Let Them Stand On The Pews - Children's Sabbath

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From Mount Olivet United Methodist Church - October 15, 2017

Mark 9:33-37 & Matthew 19:13-15

I am a cradle United Methodist. In 1984 I was baptized at Faith United Methodist Church in Rockville, Maryland and when we moved to Frederick our family became members of Calvary United Methodist Church. I attended preschool in the education building until I was old enough for Kindergarten. I can remember rites of passage like Sunday school with Mrs. Frank (2nd grade) and Mrs. Crum (5th grade), and receiving my third grade Bible from Rev. Manthey. And before there were yellow, blue, pink, and purple pew bags to keep children entertained during worship, we had coloring books and a sandwich bags full of crayons.  

Every year during Advent we would participate in the church Christmas pageant. While no member of the Hardy household played a leading role such as Mary or Jospeh, my younger brother Drew did play the role of the donkey (And if you knew him you would know how appropriate the role was for him). I was a rare teenager in the church. I voluntarily got up early on Sunday mornings to usher at the 8:30 service, and I was not alone. Three of us, awkward and acne-plagued teenage boys in our ill-fitting suits with a flower pinned to the lapel, would join the ranks of the 8:30 usher team every Sunday morning. In hindsight, I do not know if we truly felt called to this ministry or if it was just getting first dibs on the coffee and donuts while everyone else was still in worship, but I can tell you that on Sunday mornings after we had distributed bulletins that I had a group of people who helped me learn what it meant to follow Jesus.

It was on Sundays at Calvary where people like Carol Frank, Greg and Lori Shipley, Dave Herber, and Billie Stokes not only taught me what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ but they, and countless others, took the time to make a place for me and my younger siblings in the church (they had to truly know my brother to type-cast him as a donkey). They looked out for us, encouraged us when we needed it, and there were a few times where Greg and/or Lori would help me correct my course. Growing up in the church shaped who I am today.

Jesus is pretty clear about children in the Kingdom of God. This is one of the subjects within Jesus' teaching where it is hard to twist the meaning of His words. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) Jesus mentions the importance of children no less than 8 times. And our readings this morning forces us to stop telling our kids that they arethe church of the future, but instead begin telling them they are the church today. Right now.

The Kingdom of God belongs to them. Those are not my words. Jesus said it.

In the reading from Mark’s gospel it seems that the disciples are only concerned with their own status as they looked beyond Jesus’ predicted death. Remember, they gave up everything to follow Jesus and just before Jesus dropped this bombshell about the Kingdom of God on them, Jesus foretold of betrayal by his closest friends and his own death. If the leader of their group was going to die they want to know, the needed to know who would take the status Jesus held. 

In the reading from Matthew’s gospel, then the disciples become stern with Jesus (their sternness makes me wonder if they have really been paying attention. Do they know who He is?) he does not rebuke them but instead focuses on the children coming to him. Not only does Jesus make it clear that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, he also makes time to lay hands on them and pray for them. 

In case we miss what Jesus did here, like the disciples did, let’s refocus: children are not marginal in the eyes of God. Jesus, Emmanuel, God incarnate gives them time, space, and prayer. 

It was a big deal for Jesus to make these statements when he did. During the time of Jesus’ ministry children had no status within Jewish communities. Children, as they are now, were subject to the authority of their parents. But unlike now, children were viewed as property. At best they were marginalized, and yet Jesus gave status to those unlikely to receive it. Not only does Jesus extend an invitation to children, he gives them ownership. He also places a task before His disciples: "let them come to me." Children depend on us, adults, to tell them what they do not know yet. Otherwise school is just a place where parents can ditch their kids for a few hours everyday. In order for children to come to Jesus, they need to first know who Jesus is and that He loves them, and for disciples of Jesus this means there is a new constituency that we must share the Good News to. If the disciples were not confused and irritated before these statements they certainly were after Jesus said them.

