I love a good church story, and I am so fortunate to have so, so many wonderful ones. I grew up playing handbells with both my mother and my grandmother, I went to all the summer camps, I was and still kind of am obsessed with vacation bible school. It should be no surprise that I even played Jesus in too many of our Easter and Christmas pageants. I loved being there.
And gosh, did I love the people at church. Mr. Mark would ask me random bible trivia that I would spend the week looking up, like what is the longest name in the bible? Mahershalalhashbaz, and I’ve been able to say since fourth grade yall. Brother Gary, the pastor of the country Baptist church I grew up encouraged me to ask questions, which definitely did not ever get me in trouble. His wife Ms. Jerrie always brought some of the best dishes to our potlucks. Mr. Rip would always gave me mints after Sunday School. Brother Art used to dress up as the character Goober every year for vacation bible school, which always included a costume, an accent, and a wig. This might remind you of someone who’s probably lost at camp right now. I have so many rich stories of my church community in my earliest days.
In our story from Scripture today, we encounter a group of people traveling to Capernaum, including Jesus and the disciples. And the disciples were bickering once again. This time it was about who they thought was the best and brightest, who could pray the best, who was the closest to God, who had the best answers, who did the most, who was the greatest. And so Jesus, our storyteller, invited a child to sit down next to him. Jesus pointed to the kid, looked at his disciples, and told them, “If you want to be better, you must change and be like this child. Whoever humbles themselves like this child is the greatest in the kindom. Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me also welcomes the One who sent me. For the least among all of you is the greatest.”
It wasn’t about the child, the disciples knew that. But Jesus, knowing their inward thoughts, knew what they did not know. Jesus chose that child not just because it represented the most under-represented and disadvantaged and ignored and useless unless property. Not just because it hopefully reminded them of the ways in which he had just healed a child a few verses earlier. Not just that, but because that child represented and represents each and every one of us. In this story, this child that Jesus picked from the crowd does not have a name, and we are left to fill it in. It could be anyone and it could be everyone. And yet that child still was specifically picked by Jesus out from the crowd to answer the disciple’s repeated question: “How do I be more like you?” which flipped the disciples’ idea of greatness on top of its head.
I think that kid most likely remembered that. Children are always listening and observing, and I think we underestimate it, and I think they sometimes do it better than us. And I think its part of what we can learn from seeing that kid standing there with Jesus pointing . The kid that lacked any sort of power and yet is able to enter the kindom. The kid silently standing there as a literal embodiment of the kindom. And so, as Jerome Berryman might ask of this story: I wonder what children might teach us about maturity by their fundamental being?
Now, we read this story from the Gospel of Luke, but similar stories are found in Matthew 18 (verses 1-5) and Mark 9 (verses 33-37), and this exchange is one of eight primary references of Jesus with children in the New Testament, each offering a high view of children and their value and place in the kindom, or kid-dom of God. From Jesus inviting the children to come to him in Mark (10:13-16), to the children crying out Hosanna in Matthew (21:15-16), children can intuit divinity, and Jesus had a special understanding of how children interacted with the holy. It is like how our friend Matteo who once wondered after hearing the story of Moses and then the parable of the good shepherd the following week asked me if perhaps Moses would have been a good shepherd? Perhaps he was, Matteo, perhaps he was. But had I ever thought about Moses as a good shepherd until then? Absolutely not.
As the Director of Family Ministries, I savor the moments to learn from our children here, and I honestly wonder what they’ll take away from our time together. What stories are we sharing with them? How are we reflecting their Christ-through-childlikeness as they grow? What stories of the people in this community will they remember?
I got a chance last week to catch up with Anne Towler as she and Virginia were preparing the art installation for last week’s wonderful service. Anne was one of the first folks who volunteered to help out as our second presence when I started teaching Godly Play three years ago next month, and I am amazed at all the ways in which she and her wife Virginia have loved this place for so so long, and how this community has loved them and their family. Anne was sewing some of the fabric on one of the ends of the rainbow as we chatted, and she talked about how much she loved being with our young ones and all the ways she’s been amazed and inspired and taught by our young ones. And, as she was holding those rainbow colors in her hands, she told me how she also valued bringing all of her into the Godly Play classroom, so that all children knew they were welcome in our Godly Play space, knowing how she had been welcomed in this community, she wants to make sure our children experience that welcome too. And as a Queer person myself, the way she so gracefully and compassionately and lovingly said that hit my core so deep, I know I’ll remember that (and this) just as fiercely and vividly as that kid remembered sitting there with Jesus; children of God sitting together, welcoming one another with lovingkindness.
We’ve spent our summer thinking about welcome, and I am grateful for the ways in which you all have welcomed me here, and I’m excited to share with you some of the ways we will be welcoming our children and youth and families into our fall programming! Starting September 12, we’ll begin what I’m calling Second Sundays, an action packed day of Family Ministries! Beginning in worship, our young ones will be welcomed into our worship space, and will have an extended children’s moment during the sermon in our former library space which excitingly is in the final stages of renovation! I am so excited to see the ways in which that space will welcome all ages.
After the sermon, our young ones will return to worship so that they can continue to hear and observe our stories and be with our community. Following worship, our families will be invited to the lower courtyard space for a whole family lesson with activities for everyone! I am very very excited to announce that we will be heading back to Compassion Camp this fall, and we have a whole new curriculum- Compassion Camp: Changing the World with Loving Kindness and it is so good! Compassion Camp welcomes all of our children (and their families) and our children-at-heart, and we kindly invite our children-at-heart to RSVP so we’re always prepared. After Compassion Camp, our youth are welcome to join us for a picnic in the park for a meal and conversation together! Maybe we should call it SUPER Second Sundays because they are going to be so intents! Get it? In- tents?
And we want you involved! We are looking for musicians, story tellers, arts and crafts leaders... the opportunities are endless! Please reach out if you’re interested in leading the way with lovingkindness!
Friends, as we continue to extend our summer of welcome beyond summer, I am thrilled at the ways in which we will be welcoming our families back to this space and further into this community. I consider myself so privileged to be able to work with them, and I look forward to an epic return to family ministries programming next month.
With our theme of lovingkindness, it is my hope that our young folks will not only hear the words lovingkindness, but experience it regularly within our community, and I challenge you to be mindful of the ways in which you encounter the divine-in-others in the days ahead. As we move now into our time of response, may we cling onto the deep understanding that together, we can welcome others through our lovingkindness, just as Christ welcomes us.
© 2021 Patrick O'Connor