Make Church Little Again
by Louise Westfall
Make church little again. Jesus turned human expectations upside down. The rule he came to establish is countercultural. If the title of this sermon brought to mind a particular political slogan, good! It’s intended to help us contrast the values of nationalism and nativism with those of the kin-dom of God (I chose that word to reflect the universal community of people, rather than “kingdom” which conveys hierarchy and might suggest “power over” rather than sharing power under God’s rule). Jesus’ teachings frankly challenge many human notions: Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you. Forgive one another. Greatness is defined by servanthood. The poor are blessed; to the rich come warnings of woe. The last shall be first, and the first, last.
In the morning Scripture text, Jesus illustrates this great reversal in a surprising way. A reading from the gospel of Mark, in the ninth chapter at the 33rd verse. Listen for God’s word … to children. [Mark 9:33-37]
A family was returning home from church following the baptism of their new baby. Their four-year-old son was crying in the back seat. When the concerned parents asked him what was wrong, he replied: “The minister said that we were to be raised in a good Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys!” I know a hundred stories like that. Riffs on “kids say the darndest things,” and how their innocence and naiveté can amuse us and break up the tedium of a grown-up theological argument.
… but I don’t think Jesus told stories like that. In this text he put a child in the center of his teaching about greatness — and that’s the point. The welcome and acceptance of a child is the key to the distinctive values of God’s rule.
Let’s think about this scene and imagine how it went down. It took place in a home — perhaps a sympathetic family who boarded Jesus when he was in town. It wasn’t part of any formal teaching, but emerged when Jesus perceived what his disciples had been discussing on the way. Who was the greatest? Who had done the most work? Who was Jesus’ favorite? Who deserved the most appreciation and the greatest reward? I picture their blank faces when Jesus starts talking “whoever wants to be first must be last … and servant of all.” Hello. So maybe impulsively, Jesus taps one of the children of his hosts, picks them up and plops them down right in the middle of their discussion. I wonder what the kid thought — and can imagine him squirming under their scrutiny and being eager to get away. I wonder what the disciples thought — here they were in serious conversation about an important issue … and Jesus disrupts it by putting a child front and center. In fact, my preaching this sermon from a pulpit seems to contradict Jesus’ message. So … [Louise walks down to the worship center, and sit with the kids for a few minutes, enjoying whatever they’re doing, talking with them, and asking them about being the center of attention].
The Worship Center here is not intended as a play area for restless children. It’s a visible (and auditory!) reminder that following God’s design for church, we value, include, and teach all ages. Friends, children belong with us too. Our worship is better and more meaningful when it includes the presence of children and then considers the age-appropriate to tell the story of God’s unconditional love. But even that’s not quite enough. Jesus said when we welcome a child, we actually invite God into our community. So it’s not just an accommodation — it’s the very essence of our identity as Church.
Kids are not symbols of tomorrow’s church; they’re part of the church today. The great contemplative and author Thomas Merton had a great definition for church: Here comes everybody.
By bringing a child into their discussion, Jesus poked holes in the disciples’ concept of greatness.
That means “everybody” belongs here and “everybody” adds to the whole. By bringing a child into their discussion, Jesus poked holes in the disciples’ concept of greatness. And maybe ours too: The infinite worth of a child can’t be calculated. A child is dependent on the care of others. A child has no earning power, yet uses resources. Maybe Jesus wanted to blow up the connection we adults make between worth and productivity. God’s love and our membership in God’s family are sheer gift, independent of what we do or contribute. Maybe children remind us of how vulnerable human life really is, and that our control is mostly illusion. Maybe children help us recapture the sense of awe we once felt, especially at encountering something for the first time. Their spontaneity and easy delight is a wonderful antidote to cynicism and boredom. And maybe simply by being who they are, children give us permission to experience the full impact of God’s Word and respond with clapping, laughing, crying, cheering, coloring, and interrupting.
Central is committed to building a multigenerational community — where we worship and serve and learn together. Under Stephanie’s leadership in particular we’ve broadened the worship experience to reflect more of the ways different ages receive and interact with the good news. The Worship Center is visible, not hidden away where the children can’t be seen or heard. Prayer stations utilize pictures and art as well as words. Children routinely serve as candle lighters, and are welcome to be worship leaders (just contact me!). Older youth serve in the sound booth, navigating the technical demands of live-streaming, recording, and amplification. We don’t have a “children’s sermon” which can marginalize kids, but instead tell a Bible story (using a proven educational method) that’s an important part of the worship for everyone.
Such a commitment conveys the truth of the gospel: we are accepted just as we are. It also calls us to practice hospitality. No judgey glares. No shushing. How about sitting near a family with children, who you’ll be sure to meet when you offer the peace of Christ … and receive it from them?
The promises we make at every child’s baptism include loving them, praying for them, and providing for their faith formation. Thanks be to God for teachers and mentors!
But we can all make good on those promises as we welcome the children. Learn their names. Ask them questions. And cultivate a willingness to let a child be our teacher. As one kid from First Christian Church here in Denver put it: My church is where I teach the old people and the old people teach me.
And the results? — a closer encounter with the living God. A church that embodies true greatness. Rejoice, friends! Here comes everybody! Say it with me: Here comes everybody! AMEN.