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For us today the implications from Jesus' teachings on children are huge. Yes we need to have things like Sunday school, children's church, and vacation Bible school but we also need to ensure that all aspects of the life of the church are not just open to children, but that children are invited and received with joy. Our worship needs to remain kid friendly. If a child wants to pass out bulletins, help collect our offering, read scripture, or stand on the pew so she can see Dr. Shaner playing the organ, this is a place where those actions are to be encouraged. When we view children as the church of today and not as a group to pass the mantle to on a distant day from now, we open ourselves to the greater things God will do through us together. The idea of us and them is gone.

Today we are kicking off our annual stewardship campaign. If you are new to church or in the past skipped these three Sundays, stewardship campaigns are a time where we consider how our financial gifts to the church sustain the work we, all of us, are partnering with Jesus in. When I first thought of what I would say this morning my initial inkling was to highlight the “great things”, the BIG things, being done here and by Mount Olivet, and that is probably what most of you expected.

Things like the Mount Olivet Foundation that reduces the financial burden faced by students. Things like Community Assistance where food and medical care is provided to hundreds of families in the Arlington area each month. Things like mission trips to Haiti, Garret County Maryland, and the Jeremiah Project. Or, things like the Crop Walk, which by the way is celebrating its 40th anniversary in Arlington this year. 

The more I thought about it though, the commonality in those greater things is the way in which disciples are formed. And because today is Children’s Sabbath I kept thinking about how just last Sunday we as a congregation promised to “surround Alanna Elizabeth Cole and one another with a community of love and forgiveness,” that she would grow in her service others. We promised to “pray for her, that she would be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.”  Just last week we, you, made a promise to help a child learn not only who Jesus is but also how to follow his teachings. That is a BIG deal. 

This line in our baptismal liturgy is one of two times during worship where we are, as a community, are making a commitment. And in instances of an infant or child baptism, we are living into what Jesus told his disciples in both our readings today: children are welcomed into the presence of Christ because the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

To take serious the commitment we made last week and the commitment you have made in the weeks, months, and years gone by we need to realize that in the Kingdom of God greatness is not measured by committees, meetings, or titles. Jesus flipped everything on its head by saying not only does the Kingdom of God belong to children but in saying this, Jesus revealed to us that we must be adventurous just as children are to fully experience the Kingdom of God. We are to trust God as a child does, eager to see where Jesus is at work in our lives and in our community.

I posed a question to some of my childhood youth group friends on Facebook this week. I asked them, “what was your favorite memory as a child” at Calvary. While each answer was unique, the common thread was “there was a place for me”. 

Children need our help learning who Jesus is and how he changed the world. Each of us has a responsibility to do BIG things in the lives of the children in this community. We need to remind them as often as we can that not only does Jesus love them but that we individually and as a community love them as well.  This means that children, even the preacher’s kid who talks during the sermon, will always be welcome in worship. If we truly believe that liturgy means “the work of the people” then we need to keep all of God’s people in that work. It means we continue to make space for children in the life of the church but also keeping space available to them in the physical building, which we are doing as we look to the coming expansion of the preschool wing. 

The Kingdom of God is open to us now and only available to us through the invitation of Christ. It is not our Kingdom. It is Christ’s, and as such we cannot exclude those who Christ has invited. The greatness of the Kingdom of God has less to with our (adult) actions, and more to do with Jesus’ invitation to those previously excluded, marginalized, and without power. And we as a faith community have the privilege of being invited to participate in Christ’s work in BIG ways. But in the BIG things that we do alongside Christ, we must remember to make space not only for children to be entertained and eat copious amounts of goldfish but also to be actively engaged in the work Christ has calls all of us to do as a community. 

Jesus invited the children to come to him and gave the Kingdom of God to them but he also invites them to join us for the entirety of a worship service, to serve the church on Sunday mornings, to serve their neighbors at community assistance, and to change the world through mission work outside the doors of this building.

The Good News in all of this is that Christ opened the Kingdom of God to everyone, inviting all of us, even those who care barely see over the pew in front of them to be part of the BIG things, the greater, we are invited to do as a community of disciples.

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