October 23, 2016 – As a little child

Pentecost 23   October 23, 2016   Psalm 65, Joel 2:21-29, Luke 18:9-14, 15-17

As a little child

***********************************************

Two of my very earliest memories are being carried on my father’s shoulders, walking around the town in which we lived… And sitting with my mother listening to a record of a cowboy song, me about three years old, her encouraging me to sing… All I had to do in those early days was just sit on dad’s shoulders, and sit by mom’s side… and begin to try to sing along…

Jesus tells us: ‘Unless we receive the kingdom of God as a little child we will never enter it.’ And once upon a time, I think I actually knew how to do this… without even thinking about it. But its been awhile now since I’ve been a little child. Today life often seems rather full of grown up activity. Now it’s me driving the car with our daughter in the back seat… (It’s been some years since I was last comfortably able to carry her on my shoulders…) Doing my best to do the work expected of me… Which, along with all the many parts I love to do, also comes with a certain amount of dealing with budgets, annual reports, and other things I’d rather avoid… Grown up stuff Jesus also told us would always be with us. Sometimes I have a hard time now remembering how a little child does… what Jesus says…

So I asked our daughter Rohi the other day, if she could counsel me. “Can you please tell me something about how to receive the kingdom as a little child?” I asked… She was busy at the time, doing school work, as I recall, but she looked up and said, “Yes, daddy, I will help – when we’re at the dinner table.” Sounding like me, telling her, ‘yes, I will do what you’re asking, honey, but not till I get done with this work I’m doing.’ She’s growing up so fast…

And of course I remember Rohi when she was an infant. All she had to do was smile, and we glimpsed the kingdom. I remember her, seven or eight months old, lying on the blanket on the floor with her mom and me, while we were choosing hymns for the next Sunday. Rohi would be eyes-wide-open watching and listening. Fascinated with our singing. Already trying to play her mother’s little electric keyboard, banging away joyfully at the keys….

How quickly time goes by. Rohi isn’t such a little child anymore; she turns 14 this week. But she still knows how to receive God’s blessings as a little child receives. When she lifts her voice in song we still feel her joy…

But how does someone my age (or any age, really, past childhood) relearn – how to receive the kingdom of God as a little child? And what exactly is it about being a little child that make them better than grown ups at receiving the kingdom?

I asked my wife, who is a teacher and who studied psychology and counseling in college, and she said, “Children have trust. Children are transparent…” (She also suggested I go online and look up child development for further details…and…)

When delving into study bibles, commentaries, and child development web sites, to review what others say about what Jesus says, I notice how many mention children’s trusting nature, willingness to give and receive forgiveness, overall attitude of innocent trust, believing what parents say and what God says. Some Christian child development sources also include obedience on their list of early childhood characteristics.

Well? Trust and innocence do seem to be almost universally observed among infants. But obedience seems more of a stretch. Even very sweet-natured kids usually learn to say“no” pretty quickly, and many also start to like the sound of no! They’re still beautiful kids, but – obedient? I’m not so sure…

So what can Jesus be getting at – when he tells us we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child? Is there really any way back to the trust and sense of awe and wonder a little child has… for those of us who have (more or less) grown up?

When I asked yesterday, “how can an adult become like a child in faith?” Reah now said “Prayer. Reading the bible. It’s all back to the basics.” Good answer. I try to do these every day… But its still easy to get caught up in grown up doubts and anxieties… (Wondering – was it because of my sin – or someone else’s – that I didn’t catch fish this week? Is our church budget ever going to be balanced? Will we, the church, locally and globally, ever have enough love and unity to persuade the world that Jesus is alive? Will humankind make it through the rest of this century? Grown up questions like this can sometimes keep me awake past my bedtime… )

But Jesus does tell us – not to be anxious and not to let our hearts be troubled… And we have some generous clues to the kingdom in our other readings today. In our reading from the prophet Joel, even the dirt is told to rejoice in the Lord: “Do not fear O soil, be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!” (If the dirt we walk on is praising God, how much more should we be?) And in our psalm the hills, pastures, and meadows are all shouting and singing together for joy. (We of course should be also.) In Joel again, God’s word calls us to sing with childlike joy: “O children of Zion be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication…” Be glad! Thank God for every blessing, the word of God tells us… And as every child of God ought to know, a please and a thank you to God helps us stay on track, all the way to the kingdom…

And in our first reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable of two men praying in the temple. One congratulates himself on his spiritual accomplishments. The other beats his breast and prays “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  One acts as if he’s earned God’s favor. The other knows he hasn’t… But the second man also seems to know God will forgive if he asks. And those who know how to pray humbly like the tax collector, Jesus says – will be lifted up – while the self-satisfied and self-promoting will be brought low.

And this parable leads us into what Jesus says about children and the kingdom of God. Then, if we read on in Luke, there’s a rich young ruler waiting to see Jesus. Which may be one reason disciples are shooing children away from Jesus. They see a possible major donor… They don’t want him walking away while Jesus is hanging out with kids.

And I can actually identify a little with these clueless disciples. When I’m trying to multi-task I can forget what’s most important, and be distracted by many things… Fortunately, I get a lot of help with remembering who I’m supposed to be…

Especially when I’m looking lost or confused or not remembering what I’m doing, my wife often calls me “child.” Calls me “anok” actually – a Tagalog word meaning “child” that she uses with both Rohi and me. Sometimes she says she has not one but two children…

Which gives me great hope. Because Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, don’t stop them. It’s to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” And I’m not expecting to discover any literal fountain of youth. That’s not what Jesus has in mind when he says “Truly I tell you–whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

But the word of God does tell us in John’s gospel (1:12-13): “to all who received him (meaning Jesus) who believed in his name (meaning his total reality) he gave power to become children of God…” And again in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5) Jesus tells us “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God…”

When Jesus tells us we need to receive his kingdom as little children, he’s talking about realizing our identity as children of God.

Some are much quicker to pick up on what Jesus says than I’ve been. I’ve been remembering my younger sister Annie telling me she started talking with God back when she was literally a little child, three years old – because, she said, “no one else was listening to me…” And she was smart enough to figure out Who would listen…

I finally began praying much later in life than my sister… My faith only really began to come alive and grow as I realized things were not going so well… Only when I began to realize and admit to God and myself that I was incapable of fixing my life on my own… Only as I began to admit how much I truly need God’s help… Only as I’ve learned to keep calling for God’s help, as a child cries for help from mom or dad… Only as I’ve been learning to approach God as a little child… have I begun to understand…

And now, even though I know now from experience how to pray – talk and listen with God… Still I often forget… So yesterday morning at the breakfast table I asked Rohi again, “so can you give me any help now with how to enter the kingdom of God as a little child?”

And she said, “daddy – just remember the grace of the kingdom of heaven….And remember the song, Let the Children Come to Me, by Linnea Good. You can go to You Tube, daddy, google it, and it will come to you…”

(Some of us heard Linnea Good sing a few years ago at School for Congregational Development… And I went to You Tube and listened to the song. And Rohi was right.)

Let the children come to me. Let the children come to me. Let the children come to me – For that’s what heaven is made of…

Later disciples were having a fight. Whoever is the greatest gets to sit at the right. Jesus takes a child, sets her on his knee, says ‘have the heart of a child if you want to serve me.’

Let the children come to me. Let the children come to me. Let the children come to me – For that’s what heaven is made of…

Let the children come to Jesus. Remember–

We too are his children.

Come to him with glad rejoicing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.