Thy Kingdom Come
Jesus was in the heart of his ministry. The disciples were joining, the crowds were gathering. Seeing Jesus heal and hearing him speak had become stranding room-only events. His words were words that set the people on fire. His message was one which could never have been imagined before in that time. He had become a prophet of the first order, and his words were both challenge and comfort. And it was, at this time, as the crowds fanned in to hear him, and as his polling numbers had risen to their height, that he was asked an important question. And the question, posed by some of those who followed him, by some of those who wanted to be the favorite of their teacher, by some who wanted to be assured of how to please their master, was a relatively simple one. Perhaps it was just one of them who nuzzled their brother to the front to ask, or maybe a few of the disciples rallied together to implore Jesus. However it happened, the question was asked, “Jesus, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
You see, they had been listening to all this talk of the kingdom, of the coming reign of God, of the mystical union of Mr. Rogers neighborhood and streets of gold that they had been wondering about. They knew that the kingdom was near, that the meek and the persecuted and the poor were welcomed there. They knew that they were to strive for the kingdom, and they knew that Jesus was at the heart of telling stories about this place. They knew that the kingdom was like a mustard seed that grew to enormous proportions if left unfettered. They knew that like yeast that could do mysterious things to bread causing it to rise the kingdom of God would also grow. They knew that there was joy in the kingdom, joy akin to finding treasure in a field, and joy akin to hauling in nets and nets full of fish. They knew that they had been promised keys to heaven. And they knew it had many rooms. They knew the stories they had been told by a loving teacher, but they still must have had swirling thoughts in their head about this mysterious other-worldly, out of time world. Its values antithetical to the world they knew. What was important in the here and now would be tilted upside down there. What was clung to on earth would have no bearing in heaven. And the questions they would ask about the kingdom reveals not ignorance, as much as earnest desire.
“Jesus, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
I find myself wondering what it was they expected to hear. Were they wanting reassurance that they were worthy of the kingdom? Were they wanted Jesus to name names? Were they competitive, wanting one of their names to be spoken and not their rival? Did they really expect an answer that would even make sense to them given their confusion about the kingdom of heaven after all?
Jesus didn’t answer the disciples. Not a word was spoken. But as they stood, with baited breath, he turned from them and called to him a child, a child who may have been standing with a parent nearby, or who may have been playing in the dust of the ground. A child, a paidion (pie dee own), one between three and five years old, not entirely unlike the little ones we minister to here at The Children’s Nursery school, was beckoned by a gentle Jesus into the circle of disciples. Jesus told a story with a simple gesture. All the while the disciples stared on, watching the lesson unfold.
Jesus placed the child before them. Perhaps he held the child close to his chest, or urged his disciples to make their way down closer to the ground to look at this little one eye-to-eye. And with the disciples looking on, he said quietly and reverently, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And then he added even more, perhaps still standing eye to eye with the little one gathered in their midst, surrounded by these grown up men, “and whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
I’ve been thinking about this verse throughout the week as we consecrate our nursery school teachers, as we celebrate their teaching in our midst, as we recognize our Sunday school teachers and as we emphasize our commitment to education. And I’ve been thinking about this verse in light of the fears I sense in our world. It’s hard not to ponder the problems with our national economy, as we wonder about the future of our planet, as we worry about what kind of world we are offering our children. There are dark days pressing around us. Days when I am almost afraid to turn on the news for fear of what I will learn next. There are times when I wonder if the kingdom of God is all some aberration. There are days when I want to shake my fist and demand that the human race figure out how to do better than we’ve been doing. And I have to ask, “How do we as the United Church of Christ, people who believe in ushering in the kingdom of God in the here and now, who believe in the power of the kingdom to burst forth in this world, how do we make that happen?”
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts we have in answering that question comes when we listen to the ones who Jesus pointed toward, when we listen to children.
Our building is hopping all week with our littlest ones. That may be easy to forget if you’re only a Sunday morning dweller here at Peace, but our Children’s Nursery School little ones call our building home. They wander in and out through the doors, leave their handprints on the walls, scuff their shoes on the floors, drop tiny goldfish crackers on the carpet. They also bestow on those of us who are blessed enough to get to know them random moments of unexpected grace as they offer us hugs, or sing in warbling voices sporadic songs in the hallways, or look at us with eyes filled with hope. And the best way for us to welcome the kingdom, is to follow Jesus’s example and welcome the little ones.
