In today’s gospel, Jesus places a child in the midst of his disciples as an example. And by happy coincidence, here in our gathering today Jesus also places a child, Lauren Elizabeth Swarts, to be for us an example.
In the gospel, the disciples have been arguing. They have been arguing about which of them is the greatest. This is a popular argument among adults. It continues on, down to our own day. We adults invest ourselves heavily in this argument. Usually it is not so overt as it is with these disciples. The argument is generally conducted indirectly, communicated through symbols such as who has the biggest income, the fanciest car, the largest house. Like these disciples of Jesus, today’s adults are concerned with who is the greatest.
These disciples are straightforward enough to discuss it directly as they walk together down the road. Still they are ashamed when Jesus asks what they were arguing about. They fall silent, uncharacteristically silent, and they do not tell him. He knows what’s going on, however.
Jesus equates greatness with servanthood, a startling notion both then and now. He also presents them with a child, just in from the playground, as a symbol, an example. He asserts that welcoming such a child amounts to welcoming him and the Father in heaven who sent him.
The world in which Jesus lives does not value children highly. To compare the heavenly Father with a kid just in from the playground upsets the ordinary prejudices of people in that world.
We live in a world where all too often children are not valued highly. They may be valued in your family and mine, but stark statistics are available about children abused, malnourished, uneducated, imprisoned, so that we cannot claim that our world today is uniformly safe for children.
In the face of this world, the church acts in obedience to Jesus in welcoming children, and this child in particular, and announcing her as God’s child, as a royal person, an heir to the kingdom of heaven, a co-heir with Christ himself. This is what we are about today in baptizing Lauren Elizabeth Swarts. This is what the church is about whenever a child is baptized.
The church acts in obedience to Jesus in welcoming children, not only on the day of their Baptism, but whenever these children come forward to the Lord’s Supper as equal participants with others who are baptized.
The church welcomes children, not only when sacraments are celebrated, but by recognizing their worth in numerous ways in the life of congregations by nurturing them, helping them fulfill their ministries, and welcoming the gifts they bring which enrich us all.
The church welcomes children who come to us in special need, who lack food, or counsel, or shelter, children who in a world they find cruel long for an advocate and protector, and receive what they need through ministries offered by Christian groups and through other efforts promoted by Christian people.
To welcome one such child in the name of Jesus is to welcome Jesus himself, and it is to welcome the Father who sent him. Thus a blessing is attached to the welcoming of children that is done in Christ’s name.
This blessing enriches Christian communities and individuals, and it rests especially upon parents and other family members who welcome and keep welcoming the children in their midst for many reasons perhaps, but certainly in the name of Jesus.
The blessing falls upon us when we keep welcoming the children not only because it may be natural or expected or decent to do so, but finally because there is something sacred about our doing this. Blessed are those who in the midst of the challenges of caring for children of any sort can recognize the sacredness of doing so and always keep that sacredness in view.
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And now I would like us to consider a part of that sacredness. I would like us to consider a particular blessing that children bring to the rest of us.
Until such time as we teach them otherwise, children know how to play, and they engage in play. It comes to them as readily as breathing. And such play is, properly understood, a remarkable activity.
One of the greatest of Christian thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas, tells us that there are two kinds of activity that have no end or purpose outside themselves. One of these is contemplation, and the other is play. [Summa contra Gentiles, 3.2.] While so much of what we do is done for some reason external to itself, in order to achieve some purpose other than itself, when we engage in contemplation and when we engage in play, the activity itself is its own justification. Thus play and contemplation are not so different from one another. A characteristic activity of children and a characteristic activity of saints are thus similar, perhaps identical.
For consider: in both contemplation and play there is a sense in which time stands still, and we are caught up in the eternal now. Perhaps you have sensed this in your prayer. Perhaps you have sensed this in your play, when you have felt something eternal while out there on the baseball diamond or the golf course or the beach. Perhaps you remember something of eternity from hours spent with dolls or toy soldiers or dress up or hide-and-go-seek or any of the sacred rituals of play.
So children and their play can be a reminder to the rest of us that eternity beckons us here in the midst of time. For this reason, Jesus places in the midst of his disciples a child fresh from the playground to remind them to seek the eternal in the world of time, to play and to contemplate–which are much the same thing–because play and contemplation are worthy in themselves; they are their own reward. The play of children is not merely preparation for life’s practicalities; it is a reminder and symbol of our overarching purpose in this age and the age to come, which is the contemplation of God.
Through contemplative play and playful contemplation we become aware of the tremendous secret, the great delight: that the holy One, God almighty, is himself playful, taking delight in the world he sustains. The world is God’s play, which he regards as an end in itself. Before we ever contemplate God, God is contemplating us, and does this playfully because from God’s perspective we are worthy as we are, his creatures created and redeemed.
Lauren Elizabeth is learning to play, and, I am sure, will come to excel in this characteristic activity of childhood through the months and years ahead. May we not only welcome her and keep welcoming her, but may we find throughout her childhood a vivid reminder to the rest of us that we are invited past our practical lives to those two activities which alone are ends in themselves and which are perhaps a single activity: play and contemplation.
In this way, may we become increasingly like children, children who truly play and are thus reminders of the God whose play is the universe, the holy One who takes delight in us all simply for who and what we are. The child’s play, the saint’s contemplation: they are closer than we who are adults may dare to suppose.
And as the years go rapidly by, and Lauren reaches adulthood, may she understand in her heart her own call to a life of playful contemplation and contemplative playfulness because she sees this reality apparent in the Christian community that surrounds her.
Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).