Certainly the adults in our Gospel reading could learn from children.
Jesus explains to his disciples that in just a few days he will be betrayed, arrested, and killed. What is their reaction? They argue about which one of them is the greatest.
My first impulse is to condemn the disciples as fools. But we should pause here. In America today, people, and especially male people, spend a lot of time asserting how great we are. We see it in politics. We see it in sports. We see it often enough that my wife has speculated that every conversation among men ultimately comes down to an argument about who is the greatest. The disciples in our reading are not the only people who have something to learn here!
Jesus corrects his disciples by picking up a little child. Children, he implies, understand something the disciples do not.
We will see more of this. Shortly after this episode, Mark tells us that people were bringing their children to Jesus to receive his blessing. His disciples were indignant. But Jesus tells them, “Let the little children come to me…; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:13-15).
So what does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a little child? What do children have to teach us about the way of Jesus?
The contrast with the disciples in our gospel reading for this morning suggests that one lesson is humility. Children compete with each other, of course. But little children mostly don’t compete with adults. When my children were little, they could be willful. But when they were little—an important qualification!—when they were little, they knew they were not in charge. They tried to get their way, and they did often enough. But they knew in the end that they had to do what I told them to do.
That’s not a bad lesson for us. We are not in charge. God is. And since there is nothing we can do about that, we might as well accept it with grace and humility.
But that is not the only lesson children have to teach adults about the way of Jesus. We talked about this passage at our vestry meeting on Tuesday, and the vestry came up with lots of lessons.
Somebody pointed out that children are loving. That is what Carrie said too, when she and I talked about it. Carrie remembered back to the days when our children came home from school and ran into the house looking for us because they just had to give us a hug.
I got to see that kind of eager love on Tuesday. When four-year-old Aryanah blew a kiss to the Seaburys, she put her whole body into it. Her kiss literally lifted her off the ground. Think what our world would be like if we loved each other like that, if we loved God like that.
I thought about how trusting little children are.
During a political campaign season when Benjamin was quite young, he asked me what I thought about a candidate with a bright green yard sign. I told him I liked the man pretty well. For the next week or two, every time we passed one of those green signs, Benjamin gave a cheer for the man we loved so much.
I finally had to break it to Benjamin that I didn’t actually plan to vote for the man with the green sign. Poor Benjamin was crushed. But he took it. Back then, if I said a man was good, Benjamin loved him. If I said I wasn’t going to vote for a candidate, Benjamin knew he shouldn’t support him either.
And again I think, what would our world be like if we responded to God with that kind of absolute trust?
But this is where it gets a little tricky. God is trustworthy. But people are not. Poor little Benjamin had to learn that even his father wasn’t always trustworthy.
Apparently—I have no memory of this—Benjamin once asked me why I accelerated when I was passing a truck on the highway. And—so I am told—I responded that I had to hurry because otherwise the truck might blow over on us. Now, if I said that, and I am not conceding that I did, I was joking. But Benjamin took it with utter seriousness.
A couple of years later, I was driving next to a truck, and Benjamin asked anxiously from the back if I shouldn’t hurry up. After all, we didn’t want the truck to blow over on us. It turns out, the poor little man had been worrying every time we drove by a truck because of what I had said so casually. That was when Benjamin first learned not to trust anything I said. It is a lesson he has learned well!
But I am not the only person who can be untrustworthy. Our political leaders sometimes play fast and loose with the truth. People worry about fake news. The Church—I am NOT thinking about Saint David’s here, although here too mistakes have been made—the Church has certainly betrayed the trust of people in the pews.
We have always had the responsibility to separate fact from fiction. If anything, that responsibility is greater than ever today, in the internet age, particularly for us as citizens of a democracy.
We would be foolish, we would be irresponsible, if we simply accepted everything we heard as truth. It is worth adding that Jesus himself, in addition to encouraging us to receive the kingdom of God like a little child, warns to be wise as serpents, even if also innocent as doves (Matt 10:16).
So here is another characteristic of children that strikes me as worthy of imitation. They grow. Over time, they grow in wisdom and knowledge.
I joke about Benjamin not trusting me anymore. But I didn’t want my children to be little forever. I wanted them to grow up, to think for themselves, to find their own way, to learn how to distinguish truth from falsehood and goodness from evil.
And that may be the best lesson children can teach adults. It is easy for adults to stop growing, to assume that we know all we will ever know, that we are too old to learn new tricks, that we have grown in the knowledge and love of God as much as we ever will.
Children are not like that.
When I came home from school as a child, my mother would often ask me what I learned that day. I would usually answer that I hadn’t learned anything. But that was never true. Every day I learned. Every day I got a tiny bit bigger and wiser and stronger.
I am not getting any stronger these days, and I don’t want to get any bigger. But I can still follow the example of all children everywhere and get a little bit wiser over time.
And that is my prayer for us. That we can have a more humble, childlike trust and love for God. But also that, like little children, we can grow in our relationship with God. And I pray that in the name of Jesus Christ, who invites us all to a deeper relationship with him. Amen.