Monday, October 28, 2013

October 27 Sermon: That Church is Full of a Bunch of Children

Matthew 19:13-14

13Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Inviting somebody to church is a lot like inviting them into your home for the first time. I mean, you obviously want them to have a good experience, or you wouldn’t have invited them in the first place.

So you want it to go well. You want them to like you, to think that this place—this church—has. It. Together. You want the old disagreements to go away, that silly argument we’ve been having for years to get stuffed under the pew just for this Sunday, you want the pastor to not screw up reading the prayer (again), you want everybody to act right so that after the service, you don’t hear the person you’ve invited utter those dreaded words: That Church is Just Full of a Bunch of Children.

Nobody wants to hear that. We want to be seen as proper adults! We want to show people that yes, the church has screwed up from time to time, and no, we’re not perfect, but this church—this church!—is not like the rest of those fundamentalist, gay-bashing, prosperity-Gospel-preaching, over-mascaraed, money-grubbing TV type of churches. We are adults, here. We do church like adults should do it.

And, you know, not so much in this church, thank goodness, but it is often the case that in other corners of the church, we can get so stuck on being adults, on being people who have. It. Together., that there’s a temptation to relegate the kids to being props in a very grown-up church that does very grown-up things in a very grown-up world. I mean, it is nice when they sing, and all of that, but you know, other than that, kids should be seen and not heard or whatever.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Christian church, because it comes by this kind of thing honestly. It is not a new dynamic. Why, two thousand years ago, in the scripture lesson we heard this morning, Jesus and the disciples were going on their way, and all of a sudden all of these parents forget their sense of decorum and start behaving like a bunch of, well, you know, and they start shoving their kids in front of Jesus like they might do nowadays when the Braves are signing autographs. And over the course of several days, the volume increases until it seems like all Jesus is doing is blessing children, all day long, and none of the rest of Jesus’s responsibilities are getting done because he is busy blessing children. I mean, you can’t keep your day job as the savior of the world AND moonlight as the prince of peace if all you are doing is blessing children all day. And besides, with Jesus spending so much time blessing kids, his Disciples didn’t feel like they were getting the attention they deserved! Here they had walked alongside Jesus for so long, and he was busy paying attention to children, children who couldn’t even do anything worthwhile to build up the kingdom of God.

So the disciples finally had enough of being neglected by Jesus, and they went out one morning to the parents and their kids and they said, “Enough.” Enough is enough. When you keep bringing children to Jesus, it keeps us from getting the attention we deserve. The work we are doing is too important. We need his undivided attention. This does not sound so crazy to me. The disciples were doing important work.

But Jesus, of course, responds that he could not care less about giving the disciples his attention. He didn’t come to release the already unbound, of course, or to give a fashionable new wardrobe to those who were no longer naked. He came to release the captive, to give clothing to the naked, to serve the least and the littlest among us. And so he reminded the disciples that the business of blessing children is probably the most important thing he could possibly be doing, because there is nothing easy about being a kid.

Now when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them,” he doesn’t mean that they should just hang around until they are old enough to put a lot of money in the offering plate. He means that the church is a central place where we are called to love children and recognize that the business of loving children serves no practical purpose at all beyond being a desperately needed source of love in a society that constantly tells kids they are not good enough.

And not only this, but it is truly the case that children are fully participating members of that great image of the church we see in the Bible: the Body of Christ. Children are part of the body; they have things to teach us just like we have things to teach them. They are not preparing to be a part of the body. They are not supposed to sit there quietly while we constitute the body. Children are a vital part of the body of Christ, and the longer I am in ministry the more I realize that we’ve got just about as much to learn from children as they have to learn from us.

So. North Decatur. Let me share something with you I’ve been thinking and praying about since I arrived in June. Here’s who I think God is calling us to be. I think God is calling us to be the Church That Loves Children. And what is more, I think we are being called to be the Church that Loves Children not for any practical reason, but simply because to follow Jesus means that you’ve got to love children.

Now, maybe you are saying, I’m not called to that. I don’t know how to deal with kids, never had any myself, or, my kids are grown, my grandkids are grown, I’m done with the business of raising kids. But the thing about children is that everybody in the whole world has had the opportunity to be one. Everybody who will ever be for the rest of time will spend time as a child. We have this in common, and whether or not your childhood was a happy one, you have the responsibility to help today’s children experience the love of God, because you cannot be a proper Christian without fundamentally understanding that when Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” he meant it!

