pray for the day when we don’t keep boisterous, lively, energetic kids at an arm’s length, thinking they are someone else’s problem? Because, in the end, Jesus didn’t keep children at arm’s length, but took them into his arms and blessed them.
And so, we too, are beckoned by God and given an example by Jesus to welcome and love and nurture the children in our own families, in our own churches, and in our own country so that we can fully recognize kindergarten values, kindergarten values that reveal the kingdom of God.