When children become our rabbis

This morning I want to speak to our children – and their families – and all who gather in this place and love these children and their families. I also want to speak to those of you who don’t like children and would rather they weren’t around to make things noisy and messy – you know who you are – people who like church quiet, well-ordered and nice. And what I want to speak with all of you about is how important it is to welcome children not only into worship, but also to the table of grace we sometimes call Holy Communion.

You see, I believe it is absolutely necessary to not only break open our celebration of Holy Communion at First Church to accept children without reservation, but I have come to believe that we have to do so in a way that is intentional, bold and wildly inclusive. You may have gathered by now that I don’t think Jesus was kidding when he told us that unless we are ready, willing and able to embrace the kingdom of God like a child, we are going to miss it! What’s more, I suspect that some of us are missing it because we haven’t figured out the difference between being childlike and being childish when it comes to welcoming – or embracing – God’s radically upside down kingdom. And that gives the presence of children around the communion table an increased importance to us for they can become unintentional rabbis if we have eyes to see. Eugene Peterson puts it like this in today’s gospel:

Knowing the correct password—saying 'Master, Master,' for instance (or going through the motions) — isn't going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, 'Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.' And do you know what I am going to say? 'You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don't impress me one bit. You're out of here. These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

You see, what Jesus is saying – and what so many children understand intuitively – is that all the BS in the world doesn’t matter one iota to the Lord. Would you agree with me – especially those who either have children or work with them – that children have great BS detectors? Oh I know somebody is going to get their nose out of joint because I said BS in this fine New England pulpit, but let’s get real and quit being Kleenex Christians with tissue paper feelings as Clarence Jordan used to say: young people know when they are being fed a line of garbage. And that’s the first reason that Jesus told us that in the upside down kingdom of God children would become our rabbis: they can smell bullshit a mile away and they say so. They want life – and religion – to be about things that matter: life, death, love, hope, integrity and joy.

I love the story of the 7 year old girl who just hated to eat Brussel sprouts: one day, after her mother had worked hard all day and cooked a dinner that included these dreaded little cabbages, the girl lost it. She refused to eat them and staged a virtual sit down strike. So her mother said, “Sara, you will make God very unhappy if you don’t eat those Brussel Sprouts – and I will have to send you to bed without any more supper.” Well, that just set up a test of the wills and Sara refused to budge. So momma sent her baby up to bed without any more dinner and when young Sara got to her room, as fate would have it, it started to rain and thunder like cats and dogs. About 30 minutes later, wondering what was going on, momma went to the top of the stairs to check on her daughter only to find Sara looking out the window shaking her head slowly at the storm saying: “Lord, I don’t see why you have to make such a fuss, they were only Brussels sprouts!”

“If you just use my words in Bible studies and don't work them into your life,” Jesus said, “you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards." I call that: slip slidin’ away – and because children have a shorter attention span than some of us adults – I’m going to invite my musical friends up here to sing that great Paul Simon song for you as a way of reinforcing this idea. (One of my favorites: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuPJzzcV6jA)

Now the second reason that I am pretty sure Jesus wants us to welcome children around our communion table is that this is one of the best ways for them to learn what is really important in our faith. You may recall that there are three tables we Christians use when we get together: The first is the Passover Table which is a supper designed to help everyone remember and participate in the goodness of God’s love, right? And children are an integral part of the Seder: they ask special questions, they have key roles and they help keep the whole feast fun and focused. The second table is the one the disciples gathered around in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus was given over to death – and it, too, was a Passover feast but with a slightly different emphasis. At this table we recall how Christ’s love was so great that he was willing to give himself up for us – it is a much more somber feast than the traditional Passover Seder – and helps us connect with the importance of sharing love in sacrificial ways.

And the third table is the one our Risen Lord shared with his disciples along the Emmaus Road: it is the table of fellowship and learning – the scripture tells us that Jesus interpreted the Bible for them so that their eyes were opened at the breaking of the bread – it is a feast of discovery and community. Three different tables – three different experiences – and all are essential for forming authentic disciples. Children learn a great deal by what they see the adults in their lives doing – they come to understand what has value and what doesn’t by observing what their loved ones give their attention to – so we had better include our young ones at these tables, don’t you think?

If the New Covenant is to matter to our children, then like our Jewish great grandparents we, too, need to: Place these words on your hearts. Get them deep inside you. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder and teach them to your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning until you fall into bed at night. Inscribe them on the doorposts and gates of your cities so that you'll live a long time, and your children with you, on the soil that God promised to give your ancestors for as long as there is a sky over the Earth.

Our spiritual heirs, of course, were not speaking of Jesus and his love; they were not talking about the three tables of Holy Communion but, rather, God’s love as experienced in the Exodus from slavery. And the way they remembered this – and what they taught their children and wrote on the doorposts of their homes – was the Shema Yisrael: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God and is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength and all your might. (Deuteronomy 6: 4)

But the principle is the same: if you want your children to know the heart of your encounter with the One who is Holy, then you have to teach it to them and talk about it and include them in the celebration of the blessing over and over and over again. Some old folks like to say, “Well, you know, you really can’t include children in communion until they understand what they are doing.” Let me respond with these words from our friends at the Seasons of the Spirit learning group:

It was Anna’s birthday and everything was ready. One candle had been carefully positioned in the middle of her cake. Balloons were hanging from the ceiling, her grandparents came in through the back door with an armload of presents and Anna’s brothers were busy teaching her how to open her gifts. For the birthday lunch, Anna sat in a special place reserved at the head of the table. And after the meal, everyone joined in singing “Happy Birthday” and helped her blow out the candle on her cake. This special meal was new to her but as Anna took part in the celebration she felt loved and a part of the family. She didn’t understand what it all meant… or did she?

It was David’s first communion and everything was ready. The candles in the chancel had all been lit, the special banners were hanging in the sanctuary and a family brought the bread they had just baked on Saturday to the front, placing it carefully beside a jug of wine. As worship began, David sat with his family near the front of the church. He watched intently as the bread and cup were passed from one person to another. As his mother passed the bread to him she said, “The bread of life for you, David” and he took a piece eagerly. Then the young boy passed the bread to his father saying, “The bread of life for you, Dad” and he did the same with the cup. This special meal was new to David but as he took part in the celebration he felt loved and special – part of the family – but he didn’t understand what it all meant… or did he?

These are foundational words, words to build a life on, words to shape the lives of young disciples: today I have brought before you the way of life and death – blessings and curse – and invite you to choose for such is the upside down logic and blessing of the kingdom of God where children can become our rabbis in the Spirit of Jesus.


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