And the Last Shall Be First

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 15, 2015

Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16 ESV

“What are they doing here?  They don’t belong here!  Get those children away from here so they don’t trouble the Master!”  Such is what we might have heard, had we been present when the disciples sought to keep parents from bringing their children to Jesus.

We most likely read or hear the stories of Jesus and the children with romanticized eyes or ears.  In other words, we may picture Jesus embracing the children, playfully bouncing them up and down on his knee, and then gently blessing them while the twelve disciples, and maybe the religious leaders, smile and nod their heads in approval.  But it likely was not that way at all.

For, you see, in that day and time, children had no status whatsoever.  They were nobodies. The act of Jesus welcoming the children and placing them before those listening to him as an example to be followed was likely a shock to all who witnessed it.  It may have even been viewed as subversive; perhaps even insulting. As with the case of many of Jesus’ parables, his action of blessing the children and setting them up as examples of faith may have been intended to be confrontational.

Such is not to say that Jesus was insincere in welcoming and blessing the children. But setting them up as examples of what is required to inherit the kingdom of God could have had multiple layers of meaning.  It could have been viewed as an indictment to those who were supposed to be examples in the faith.

One thing is certain, at least from the gospel writer Mark’s perspective: Jesus receiving and blessing the children, and setting them up as an example of faith, was a stern instructional jab aimed at the disciples who argued among themselves about who was the greatest, and in light of the request of James and John to sit on either side of Jesus in a place of honor.

In the eyes of Jesus’ hearers, children were the least; they were last; they may have had about the same status as other non-persons of the time. So by placing a child in their midst and setting him or her up as an example to all, Jesus was turning conventional thinking of his day upside down. But in the realm of God, the last would now be first.

Of course, in the course of history, giving children first place has not always been the case.  And it is not always the case even today.  We need only recall the Industrial Revolution years when children were forced to work long hours and long work weeks in dark and hot or cold factories.   Sadly, many children in the world today still work long hours and long work weeks in sweatshops or factories, under terrible working conditions, in order to help support their families.

And it breaks our hearts to know the awful truth that many children have been and still are today sold into slavery and sex trafficking.  And even in America, of all places in the world, there are thousands of underage children who are held captive and used and abused in the sex trafficking trade.  I have no way to prove this, of course, but I have read that much underground sex trafficking takes place in conjunction with major world sporting events, such as the Super Bowl.  How could such a thing be permitted in the 21st century in what is supposed to be the most advanced nation in the world?

And so, in keeping with the spirit of Jesus –as well as human reason and using compassion as our guide—we must give first place and priority to children in our thoughts, lives, actions, and, when possible, our social activism.

Well, with all that having been said, today we gather to celebrate the children in our midst.  And we recognize our teachers and celebrate our United Church Nursery School, where for well over 50 years children have been given top priority.  We can take pride in the fact that here at the United Church, and in our Nursery School, what the world often has considered to be the least or last have long been given first place.  As pointed out in the Philosophy & Goals of the Nursery School, children are “respected as individuals” and each child is celebrated “as a unique individual.”  The wonderful ministry that the United Church performs through the Nursery School is not celebrated enough.  I think if Jesus were here today, he would give hearty approval to our United Church Nursery School and the way this community of faith puts children first.  I think Jesus would give our Nursery School three stars.

We often hear it said that our children are the church and the world of tomorrow.  I realize it has become a bit clichéd, but the children in our midst are also the church of today, bringing new life and new hope to this congregation.  And we are trying our best to live that out in this United Church as we plan several special events each year with children and families in mind.  (As a side note, the next special event for children and families is our annual Family Christmas Workshop on Saturday, December 5.  We hope you will plan to bring your children or grandchildren to this fun event.)

I went to the Internet and my files to see what I could find on the importance of children.  I thought I would share some of the more poignant quotes with you:

“Every child you encounter is a divine appointment.” (Wess Stafford, President Emeritus of Compassion International)

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” (Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa)

“Children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven.” (Henry Ward Beecher, Congregational minister and social activist)

“The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn’t been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him.” (Pablo Casals, Spanish cellist and conductor)

But now I would like to speak from personal experience.  We have five grandchildren.  And one of the things that I have learned as a grandparent is each of the five is quite different.  They are different in their personalities, their interests, and their physical and intellectual abilities.  Never once have I wished that all five of our grandchildren were alike.  Never once have I thought, Oh, I wish this one had the abilities of that one.  What I have learned is to love and celebrate each of the five for the unique individuals they are.  I don’t expect one to read or count like another.  Neither do I expect one to play sports or be artistic and creative like the other; or vice versa.  I celebrate the abilities and interests of each grandchild individually.  And I celebrate the tiny steps of achievement of each one, based on his or her level of ability.

That, I believe, is the way with our United Church and Nursery School, and the way Jesus would have it be.  Could it be that when our Nursery School teachers and Sunday school teachers take the many children who enter our doors each week upon their knees and nurture and love them, they are in essence becoming Jesus incarnate?

Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, Jesus said.  It may not always be so in the world.  But in the realm of God, the last are to be first, and the least are to be the greatest of all.  As we support our Nursery School, we are part of helping make it so.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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