An Embrace for Children

A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 23, 2018 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We learn in Mark, the oldest gospel, that Jesus took a little child and placed her in the midst of his disciples who had been secretly arguing about which of them was the greatest. Jesus put his arm around the child and answered their arguments, saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children in Jesus’s day were generally seen by the cultural elite as expendable non-persons who had no right to be in the midst of adult male disciples, let alone embraced by an exalted teacher like Jesus. So in its context this story is pretty remarkable, actually counter-culture.

And even today we still have a sense that important people and sometimes even just adults in general should not be bothered by or with children. Jesus knocks that model down. His act of holding that child out, of embracing her, was a huge and amazing act of grace. But he does not just embrace a lowly child, he declares her and all other children images of himself and God.

This scripture reading from the Lectionary provides one of my favorite images of Jesus, and I know it is a favorite image of many of us. As the song puts it Jesus loves the little children all the children of the world. Our lesson today illustrates that Jesus calls us to provide places for children to be loved and what a difference we can make with the embrace of a child.

While cultures have, and still do, downplay and diminish the value of children, there is a thread in the Bible that honors and highly values them –just like there is a thread in our culture that does too. We know from the Nativity stories in the Gospels and in the story of twelve year old Jesus in the Temple that some – and I’ll bet it was many if not most– in Jesus’s religious community DID NOT follow the way of the elites in his day looking down on children. A number of adults in the community around the child Jesus did not treat him as a non-person, but, embraced him with respect and love as a child and it likely made a difference in Jesus’s own wisdom and attitude toward children. Shepherds, wise men, rabbis, his parents, angels and God all care about Jesus. God’s people cared for children. We can see that in how they cared for the young Jesus.
And it’s not just
the New Testament – and Jesus is not the only child to be cared for by God’s people. The Bible remembers many instances of communities bucking the norm by caring for children and youth. In Exodus the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah risk their lives to save countless Hebrew infants from Pharaoh’s sword. And Moses himself is saved by the daring of his mother and sister and one of Pharaoh’s daughters. The prophet Elijah saved THE Zaraphath widow’s son. Jacob’s son Joseph is loved, honored and respected by his father, and although he is abused by his brothers God respects, honors and loves him. David, a lowly shepherd boy, is loved and honored by God, and trusted by Saul and the army of Israel to do what no one else could do: defeat Goliath and stop the Philistines. Esther (a youth we will hear more next week) is loved and respected by her uncle Mordecai. And Esther is held up through the ages for her youthful courage and wisdom.

And going back to the Christmas Nativity stories, it is not just the child Jesus who is held up as loved. His infant cousin John is wanted and up lifted. And Mary, Jesus’ mother, an oppressed young teenage girl is honored and respected by God. And she is treated with great respect by Elizabeth and Zachariah and Joseph. Mary – a youth!– is asked to conceive God incarnate on earth and give birth to a new Way to God in her son Jesus, and she does just that!

And in addition to today’s story where Jesus holds a child, there are also a number stories that involve Jesus healing and tending to both Jewish and Gentile children. The Bible has powerful stories about children being objects of care and compassion and love. There’s a powerful witness in many Bible narratives to the call to respect and honor children; to hold them safely and kindly in our collective community arms; to provide the opportunity for them to grow in wisdom and stature!

As I have sort of quicky pointed out, many of the famous people in the Bible that were respected and honored as children. Joseph, Moses, David, Esther, Mary and Jesus had communities that cared for them as children and youth. It is no small matter that each of these Biblical heros experienced love and respect from adults when they were young. And it is no accident that the Bible remembers those experiences in the telling. They are instructive. Those cared for and beloved children and youth of the Bible go on to do great, great things . . . Sacred and Holy things.

Even Jesus as an infant needed a community to care for him. Jesus as an adolescent was listened to and respected in a faith community. We are told in Luke 2 that as a 12 year old he was found in “ the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Luke 2 goes on to tell us that one result of this was that “Jesus increased in wisdom . . . and in divine and human favor.” Jesus as a child and as a youth mattered to many in a culture where elites often did not treat children well. But Jesus got the care he needed from family, friends, faith communities and strangers. And here in our story he provides a random child with care she needs and calls all his followers to always welcome and embrace children as the very image of God.

