Sing a New Song: “Jesus Loves Me”
While I was working on my sermon last week, I received a chain-email titled “God Lives Under the Bed.” I often feel just a little bit creepy when I get one of these, as I’ve gotten so many that end by telling me to send it on if I don’t want something horrible to happen to me in the next five minutes, or some other subtly implied threat. But the title intrigued me, as I was thinking of children and Jesus.
“I envy my bother Kevin. Kevin thinks God lives under his bed. At least that’s what I heard him say one night. He was praying out loud in his dark bedroom, and I stopped to listen. ‘Are you there, God?’ he said. ‘Where are you? Oh, I see. Under the bed . . . .’ The author of the story, Kevin’s sister, reports that he was born 30 years ago, is 6’2″, and is mentally disabled after a difficult labor. He reasons with the capabilities of a 7 year old and he always will. “He will probably always believe that God lives under his bed and that airplanes stay up in the air because angels carry them. He is not obsessed with his work or the work of others. His heart is pure. He still believes everyone tells the truth, promises must be kept, and when you are wrong, you apologize instead of argue. Free from pride and unconcerned with appearances, Kevin is not afraid to cry when he is hurt, angry or sorry. He is always transparent, always sincere. And he trusts God.
Not confined by intellectual reasoning, when he comes to Christ, he comes as a child. Kevin seems to know God–to really be friends with God . . . God seems like his closest companion. . .I envy Kevin’s (simple faith). It is then that I am most willing to admit that he has some divine knowledge that rises above my mortal questions. . . Who knows if Kevin comprehends things I can never learn? After all, he has spent his whole life in that kind of innocence, praying after dark and soaking up the goodness and love of God.”
“God is under my bed.” Reminds me of the Calvin and Hobbes comic–you know Calvin, the little boy that’s entirely full of it and his tiger friend, Hobbes, who is alive for him, but a stuffed tiger for the rest of the world. They’re going to bed, and Calvin looks toward the underneath of his bed: “Any monsters down there?” he calls out, with Hobbes peaking over his shoulder. “Nope. Uh-Uh. No one down here. . . ” comes the reply from under his bed.
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong . . .
They are weak but he is strong.
It really can’t be more simple than that, can it? Written by a woman in the middle of the 19th century, Anna Bartlett Warner, who lived on the East Coast and made a name for herself writing poetry and simple songs for children. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”–a simple little poem. Jesus most likely would’ve loved this little ditty. Because, as the text this morning so clearly shows, Jesus treasured children.
As I thought about this sermon, I thought of my own childhood. Frankly, there was never a time when I didn’t believe in God. I wanted to learn about God and so got a white Bible from somewhere and started from the beginning, like you do with almost every other book on the planet. It didn’t take long before I was stuck in the list of Judges and Kings, and wandered off into the field of the explication of the laws in Leviticus. What happened to God?
Luckily, around the same time, when I was seven or eight, I read this little book, “Hotline to Heaven,” which described how to pray. The first thing to do was to find a place to be alone, where no one would likely interrupt. It suggested the dry bathtub to be a great place. No one would interrupt you there. Which was pretty much true. And then it explained that you because you were giving things to God, you really only prayed for things once, as you were giving it away, handing over your prayer to God, trusting that God would take care of it. So, when I prayed in that dry bathtub I imagined offering my prayers up, and God taking them from me. I also spent significant time just talking to God about my life and my days.
And here’s the thing: I had amazing answers to prayer. I remember one time my Mom peeked her head into the bathroom and asked me to pray for my uncle to get a job. Seems he’d been unemployed for too long and was trying to find a job with no luck. Two weeks after I prayed for him, he landed a great job. Thinking about it later, I realized “Hotline to Heaven” was really about how to practice trusting God.
But that was a long time ago, before seminary. Before I learned that four authors wrote Genesis over centuries. Before I learned that there are two distinct creation stories, and that the each of the four gospels were written by a different author and had significant differences in them. Before I knew that Jesus might not have said every exact word recorded in the New Testament. As I grew and studied, things became more complicated. Jesus loves me. Yah, right right. But what about the killings of the Holocaust? What about the Rwandan Holocaust? What about the unkind things we do to each other on a daily basis?
As adults, as those who feel and see the pain our world knows, we need a faith that is a little more complex, something that is a little hard to get your head around. Something nuanced, that lets you get your teeth into it with theological debates, and shades of interpretive grays. Then we can say that our faith is a real one. We can proudly state that we are not Christians who stick our heads in the interpretive sand with sweet little diddies about the Bible and love. Before we go any farther, we need to clear here. As the spouse of SFTS’s systematic theologian, you know, the one who joins the academic debates about what it means when we say: “I believe in God” “I believe that God’s Son died for my sins. ” “I believe God acts in my life,” because how we explain these statements has a huge impact on how we understand faith and how we live our lives. I am not standing here to advocate for a simple, non-questioning faith. A faith that doesn’t question things is a faith that is not taking our lives or God seriously. And a non-self-reflective faith is a dangerous one–easily able to wander off into hostile interpretations and to validate violence and hatred and other things that are not of God. But here’s the thing: if we’re not careful, we can end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater and dismiss any personal claim on our lives by saying that belief in Jesus is really just a bit complex. A little beyond the average Joe.
As Ed Hird writes:
”Dr. Karl Barth was one of the most brilliant and complex intellectuals of the twentieth century. He wrote volume after massive volume on the meaning of life and faith. A reporter once asked Dr. Barth if he could summarize what he had said in all those volumes. Dr. Barth thought for a moment and then said: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”
Jesus loves you, this I know.
When the disciples, overearnest as ever, asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, Jesus pulled a child out of the crowd and said the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven were people like this. Two thousand years of homiletic sentimentalizing to the contrary not withstanding, Jesus was not playing Captain Kangaroo. He was saying that the people who get into Heaven are people who, like children, don’t worry about it too much. They are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. There are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdoned by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves.
Children aren’t necessarily better than other people. Like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” they are just apt to be better at telling the difference between a put-up job and the real thing.” (FB ,Wishful Thinking, 13)
Frederick Buechner is right, you know. We take these verses in Matthew and say these are precious moments when Jesus slows down for a minute and hugs a baby, waving to the crowd–like a politician on the campaign trail. And we miss the point. Or maybe we want to miss the point. That’s what worries me. Maybe we want to sentimentalize this moment and not take seriously the claim. Because Jesus loves you. Head to toe. Jesus knows you, really knows you. Knows all about you and all about me and the tremendous, unbelievable, God is under your bed news is, knowing all about you, Jesus loves you even more, even more. Like a mother who remembers seeing you the moment you were born, and will never forget, Jesus loves you. How can that not be good news?