Earlier this week one of my children told me, “Dad you need to listen to your kids more.” That did not make me too happy at the time because I had been trying to get him to listen. But when I thought about it he was right. I do need to listen to my children. We all do. For our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews all have much to teach us. They always have. Even when we were the kids. Let us pray. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Open to us the meaning of your word and the reality of your love for each of us. In Christ’ name we pray. Amen.
Bible Music Camp is a special experience. Children singing in the halls. Youth demonstrating leadership. Kids pointing at my kilt on United Kingdom day. Corky dressing up as Abraham. Noelle tying it all together, and so many adult and youth volunteers leading as well. At the end of each day, we met here to review, and I got to hear what our young people were learning. They learned about helping. One girl suggested her favorite story was Zaccheaus, the tax collector who scaled the foliage to see Jesus, because it shows God can help us climb trees. We learned about different countries this week. How God has the whole world in his hands. One boy told me his favorite countries were Wales and Turkey because he said they must have lots of turkeys and wales there. And the process of trying to keep the peace when 60 young people full of energy are together showed me that nothing is more humbling than being a parent or prized than children at peace.
Our second lesson is about children at peace. Isaiah 11 foreshadows a time in which traditionally warring groups will be at peace. So peaceful that a wolf and lamb, leopards and goats, calves and lions can live together, and even a little child can lead them around like they might a puppy.
Much like as in Isaiah 9 where we read at Christmas that a child is born, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, he will be called wonderful counselor, prince of peace and he shall reign upon David’s throne, here in chapter 11, we read that another little one, a shoot that will come out from the stump of Jesse (the same line as David) and that the spirit of the Lord will be with him, so much so that this little one will do incredible things.
And so when Jesus was born, the divine as a humble child, and did miraculous deeds and called on disciples to do unto others as they would have it done to them, people remembered Isaiah’s prophecies about the child who would lead and bring peace. But Jesus did something else, and, children, here you should be pleased to hear this. Jesus told his disciples several times in several ways in the Gospels that the greatest people in the world would be the most like the children. That unless people became like children they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. That the attitude of a child would lead them. That whoever welcomes children, welcomes Christ.
This idea of both the prophet and the great Rabbi is remarkable because in the 7th century Near Eastern view of children, even in first century Judaism, children were treated more as property than as persons. Yet Christ held them up as a model. Writing in Sojourners magazine this month Reta Finger explains that Jesus’ upside down idea that the “little ones” make up the core of God’s kingdom is meant to present Jesus as announcing the reign of God as a political and social alternative to the Jerusalem temple system that fueled Roman oppression.[i] Jesus’ ranking children the highest says something about the most powerless and vulnerable members of society, for, of course, Jesus himself would become one of the least of these at mortal cost to himself. [ii]
We are in a town where greatness is too often defined by political influence, and often financial power, and yet our sacred texts tell us a child will lead, the divine comes as a baby, the smallest is the greatest in God’s eyes, and the most humble is the most lifted up.
You might say “well I’d love to be a kid again but I can’t turn back time.” True, but Jesus is talking about our attitude. And a childlike attitude is fun at any age; it’s what the “Everywhere Fun Fair” theme of Bible Music Camp means. A childlike attitude means admitting we have a lot to learn. Being like children means we are ready to follow God. To be God’s people. Being open to learning about God is key to relationship with God. And I hope you have gotten a sense this morning of what I learned all week – that our children can lead us to greatness as defined by Jesus.
No matter how great we think we are, we don’t rival God’s majesty. No matter our age, our years are still like those of infants in the grand scheme of God’s creation. Compared to God’s time, our experience is but a fraction. No matter how accomplished we might think we are compared to Jesus we are merely infants in our moral development. God is not interested in people who see themselves as great. God wants faithful people, what Isaiah would call righteous followers. What Jesus would have called disciples.
This week I heard our children humming in the hallways, experimenting with new things, not afraid to get messy or to mess up. Asking me questions I couldn’t answer. Reminding me I don’t know it all, that the role of any disciple is to learn. So think of all you learn from your children. Think of all you learn about yourself from a child. About humility and patience. Think of what you learn about God from being a parent – what it’s like to create and nurture life.
Of all the things I tried to get their attention this week, the one that got and kept the peace the most was the day I told the kids I was listening to them. For they want to be heard.
