I’ve been wanting to preach on this text for a while. Our church, over the past few years, has seen a slow but steady uptick in children. We haven’t reached our highest levels of children per person here at OSA, the years before the Great Depression and the years before the Great Recession, but on a Sunday morning, you’re going to hear some noise from somebody’s child. For the parents this can be both frustrating and embarrassing—leading to what I sometimes call frustbarrassment, which can lead, in the adult human, to extreme sarcasm and the crush of inexorable defeat. On the other hand, for the ones who happen to be child-free, church can seem noisy and the service inaudible. Sometimes you want to help, but don’t know how. Sometimes you want to shush but don’t want to be rude. Sometimes it just wears you out. Instead of frustbarrasment you get embarrannoyed. These are all understandable and appropriate feelings when it comes to children, who listen half as much as you want them to when you want them to, and listen twice as much when you don’t.
Plus, kids are really expensive. If you can, give birth in another country, because even with insurance, paying for a birth will kill your budget. It’s been nine months since Frances was born and we’re still paying it off. And even as you’re paying off the birth, there’s day care bills and doctor bills. And you have to buy things for the children at their birthday and at Christmas time, and sometimes when they just want something. Then they start eating and never stop.
Of course, we are not the only society that has had to deal with the pain of children. In Jesus’ day, there was a practice known as exposure, which was placing unwanted infants on the trash-heaps of the town. Usually, this meant the children would die—of exposure, much like a crucified person might. It is important to know how desperate a family might have been to expose a child. There was no welfare state. Most people were desperately poor. Birth control was rudimentary at best, abortion too. I do not judge the desperate and the starving. But one mark of the early church was its adoption—literal adoption—of exposed infants. The early church would take the children off the trash heap and into their homes. Persecutions swept through the church, too, depriving children of their parents, and early preachers exhorted their congregations to adopt them and take them in. And they did. This is not exactly a natural thing to do. Some people are good at caring about other people’s kids. Others have a hard time caring about their own. Nevertheless, taking in children, exposed and abandoned, became a mark of the early Christian church. Even to this day, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services are two of the largest adoption agencies in the nation, and because of this, they are two of the agencies tasked with the care of the children who were separated from their families this past year at the border. Our own LSS of New York received over 50 children from border separations. It’s unclear how many of them still reside with LSS, since it’s unclear how many children are still detained without their parents.
It seems to me that if we want to be a Christian nation—setting aside for a moment that such an idea is false in itself—we would not separate these children from the care of their parents. Instead, we would be seeking the children on the trash heaps of this world, crawling among the piles of plastic bags and the leaking batteries. We would be sending out members of the state department to Syria and every refugee camp, searching for children who don’t have homes and finding safe places for them. But instead our government has elected to reduce the amount of refugees we take in, which in turn reduces the amount of refugees our church can help resettle.
And, if we were a Christian nation, we would take every automatic and semi-automatic weapon, which kill our children every day, and melt them all down into something useful, like brackets for solar panel fixtures or bolts for hydroponic tanks. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” Jesus says, and I cannot help but wonder if we can welcome both semi-automatic pistols and children. I think it’s more like not—we cannot worship both God and wealth, and we cannot welcome both children and weapons designed specifically to kill human beings. And if welcoming children means welcoming their heavenly Father, who do we welcome when we welcome those weapons?
Now I know I’m preaching to the choir on those themes. But I believe this church, this congregation, is a base camp for righteousness, just like every Christian congregation ought to be, a place where we learn to be the people God leads us to be. And so I believe it is as serious for us to welcome children here as it is for any other entity. “Whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
One of my favorite moments here was, I believe, at a barbecue just this last summer. I don’t think it was book club, but perhaps the Pentecost barbecue we had. Somebody had left a science kit in the narthex, and I was all busy transporting meat or dishes from the garden to the kitchen. I walked through the narthex and saw Ethan running around with a test tube, and when I came back, I saw about eight kids sitting in a circle at the doorstep of the narthex. They were playing science at a Pentecost barbecue, and I thought, this is one hell of a church—a safe place for faith, for discovery, for friendship, for friends. We are safe not because of the way we are armed, but because of the way we live and the way we believe. We start with welcoming children and the chaos and the inevitable pain they bring. We bear one another’s real discomforts as we learn again how best to welcome children and their gifts and their issues—just as we bear our own sins with one another.
It’s no accident that children, the least powerful, least aware, least important of Jesus’ followers make an appearance now. He just mentioned to his disciples that he was going to be killed and rise from the dead, and all they wanted to know was who was going to be the most important of his followers. They didn’t want to hear what he said, because they didn’t want their leader to fail. But Jesus embraced the way of the cross, not the way of the sword. People have said that the Newtown massacre proved that our country doesn’t care about kids, but about guns. Jesus says—what happens when you start caring about kids?
The Reverend John Flack