[Transcript of a sermon delivered July 10, 2016, my first Sunday as Senior Pastor at Plantation United Methodist Church]
Mark 10:13-16 (New International Version)
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
It was just about two weeks ago when my husband Chuck and I said goodbye to the moving truck with our worldly possessions, loaded the little trunk on my Jeep with everything that was left over, and headed south on I-95.
We had spent three wonderful years in Northern Virginia, as my husband works for the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington DC. But before that, we lived in South Florida for eleven years. And we loved it. We missed it!
So when we crossed over the Georgia/Florida border, we looked at each other with big, goofy grins on our faces. Many (many!) hours later, when we finally entered Broward County, we said to each other that we were home. And we were so very, very happy to be home.
But as much as we love this area, as excited as we are to begin serving alongside you, we’re not really fully home yet. Because this is all new to us. You are new to us.
Right now, we are strangers to each other. I’ve looked at your faces in the church directory, and have prayed for you. I have met a few of you, and through the wonders of the internet, I’ve become Facebook friends with many others. We have received so many lovely cards, welcoming us to Plantation. Several of you have mentioned visiting my website to check me out ahead of time. But we don’t yet know each other. That will take time.
I know of you through your former Senior Pastors Sam Wright and Tim Smiley, and through past associates Sara McKinley and Cynthia Weems. And, of course, through Pastors Kathy and Margaret. And all that I’ve heard has been overwhelmingly positive. But I don’t yet know you. That takes more than just hearing about someone. It takes walking along with you. It takes working together, struggling together. And that will take time.
And I am very aware that this kind of transition can be very difficult. Until a few weeks ago, you had a wonderful pastor in Sam. You knew him. He had stood by you through difficult times, and you, in turn, had comforted him and Yvonne when their son died. He was your pastor. You knew his style, his wonderful kindness, his deep wisdom, his sense of humor.
Until a just few months ago, you thought that Sam could be continuing to be your leader for years to come. Then, suddenly, you found out that he was leaving, and that some other person was coming to sit in his chair, in his office, and to stand here where he stood. To you, today, I am still an unknown.
I’m your new senior pastor, but I’m a stranger to you. And there is often something deep within us human beings that is uncomfortable with what is strange to us. It’s very natural for us to want things to stay the same, and for us to shy away from the unfamiliar.
But… sometimes the stranger becomes a friend.
Just a few weeks ago, I was stuck in the Orlando airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight back to Washington. I had been in Orlando for Annual Conference, but we all know that the Orlando airport is really the Disney airport. Waiting in the terminal with me there were a ton of families with small children. When we heard about the first delay at about noon, we all settled in, taking out our phones, tablets, books. The parents took out coloring books for the kids, or bags of Cheerios.
But after about an hour, the kids were restless. They had had constant Disney-fied entertainment for many days, and now this delay was wreaking havoc on their little overstimulated brains.
Then I saw it happen. One little boy crossed between the seats to make friends with another little boy seated with his family. They started playing together with their toy cars. Then a little girl joined them, and a boy loaned her one of his extra cars. Their giggles and squeals of delight attracted more children. And then more.
These kids didn’t all speak the same language. But giggles sound the same in every country. They didn’t all look alike. They were a beautiful array of different colors. They certainly didn’t all know each other before that day. They were strangers to one another.
But you know what? They couldn’t have cared less.
I remember thinking: Right there. Right there is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Children of God, from many different kinds of backgrounds, many different cultures, all coming together, to enjoy each other, to share with each other, to love and appreciate each other, and to help each other get through the difficult patches of life.
The Kingdom of God
… about which Jesus talked so often.
In our scripture reading today from the 10th chapter of Mark, we see families bringing their children to see Jesus. Many of these families may have traveled a long distance, and not in the comfort of an air-conditioned car or plane.
But this was an important journey for these parents. It was common to bring young children to the rabbi to receive a blessing. The parents have probably heard about Jesus’ teachings and miracles, and they want their beloved children to receive a blessing from this incredibly powerful man. How disappointed they must have been to hear Jesus’ disciples say that Jesus was too busy.
The disciples weren’t trying to be mean. They truly believed that Jesus was too occupied with “important” issues to bless these children. They don’t even bother to tell Jesus that the families are there. They started to shoo them away.
Before the disciples can send the families on their way, Jesus calls out and demands that the children be brought to him.
The Message translation of Mark 10:14-16 reads like this:
“Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them.
Can you imagine a more beautiful picture? The Savior of the world, picking up each child gently, resting his hand upon their heads, and giving them a blessing.
But the disciples must have been confused. Children in their society were not considered to be full human beings. They were of very low status, and usually were just kept out of the way. But Jesus pulls them center stage, and then — shockingly — uses them as an example of how we all should be.
Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.
But what does it mean for us to accept the kingdom of God like a little child?
In the e-news this week, I asked what it meant to you to have faith like a child. Here were some of your answers: Innocence. Wonder. Trust. Acceptance. Play. Joy.
