When I consider this story from the gospel of Matthew – with its attention detail and clear sense of piety – I am awed by Christ’s deep desire to welcome, include and bless the children of his day. To me, there is a palpable sense of beauty in these ancient but revolutionary words. In two brief sentences we are told a world of wisdom: He wanted to lay his hands on the children and pray – that is, he wanted to give them a blessing – a prayer of assurance that God would protect and guide them always. Now, there is nothing challenging or innovative about a blessing – spiritual traditions of all types share them authentically all the time – but this blessing was being offered in opposition to Christ’s own disciples.
He was shaking up the status quo and teaching his followers that their spiritual vision was not only limited, but defective. Scholars tell us that, “In ancient culture, children had no status. They were subject to the authority of their fathers, viewed as little more than property.” What’s more:
Ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting, imaginative, and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentile Jesus notwithstanding, childhood in antiquity was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive. Thus the orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society. Childhood was a time of terror, and survival to adulthood a cause of celebration (accompanied by appropriate rites of passage). It is no wonder that antiquity glorified youth and venerated old age. (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)
First, Jesus is teaching us that there is a connection between loving and welcoming the forgotten and powerless and authentic religion: he wanted to lay his hands upon them and give them a blessing. Second, he makes it clear that in a world of status and discrimination, the mark of a true disciple is hospitality not judgment. Let’s be clear: Contrary to popular interpretation, children are not used in this story as an example of humility, but rather as a symbol for all the "little" and insignificant ones whom followers of Jesus are to receive. Do you grasp the difference?
Disciples are thus not to be like children, but to be like Jesus who embraces them. It is Jesus, not the child, who here demonstrates what it means to be "the servant of all” for it is in the small and powerless that God appears to the world, as Jesus so trenchantly described in the parable of the nations. (Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 288) Do you recall how Jesus put it in Matthew 25?
When did we see, you Lord, and offer you comfort? And he told them: “When I was hungry and you fed me, when I was thirsty and you gave me drink, when I was homeless and you gave me a room, when I was shivering and you gave me clothes, when I was sick and you stopped to visit me and when I was in prison and you took the time to see me… You saw me – and did all these things to me – whenever you did it to one of the least and forgotten ones – for that is me in another form!
Did you get that? When you have eyes to see what is beautiful in the broken and extraordinary in your ordinary lives – when you sense that everyone is welcome and no one is shut out – then you begin to find God and something of the sacred in your everyday, secular lives. Because there are no distinctions – no in and out, welcome and rejected – for those who live according to my Spirit. How does St. Paul put it in today’s other reading?
In Christ's family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female, young or old. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ's family, then you are Abraham's famous "descendant," heirs according to the covenant promises.
Now, in our tradition, there is a curious and dangerous divide when it comes to comprehending and embracing this truth. One side senses and feels what it means while the other thinks and ruminates rationally about it. Both are necessary, it seems to me, but for over 300 years they have been in opposition in American religion – and I think it is time to call the feud to an end – but that’s going to take some work.
So here’s how this controversy strikes me – and it goes all the way back to the days of Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening in the Congregational churches of New England in the 1740s – when a sharp division was made between emotional and intellectual spirituality. On one side of the divide are those for whom religion is essentially about a deep emotional encounter with God. The old hymn, “The Lone, Wild Bird,” captures this perfectly: The lone, wild bird in lofty flight is still with Thee nor leaves Thy sight. And I am Thine! I rest in Thee. Great Spirit, come, and rest in me. The poet, Kabir, said much the same thing like this:
Friend, hope for the Lord while you are alive.Jump into experience while you are alive!Think...and think...while you are alive.What you call 'salvation' belongs to the time before death. If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,do you think ghosts will do it after? The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
Just because the body is rotten - that is all fantasy.What is found now is found then.If you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire. So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is, Believe in the Great Sound! Kabir says this: When the guest is being searched for, it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work. Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.
