Note: The reader may wish to omit the first three paragraphs in brackets depending on the context and the congregation. The sermon may begin at paragraph four and still retain its impact.
["Before Rep was even a month old, at the beginning of each feeding, Margaret would gently pinch his cheek and say, 'Now make a big mouth for mama.' And he would. He would stretch his mouth - wider than his face it seemed - wrap his thin, little lips around the red brown-aureole of her breast â¦ suck, suck and wait for her milk to come down.
From time to time and especially toward the end of each feeding when he was tired or sleepy, Rep would pull away from her breast and look up. He would search for his mother's eyes as if to say thank you or to reassure himself in yet another way of her love for him â¦ only to return again to the primitive oral rhythm he had learned months earlier in the shelter of Margaret's womb."
In his little book, Touch and Smell, Taste and See, John Shelton writes in this way about what he later calls "the most beautiful moment and relationship that he has ever seen."]
Jesus loves the little childrenâ¦all the children of the world â¦red and yellow, black and white â¦ they are precious in his sight â¦ Jesus loves the little children of the world. We can hardly say those lines without singing them. The words reflect what the church understands to have been Jesus' attitude toward children as it is described in the Gospels and as it has been handed down to us in the church today.
Jesus told his earliest followers that they must receive the Kingdom of God like children. What could he have meant? In today's Gospel passage, when Jesus finds the disciples arguing about who was the greatest among them, Jesus turns to a child -- to "the least of these," to show them how the kingdom of God is to be understood and how the person who follows him - then and now - is to understand power and prestige, place and position.
Why did Jesus choose a child to illustrate what it means to be in God's kingdom?
Was it because they are uniquely trusting? Was it because they are spontaneous and without pretension? Was it because they are open and vulnerable? Was it because they have no past to regret and no worries for the future? Or was it because, as Joel B. Green has said, they have nothing to give. "Children didn't produce anything. They didn't contribute anything to village life. Infants can't build a barn or dig a well. They just lie around all day." All they produce is an occasional diaper full. (As cited by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., in Christianity Today, January 10, 2000.)
For such an important lesson, why did Jesus use children again and again? No one knows, and yet each of us knows. Each of us knows, if we are honest with ourselves, that the really good things and healthy relationships are rarely, if ever, because we have earned them or worked for them. They are ours because of the love and forgiveness and generosity of some one else. They are ours because of the love and forgiveness and generosity of God.
For such an important lesson, why did Jesus choose children? Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., writing last January in Christianity Today, offers this remarkable insight, "Christ points to children because they are such wonderful receivers."
Choosing a timely metaphor from this season of falling leaves and football, Plantinga says, Infants are like wide receivers in football. When a strong armed quarter back rifles a pass out to one of his wide receivers, you never see one of them stop and say, "Hold on! What's this all about? What's his real reason for throwing to me? I haven't had a ball all quarter. Why am I getting one now?" It never happens, because a good wide receiver lives off those passes. He'll take all he can get.
So maybe Jesus' message can be "contextualized" in a way that doesn't end up reinforcing our suspicion that dependency is a bad thing. Maybe Jesus is saying that we ought to accept the kingdom of God like good wide receivers. In all its peace and justice, the kingdom of God is in the world and it's also up ahead of the world. Either way, it's coming at us. Jesus has brought it near. One day he will bring it home.
Why did Jesus use children again and again? No one knows, and yet each of us knows. Each of us knows, if we are honest with ourselves, that the really good things and healthy relationships are ours rarely, if ever, because we have earned them or worked for them. They are ours because of the love and forgiveness and generosity of some one else. They are ours because of the love and forgiveness and generosity of God.
Open your hands.
Open your mouths.
Open your hearts.
Open your spirits.
And from what you have received, give.
If it is as Jesus said, "More blessed to give than to receive," then receive to give.