A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 23, 2018
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-19 James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Mark 9:30-37
A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow Elder, Brett Wilenzick, offered a magnificent sermon on part of the first chapter of the letter of James. In that sermon, Brett reflected on how this congregation so boldly embodies the good and perfect gifts of God. God has given us the gifts of love, forgiveness, and embrace and we have worked so hard over the past six or seven years to understand what they mean so that we can extend those gifts to one another and to the world. Brett also made a wise observation in that sermon when he said that sometimes the function of the Scriptures is to remind us that we are exactly where God wants us to be. Sometimes the Scriptures teach morality and ethics, sometimes they pull us back from going too far off the road that leads to life, sometimes they call out our sins and invite us to repent and return to God. But on that Sunday, the Scriptures confirmed that this congregation is doing exactly what God has called it to do.
Today, though, the Scriptures are doing something different for us. I believe that the Bible lessons we’ve heard today are offering us a corrective to how we understand the place and importance of children in our faith community and in the salvation story of God. Let’s first look at what the Scriptures are saying, and then let’s think about how our lived experience either aligns or doesn’t with what they have to say.
Abraham and Sarah were without children like many of the ancestral families of our faith. This was not by choice. They didn’t have some moral reason for not having children; they were not rebelling against a societal norm or custom. Abraham and Sarah were simply too old; they were too far into their later years to biologically produce children. That is until God intervened. After all the nasty things that happened in Noah’s family after the flood, God searched high and low for a righteous family to take on the mantel of faith. God found that righteousness in Abraham and Sarah, though they were known as Abram and Sarai at that point. God called Abram and Sarai to pick up and leave the land of their ancestors in order to journey with God to bigger and better things. God says to Abram in Genesis 12, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Abram and Sarai answered God’s call. They picked up from where they were, and they followed as God led them to a land flowing with milk and honey. But there was something nagging at Abram and Sarai, something that Abram eventually took directly to the Lord. Abram says to God in Genesis 15, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Eliezer was Abram and Sarai’s butler. Even though they had been faithful to God’s call, their empty nest left them unfulfilled. Eventually, Eliezer would inherit everything. But God fulfills the promise to Abram and Sarai, changes their names to Abraham and Sarah, and they receive with joy the gift of a son named Isaac, whose name means ‘laughter.’
I’m certain Abraham and Sarah were concerned with the whole inheritance thing. Without children, they couldn’t be sure what would happen to their physical belongings and wealth. But there’s something bigger here. Abraham and Sarah’s main concern about having children was a matter of memory, particularly how and if they would remembered in generations to come. The simplest way to be remembered after death is to be part of a large family; no matter what, someone is always going to remember you. And more than anything else, Abraham and Sarah wanted to be remembered. They were faithful people who trusted in God, left everything behind, and experienced the faithfulness of God is miraculous and abundant ways. They were people to be remembered. Without children, Abraham and Sarah faced the nightmare of falling off into obscurity with the passing of one more generation.
I think that is a fear, or at least concern, most of us share. Will we be remembered? And beyond remembering, will the lessons we taught, the values we held so dear, the passions to which we devoted so much time…will any of that go on? Having children doesn’t guarantee it, but it’s a good place to start. This is why God gives Abraham and Sarah the gift of Isaac, so that their faithfulness to and love of God might have a fighting chance of continuing on and on and on. Through Isaac, Abraham and Sarah won’t be forgotten. In fact, because of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah become giants, heroes, monuments in the life of faith that will never fall in obscurity—they will be remembered forever.
As a way to teach the disciples about power and importance and notoriety, Mark tells us that Jesus took a little child from the crowd, wrapped him arms around the child, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This is one of those moment’s in Christ’s ministry that preachers and teachers love. We love it because it’s a moment to point out all the ways adults fail to answer the call of the gospel. Children, we say, are so important to Jesus because of their innocence and unjaded look at the world. Children, we say, believe the unbelievable and expect the unexpected. Children, we say, are so generous and accepting and unconditionally loving. Be like the children, we say, or, as Jesus said, you’ll never enter the kingdom of God.
But that’s all wrong. It’s all wrong because it grounds the value of a child in what they are or are not able to do. It says that children are valuable because they are innocent. It says that children are valuable because they love unconditionally. It says that children are valuable because they look at the world with such wide eyes. Yes, that is the beauty of a child, but children are valuable because they are creations of God. Full stop. Period. It’s not about what a child can or cannot do. Our children are valuable because God has given them to us, and in them we learn how to care for the vulnerable and the unable, how to love those that might not love us back, how to serve without the expectation of getting anything in return. When we care for and value children, Jesus says, we see God.