We are not called to be the church that loves kids because it is an effective marketing strategy, or because it will help with the budget, or because it makes us feel good about ourselvese. We are called to love children because the business of loving children is one of the most important things in the whole world.

After all, being a kid is hard work. We hear all the time about how kids don’t have the discipline they used to have, or they don’t work as hard, or whatever, and we use that as an excuse to say that we need not engage with children, because they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Only, the problem is that if children have less respect or discipline than they once did, this is not the fault of the children in question. It is our fault! It is our problem! It is easy to blame the kids, of course, but, my friends, that’s an abdication of the church’s ancient responsibility to raise kids together, to let the little children come to us, to recognize that when Jesus called the children to him, it wasn’t because they were cute: it was because they needed someone to love them. As the parent of a young child, I can tell you, for as much as we hear about “kids these days”—and I’m not immune from making that comment either—as much as we hear about that sort of thing, it is not easy to raise a child in an environment that cares way more about me and my success than it does about the needs of the family—and when I say family, I mean family in all its modern expressions. It is not easy to raise a child these days, and parents need all the help they can get. We have got to be present for the children in our community and all over the world, because if we do not, who will? It is easy to blame the kids, but they are just children after all. What are we doing? What can we do?

Friends, this is a critical issue for us! It is an issue for the church all over the world, and it is especially an issue for God’s church at the corner of North Decatur Road and Church Street, because, friends, the children are coming! I won’t bore you with the details of the demographic work I been doing, but suffice it to say that North Decatur United Methodist Church is about to have an opportunity other churches only dream about. The neighborhoods surrounding the church are trending younger, and they are growing! As older folks move out of their homes, it is young families who are moving in. There are days when I could stand the front yard of the parsonage on North Superior Avenue counting strollers and get to 50 within an hour. Did you know that the population of children within a five minute drive of the church is expected to nearly double in the next five years?! Double in five years! Those statistics are crazy! That means twice as many children to teach about Jesus, twice as many kids to help raise, scores more families to share love with.

We have an incredible opportunity! So, as I get towards the end of this sermon, let me very clear. Here are the things we will be doing.

Every decision we make as a church must first pass through this filter: how will this decision help us to be the church that loves children? If it doesn’t, we’re not going to do it. Everything we do must somehow relate to welcoming and teaching the next generation, because it is to such as these that the kingdom of Heaven belongs. Now, aligning ourselves around welcoming children means that we’ve got to align everything: our budget, our programs, our time, everything. We’re going to put time and money and resources into making sure our children are taught and cared for, and we’re going to be building for the church we want to be, not the church we’ve been so far.

That’s not to say that anybody’s going to get left out in the cold, of course, but it is to say that everybody affiliated with this fine congregation has a role to play. Even if all you can do is write cards to children who need an extra measure of love or pray every day for the children of the world, so be it! There is a job for you!

And it is important to remember that being the church that loves children means that we love children everywhere. I look forward to introducing you to the Interfaith Children’s Movement, an organization here in Atlanta that advocates for the well-being of children all over the world, but especially here in the state of Georgia. You’ll here a lot more about this in the coming months, as it is an organization I have been involved with for some time, and it is dear to my heart.

So. These are my thoughts. It is what is on my heart. I hope you’ll let me know what is on yours. As you have thoughts about how we can better be the church that loves children, I hope you’ll share those ideas with me. I don’t have a full picture yet of what this is going to look like, but then again, the responsibility is not on the pastor so much as it is on you!

The responsibility belongs to you, and so as we go forward, let me share with you just who I am looking for as partners, as we enter God’s future. I am looking for people who are less interested in getting stuck on what is than on working towards what could be. I am looking for people who understand that we have to build church structures that look like what we want to be rather than which are reflective of where we currently are. I am looking for people to do the hard and holy work of welcoming children in the name of God, not just by saying hello and smiling or whatever, but by helping to align our program and financial priorities, by taking the time to engage the community, to realizing that each of us has a responsibility to God’s children regardless of how old we are or how long the kids have been out of the house.

And if we do this—if we really commit to doing this—I am convinced—I am convinced!—that when people drive by here in five years, they’ll say, “Now, there’s a church that loves children.” And when someone walks into worship, engages a service, and talks about the church the next day over the water cooler or what have you, you’ll smile a wry smile when you hear them say, “That church is full of a bunch of children.” Dear God, let it be. Amen.

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