A History of Embracing Children and Youth – September 26

Mark 9:33-37 (The Message)
A sermon given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 26, 2021*
by Scott Elliott

When Tristan, our oldest child, was about three or four years the two of us made a meal together while Nancy was out. As Tristan and I sat and ate I remember admiring how adorable Tristan was and thinking how easy and great it was to love her. At some point during the meal, I said “Tristan, why are you so cute?” And without so much as a beat she shrugged her shoulders and replied “‘Cause cute is what I do best!” I couldn’t argue with that. There and then she was without question the cutest being I’d ever known.

I’ve spent a good deal of time raising children and working with children, and frankly I’ve yet to encounter a child I didn’t find was cute. In addition to their adorability, I have also come to admire children for the many gifts they bring as human beings, they are smart and funny and amazingly caring and concerned about others. The well-being of others is often on their minds. I have a ton of respect and love for children. I’ve always felt they seem closer to God.

So, as you might’ve guessed, I’ve long loved our lesson from Mark where Jesus takes a child in his arms, puts her among his followers and says “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me –God who sent me.” I hear this verse saying that when we honor and embrace children we actually and really embrace Christ. How wonderful is that? See, Christ is not just in the hungry, sick, naked, thirsty and imprisoned as Matthew 25 tells us, but Christ is in the children. When we care for children, any children we care for Christ.

I know that I am not alone in loving children or being delighted with our lesson’s verification that Jesus and God love children, and are in children. As a culture we often lay claim to a view of children as cute and adorable and innocent and very worthy of our love. And in most of our individual hearts, we honor and cherish those who honor and cherish children. Consequently, we have a tendency to read these verses in the context of our modern day individual gushings about children.

Jesus loves children like we do. But back in Bible times when Jesus brought that child into his arms his culture as a whole did not view children as cute and adorable, or innocent and worthy of love. It is perhaps inconceivable to us, but, in antiquity children were often treated as expendable non-persons. It was not uncommon for peasant parents to leave unwanted infants on rubbish heaps to die or to be saved from the heap by someone wealthy enough to raise the infant as a slave. It’s hard to believe but infanticide was not considered murder. Many considered children as little nobodies that tragically could be abused, even abandoned. Culturally children were considered unworthy of hanging around groups of men, and most certainly unworthy of hanging around an important teacher and his followers, like Jesus and the disciples. 1

See, Jesus’ act of holding that child out, of embracing her, was a radical act in his culture, even more radical because he declared her and all other children as envoys of himself and God. Throughout the Gospel stories Jesus wanders way beyond strict social boundaries by embracing and honoring vulnerable, powerless and expendable nobodies. Children were the most vulnerable and in our story Jesus declares every child has inherent worth and he instructs his followers to serve, to hold up, to care for, and to embrace the most vulnerable is the Way to greatness.

Jesus carried his message to love neighbor to what may seem like an easy and obvious extension to us, (to love children), but this was a quantum leap in his day. His followers are to not see children as unworthy as their culture might, but to always see them God’s Way, Jesus’ Way as worthy and precious. While this message resonates with truth for us, it was counter-culture at the time. And it took another four hundred years before infanticide was recognized in Western Civilization as a form of murder. And it took fifteen hundred years for western culture to frown on mistreating children. I read a report indicating that until the 18th century about 80% – 80%!!! – of children would have been classified as “battered children” today. 2

Jesus’ words notwithstanding, children until fairly recently were often severely disciplined under a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child mentality. Not only that, children were worked cruelly hard in various forms of industrial slavery. . . Despite the centuries of cruelty that children endured in western culture Jesus’ declaration of children’s worth and Godliness continued to beckon across the ages– vibrating in the pages of the gospels with the plain truth. And while early Protestant theologians like Calvin and Wesley preached an innate sinfulness and depravity in children “by the 1830s most respectable theologians had abandoned the idea of infant damnation.” 3. Inroads to Jesus’ Way of embracing children took far too long, sinfully too long. But it finally got us to today where children matter far more than before. Thankfully through the grace of God we have come along way. Our gushing over children is a good and Godly thing.

While we all know the horrible truth that children can still be neglected, mistreated and abandoned, the difference is that we understand Jesus’ teaching and we long to – and often do– strive to stop abuse. We now see it as wrong. That’s huge. It’s radical and we can trace it back to Jesus and frankly to the good and Godly way God created and creates children.

The pandemic has understandably diminished the presence of youth and children in our worship services. We miss the children and youth and their families much and are very grateful for the beloved children and youth that have been able to attend– when they can. We have continued as best we can to provide loving ministries for them. Christian Ed has tried to have somewhat regular events, including one next week at Ariel Park.

We are grateful too for our pre-pandemic efforts. We held weekly Sunday school and had a great children’s choir and children in the bell choir. Laura has continued, even in the pandemic, to do wonders finding ways to incorporate the available children and youth into worship music. She’s done that since I’ve been here. Until the pandemic for five years in a row we held week long summer peace camps for children called Peace Village. And will have them again. We also had to cancel last year’s Community Family Players’ production of “A Christmas Carol.”

We expect all our children and youth ministries to be started up as soon as they can. In fact, some of them are showing signs of life. Last Sunday we held our first Community Family Players’ rehearsals of this year’s “A Christmas Carol.” More than two dozen youth, children and adults gathered up here in this space to begin an amazing process of putting on a play through a ministry at this church designed to connect youth to the community through the performing arts, put on a great Christmas event for the community, and raise money for those experiencing homelessness.

We have also been working for months planning and building and putting together a new and exciting Children’s Nook downstairs in the social hall. Hannah, Charlotte, Becky, Michael, John, Scott and I have all helped transform the old stage area into a special place for children and families to sit and read, play and eat in the social hall. In a few moments we will dedicate that wonderful nook. If you have not seen the Children’s Nook take a moment after church to check it out. It is wonderful. Thanks for all the hard work Children’s Nook team, and the Building Committee that helped facilitate it! It epitomizes in a way our history of caring for children. We have long sought to embody Jesus’ radical claim that “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me –God who sent me.”

The movement Jesus started has thankfully brought us a long way toward embracing children as Jesus did . . . and does. It’s brought the culture along way too. That is good, good news. AMEN.

* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2006
1. NIB, Vol. VIII, 636-637; Crossan, John, The Historical Jesus, 269; Kruppa, Patricia, “The History of Childhood” located at www.humanities-interactive.org/texas/wtw/history_of_childhood.htm.
2 Kruppa.
3 Ibid.