Keep your Eye on the Child + Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons: 

Proverbs 31:10-31

Psalm 1

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

 

 

The child whom Jesus invites into the midst of his disciples today is not a symbol. The child whom Jesus holds in his arms as he teaches is a child – she is a human being.

Forgive me if what I have just said is obvious. But I think that this is where we need to begin this morning. Because the Christian tradition has often been guilty of forgetting the humanity of children, of either being indifferent to them or, when we do remember the very young, of reducing them to roadside signs whose whole purpose is to point grown ups at spiritual opportunities and dangers.

Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play, that marvelous method of Biblical storytelling which we sometimes employ during Children’s Church, recently wrote a book detailing the frequently superficial way in which children have been featured in Christian thought. Berryman’s book is called Children and the Theologians. In it, Berryman makes the case that Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Calvin to Luther, have often erred by understanding children not as participants in theology but, rather, as objects for theology, as a stand ins for some vice or some virtue.

The first choice – the child as icon for error – is what Berryman calls a low view of children. A low view understands the very young as being stuck in a place of pitiful foolishness or confusion. Childishness, therefore, is what we are called to reject, to outgrow as mature Christians. The contrasting choice – the child who is an icon for all that is holy – is a high view. Here we find the child as total innocent, as blank slate, as Adam and Eve before the fall. Both are examples of bigotry, although perhaps it is clearer to us that the low view is bigoted than the high, it is so much more actively spiteful. But much as insisting that everyone of a given skin colour is happy and friendly and good at dancing is still plain old racism, insisting that all children are blessed innocents is still an act prejudice. (As a sidebar, it is notable that a great many of theologians who made it into print over the centuries were men who were either celibate or else who outsourced the raising of their children to women. No one who actually lives with and cares for children could seriously make the case for the child who is totally depraved or totally good.)

Berryman invites us to set aside both the low and the high view of the child. He suggests, instead, a third way: a graceful view of the very young.  In order to help us find that grace, he introduces a turn of phrase which he will return to repeatedly throughout his book: Keep your eye on the child.

In inviting us to keep our eyes on the child, Berryman is referring to the children who appear in a passage such as the one that Mark gives us today. So, the children of scripture. But, lest we become too theoretical, lest we encounter children who exist today only as ink on paper and, thereby, fall back into high and low thinking, he also entreats us to keep our eyes also on the flesh and blood children of right now. These are the children who come to church with us, who live next door to us, whom we see at the Supermarket and at the park. I’d like to spend some time with children in each category this morning – the child of scripture and the child who is our neighbour – and see what, working together, they might have to teach us about God, about creation, and about ourselves.

To begin with, what do we notice when keep our eye on the child who sits in Jesus’ arms in the Gospel of Mark? What do we know about her? Well, we know that her hair and eyes are brown and her skin is olive coloured – just like Jesus. We know that she is under twelve years old, both because in the Ancient Near East, twelve was the age at which one became an adult and because she is small enough to sit in Jesus’ lap. And we know that she is silent.

It is the silence which particularly captivates me, which gets the gears of my imagination turning. Jesus holds this unspeaking girl as he sits before his friends. And he tells them that she is possessed of deep wisdom and holiness. When you invite her in, you invite me. Matthew ups the ante still further – in his telling of this encounter, Jesus tells his disciples that they must become like this child if they are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I suppose the silence of this child catches my attention so much because I remember those times when I, too, was very young and very silent. Maybe I was shy, maybe I hadn’t developed the capacity to formulate my thoughts. (My inner monologue has changed very little since I was five or six. It is my ability to articulate it, to speak it out loud, which has developed.) Or, maybe, I simply didn’t feel the need to speak. The child has not yet developed that adult tendency to fill every quiet moment with sound. Stop talking and pay attention, the child says through her silence. You may be surprised by what you hear in this majestic and wondrous creation if you just listen.

And what about the children who are in our midst, today? The children who, in a few minutes, will join us at the Peace and for the remainder of our service? Some of them are silent. And some can scarcely contain their words and songs and ideas and their enthusiasm. What do you see when you keep your eye on them? I’d like to suggest three things, in particular, that our young neighbours have to teach those of us who are older. Just like the lesson offered by the silent child in Jesus’ arms, these three things are all about growth.

First, the child says that if you are going to grow, it is not only okay to make mistakes, it is necessary. Grown ups tend to want to do things at an elite level on our first try – we get frustrated when we take guitar or French lessons because we want to play Stairway to Heaven or discuss philosophy right after the first lesson. And when good progress turns out to mean playing a halting version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or laboriously asking how to get to the library, we get discouraged, we want to give up before we even start. By contrast, children get that you have to do things in a flawed way to learn, they actually find delight in the mistakes: it is wondrous to build the Lego tower as high as you can, to ride your bike in a way not intended by the manufacturer.

What might that have to teach us? What if we gave ourselves permission to say, “that was a really fascinating and good mistake”? As we design liturgy, as we craft outreach, as we devise education, as we visit sick friends, as we console a loved one in a time grief, what if we said, I am at peace with making mistakes, I am at peace with this being imperfect, I believe that God will find a way to work with and through my mistakes.

Second, the child says that, if you are going to grow, it is necessary to engage to play. We sure have internalised this message that church is terribly solemn business, that Jesus was this humourless guy, that God spends his days being angry about stuff. We ignore the fun elements in scripture. We tend to not even notice when Jesus cracks a joke or when he does something playful like teaching a lesson with a child sitting in his lap. And we ignore, as often, the fun elements in creation. (Thank goodness the blessing of the animals is coming up soon. Nothing reassures me that God has a sense of humour like a goldfish sitting beside a terrier in a pew.)

That is not to say that we should take our tradition frivolously– to the contrary, the child insists that play is terribly serious stuff. Play is where the real learning happens. I have watched a number of children during the great play that we call the Eucharist, and I have been in awe of the reverence with which he or she came forward for communion. Watch her as she extends her hands in this marvelously childish gesture to receive Jesus’ body and blood. What if we all brought that kind of wonder to the sacrament

Finally, the very young say that, if you are going to grow, you are also going to change. A while back a church survey revealed that, when most churched called a new pastor they were looking for two things: they wanted the pastor to grow the church. And they wanted the pastor to change nothing. The child knows that growth doesn’t work that way. It changes you to go to a new school. It changes you to be taller than you were a six months ago. It changes you to make new friends. Children understand that, while change is hard (sometimes right after a growth spurt you aren’t so sure where your legs are) it is also joyous and good.

Four lessons, all told, from the child, one from Mark and three from the children around us. Be silent and notice what you hear. Be willing to make mistakes and notice what you learn. Be willing to play and notice what you discover. Be willing to change and notice how you grow.

Here is the child in Jesus’ arms, here is the child who is our neighbour. They are not symbols: they are human beings. They are not “the future of the church”: they are the church right now. Sometimes children are our students, sometimes children are our teachers. Always they are our partners in this journey of faith. Keep your eye on the child.