Those who are closest to God are those who are most open to learning about God. And our children remind us about the importance of learning. If we are willing to follow them, their example can lead us to God. Our children taught me by their lessons and actions about loving my neighbor. You kids loved each other this week. Your songs and crafts and projects and hugs of each other showed me you got it about loving your neighbor, which was our theme. You reminded me of what Isaiah and Jesus suggested, that children are special to God and we are greatest when we are most like them.
This coming Wednesday our nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. In Dr. King we see an example of loving one’s neighbor. The King memorial, which opened two years ago, depicts King in relief in what is called a “Stone of Hope.” The inspiration for this memorial comes from King’s “I have a dream speech” at the march where he said, “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”
One of the controversies surrounding the memorial was the inclusion of some of King’s words from a previous speech called his “drum major speech.” On February 4, 1968, king explained that each human has what he called a drum major instinct. The need to be out front and lead. King notes “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” King said that our first cry as a baby is a “bid for attention,” and that “an instinctive need for attention never leaves us.”
And yet King’s conclusion in his drum major speech was that “Everybody can be great, because everybody can (humbly) serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”[iii] Humility leads to greatness.
Our children lead us to greatness by reminding us that our satisfaction and purpose can be found in the well-being of another person. That is consistent with Isaiah’s vision, with Jesus’ words and example and with the experience of any parent. For nurturing children shows us how our purpose can be found in the well-being of someone else. With all our children teach us and inspire us, despite the energy they take, our time with them is precious for it goes so quickly. This past Monday, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson penned a powerful op ed about dropping his oldest child off at college for the first time. The oped struck a chord with several of you I know. Our APNC appropriately read it as their devotion at this week’s meeting. One of our staff members found it and was planning to share it with another who was driving her daughter to college but decided to wait until she returned as it was a powerful piece.
Gerson writes “I dropped off my eldest son as a freshman at college. I put on my best face. But it is the worst thing that time has done to me so far. That moment at the dorm is implied at the kindergarten door, at the gates of summer camp, at every ritual of parting and independence. But it comes as surprising as a thief, taking what you value most. The emotions of a parent, I can attest, are an odd mix: part pride, part resignation, part self-pity, even a bit of something that feels like grief. The experience is natural and common. And still planets are thrown off their axes. Our ancestors actually thought this parting should take place earlier. Many societies once practiced “extrusion” in which adolescents were sent away to live with friends or relatives right after puberty. This was supposed to minimize the nasty conflicts that come from housing teenagers and their parents in close proximity. Some non-human primates have a similar practice, forcibly expelling adolescents from the family group.
Fat lot did our ancestors know. Eighteen years is not enough. A crib is bought. Christmas trees get picked out. There is the park and lullabies and a little help with homework. The days pass uncounted, until they end. The adjustment is traumatic. My son is on the quiet side — observant, thoughtful, a practitioner of companionable silence. I’m learning how empty the quiet can be. I know this is hard on him as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman. An education expert once told me that among the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life.
But with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close. There is no use brooding about it. I’m sure my father realized it at a similar moment. And I certainly didn’t notice or empathize. At first, he was a giant who held my hand and filled my sky. Then a middle-aged man who paid my bills. Now, decades after his passing, a much-loved shadow. But I can remember the last time I hugged him in the front hallway of his home, where I always had a room. It is a memory of warmth. I can only hope to leave my son the same.
Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough. “[iv]
My kids are little now, but I know I will be where Gerson is and some of you are someday. For most of our time at the beach this summer, our daughter Cathleen stayed away from the water and the sand. She is usually pretty shy around water. In our swim lessons up at the Y she typically is the one who doesn’t want to go in. But one day this summer she stood up and decided to just walk the beach near the water. She walked. And just walked. I wasn’t sure where she was going. I’m sure she did not know where she was going either. But she just went. At her own pace. In her own sense of peace. Her sister Ellie took my hand and walked behind her sister. The little child led us. And we followed.
In a faith where we believe that God’s arrival as a humble child ultimately leads people to salvation, could it be that the example of a precious child here gets you started on your way? May it be so. Amen.
[i] Reta Halteman Finger. “Jesus and the Top Secret Empire.” Sojourners. August 2013. P. 36.
[iii] Dr. M.L. King. “Drum Major Instinct.” Speech 2/4/68.
[iv] Michael Gerson “Saying Goodbye to My Child the Youngster.” Washington Post. 8/19/13. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-saying-goodbye-to-my-child-the-youngster/2013/08/19/6337802e-08dd-11e3-8974-f97ab3b3c677_story.html