A Homily for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to make us children of God. Amen.
Like any early ‘90s sitcom, you can almost hear the studio audience go, “Awwwwww” when our Lord “took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” It’s like something out of a Precious Moments figurine, those round-faced and doe-eyed ceramic figures that seem to be on sale at every Christian book store. Jesus cares about children, and we should include them in the ministry of the Church.
To that end, this verse pops up all over the place when you look at ministry with youth and children. There’s an academic text called Let the Children Come which focuses on raising children in the Church. There’s an evangelical publisher by the same name that prints tracts for children. Our denominational publishing house has a text on infant baptism for parents called “Let the Children Come.” One Lutheran church in Saint Paul introduces their children sermon with this verse, and we have an older translation emblazoned on the side of our education wing: “Suffer the Children to Come.”
To be certain, ministry with children is important. We have spent well over a year brainstorming ways to attract families with young children, and many of you have told me how important it is that we find some way to minister to kids. Their presence is sorely missed, and while this may sound odd, I miss my sermons being interrupted by crying infants and noisy toddlers. It’s such a joyful sound! And not only should we minister to kids, but we should allow them to join in the Church’s ministry as acolytes and assisting ministers and lectors and through service projects. Anyone who works in youth and children ministry will tell you that our young people are also capable of ministering to us as well. This is most certainly true.
Our reading of this text is skewed, though, by a simple fact: in our culture, children are usually cherished. We work hard to make sure that they stay safe, that they have opportunities afforded to them from an early age. In the US, we have child safety laws and departments of child services and free public education to invest in our children, and a big part of development work in impoverished areas both in the US and abroad is to institute early childhood education programs.
But the ancient world’s relationship with children is more complicated than we imagine today. As the late biblical scholar John Pilch puts it, “In antiquity, childhood was a time of terror.”
Childbirth was perilous both for mother and infant (and still is in parts of the world today). Infant and child mortality rates were extremely high. Surviving to age five was a coin-toss. In a world defined by scarcity, where resources were hard to come by, children were valued but not in the same way we understand today. Synagogues and temples didn’t have a “children’s sermon” or “children’s church;” the high priest of Zeus didn’t invite kids up to watch the sacrifice. Only the wealthy received formal education. A woman might have a close relationship with her children – because most of her social value came from giving birth to healthy sons. (Perhaps it’s because of this relationship that so many of the apostles’ mothers joined the band of disciples.) Fathers, though, were expected to be distant and strict disciplinarians; today, we would undoubtedly call their punishments abusive. Children were, above all, an investment – not for their own inherent worth but for the future of the family; on their own, they had no value until they were grown and could provide for their parents. Adoption, like natural parenting, was not about love or concern for the child’s welfare but instead about the wealthy passing on their name and estate, and it was usually older teens or adults who were adopted. Consider that Octavius, later called Caesar Augustus, was twenty years old when Julius Caesar adopted him.
I can think of no better example to really, fully illustrate how little value society had for children than Saint Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century theologian. Saint Thomas wrote that in the event of a fire, a man should save first his father, and then his mother. Then, his parents being safe, he should save his wife. Finally, after everyone else was secure, a father should save his young children from the flames. The pre-modern world was not one of “women and children first.” Children were a potential blessing but also a large burden; they were, like the women who gave birth to them, viewed as second-class humans.
Christ’s command to let the children come that he might bless them, then, is far more radical than we imagine. It was not the common sentiment it is today nor the sweet moment that makes the parents around him go “Awwww.”
Rather, it probably caused a few people to look around nervously – people like our Lord’s own disciples. Only a few verses before, as we read two weeks ago, the disciples were arguing about who was greater – because of course they were. Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and then, placing a child among them, to welcome children in his name. Fast forward a few days and the disciples are turning away parents seeking a blessing for their children: not serving the least of all, not welcoming “one such child” in Jesus’ name.
Christ’s ministry among the children is the same as it was to all the second-class people in the world: to usher them in, to make room for them in the coming Kingdom, to see them as fully human, made in the image of God.
“Let the children come,” our Lord says.
But fearing the world’s scoffing judgment, the disciples blocked the children. It seems rather silly to be scared of a child, but the disciples put up a wall between Jesus and the children out of fear that there might be a scandal, fear that children might be a stumbling block to other, more prestigious potential disciples. “Surely,” they thought, “the Lord doesn’t have time for children. He’s too busy doing the real work of healing men. And if a Pharisee were to wander by, or a representative of the Sanhedrin, they wouldn’t even give us a chance.”
How often do we in the Church turn away children out of fear? How often do we turn away “second-class” people? We may want to welcome children into our congregation and provide food if their families have need, but we live in a society that has seen fit to keep undocumented children in conditions worse than prisons. We have resorted to warehousing immigrant children in places without beds, where they don’t see the sun, where the lights are never turned off. We are detaining children in tents far removed from the watchful eyes of state welfare agencies, far removed from legal services, and far removed from access to education. Cruel policies enacted under previous administrations have been multiplied, and as a result, we are paying more money to be more cruel to more people while accomplishing less.
The Church is called to welcome children in the name of Christ and thus to condemn this sin-filled behavior. As Lutherans in America, our spiritual ancestry is made up of immigrants and refugees. Wandering Arameans were our grandparents. The Holy Family were refugees. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America exists only because children left their home countries to come here. And in 1945, one out of six Lutherans in the world were refugees; many Lutheran social service organizations trace their origins to their work with post-war refugees. This is who we are, who we have always been. The children in those camps are us.
Christians can have legitimate disagreements over policy, and it makes us stronger when we are able to exist in a state of charitable disagreement. We can have detailed discussions about laws governing immigration and refugee resettlement. But despite our various partisan affiliations, we are called to hold more dearly to our baptismal identity as members of Christ. We are called to reject unjust and unnecessarily cruel policies based in fear rather than fact. We are called to welcome children and refugees, to provide for them, to love them as though they were our own kin.
Just like the sick, the demon-possessed, the injured, women, and slaves, our Lord sees children – all children, regardless of immigration status – for who they really are: people to be loved and served, to be welcomed in. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who was born to impoverished and desperate parents, who spent the first years of his life as a refugee in Egypt, who lived and ministered among the outcast, whose perfect love drives out fear, is calling us, to welcome the children and the “least of these.”
Lutheran Services of Georgia and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services are doing wonderful work to welcome our neighbors and to reunite children separated from their parents. Consider donating to them today.