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Like a Child

Children’s sermons are hilarious because we don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re terrifying for the person with the microphone because she too does not know what’s going to happen. They are, as our children have told us, chaos because they are agents of chaos!

The season of Lent begins this Wednesday- Ash Wednesday. We will, as Christians have done for centuries, use our time in this season to repent, to draw closer to God with intention, and to live with a deeper spiritual awareness as we prepare for the joy of the Easter season. Our theme here at Pocket during Lent will be “Are You Kidding?” and we will seek to view the Bible’s teachings with the eyes of a child. We’ll have lots of opportunities to explore what we can learn from children, or by simply having a child-like approach to the good news of Jesus. Maybe we can allow the whole season to be one long children’s sermon- open, exciting, wondering what will happen or what we will learn, asking questions, finding holiness.

It's not Lent yet though. Today, the last Sunday before Lent begins, is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the day we remember a story that happened just a bit before the story we heard about earlier. Hear this from Mark 9:2-8: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

We haven’t really begun our series about children, but I think there is much for us to learn when we put these two stories side-by-side. When we can learn what Jesus is telling us about humility, about children, about welcome, the Transfiguration story looks a little different.

Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ most faithful disciples, follow him up a mountain. When they arrive, Jesus’ clothes change. He shines with the glory of the Lord. And Elijah and Moses appear, talking to Jesus. Of course, the disciples are not sure what’s going on. They are confused and terrified. Peter suggests building three small shelters for some reason that probably made sense to him at the time. And then a cloud overshadows them, and the voice of God breaks through- “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Then a few verses later, beginning in verse 30 Jesus tells his disciples that he is to be betrayed and killed, but he will rise again. And we read “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” And from there, we learn that the disciples have been arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus sits everyone down and says, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He then proceeds to put a child right in the middle of the circle, drawing their attention to her. And then Jesus hugs the child. “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but the one who sent me.”

In both stories, someone who is identified in terms of being a child (Jesus of course being named the son) is given standing, a place of respect and honor, and a direction is given to the disciples about how to respond to them. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” “This is a child, a beloved child, welcome her!” There’s a certain parallelism when we lay these stories alongside one another.

Just a chapter later, in Mark 10:15, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God belongs to the little children. And in a parallel reading from Matthew 18 Jesus goes so far as to say, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It may make us wonder why children are so special. Jesus seems really hung up on kids for whatever reason. I’ve always found this to be interesting because we have all been kids at some point. So, what have we lost in growing up? What can we learn by welcoming children into our midst and learning to be like them? And why is it that when the disciples are tempted to be prideful and to seek power, that Jesus points to children instead?

I’d like to suggest a few things. Multiple times in Mark 9 alone we see the disciples confused and afraid. In fact, it’s something of a theme throughout the book of Mark that the disciples are confused; I’ve heard them referred to as the “duhh-ciples.” Of course, being confused is a normal part of life. Most of us don’t make it through the whole day without some “huh?” moments. But in verse 32 we read that the disciples didn’t understand, and they were afraid to ask. Now, I can’t speak to every child in the world, but my kids are never afraid to ask. I get asked 958 questions a day and sometimes, I have to discreetly google the question so I can maintain the illusion of not being a dumb-dumb. What is the highest number? Why do we need to sleep? Does Spiderman have to brush his teeth? Where do birds go when it rains? How do stoplights work? The question that drives me crazy though is this- “How do you know?” Kids are never afraid to ask. They’re hungry for knowledge and thirsty for understanding.

It's the disciples who want to be perceived in a certain way, who want to believe they understand, who want to seem like they get it, they are the ones who are afraid to ask. And they are the poorer for it. Being willing to ask questions requires us to humble ourselves. Questions precede learning. But if we feel compelled to seem like we know everything, we can’t take the risk of asking the question. We can’t actually be open to learning. But if we could emulate our children and ask, perhaps we may come a little closer to the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus centers a child in the middle of the circle of disciples in the middle of the house in Capernaum, he engages in what Robert Hamerton-Kelly calls the “poetics of place.” Jesus doesn’t just point to the child, he gives her standing- a place of importance and of significance. For just a moment, this child is the center of the world. This child who in every other way is utterly insignificant, of next to no importance. In the ancient near east, children had no legal rights. In a world where the child mortality rate is high, children can’t be all that important. Approximately 50% of children living in Jesus’ time did not live to see age 15. They had no legal protection, they could offer very little beyond some measure of household labor. Children are completely dependent and entirely vulnerable. But for this moment, this child is the center of the universe.

Jesus’ point is simple- we should welcome, deeply and truly welcome, those with no power, no prestige, no wealth, nothing to give us. We should give standing and honor to those whom the world has deemed worthless. At the Transfiguration, God gets our attention and says “this is my beloved son, listen to him.” And in this house in Capernaum, Jesus gets our attention and says, “the powerless are the most important, welcome them.”

And a third point- for as many questions as children ask, they can often accept “I don’t know” or “it’s just a mystery” as the answer. For the entire month of Christmas, my stock answer to every question is “Christmas magic” and it is enough. It doesn’t have to make sense; you don’t have to know. It will all be revealed in time. Kids can accept that.

As I said earlier, the Transfiguration is a head scratcher. I don’t really understand it, and I’m skeptical of anyone who would say with certainty that they do. The disciples certainly don’t seem to get it. But the Transfiguration through the eyes of a child is something totally different. Through the bright eyes of a child, one who doesn’t need for the world to adhere to the rules of physics and for everything to make logical sense, the Transfiguration is just what it is. It is a beautiful mystery; it is packed full of meaning but I don’t have to fully understand. For a child, it is simply enough to be there, present and alive in the mystery of God.

So perhaps in centering children Jesus is inviting our questions and inviting our wonder. Jesus is reminding us that the center of the universe is not power and prestige, it is humility, interdependence, and openness. Jesus is calling us into faith that transcends understanding and logic.

And as we turn now to the mystery of the sacrament of communion, I wonder if we can, for just a moment, view it too through the eyes of child? Can we celebrate the mystery that connects us to Jesus in the act of remembrance? Can we accept the grace that defies logic, the peace that passes understanding? Can we wonder and question and celebrate with joy even as we simply say yes to being alive to the mystery?

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