Of course children throughout the world need that type of care. Our children, the community’s children, children in Ohio, Children in the United States and children from every country need that care . . . everywhere. And sadly, often, it is not a given. Our nation is very good as a rule about creating an ethos that senses the need to be caring about children, but we have our issues. We are still reeling from immigrant children and infants being removed from their parents a few months ago. Our schools often lack adequate resources, our childcare providers are often paid low wages. We also tend to provide minimum resources to poor families with children putting a priority on making parents accountable for not working rather than making sure their children are adequately protected, fed, housed and provided health care.

And even setting aside poverty issues our culture treats adolescents as suspect. In many places I doubt the adolescent Jesus who showed up in the Temple would be provided respect in many places today. And I don’t just mean he’d get sent to the principal for wearing a robe and sandals to school. I mean like many adolescents he’d probably be ignored by clerks in stores, followed around suspiciously, maybe even asked to leave. A youthful Jesus would probably be seen today in the 21st Century as among the generation that has long been falsely thought to be riddled with criminal issues. I say falsely because Mike Males a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, noted it is not true. In 2017 he wrote

A lot of people still think in terms of 25 or 50 years ago when younger people had higher crime rates than they do today, . . . Today, teenagers and young adults are not a high crime population anymore . . .

The arrest rate for 10- through 17-year-olds for violent crimes dropped 73 percent between 1990 and 2016. Since 2007, the overall youth arrest rate has set record lows each new year. Millennials had the lowest youth arrest rates of any generation, while Baby Boomers had the highest . . .
Youth are now also more likely to graduate from high school and college . . . 1

Now that’s some good news, good news about the stature and wisdom of youth we don’t hear much about. The world out there seems at times to pretty much ignore these facts and often treats youth poorly and portrays them in a bad light.

This church bucks that trend, We try to honor Jesus and God by upholding youth and understanding that they have much to offer. We would not treat a twelve year old Jesus, or any other youth like an adolescent cast away. We get that our youth and children are important and good and have much to offer. They are loved and matter much. We reject seeing and holding youth in a bad light and instead we try to do as Jesus did in our story regard them as very valuable members of our community, as images of God. Here we respect and love our youth and children by valuing them, listening to them, loving them and by providing care for them. We do not separate the children out of our service they gather with us and we worship together as an inter-generational family of Christ. Our Children’s Message is a time where we share a story together and pray together, not put on a show of the children to be entertained by them.

We have an exceptional Sunday School program with great volunteers, and great children and youth. We have provided, and hope to provide again, a youth friendly theatre ministry. We have an incredible music director working with youth and children singers and a remarkable children’s choir. We have such a great summer day camp for local children. It is so great that we are going to begin to bring the ideas of Peace Village to youth and adults on first Sundays of the month.
As an announcement in our bulletins points out Council and the Personnel Committee and I worked hard to hire a part-time Visiting Pastor of Peace and Spirituality to lead that effort. Her name is Rev. Anna Woofenden and you will meet her next Sunday. The Peace Sunday project also includes inter-generational Spiritual opportunities aimed at peace practices together with children, youth and adults! Next Sunday we also have Card Sunday led by our awesome Christian Education team. Card Sunday we all invited – young and old alike– to play board and card games together and have an especially fun fellowship after worship.

We have a wonderful confirmation class with three awesome confirmands (Jacob, Rebekah and Anna) and five adults besides me working with them– three mentors (John C, Ann L and Cherrie D) and teachers (Darlene K and Beckie C). We also help families with children who are in need. We are generous not only at Christmas, but all year long at Hot Meals and with individual family aid and with aid to entities that work with children. We are working on new missions and ministries with local schools too and helping out with others. We provide resources to, and many of us volunteer at, organizations that help children and families, like Winter Sanctuary, Inter-Church, local schools, MTV Arts, Hope Now, Habitat for Humanity and Knox Community Hospital.

The good news is that this place –First Congregational United Church of Christ– is a place where we strive to follow Jesus’s example in our Lectionary lesson today. We strive to hold children out and put our arms around them and welcome them in Jesus’s name. The good news is that the culture’s often jaded view of youth and children is not how we see them. Here we strive to carry on the Biblical tradition of embracing children, of honoring youth, teaching them and letting them teach us. We know they have much to offer. They are the image of God.

This church as the Body of Christ places children in the midst of Jesus followers and we put the present day Body of Christ’s arms around them and say in our actions and our words that we welcome them in Christ’s name. We welcome not only Christ in them but the one who sent Christ. May it always be so.


* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2007
1. “California teens commit fewer crimes than their parents did” See also, Males, Mike, “Coming of Age in America” Youth Today, February 2004