I don’t think there is any greater goal of faith than to come face to face with God. Jesus promises that we will see God when we welcome children in his name. The alternative, if we push children out and away, makes the opposite true…we will never come face to face with God. Jesus says later in the gospel that if anyone ever puts a stumbling block in the way of a child, it would be better for that person to be strapped with a big stone and thrown into the sea. That’s how serious Jesus is about children. He is equally serious about other groups and types of people who need the care and compassion of the greater society. Just as we do to the least members of his family, we do the same to him. The whole of Christ’s ministry of care, though it encompasses a broad swath of humanity, begins when we care for, nurture, and love children. It is here that we see God.
When we put together the fulfillment of Abraham and Sarah’s desire for a family with the teachings of Jesus, we get a very clear picture of how extremely important children are to God. In them, the memory of God’s salvation continues from one generation to the next. Without them, we risk losing our collective memory, a memory of God’s saving acts from the moment of Creation to the consummation of all things when Christ returns. This also paints a picture of how important children should be to you and me. I think we all have a desire, spoken or unspoken, of seeing the face of God, of receiving some confirmation that God is real and really working at all times for our good. We need not look far and wide for that confirmation. Instead, we can look to the youngest among us in this sanctuary today. In them, we know how very real God is, how much God loves us, and through them we can have hope that everything is moving, even if it is sort of slow at times, to the perfect completion God has designed.
So, if we compare what we are hearing today from the Scriptures to the reality of our lived experience, how are things? Generally, here within this faith community I think we’re doing pretty well. We make room for our children in all things: mission, worship, learning, and fun. We work diligently and carefully to be sure they are protected when they are in our care, using best practices learned from organizations that specialize in caring for children. We listen to our children and we invite them into leadership.
As we move outside these walls, though, I’m not sure things are as good. Actually, I know they aren’t. We live in a county and state where education is so severely underfunded that some of the schools that benefitted from our supplies drive last month will have to make those supplies last all year. We live in a county that has some of the highest rates of underage, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in the state, yet our schools are unwavering in abstinence-only sex education. We live in a country where there are literally buildings full of children who are imprisoned like criminals, separated from their families, unable to fend for or defend themselves. It’s not just immigrant children either, though they are the majority; these warehouses, prison, are filled also with children who have been abandoned, put up for adoption, or kicked out of their homes. An organization based in New York called Children’s Rights estimates that on any given day, there are nearly 438,000 children in foster care in the United States, most of whom will languish in the system until they age out or commit suicide.
My friends, for all the posturing people of faith do on every issue under the sun, the moral failure of our society at this point in time in caring properly for children is just breezed over. It is almost like we think someone else is going to take care of the problem. That is simply not how followers of Jesus are called to live in the world. We don’t just sit back and let terrible things happen to God’s people, God’s children, the most vulnerable. We have faith in Jesus Christ, and we stand in the lineage of Abraham and Sarah who yearned deep down in their bones for a child—we know better and we must do better. This is one of those moment were our faith and the world outside these walls must collide. If we say that we love God, and God has such a deep and wide love for children, we can’t mutter things like, “Well, those kids deserved to be locked up,” or “Their parents are to blame,” or “It’s not really that bad,” or, “But it’ll ruin his career.” The issues I’ve just mentioned, these are facts; it is not opinion and it is not exaggeration. As long as these beautiful gifts from God are prevented from experiencing the abundant life Christ came to give, we have work to do.
We must hold accountable those who make decisions that directly affect the health and well-being of our children and the least among us. We must hold those accountable who make and administer our laws, pleading with them to give up vanity and selfish ambition in order to follow Jesus. We must hold those accountable who abuse, take advantage of, or otherwise strip the life away from God’s most precious ones. We must call into question every structure of power or influence that protects the abuser and gives no aid or concern to, or even shames, the abused. We must question and then reform a culture that runs to the aid of men who were abused by priests decades ago as it should, but then claims that a woman is lying when she comes forward with a story of the same. We must listen and we must act. The Lord our God, who has called us from death to life through Jesus Christ, will not except anything less from us.
My brothers and sisters, the greatest challenge facing the Church of Jesus Christ today is not secularism. It is not a loss of faith or the rise of other faiths. The greatest challenge facing the Church of Jesus Christ today is the possibility that we will just fade in obscurity, totally forgotten in just a generation or two. That is our fate today, and the future sits squarely on our shoulders. If we are not willing to honestly evaluate our faith in light of our experiences and stand with God to protect, nurture, and love children and the least of these, we can begin to plan the funeral now. But if we are willing to live in the dynamic interaction between faith and life, and start putting our faith into action, we won’t need to plan a funeral…we’ll need to plan an Easter celebration. The work is just that important and just that powerful. We have the choice, and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the sake of every innocent beloved child, I pray that we chose to act.
St. Augustine once said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” The hope of our life if Jesus Christ. From that hope may we have the anger and courage necessary to work with God in the ongoing transformation of the world. Amen.