September 19, 2021 Mark 9: 33-37; James 3:13-18
I want to start out this morning by reminding you, Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, that you are blessed to have 11 teenagers in your midst. They are bright and active, leaders in their schools, athletes and actors, musicians and dancers, computer whizzes and mostly joined at the hip to their phones! And we have 8 elementary aged children participating in our KIDS TIME. For a congregation of just over one hundred on our rolls, and an average pandemic worship attendance in the 40’s, it seems to me that more than 20% of our church family are between 5-17 years old. You may not see them regularly, but they are participating in church activities. I have opportunities to meet with pastors of other churches in the Presbytery who simply shake their heads when they are asked about the youth in their church. Leaders are asking themselves, “Where are the children and the youth? How is it that the Presbyterian Church across the country has become so gray?” Clearly, Presbyterians are not alone in that phenomenon. There are all kinds of studies and reports about the aging of the mainstream Protestant church, and even of evangelical churches, in some part due to the aging of baby boomers like me! But right here you have an opportunity. You have an opportunity to intentionally include the young people in our midst, to learn from them and with them, to share your faith and your faith practices with them, to work alongside them in service to our community.
You remember the story about Jesus blessing the children even when the adults around him thought the kids were interrupting something important. Jesus clearly saw the children as important and valued them as a part of the community. This morning we heard about another experience with a child and Jesus. The child’s presence provides a teachable moment for the disciples, and I hope the presence of children and youth can teach the adults of our church family as well.
On this day, Jesus and the disciples were headed to Capernaum, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, perhaps to put their feet up and take a break from the hectic life of following Jesus around the countryside. On the way, the disciples were having one of those conversations you wished you’d never had. The kind you would have been embarrassed about if your parents overheard you. And you certainly didn’t want Jesus to know what you were talking about. They were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. I can imagine that one might see himself as the best fisherman in the group, another the best cook, another the best at remembering directions, or another the best right-hand man for Jesus. Somehow they had missed the point that none of those things really mattered when it comes to being “great”. The conversation made visible the inner selves of these human beings who were envious of one another and full of selfish ambition to be identified as the greatest among them.
Where did this come from? When you read the words of James about two kinds of wisdom, it looks to me like the conversation of the disciples had lapsed into the expected outcome of the kind of wisdom that is described as earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic! According to James, this kind of wisdom is boastful, envious, and selfish, ending up creating disorder and wickedness—or maybe bickering over who is the greatest. Allowed to go on, this kind of discussion could have alienated disciples from one another, given a negative impression of a disciple to any observers, and harmed their relationship with Jesus, the one who clearly taught with the wisdom from above instead of the human kind of wisdom. James defines the wisdom from above as pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, unbiased and sincere. This kind of wisdom at work clearly brings about a very different result from the earthly wisdom. It brings a harvest of righteousness sown in peace, because those who are fueled by this kind of wisdom from above are peacemakers, not selfish, envious, bickering people.
Jesus ends the argument between the disciples not by siding with any one of them. He knows what happens when selfish ambition and envy take over. That is the wrong path. The path to peace, to being a community together is by serving others. When we have the best interests of others in the forefront of our minds, there is no room for worrying about our own greatness, strength, power, prestige. Sounds like living under the guidance of wisdom that is gentleness, a willingness to reason, sincere and unbiased. Living that way lights the path to live with a commitment to looking out for the needs of others.
To illustrate his point about where greatness comes from, Jesus invites a child to join them, an unusual action when all the adults are gathered in the house. Typically the children would have been out of sight when the disciples were there with Jesus—off playing or watching the sheep or caring for a younger sibling. In that time even more so than today, a child was understood by all adults to be without power or voice in the community. Jesus invites a child into their circle. He cuts off their bickering by teaching them that welcoming a child is the way to welcome him, and therefore to welcome God who sent him. Welcoming a child turns an argument about who is the greatest on its head. To welcome someone is to be willing to serve them, to look out for their needs, to include them, to invite them into your group, your home, or your church. Being great is serving, welcoming the ones who are vulnerable, anyone who is on the outer edges of society with no voice or power, including children and youth.
Do you ever stop to think that when you welcome a child or a youth in some way you are welcoming Jesus? Here are some ways we can welcome our children and youth. Listen to them—allow them to teach us with their ideas and their questions. Encourage them—to explore new places, and new ways of operating, to try out new skills. Praise them—enable them to feel worth, dignity and respect; to feel valued for who they are right now, not who they may grow up to be someday. Give them your time and your attention. Give them responsibilities they can fulfill with pride. And please don’t say: the youth are the future of the church! Youth are the church right now. They can teach some of us what a podcast or tiktok is, how to better communicate via social media, even how to operate your phone. They have ideas about how to make the world a better place, they ask honest and probing questions about why we do things in a certain way, they know how to be honest and true to themselves, and often have a willingness to dig in and help where help is needed. Unfortunately, we have a habit in our society, and that includes within the church, of not making room for children and youth. In the church we think to ourselves, well, children and youth usually don’t pledge financially, they appear to have little time for the church as an organization, and yet many of them seem have plenty of time for talking about spiritual things with their friends outside of the church.
I believe that we can entrust our youth with responsibilities which will give them positive leadership experience. We can pass along to them the wisdom from above just as we can learn from them about the wisdom from above. Youth have a tendency to be more accepting of different lifestyles than some of us, and to be open to people who have a different world view, exhibiting a wisdom that bears the fruits of sincerity and lack of bias. You see, wisdom from above has nothing to do with college degrees or years of work experience. It has nothing to do with on the job learning to be a parent or grandparent. Wisdom from above brings fruits, or outcomes, that can be seen in children and youth—transparency and honesty in asking questions, natural compassion for those who are hurting, joy and pride in being a helper, an openness to being friends with children of all different backgrounds without prejudice or bias. Of course, we know that children and youth are not perfect (who is, after all?). We know that they have their temper tantrums, that a peaceful house seems impossible at times, that they can exclude others or refuse to help. I guess they are not so different from those disciples! And I guess we are not so different no matter what our age. We keep turning to the wisdom we think will lead us on the right path to success, to earning more degrees, to a bigger bank account or house or car. We keep comparing ourselves with the guy next door or the person who is on the opposite side of the political spectrum or who views the importance of getting a COVID vaccine differently. We compare ourselves and we always assume we are right, we are wise, we are on the right path. Like those disciples, we miss the point. We have forgotten that the wisdom from above is the wisdom we must tap into, the kind of wisdom that begets peace, gentleness, sincerity and welcome to the children, to the youth, to anyone whose voice goes unheard, whose presence is brushed aside, who needs are largely ignored.
Find the spot on your bulletin for notes or if you are at home, grab a piece of paper. Get something to write with. Pens are on the stand with the offering box if you need one.
I want to speak the names of the children and youth in our church family so you can hear them, so you can seek them out, so you can listen, encourage, praise and learn from them by giving them your time and your attention. You knight take a pen and jot down on your bulletin the names of 3 or 4 who you will intentionally reach out to.
Miya, Amira, Oliver, Hope, Faith, Stanley, Arabil, Komuel, Leslie Parker, Christian Jordin, Gyananda, Serena, Daniel, Payton, Brionah, Santos, Charles, Oceane, Javon, Ella, Sanaa, and James. Thanks be to God for the youngest ones in our midst. Amen.