Thursday, October 12, 2006

all of the children are above average

Jesus had come with the disciples to Capernaum. He asked them, what were you arguing about? Mark says they were silent, probably because they were embarrassed. They were caught! Has that ever happened to you?

They were embarrassed because they were arguing about who was the greatest among them. They knew that was pretty immature, and not what Jesus would have expected of them.

But before we condemn the disciples, we have probably had that same argument. It comes from our competitive nature. Are you ever competitive? I will confess: preachers can be competitive. I go to a preachers meeting, and a brother or sister in the clergy asks, “How many folks worship in your church?” There is a problem referring to it is “my church”, but that’s another issue. Immediately my mind is off to the races. I could answer that question, “how many people worship in your church?”, by quoting the numbers we had on Christmas eve, or on Easter morning. Or do I ask the ushers to count the people who walk their dogs across our property on Sunday morning, or maybe the people who jog down Providence Road? I could take our normal numbers, and embellish them a little. It would all flow from that basic desire: Who among us does not want to be the greatest?” Preachers follow in this apostolic succession. We still argue about who is the greatest!

And then, to compound it, we sometimes project this question on our children, don’t we? I love the humor of Garrison Keillor, who preaches each week on A Prairie Home Companion. I heard him speak once and he said that what he did was actually similar to preaching. He talked until he had something important to say and then he said it! He often introduces his monologue, on t he week from Lake Wobegon, by identifying it as a place where “all of the women are strong, all of the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average”!

All of the children are above average! And so our children compete for class rank and athletic recognition and I could go on. They internalize it, at an early age. They argued with one another about who was the greatest.

We still ask that question. Jesus must look at us and smile, and think, “I have something to teach you”. Jesus is not into competition. The Lord of the universe is not into conventional greatness. This is a teachable moment for all of us.

Mark says he sat down, which was the traditional way of instruction by a rabbi. Then Jesus said, whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all. Then he takes a little child into his arms.

Now, the teaching begins. Children in the time of Jesus were invisible, they were non-persons. Paul writes, in Galatians 4. 1, Heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves. Children had no rights. They were slaves.

That is not where we usually locate greatness. Then Jesus says, whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me. Jesus brings the message back to himself. He is great because he is a servant.

In asking a simple question, what is Jesus teaching us, we are led to another one: what can children teach us?

Children teach us about the welcoming presence of Jesus. Pam and I once went into a restaurant at a bed and breakfast in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The sign read,

No children or pets

To be honest, there is some connection between this sentiment and the ancient world. The disciples didn’t really want children around. The disciples didn’t really want gentiles around. To be honest they really didn’t want women around. In the words of James Brown, it was a man’s world.

Jesus turned all of that around. He ate with gentiles. He taught women. He embraced children, and welcomed them.

Can you remember a time, as a child, when an adult was welcoming to you? I can easily tell a part of my story. The marriage of my parents had ended. There was a lot of chaos, uncertainty and pain. In hindsight, everyone was doing the best they could. I was the oldest child. I had always been close to my grandmother. For a period of years I had lunch with my grandmother every day. Now she was a wonderful cook: she made a roast beef with one of those small bottles of coke, and it would practically break apart as you put it on the plate, it was so tender, but that’s another story too…

Here is the point: My grandmother was not a young adult. She was in her latter years. She welcomed a child. For me, that made all the difference. And so this sermon is not just for children, or young adult parents. All of us who follow Jesus are called to welcome children.

That is why one of the most important, one of the holiest spaces on this campus is the nursery. Have you seen it lately? It has been transformed. But beyond the space itself, I think of the people, the countless servants who have welcomed children there, I think of the ministry of Jennie Bolen and others.

The way we welcome children is a measure of our discipleship. And so we ask: How are we impacting the lives of children? It is important that we do this, because the world is a dangerous place for children.

The news about all of the children of the world is bleak indeed: the sexual trafficking of children in Thailand, or the lifespan of a child in sub-Saharan Africa, where the median age of death is five years old. Or we could shift the lens closer to home. Did you know that…

Every day, in the United States…

· 3 children die from abuse or neglect

· 6 children commit suicide

· 13 children are homicide victims

· 16 children are killed by firearms

· 316 children are arrested for violent crimes

· 403 children are arrested for drug abuse

Did you know that every day in the United States

· 2500 children are born into poverty

· 3500 children are born to unmarried mothers

· 3500 children drop out of school

· 8500 children are reported abused or neglected

Did you know that every day in the United States

· 100,000 children are homeless

· 14.7 million children live in poverty

This is a dangerous world in which to be a child. The world of Jesus was also a dangerous world in which to be a child. In taking a child into his arms and making this point, Jesus seemed to be asking this question: what can children teach us?