This week I was talking with another parent about my sermon this week. I was sharing that I wanted to talk about the kingdom of God, and how we instill faith in our children, and how hard that was to do when I felt so little hope right now in the world. I lamented and I despaired and I wrung my hands in misery and may have even said, “Oh, woe is me, how do I preach…woe is me.” And she said calmly and with pragmatic certainty, “Then, perhaps, you should spend a little time in the nursery school this week instead.” And I remembered the words of Jesus, that to enter the kingdom we must become like children. To enter the kingdom, we must sit in little chairs, and watch with big eyes, and touch with small hands, and trust with open hearts.
And so what does it mean for us as a church community to usher in the kingdom of God? What does it mean for all of us as a community to embrace child-like ways that we may be instruments of the holy spirit?
I believe we begin by looking at our brothers and sisters with child-like attitudes of truth and openness. I believe we begin with facing our deepest fears. I believe we begin by trusting that the world is a good place, and that we were created for good. I believe we begin by listening to the stories of Jesus. And I believe this leads us to worlds of hope anew. But it all begins with welcoming children.
My grandmother died five years ago. This week would have been her 95th birthday, and so my mind has been drifting back and forth to her this week. I’ve found myself reflecting on the legacy she left and on the lessons she taught me and to the ways in which she shaped me. I learned from her what it meant to welcome children—to welcome their passion, and their wonder, and their questions, and in so doing, create an inkling of what it means to be part of the neighborhood of God. One afternoon a year or so before she died, I went with my mother to take my grandmother to lunch. This was often a bit of a chore to do because at that time in my grandmother’s life she had difficulty seeing and hearing. She would speak loudly, and due to a problem with double vision, one of the lenses of her glasses was tinted black. We sat, a happy intergenerational trio on that Saturday morning, at Cosmos restaurant and as we were eating our scrambled eggs and bacon a preschool girl, her pigtails bobbing, turned around in the booth in front of us and after carefully sizing up our dining party decided to strike up a conversation with my delighted grandmother, who never knew a stranger. This little one watched my grandmother hesitantly, and then said curiously, “Why’s your eye like that?” And my grandmother paused in her eating and first admired, loudly, to my mother and me, how cute the child was, how adorable was her red shirt, and then she turned her attention to the business at hand. She inched her face closer to the face of the girl and said, “Well, let me tell you a story. My eye doesn’t work very well anymore. It’s broken So, now I have this black thing here and, look, I don’t need to use my eye anymore! It’s hidden!” The little girl stared closer, the two generations almost touching nose to nose. And my mother and I held our breath, because we always worried that Grandma would get self-conscious. But we were wrong, because Ila Soderstrom was not a woman to let a little honesty from a child get her down. She welcomed the conversation, and in so doing she welcomed the child. And then the little girl said, softly in response, “Does that make you sad? To not have your eye work?” I was struck at the time how intuitive this child was, how honest she had been, how easily she offered sincere empathy. And my grandmother nodded quietly with resignation, and said, “Thank you.” I still remember that encounter, for it is a reminder to me of the power of welcoming children, and of realizing once you’ve welcomed them that they offer us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like. It must be a place of honest compassion, and curious wonder, and authentic vulnerability. In that graced space where we meet one another nose to nose, generation to generation and God is there in the midst of it.
The prophetic writer Paul Grout, a Church of the Brethren sage, once wrote these words which I have kept in a quote file on my desk and have read and reread again and again, “The North American Church may be in trouble, make no mistake, The kingdom of God is not.” And that sentence resonates deep in my soul. For the kingdom of God is not made of rules and requirements about who belongs and who doesn’t, as the church can do. And the kingdom of God is not concerned with declining membership, as the church has been. And the kingdom of God is not focused on fear, as the church can do. The kingdom of God is doing just fine.
Remember: when Jesus invites us to consider the kingdom it is a child who is our example. May we be wise enough to clasp the tiny hands they offer and may we allow them to lead us into a world of hope that God’s will may be done.