WELCOME: “Let the Children Come!”

12 September 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

September 12, 2010

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 18:15-17

WELCOME: “Let the Children Come!”

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

This is such a familiar passage, this “let the children come.”  At baptisms I love looking out at your faces and repeating those words, because I can almost see you all repeating them after me.  Jesus says “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  We love this sentiment as much as we love baptisms.  Who would stand in the way of a child who wanted to know Jesus?  And yet, how many of us have the courage to invite a new family to church, much less teach a Sunday school class or to be a mentor to the next generation of Christians who come after us?  Truth is, I suspect, most of feel inadequate to the task of Christian discipleship most of the time.  We don’t volunteer as much as we might, because we assume there’s got to be someone out there better qualified than we are. We know our own flaws too well.

If that is the case, our church vision statement should come as some very good news:  Make Jesus Your Mentor: Pray, Share, Welcome.  We enclosed it in your bulletin today, on the gold half-sheet. We don’t have to make ourselves anyone’s perfect role model – what a huge job that would be, to try to make ourselves pray, share, and welcome as well as Jesus did.  No – as our vision statement says, we are invited to model for our kids, and for all new disciples we welcome into our church, what it means to claim Jesus as our mentor.  We can learn to pray, share, and welcome through the transforming power of his grace– not through the quality of our character or through the force of our will.

That’s where these words from First Timothy may be able to give us some small comfort.  Although there is dispute among scholars as to whether the letter was actually penned by Paul as a mentor to the younger pastor Timothy, certainly the intent of the writer was to capture the spirit of Paul and his theology of God’s grace. 

Paul, as you probably know, started out as the world’s least likely candidate to be a teacher of the Christian Gospel.  He was a righteous Jew, a Pharisee, and quite literally had no use for this new cult of this hippie, love-preaching Jesus.  He had been keeping the covenant his whole life, and was quite self sufficient in his faith.  He knew the law, and he kept the law.  It was as simple as that.  To teach otherwise, or to allow slippage, was to invite the downfall of civilization.  Before his miraculous conversion, Paul devoted himself to high moral standards and made sure others did too.  He had faith in the rules and believed if others could just follow them, all would be well.  So there’s one thing we can know for sure about Paul, from this – he did not have kids!

Parenting is one of the hardest things anyone is called to do, and yet we seem (as a society) to be committed to colluding in the illusion that it is easy.  My generation was raised on shows like “Andy Griffith,” and “Leave it to Beaver.”  You know, June Cleaver vacuuming in her pearls and high heels.  The ideal seemed so real, it almost might even be possible – with the right amount of money to buy a tidy suburban home where nice, middle class values could be taught and fostered.  You know the deal, right?  Scout meetings, dance lessons, sports events, choir practice.  We come and go as they grow – we drive our kids to one thing and the other, and we hope they find what they’re good at doing, something they like where they fit in and have a nice little group of friends.  If we follow this basic rule of common sense parenting, we figure they’ll turn out OK.

I know I used to believe that before I had kids.  Before I was lucky enough to be a mom – before my son Jacob was born 17 years ago yesterday – before that wonderful day, I used to think that all you had to do to raise a kid was to love them and bring them up right. Simple as that.  But when I was a young mom and full-time pastor, I learned that all that teaching of morality was hard to do while wading through a sea of Legos and flailing arms and legs to clear the glue and glitter off the table to get ready for dinner.  Sometimes it is only by the sheer grace of God that we are given the strength to make it through one more day.  Sometimes all you can do is sing “Jesus Loves Me” to stifle your own scream!

I mean “Welcome the children” sounds great until you get some honest-to-God real kids in your life!  They can be a messy, noisy bunch.  They don’t always sit still.  They don’t always sing on key.  They don’t always want to do their Church School lesson – some days they would just prefer to poke one another with crayons or try to play the piano with their feet. There are days they don’t even want to go to church.  And yet we keep at them to come to church and learn the moral of the day, because we know religion will be good for them, right? 

But that’s not always how it works.  Some of the things we place our faith in – even moral lessons, a good education, a nice home, good nutrition, sports teams, a nice group of friends – these can fall short.  It is at best illusion and at worst idolatry to believe that the right church, the right schools, and the right after-school activities can somehow guarantee our kids’ success.  But having Jesus as a mentor really does make a big difference.  Because Jesus accepts the children, and more importantly accepts us – like those flawed first disciples – just as we are.  Going to church doesn’t necessarily do it – knowing Jesus as our best friend and most trusted mentor does.

I know it’s risky to bring up kids from my California churches because it can sound like I’m bragging on myself as a mentor.  But I look at their lives as longitudinal studies in Christian education.  I’m sure some of you can recall your own 20- and 30-year case studies as well – maybe you raised your kids right here in this church.  But I have to reach back into my own past to give this testimony of faith.  Here’s how it happened.

This note in the newsletter from the first church I served as a youth pastor caught my eye.  I read that one of the kids I’d had in middle school had gotten a master’s degree in public health.  Not such an unusual accomplishment, unless you knew her when she dyed her blonde hair black to match the anger in her eyes.  Her dad was coming back to church, and making her come with him, right after her mom left them and he started fumbling his way through a nasty divorce.  Her bad attitude nearly caused my entire 4-person team of youth class teachers to quit the first day of church school that fall. 

When I sat down that day to try to talk them out of quitting, I had no idea what to say.  And so we shared our feelings with each other and with the Lord.  We prayed.  And in the end, we agreed we’d have to keep on trying with her, because no one else would.  We decided to stick with her, because we knew that was what Jesus, our best mentor and teacher, would do for us.  And through some miracle of God’s grace, she turned out fine.  God is using her gifts now to help the world.  I share her story as a testimony – not to my success as a super-pastor, but to the power of Jesus Christ to change lives.

Like the Apostle Paul, I never cease to be amazed that God has found ways to use me for ministry. You may have already guessed that I was a somewhat challenging kid – I was expelled from church school when I was in 8th grade.  I preached my first sermon in that class, in defense of John Lennon and his song “Imagine.”  But fortunately I had a youth leader who connected me with Jesus as my best friend and mentor.  Like many of you, I’m guessing, I did try out a couple other mentors over the years.  In high school, when I joined the stage crew, I found a mentor from the Marine Corps ROTC who trained me as a stage manager and taught me to swear like a sailor.  I started college as a piano major with a very unfortunate perm, in tribute to another mentor, Carole King. 

My point is, like Paul, I can say, enthusiastically:  “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, a…” What? You have to fill in that blank for yourself.  But church is a place where we get to come home again, where we get to dump our whole messy self into the lap of Jesus, in all our glorious imperfection.  Church is a place where we get to know Jesus as our very best mentor and friend.  It is here that we are invited to learn to pray, share, and welcome in his name.  We may not think we can do it, but we can… with God’s help. 

Maybe this is your year to volunteer to teach church school or to be a youth mentor.  Maybe this is your year to learn and not teach – to take time to be a student in one of our book groups or Bible classes.  Maybe this is your year to lead your church committee in a new project, to go on a mission trip, or to volunteer at the Yankee Fair.  Maybe all you need to do is just come to worship a little more often, and bring your kids, and invite some of their little friends to join you.  Like the “little ones” Jesus blesses in the story, all you have to do is believe in yourself as much as Jesus believes in you.  All you have to do is say “yes” to Christ’s invitation and start welcoming others, in his name. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



1 Timothy 1:12-17

12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18.15-17

15People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”


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