Children teach us about what is really important. And so the presence of children in our world leads us into mission:

· The mission to Cambodia

· The mission to Haiti

· The mission of Africa University

· The mission of Family Promise

· The mission of the Bethlehem Center

· The mission of our own weekday school

· The mission of our own Sunday School and Vacation Bible School

· The mission of our own Children’s Fellowship and nursery.

· The mission of preparing children for worship readiness.

· The mission of baptizing children into the family of God.

· The mission that we will share, in three weeks, of teaching each of these first graders the word of God, a lamp to their feet and a light to their paths.

Everyone of us has this mission: to welcome a child in the name of Jesus. Listen to this story. It comes from the experience of Walt Kallestadt, a Lutheran pastor, and it concerns a young boy, Teddy, and his teacher, Miss Thompson.

“Teddy Stallard had never thrived in school. He was one of those kids with a deadpan face, an expressionless, glassy, unfocused stare. He wore musty, wrinkled clothes and his hair was never combed. When his teacher, Miss Thompson, spoke to Teddy, he always answered in monosyllables. Unattractive, unmotivated and distant, he was just plain hard to like. Even though his teacher said she loved everyone in her class the same, down inside she wasn’t being completely truthful.

Whenever she marked Teddy’s papers, she got some perverse pleasure out of putting Xs next to the wrong answers. When she put an F at the top of the paper, she always did so with a flair. She should have known better, because she had read Teddy’s records and knew more about him than she wanted to admit. The records read:

1st Grade: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation.

2nd Grade: Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home.

3rd Grade: Teddy is a good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.

4th Grade: Teddy is slow but well-behaved. His father shows no interest.

Christmas came and the boys and girls in Miss Thompson’s class brought her Christmas presents. They piled their presents on her desk and crowded around to watch her open them. Yes, there was even one from Teddy Stallard. Wrapped in brown paper, out fell a gaudy bracelet with half the stones missing and a bottle of cheap perfume.

The other boys giggled at Teddy’s gifts, but Miss Thompson at least had enough sense to silence them by immediately putting on the bracelet and dabbling a drop of perfume on her wrist. Holding her wrist up for the other children to smell, she said, “doesn’t this smell lovely?”. And the children, taking their clue from the teacher, readily agreed.

At the end of the school day, when the other children had left, Teddy lingered behind. He slowly came over to the teacher’s desk and said softly, “Miss Thompson…Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother, and her bracelet looks real pretty on you. I’m glad you liked my presents.”

When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her.

The next morning the children were greeted by a transformed Miss Thompson. She was no longer just a t eacher; she had become an agent from God, committed to loving her children and doing things for them that would live on after her. She helped all her students, but especially the slow ones, and especially Teddy Stallard. By the end of the year, Teddy showed dramatic improvement, having “caught up” with most of his classmates.

Miss Thompson didn’t hear from Teddy for a long time. Then one day she received a note:

Dear Miss Thompson: I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class. Love, Teddy Stallard

Four years later, another note came:

Dear Miss Thompson: They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The university has not been easy, but I liked it. Love, Teddy Stallard

And four years later:

Dear Miss Thompson: As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. How about that? I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you to come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. You are the only family I have now. Dad died last year. Love, Teddy Stallard

Miss Thompson went to that wedding and sat in the front row. She deserved to sit there. She had touched the life of a child. Her hands had become the hands of Christ, who said, Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.

We think we are here to teach children, and then we discover that children have something to teach us.

Someone has noted:

The great events of the world are not

battles or elections or earthquakes.

The great events are babies,

for each child comes with the message that

God is not yet discouraged with humanity.

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

The he took a little child and put it among them,

And taking the child into his arms, he said,

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name

welcomes me,

And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me

but the One who sent me.

Sources: Alive Now, “Responding To Children”, July/August, 1997, pages 9 and 65. Walt Kallestad, Be Your Own Creative Coach, for the story of Teddy Stallard. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Mark pages 636-637.


Post a Comment

<< Home