Before I start, I want to say to the kids listening that in this sermon, I am mostly talking about you but not to you. I know that’s a little rude and I’m sorry. If you have any thoughts or ideas as you listen, I would love to hear them later!
Alright. Let’s hear a tiny bit of our Gospel again: Jesus took a little child and put it among the disciples; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,”Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”
Just 24 verses later – so close that it’s on the same pair of pages in my big study bible – we see Jesus hugging children again. This will be our Gospel in a couple of weeks but let’s hear it today.
Mark 10, verses 13 to 16: People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.
I think there are a couple of core ideas in these twin passages. First, it’s the responsibility of grown-up Christians to welcome young Christians. Jesus says that – AND shows it, in his anger at the people trying to create a no-child zone around him.
Second, grown-up Christians should not assume that children are empty containers and our job is to fill them with faith. Children have things to teach grown-ups about the Kingdom of God. There are parts of all … this … that they understand better than we do.
Note, too, that none of this is limited to parents or family. In both of these scenes, Jesus is speaking to his disciples – his inner circle, those who will become church leaders after his death. Not to the kids’ parents or grandparents.
In the past few decades, people studying intergenerational communities and churches have gained some insight into **why** Jesus might have stressed these things. In the mid-20th century, American churches fell hard for the idea that what churches do with kids should look a lot like public school. Age-graded classrooms, lesson plans and workbooks, attendance charts and reward stickers. All based on the idea that Christianity is a body of information that can be taught, the same way you teach long division.
As early as the 1960s, an Episcopal priest named John Westerhoff started writing about how misguided this was. He says, Faith is caught, not taught. If we want to raise children who know and love our way of faith, we need to focus on being church together.
Ongoing study of kids and faith have reinforced Westerhoff’s point. Being meaningfully included in faith community helps kids mature into faithful adults. Faith aside, it’s also good for kids to have grownups who know and care about them, outside their family. The reverse is probably also true!
We’re re-discovering that faith isn’t a body of knowledge but a way of living. As one recent article put it, “Congregations are not providers of religious goods and services. They are dynamic, living communities of sojourners accompanying each other in discovering a Christian way of life.” (Elton & Pinkstaff) In such a group of fellow-travelers, it makes sense that we all – regardless of age – have experiences, skills, good ideas and fruitful questions to share.
We’re re-discovering that liturgy is learning. Our shared worship, at its best, helps shape us, week by week, year by year, into the people God calls us to be. If our shared worship is inviting and engaging – if it is comprehensible – if what we say and do is aligned with what we believe and mean – then participation in worship is part of how kids – AND adults! – continue to grow in faith.
We are re-learning what churches should always have known, because Jesus tells us so: that our shared life of faith is incomplete without the voices and perspectives of children. The great 20th century liturgical scholar Louis Weil says, “It is not only that the child changes by being brought into the community of faith, but that the community itself changes as the mystery of another believer’s life unfolds in the context of community.” (CAWCIB, xi)
My friend Sylvia Miller-Mutia says, “The Spirit calls together intergenerational communities because we have gifts for each other.”
At St. Dunstan’s, we’ve spent several years now exploring what it looks like to become an intergenerational church. To borrow words from one of the wise voices on this subject, Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, we shifted the question from “How can we keep the children from disturbing us during worship?” to, “How can we invite the children into real involvement?”
And then Covid came along, and church went online for a year. We worked hard to keep elements of all-ages participation in Zoom church – with some success. Our Scripture dramas meant a lot to kids and grownups alike.
At the same time – we lost a lot. Some kids and households just couldn’t tolerate Zoom worship. And even with the kids who were on Zoom, the rest of the congregation couldn’t hear their chatter, or pick up a lost toy, or admire a drawing, or invite them to help with a task, in the way we could in Building Church.
We did what we could; and we held onto hope for After.
And now – here we are, in After. Sort of. A tentative and emerging After, that requires continued experimentation, flexibility, discernment… and hope.
Some of our kids won’t be back in church until kids can be fully vaccinated against Covid. And some families’ habits have changed during the pandemic, and Sunday morning church may not fit anymore.
