Youth Sunday

Matthew 18

“At that time the followers came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kindgom of heaven?” Jesus called a little child to come to him. Jesus stood the child before the followers. Then Jesus said, “I tell you the truth. You must change and become like little children {in your hearts}. If you don’t do this, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The greatest person in the kingdom of heaven is the person that makes himself humble like this child. If a person accepts a little child like this in my name, then that person accepts me. If one of these little children believes in me, and another person causes that child to sin, then it will be very bad for that person. Be careful. Don’t think these children are worth nothing. I tell you that these children have angels in heaven. And those angels are always with my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 18

Here is another translation of Matthew 18 from The Message:

“At about the same time, the disciples came to Jesus asking, “Who gets the highest rank in God’s kingdom?” For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom.”

We spend most of our childhood trying to grow up fast. We long to be older than we are. We don’t want to be children. Children are vulnerable. They have less power and control than the adults around them. Children can’t vote, can’t drive, can’t date, and don’t have as many choices as adults do. While on one hand children rule the day, who wants to be vulnerable, less powerful, and as Jesus said, humble like a child? But here we see in this scripture passage from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that we should be like children. In the kingdom of heaven, children are the most important. What did he mean by that?

My first impression is that he means we should embrace the innocence and simplicity of childhood. Robert Fulghum wrote in the Kansas City Times, “Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school. These are the things I learned: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” It does seem like life would be a whole lot easier if all we had to do was follow such basic rules. It is much easier said that done.

Through the eyes of a child the world is in many ways simpler. Unless you have faced tragedy early on, most children seem to have a sense that the world is inherently good and that they can trust the world, the people closest to them in it and trust God. Faith seems to come naturally and easily. To make this point I would like to share a story by Celeste Sibley, one-time columnist for the paper, the Atlanta Constitution. Celeste took her three children to a diner for breakfast one morning. It was crowded and they had to take separate seats at the counter. Eight-year-old Mary was seated at the far end of the counter and when her food was served she called down to her mother in a loud voice, “Mom, don’t people say grace in this place?” A hush came over the entire diner and before Celeste could figure out what to say, the counterman said, “Yes, we do. You say it.” All the people at the counter bowed their heads. Mary bowed her head and in a clear voice said, “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food.” As adults we get so self-conscious about our faith. We worry what others will think of us and we censor ourselves. We are embarrassed to share our faith loudly and proudly in public. This lack of self-consciousness is a blessing of childhood. It allows us to be more open and to connect with others and with God. We don’t separate life and faith. It is easier to see the two as seamless.

Renowned writer C.S. Lewis wrote “There is a stage in a child’s life at which it cannot separate the religious from the merely celebratory character of Christmas or Easter. I have been told of a very small and very devout boy who was heard murmuring to himself on Easter morning a poem of his own composition which began ‘Chocolate eggs and Jesus risen.’ This seems to me, for his age, both admirable poetry and admirable piety. But of course the time will soon come when such a child can no longer effortlessly and spontaneously enjoy that unity. He will become able to distinguish the spiritual from the ritual and celebratory aspect of Easter; chocolate eggs will no longer seem sacramental and holy. And once he has distinguished them, he must put one or the other first. If he puts the
spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweet.” As we get older we often lose the wonder of life that helps us to see the holy in the ordinary. Like C. S. Lewis has noted, things that at one point could be both holy and ordinary lose their sense of the sacred. We become less open to imagination and possibility and more focused on what is concrete and right in front of us.

I would assume that at some point most all of us believed in something beyond our realm of experience, something imagined like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. Or maybe you believed that you could fly. Miracles were easy to accept and of course God and your parents would never let anything bad happen. Somehow over time that gets taken away and replaced with common sense and practicality. Life with its hard realities stifles our imagination and wonder. In Hebrews 11:1, we read, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Children seem to have an easier time of believing in the unseen and trusting in their hopes. I remember that when I reached a certain age I demanded that my mother admit that there was no Santa Claus. My brother and
I hassled her for days wanting to know the truth. I couldn’t possibly believe in something that I didn’t have proof of. I look back and treasure the time in life when I could effortlessly believe in something without seeing it. I treasure the innocence of my childhood and the belief that good will always triumph. Those are things that I wish I could embrace more fully today.

I remember that I was also a very inquisitive child. As many boys and girls do, I went through my “why?” phase. There is a story of a daughter and father on a family camping trip. The six-year- old daughter and her dad were awake one night. As she looked up at the full moon, she asked, “Daddy, do you think I can touch the moon if I stand on my tiptoes?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he smiled. “Can you reach it?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think I can either.” He said.
She was quiet for a moment, then she said confidently, “Daddy, maybe if you
hold me up on your shoulders?”
“I’m sorry that just won’t work honey.”
“ But why? She asked.
“Because the moon is too far away.” Her father told her.
“But why?” she wondered.
And he wondered too. He wondered when was the last time he had looked up at
the moon and thought he could touch it. He wondered when he had given up
reaching for what seemed out of reach. He stood up, lifted his daughter onto his
shoulders and said, “Maybe you can touch the moon. We should at least try.”

When did we stop trying?

Little girls and boys go through a stage when they have a million questions. They don’t give up. They want to know more about their world and why it works the way it does. They don’t take things for granted yet. They marvel at the world and they delve into it. If we could look through the eyes of a child with curiosity and inquisitiveness we might find ourselves more grateful for the amazing nature of creation and the power behind it more often. Maybe if I desired to know God just as intensely as I questioned for knowledge and understanding when I was little, then I would strengthen my relationship with God.

Looking back at when we were little, there are so many qualities we have left behind, some taken from us, some outgrown, some simply forgotten. Can you remember moments or qualities from your own childhood that stand out to you? I invite you to pay attention to the children in your life and really think back on your own childhood. What is it about what you were like when you were a child that you could recapture that might strengthen your faith? What have you lost from the way you were as a child that might connect you on a deeper level with God?
Is it innocence or trust? Imagination and wonder? Humility? Compassion? Daring? Questioning?

I think we can all reflect on our lives and find a lesson from our youth that would help us to grow in faith today. There is wisdom in our own past. We just have to be willing to stop and look back for it.

Let us pray.
God, give us the faith of children.
Amen.