Season after Epiphany 2017
LET US WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE LORD
Becoming Like Children Click here for audio
I Samuel 17:31-40, Matthew 18:1-5
Pastor Marty Raths
Many years ago I was introduced to a new and rather curious word. Biophony. B-I-O-P-H-O-N-Y. Biophony. Literally it means the sounds of life, or the sounds of nature. I was told that scientists have discovered that in a balanced ecosystem all of the different species of vocal animals have found a niche for their particular voice. It is a little like all the different radio frequencies. If stations were to broadcast with the same frequency, they would drown each other out. To be heard they have to make sure that they have their own particular frequency.
And it is the same with vocal animals in an ecosystem. They have to find their own particular vocal niche, so it is not drown out by the voices of other species, and with this niche they are able to establish territory, communicate with others of their own species, and signal potential mates. So to have a balanced ecosystem it is important that every animal sound have its niche, that every animal voice be heard.
And it seems to me that there is an analogy here with human ecosystems, with families, with workplaces, with churches, with communities, with nations. In all of these it is important that every member feel as if they have a voice, that their legitimate needs and concerns and aspirations are at least heard by the other members. For when people have no voice, when they feel as if they are drowned out by the voices of others, there can be growing frustration, anger, and discontent.
We see this as one of our roles as pastors, helping to facilitate the biophony of our congregation, allowing everyone as much as possible to have a voice in shaping the life and ministry of our church. Now it is not always easy to make this happen, and sometimes church life can sound more like a cacophony than a biophony. But we try as best we can. And sometimes it is necessary for us to help give voice to some members in the church who may not be as able as others to speak for themselves. Like children.
In our society, in the places where decisions are made, children have almost no voice. Children have no wealth or influence, and in our society money and power talk. But it need not be so in the church. As a church, we need not, we should not, simply reflect the values of the larger society. There are times when we as the church need to be countercultural.
In the church children need to have a voice. Now I am not saying that they should have the run of the place. Of course as responsible adults we need to make decisions on their behalf. But I am saying that we need to let them have a voice, and not just assume that as adults we know what is best for them when it comes to their place in the church and their growth in the faith.
In our story from the Old Testament the young David has stepped forward to meet the challenge of Goliath. Here again we must not just assume that we know what our children are capable of doing because it was David, and not any of the older men, who stepped forward. And in preparation for the battle Saul places his helmet and armor upon David, and then he gives David his sword. And we have this almost comic image of David with this huge helmet falling down below his eyes, and this huge coat of armor hanging off his body, and this long sword in hand which he can hardly lift. And when he tries to walk, he can’t. David cannot even move, let alone fight, with all of Saul’s stuff draped upon him.
Saul had tried to outfit David as an adult. But David was still a young boy. So the outfit did not fit. Children are not just small adults. They are children, so what fits adults may not necessarily fit them, and realizing this David lays down the sword and takes off the helmet and armor. And instead he takes what is familiar to him, his shepherd’s staff, five smooth stones, and his slingshot, and only then does he go out to meet Goliath, outfitted with what was appropriate for him as a young boy. And we all know how the rest of the story goes . . .
Are there not times when we drape our children and youth with the stuff of adulthood, overburdening them, even stifling them with our needs, our expectations, our issues? forcing upon them our way of doing things, as if our adult ways were the only way to be faithful.
Of course we need to pass on to our children and youth the basic beliefs and practices of our faith. But what I want us to consider as adults is this: in raising our children and youth in the faith are we willing to listen to their voices as well? Are we willing to create an ecosystem in the church that gives their voice a niche, so that we can hear what is going on with them? Are we willing to give them freedom enough to be like the young David, freedom enough to set down some of our adult ways of being faithful when they are not helpful, so that they may discover and develop some of their own ways of being faithful?
And I would want us to go even a little further than this because Jesus does. When the children were brought to Jesus, the disciples tried to come between him and the children, but Jesus said, “Let them come to me.” For Jesus children are not just to be tolerated in church, they are to be welcomed, and we are to allow them into the very center of our life together. And even more than being welcomed, children are to be, in some ways, emulated by us adults. “Unless you change and become like children,” Jesus said, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We have made it such a touching image: Jesus and the children. And in most churches, including in our church, there are pictures of Jesus and the children. And it should be a touching image for our children, reminding them of how important they are to God. But for us adults it should be a little more spiritually unsettling, the thought that when it comes to the faith there are times when we need to do as our children do.
“Unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What are we to do with this? As adults? It is important to understand that Jesus is not calling us to be childish. Elsewhere the scriptures stress the need for us to leave our childish ways behind, that we may mature in the faith.
We are not to be childish, but childlike. The truth is that there are things, important things, that can be lost in the living. Someone once wrote, “Children are messengers from a world we once knew, but have long since forgotten.” Need I say that many of us reach adulthood rather set in our ways. We can become in spirit bored, indifferent, critical, some of us more so, some of us less so, almost all of us to some degree.
In adulthood some of the most important learning that we can do involves unlearning, becoming more like children again. Again this is not a reversion to childish ways, but a restoration of qualities lost in the living, of qualities that can enrich our spiritual life, that are required for our entry into the kingdom of God, if we take Jesus at his word.
Someone once said of a musical colleague, “He knows everything; all that he lacks is inexperience.” All that he lacks is inexperience. Cannot that be said of a lot of us adults, a good deal of the time, that we lack inexperience. We have done everything, seen everything, know everything, or at least we think so. Nothing new under the sun for us. I mean when was the last time that we were truly, deeply, profoundly, surprised by anything in life, caught up in the sheer wonder of it, seeing it, hearing it, experiencing it, as if for the first time, like a child?
There is a freshness of spirit to the way children experience the world, and it might do us adults some good to freshen ourselves up a little bit, spiritually speaking. There is also a spirit of forgiveness to the way children experience the world that can serve as an example to us adults. Not that children do not get angry and upset. They do. But they rarely hold grudges. They do not feed their anger, giving it more life than it deserves. Holding grudges, nurturing our anger, refusing to let go of our sense of being wronged, these are adult qualities, and few things in life close the way into the kingdom more tightly than an unforgiving, or an unforgiven, spirit.
Someone once said, “The longer we hold a grudge the heavier it becomes.” How much weight are we carrying around? The years can add a lot of pounds in terms of regret, resentment, guilt, anger, bitterness. We are obsessed with weight in our culture, but I believe that at least as many of us are spiritually overweight, for lack of a better term. We are carrying a lot of extra pounds, and it takes energy to stay angry, and we have to work at holding onto grudges, and it is a burden to feel guilty all the time. Would not our lives be better spent some other way, living with more lightness of spirit, living more like a child?
I believe Jesus wants us to bring the two together, the maturity of adulthood, in life and faith, along with a freshness and a lightness of spirit, which is best exemplified by children. You know how a few words, spoken or read, at the right time can go right to your heart. Some years ago I was reading some poetry by Mary Oliver, when I read these words:
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
And it was especially that last line that went straight to my heart, and I have carried it around with me ever since. I do not want to end my life full of argument, Oliver writes, and at different times, depending upon what was going on in my own life, or in the world, I have substituted other words for argument. I do not want to end my life full of anger or cynicism or condemnation. No, I want to end it full of kindness, wonder, forbearance, compassion, peace. I want to end it, I suppose, more like a child, and with a child’s spirit. And if I, we, were to do that, become more childlike, the older we get, by the grace of God, I hear Jesus saying to us that the entryway into the kingdom would swing open wide for us in a way that we may not have experienced in many, many years, maybe not even since childhood. Let us pray . . .
A Prayer for Children by Ina J. Hughs
We pray for children
who put chocolate fingers everywhere,
who like to be tickled,
who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
who sneak dessert before supper,
who don’t want to do their homework,
who can never find their shoes.
And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
who’ve never squeaked across the floor in new sneakers,
who would give anything to go to school,
who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead,
who never go to the movies,
who live in an X-rated world.
We pray for children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish,
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,
who cover themselves with bandaids and sing off key,
who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink,
who slurp their soup.
And we pray for those
who never get dessert,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind,
who can’t find any bread to steal,
who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who shove dirty clothes under their bed and never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of their friends,
who squirm in church and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and
whose smile can make us cry.
And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and
cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.
We pray for children who want to be carried,
and for those who must.
For those we never give up on,
and for those who don’t get a second chance.
For those we smother,
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer.
And all this we pray in the name of the one who said to the children, “Let them come to me.”
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.