Great answers! And over the course of this Like a Child series, we’ll be looking at all them. It would be fun to start off with something like “playing like a child,” or “experiencing wonder like a child.” But today we’re going to tackle “trusting like a child.” Because this is the foundation for everything else that we’ll be talking about. And it has never been more important.
Because, let’s be honest, our world right now has some serious, legitimate trust issues. Our news is tragically filled with stories of distrust. And that distrust is erupting in anger and violence. Flick on your TV, and you’ll see suspicion and pain and confusion. Open up the newspaper, and you’ll read stories about yet another tragic shooting, another life lost, another family in grief. Turn on your computer, and you’ll see headlines about unrest, chaos, injustice, suffering.
I have absolutely not one tiny bit of doubt that this deeply grieves our God. Watching children of God harm and kill other children of God. Witnessing human beings made in God’s image doing terrible harm to other human beings made in God’s image. This is not what our loving God has in mind for God’s children.
So how do we, the church, respond? How do we trust in the midst of such painful distrust? What would it mean for the Church to be a witness of childlike trust in the midst of a culture of distrust? And where do we even begin?
I have an image of trust in my head that I’d like to share with you this morning. My sister-in-law Kelly has seven kids, but back in 2003 there were just four of them: Sydney, Jesse, Andrew, and Liam. I loved going over to Kel’s house to visit them. It was always joyfully chaotic in that house. One day I walked in (the front door was always unlocked) and headed up the stairs.
Kelly shouted out that she was in the kitchen. I stood at the base of the short stairway that led up to the kids’ bedrooms, and yelled out a hello. Andrew, the oldest, came out first. He ran down the steps, gave me a hug, then went into the kitchen. Next came little Liam, the youngest, tottering down the steps. I picked him up and held him in a hug on my right hip. Next was Sydney, at that time the only girl. She ran down, too, and I scooped her up on my other hip.
Then Jesse peeked his head around the bedroom door. He had a devilish look in his big brown eyes. He stood at the end of the hallway, crouched down in a starting position, and then took off. Holding Liam on one hip and Sydney on the other, I suddenly realized that Jesse was going to leap off the top of the stairs, and come flying through the air to me.
It was one of those moments when time slows down. I can still picture the look of wild joy on his face as he raced towards me. And the feeling of panic that I had. I quickly dropped Sydney to her feet, and leaned over to put Liam down, standing back up just as Jesse reached the top step, and caught air with his arms reached out to me.
I caught him. He gave me a hug and a kiss, then shrugged out of my arms and followed his big brother into the kitchen. It all happened in about 10 seconds.
But here’s the thing. Jesse trusted me. In his face there was no shadow of doubt. He knew — he trusted — that his Aunt Hedy would safely catch him. Because he knew that what would make me happiest would be to pull him into my arms, kiss his little forehead, and give him a big, huge hug. Because he trusted in my love for him.
That is childlike trust. I found this definition of trust online: to have complete confidence in; to rely or depend on; to expect confidently.
Our world has lost — if it ever really had it at all — the ability to trust like that. To trust in God. To trust in each other. In some cases to even trust in ourselves.
It’s no wonder that people are reacting out of their pain, when there is no foundation of grace and forgiveness and love on which to fall safely back.
Ever since I read Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. has been one of my spiritual heroes. Before I even became a Christian in the late 90s, I listened to a compilation of his beautiful, wise sermons.
Several times over this past difficult year for our country and world, this quote has popped up on my Facebook feed, posted by people all around the globe: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
That sounds great. I mean really, really great. And it is! But it is only when we trust in God’s care for us, that we can do exactly what Dr. King implores us to do.
It is when we trust God’s love that we can have the boldness to face hatred with love. Only when we trust God’s promises that we can return peace for violence. Only when we trust in God’s guidance that we can carry light into the darkness.
It’s only when we trust that deeply that, like my nephew Jesse, we can with complete confidence leap into whatever God has in mind for us.
Because we know that God will be there already,
waiting for us with open arms.
As I’ve been praying for our world and preparing to come here to join you at Plantation, Proverbs 3:5-6 has been guiding my prayers.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge him in all your ways, and he will direct your paths.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” That word for “heart” in Hebrew is leb. It means far more than just feelings. It means who you are in your innermost self. It is the very core of who you are.
Trust in the Lord with your entire being, with all of yourself. Without reserve, with full confidence, with eager expectation of God’s doing something amazing. That is childlike trust in God.
When we trust in God’s love for us, God can use us in powerful ways. We can boldly step in to offer our support to people in pain as a reflection of God love for us. We can offer peace and healing in answer to violence. We can fight against injustice with bold grace.
Having that kind of trust gives rise to a powerful witness to the world.
It can turn enemies into allies.
Darkness into light.
Strangers into friends.
A world in pain into the Kingdom of God on earth.
I don’t know exactly what that will look like for us in the days, months, and years to come. I’m still new here. But I trust that God does have something amazing in store. And I am honored — and so excited — to be able to join you here at Plantation… as together we leap into the future with God.