Ok - be a slave to intensity? On one side of the great divide is spiritual experience and even ecstasy and our forebears trusted and encouraged it. Unfortunately, however, what our early Congregational leaders also discovered is that all too often emotional religion – despite its passion and vigor – doesn’t translate into right or “beautiful” living. That is, there is often a huge gap between experience and reality.
Consequently, an even more rigorous intellectual tradition emerged within and among us that was in bold opposition to emotional religion. A recent article in The New Yorker about Emily Dickinson said it best by quoting Samuel Ward’s observation about the bard of Amherst’s style:
She is the quintessence of that element we all have who are of the Puritan descent pur sang. We came to this country to think our own thoughts with nobody to hinder… We conversed with our own souls till we lost the art of communicating with other people. The typical family therefore grew up strangers to each other… and while it was awfully high, it was also awfully lonesome.
Dickinson’s own poetry, too, speaks to this reality as she describes her inner world like this:
I felt a funeral in my brain, and mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed that sense was breaking through. And when they all were seated, a service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought my mind was going numb
And then I heard them lift a box, and creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again. then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell, and being, but an ear,
And I and Silence some strange Race wrecked, solitary, here.
And then a Plank in Reason, broke, and I dropped down, and down - And hit a World, at every plunge, and Finished knowing - then
I guess I took all of that in when I wrote a song about our town, Pittsfield, because I discovered that it, too, was often simultaneously joyful and sad – lofty and grounded – all at the same time. Hmmmmm… I call it, “Grace Is Rising Now at Last.”
After the haunting of the sadness and the shadows pass away
There’s a gentle, healing madness and a song that seems to say… rest awhile from all your labors; let the evening come to pass, hear the calling of your hearts grace is rising now at last
You wear your wounds upon your coat sleeve
You fear the worst is yet to come
And while you’re locked into this grieving
You miss the rising of the sun…
There’s a hunger here for beauty, a hundred ways to kiss the ground
A cleansing of the Housatonic as the Berkshires chant this sound
As the snow comes down from heaven and the rain washes the earth
So God’s blessing will anoint us as we journey towards rebirth...
Somehow, I believe, we have to bring these two sides together - two passages in scripture point towards a way to bridge the division between passion and intellect, experiential and intellectual religion. One comes from Psalm 85:
Truly God’s salvation is very near to those who are in awe of the Lord, that God’s glory and light may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together –
that is compassion and truth – have been reunited
And justice and peace – mishpat and shalom –
have kissed and embraced.
Truth shall spring up from the earth
And justice shall look down from heaven.
We’re talking about integrating head and heart – feelings and intellect – compassion and reason all at the same time. Paul says that this is our calling, right? Now there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female or young nor old: we are together in God’s love through Jesus.
Then, of course, is the beginning of St. John’s gospel that mirrors the early words of the Hebrew Bible: In the beginning… was the Word – the idea – the essence and spirit of God… and in time the idea – the word – became flesh and dwelt among us… as a child – or a stranger – or an enemy or outsider … as a friend and disciple and lover, too.
The poet, Wendell Berry, said it so sweetly:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
or grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Membership in the community of Jesus is all about integration – between the races and ages, classes and genders, heart and head – it is about bringing it all together… as it was in the beginning. One poet said: Membership within the community of the faithful will involve giving status to those who have none. Accepting an unimportant member of society in Jesus' name is equivalent to accepting Jesus. And accepting Jesus is equivalent to accepting God. So a radical and integrated hospitality… is to be extended to the most unlikely… for this is how we are all made whole.
That’s how the intellectual puts it – and I love those words – but my heart also needs to feel it, too. There has to be integration - and so we sing…
If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with him in all his glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?
And yeah, yeah, God is great,
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Mercy and truth have come together – compassion and integrity have embraced – justice and hope are alive and well as we join God’s Spirit of reuniting head and heart, young and old and all the rest. Sing with me as we welcome one the Lord's little ones today in baptism...
With grateful hearts our faith professing
We ask you, Lord, come to our aid
That we, our common faith confessing,
May keep the vows that we have made.
We know that in your true providing
The young and old to Christ belong;
Lord, help us to be wise in guiding
And make us in example strong.