On the other hand: we have learned that the things we do to engage kids in worship, also work well for some grownups. Pritchard puts it this way: “I am increasingly convinced that children’s liturgical needs are not qualitatively different from those of adults.” (Offering the Gospel to Children, p. 101)
For example: as we’ve added ASL gestures to certain prayers, I’ve been tickled to discover which grownups have been itching for a chance to move and use their bodies in worship. I love it when adults take the invitation to grab a coloring page and markers – or to bring their knitting project! I love that we have both kids and grownups who really like to play the xylophones at the Eucharist.
This fall we’re trying something new for older kids and youth – and others who may opt in: Church journals. They look like this. The idea is that kids will claim and decorate a journal. Then, every week, there will be a few questions to ponder – and answer in the journal, if you want. Some are reflective – like, What am I feeling grateful for today? Was there a time this week when I felt included – or pushed out? Some are noticing questions, like, What’s my favorite part of our Scripture story today?
There’s also a standing invitation to draw or doodle while listening or praying. I’ve always listened best while doodling, myself!
With these journals, I’m trying to strike the delicate balance between inviting attention and making space for reflection. As I was preparing them, I remembered Father Ed Tourangeau, my priest when I was my kids’ age. Father Ed always left a little silence at the end of his sermons. He did this, he explained, because he assumed that somewhere during the course of his sermon, people would get off on their own train of thought. Something he said would lead to something they needed to think about… or maybe something else entirely would float to the surface and demand their attention. With the pause at the end of the sermon, he gave people time to wrap up their thoughts and return to the room. I love the pragmatism and generosity of that approach.
We sometimes say that people – adults and kids – should pay attention during church. Let me be clear: I do hope you pay attention during church, beloveds. But I also hope you’re not ONLY paying attention to ME – or to whoever else happens to be leading worship at the moment. I hope that sometimes your attention will be caught by a word or phrase in a prayer or Scripture or song, and that will draw you towards something you need to think about, or something God has to say to you, deep down I your heart. I hope that sometimes your attention will drift to a loved one who’s going through a hard time, and you’ll pause to hold them in God’s light. Or you notice that some moment from the past week still feels unsettled, and you’ll dwell with whether you need to make amends, or change the situation.
Let’s be clear: You’re not an audience or a class. And your responsibility here is neither to absorb information nor to appreciate a performance. There will be neither quiz nor ovation. For some of you, sometimes, this set-apart time, this hour on Sunday mornings, may simply be a doorway into thanks, or a silence in which another voice may speak. (Those words come from the poet Mary Oliver.)
So with the church journals – as with many other things – planning something for our kids leads to naming something that’s true for many of us.
Putting kids and youth at the center of our common life, alongside the grownups, rather than off to the side; and believing that we grownups can learn and practice faith with and from them – that’s one of the ways we follow Jesus, at St. Dunstan’s.
I love these passages in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus embraces children. Jesus challenges so many assumptions in his ministry. It delights me that one of them is the idea that there are places kids don’t belong; that there are things that are too important for kids to be around.
I noticed, this week, that it’s easy to think of these stories as breaks from the urgent pace of Jesus’ march towards the cross. As warm and fuzzy “Awww!” Moments – before Jesus starts talking about crucifixion again. But thanks to re-reading the whole Gospel of Mark in Father Tom’s Bible study this summer, I’m questioning that view. Mark’s Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection three times, before he enters Jerusalem and the story begins to accelerate towards the cross. That’s where these scenes fall – among those grim predictions that confuse and frighten his disciples.
Mark is a very careful writer. Whether that reflects the actual sequence of events or Mark’s choice: it is not an accident. These scenes are not soft-focus breaks from the urgent, building action. They’re important. As Jesus predicts that God’s Messiah must suffer and die, he’s preparing his followers for a world turned upside down: the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the outsider brought in, the last made first. Old ways set aside, and new kinds of communities born.
We don’t do what we do – our shared and ongoing work towards becoming an intergenerational faith community – because kids are cute and talented, though they are. We don’t do this because Welcoming is one of our Discipleship Practices, though it is. We don’t do this because we think it will make our church grow, though it might?
We do it because we pray every week, maybe every day, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. And this is one of the ways we walk towards the kingdom, and live out God’s divine will. Because in some way beyond our full understanding, this becoming is part of the redemptive work that God in Christ is doing in and for and through St. Dunstan’s.
May the God who has called us to this work, give us the wisdom and will to continue it. Amen.