In today’s Gospel we hear of the disciples bickering over who is the greatest. Jesus scolds them saying that whoever desires to be first must be last and a servant to all. Jesus then puts a child in his arms, saying that whoever welcomes a child, welcomes him. So today, I want to talk about the ways we’re accustomed to welcoming children and suggest a few ways to welcome children that might better reflect the way Jesus welcomes children in this passage.
I want to begin by telling two stories about Godly Play — the curriculum we use here at the Cathedral and elsewhere in the Diocese to share the sacred stories of the Christian faith with children.
This summer, I helped organize Queerest and Dearest, a new camp for LGBTQ Christians and their families. On the very first day, we told the Godly Play story of the Great Family, the story of Abraham and Sarah. Following the story, we wondered together. I asked open-ended questions like: I wonder what was your favourite part? What was the most important part? Many who were present were very familiar with Godly play and added their own wondering questions. At one point, a seven year old piped up: “I wonder what is child-like about this story?” they asked. What a powerful question. The whole community took this question seriously and wondered together what is child-like about the story of Abraham and Sarah. During the week I was to learn that this family wasn’t one that regularly went to church or even considered themselves Christian.
This Easter season in Children’s church I told the Godly Play story of Jesus encountering the disciples after the resurrection. Following the story I invited the children to find other objects in the room that reminded them of this story or that they felt would add to the story. For those of you unfamiliar with GP, it uses objects to help in the storytelling and all of the stories live in the room with us. One child brought the cross we keep in the room. Another brought the large rock we use as Mount Sinai. I didn’t know why, and asked them if they could tell me more. They told me that it reminded them of the rock that had been rolled away from the tomb. A third brought Saint Patrick for reasons I am not sure of. Another brought Noah’s Ark, because I think it is one of their favourites. Another brought the basket of manna which is used when we tell the story of the People of God in the wilderness because it reminded them of when Jesus broke bread with the disciples after the road to Emmaus.
These two stories illustrate for me one of the things I find so powerful about the way Jesus welcomes children: they illustrate how Jesus calls adults to take seriously what children have to offer us.
We have a tendency I think, to find the things that children do cute. Of course, one of the things children have to offer us is an ability to play, to be silly, to find joy. But when we welcome or commend children primarily for being “cute”, we do a deserve to children because we fail to take seriously what they are offering. We teach them that what they have to offer is not as worthy as what adults have to offer.
In my first story, the community took seriously this important, interesting theological question that this 7-year old offered to us. In my second story, I perhaps do not know why a child brought the figure of St. Patrick to the stories of Jesus and the disciples after the resurrection. When I asked an open-ended question, the child wasn’t able to verbally explain the connection that they saw. And my gut reaction might be to laugh or say, “Isn’t it cute?”
But here is this child bringing forward something with all honesty and desire to connect with the sacred stories of the Christian faith, and this is just as valid, just as true, as bringing an object, such as the rock or the cross. Their theological reflection is just as valid as any other, whether or not I as an adult think at first that it’s something to be taken seriously and whether I understand it. We are called to uphold the connection that children make between their surroundings and the sacred stories of the Christian faith.
When we welcome children, we are called to take them seriously.
Secondly, to welcome children into the church we must understand what it is that we can and what we cannot offer children through our ministry.
Godly Play has developed what they call the Theology of the Child. At the centre of this theology is an understanding that children already have an experience and understanding of the divine, and that we cannot teach them this, we can merely give them language to speak of the divine and rituals to observe their experience of the divine. Only God can provide an experience of the divine.
Put another way, children are not vessels to be filled by us, adults who have the answers. Let us not be like the disciples in today’s gospel reading who believe that they can be greater than one another.
I heard a story once from Bishop Jim Cruickshank. In the 1970’s when General Synod was debating about whether children could receive communion, someone was arguing against children receiving communion saying that children shouldn’t receive communion because they can’t possibly at such a young age understand it! Archbishop David Somerville stood up and said “I don’t understand what happens in the Eucharist!”
We as adults have no greater or better understanding of the divine than children. And we must understand this if we are to better welcome children like Jesus welcomed children.
Finally, to welcome children, we must be willing to meet them where they are, to welcome “one such child”, as Jesus says in the gospel. Sometimes this means being willing to give something up.
Developmentally, kids aren’t as able as adults to understand abstract concepts, to stay quiet and to stay still. I don’t think adults get less bored than kids, we are just better at hiding it.
If we are to welcome ones such as this, we must sometimes give up our time upstairs to be downstairs with them in Godly Play. We must sometimes give up perfect silence—give up uninterrupted worship to whisper quietly back and forth with a child in worship so they know what’s going on. If we are to welcome children like Jesus welcomed children, we must sometimes give up worries about worship looking perfect in order to welcome a fidgety kid as a server or a new reader. Because when we welcome ones such as this, we welcome Jesus into our midst.
I am active in ministry today because as a teenager no one made me feel unwelcome for wearing bright pink sneakers while serving. No one berated me and my friends who had a pew on the far right of the church where we always sat. I’m sure we were disruptive at times, but we were also engaged in worship and learning to be part of that community.
So to welcome children, we must value who they are and take seriously what they offer us. We must understand that we are not greater than them: we can offer them language and ritual but not an experience of the divine. We must meet them where they are, and be willing to give something up to make room for them.
Jesus is calling us to bring children into the very centre of our community and to welcome them. To journey together and learn together and grow in faith together. Jesus calls us to do this not because “children are the future of the church”, though this is true. Not even because children are equal members with us in the body of Christ, though this is also true. Jesus calls us to do this because when we welcome them, our faith is deepened. Because when we welcome them, our lives are transformed. Because when we welcome them, we welcome Christ.
Today I leave you with this simple question: I wonder how you will welcome children?