It’s a favorite gospel story for many of us: Jesus welcoming the little children. Here in Luke’s version we’re told that parents were bringing even infants to Jesus, so he could touch them. Matthew talks about children being brought to Jesus “in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.” (Matthew 19:13) Mark says Jesus “took them up in his arms, and laid his hands on them, and blessed them,” which is no doubt why many of us call to mind when we hear this story a picture of Jesus sitting with a whole bunch of kids up on his lap, and others crowded around. In all three versions, the disciples feel Jesus shouldn’t be bothered. He’s got more important things to do, people to see, signs to perform. Why waste his time on a bunch of little kids? This jars our modern sensibilities, of course, for what on earth – we think – could possibly be more important than our children? We need to remember that this gospel episode happened in a different time, and a different culture. Back then children weren’t the center of the universe around which their whole families would orbit. But even then, even there, Jesus recognized their tremendous value. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them;” he says. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16)
This congregation has a long history of welcoming its children. I’ve enjoyed seeing old black and white Sunday School photos from the early years of this church’s life, and I’ve loved hearing from adults in our church family who themselves grew up here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church decades ago. Welcoming our children, caring for them and teaching them is nothing new to us. For that, we can already be very grateful.
And then what a gift it has been to welcome children in recent years to such a thriving ministry under Lori Sawyer’s leadership. Lori and her team of volunteer teachers have done such a beautiful job of sharing God’s love with every child who comes through these doors, as will Liina-Ly as Interim Director this summer. And I promise you, we on the search team will not rest until we find a new permanent Children’s Director worthy of picking up the baton from Lori, and ensuring that the marvelous momentum in our growing children’s ministry can continue.
Some of you may have heard the phrase “Sticky Faith” as it relates to children’s and youth ministries? The idea is that we want to do whatever we can as a church family to help our kids develop a faith that sticks with them after they graduate from high school, and head out on their own.
What might that look like? Well, some of us will never forget the Bible stories we heard, or played around with on a flannel graph board as young children, or acted out in a Christmas pageant, or colored on a Sunday School worksheet, or created out of cotton balls or pipe cleaners.
For others of us it might have been the songs we sang in church as kids that really stuck. I imagine I’m not the only one that finds an old hymn or Vacation Bible School or camp song coming to mind when I least expect it – but most need it. In fact, one way to understand “sticky faith” would be like a catchy tune you can’t get out of your head… but in a good way. Something hard to forget, in the best possible sense, and for the best possible reasons.
For some of us, simply sitting in a church pew reminds us of sitting in church with our parents when we were small, following along as their patient fingers traced the words in the hymnal, snuggling together in a form of family time that was unlike others throughout the week, and for that reason all the more special to us. I remember vividly sitting on my dad’s lap in church as a kid. And turning my mom’s wedding ring around and around on her finger. And having them sneak me a Lifesaver candy now and then to help me stay quiet, so I could watch and listen and learn from what was going on around me. It’s amazing how memories like these stick with us, making us want these kinds of experiences not only for our own kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, but for all of the children we see here at church each Sunday that we collectively think of as “ours.”
But I think if I had to pick just one lesson I’d want to stick with our church kids their whole lives long, that verse Alina read for us from I John pretty well sums it up: “See what love [God] has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” (I John 3:1)
The words may have sounded familiar to you, because we say them every time we baptize a child. Often they are quite little when we do this. It’s not hard at all to believe a tiny baby is adored by God. The cuteness factor alone makes it a no-brainer, right?
But it’s not only young children who need that message to stick, and so we said these very same words a couple of weeks ago when we baptized one of our church dads, Kurt. See what love [God] has given us, that we [ALL of us] should be called children of God, and so we are. We need to remember these words as we get older too, and sometimes that’s a whole lot harder. Because there are so many competing voices, telling us conflicting things. Telling us we’re not worthy of love. Or that we are only as valued as how much money we earn or how we dress or where we live.
But these are false messages. Listen again to the simple truth of the matter: we are God’s children simply because God loves us. Period. It’s that simple. No strings attached. No application process or standardized testing required. No dress code or income prerequisites.
We can’t buy God’s love and we don’t have to earn it. What’s truly wild is that we can’t even forfeit it. Like any good parent, God doesn’t stop loving us when we’re crabby, or when we misbehave. And because God’s love is perfect, it doesn’t waver for a minute even if we monumentally screw up. We may have a huge mess to clean up after ourselves sometimes, and some serious apologies or amends to make to those we’ve hurt along the way. But we are no less God’s children, no less loved by God afterwards than we were before a giant mistake.
Again, we don’t have to earn God’s love. It just is. And not only that, but it’s there for us forever. Today some of the sweet children of God we saw run to the front of the sanctuary are 3 and 4 years old. But someday they will be teenagers holding their first set of car keys in their hand, or worrying about something they see in the mirror and don’t like. And someday they will be young men and women eagerly heading off to college, or nervously interviewing for their first jobs. They will remain God’s beloved children in each and every one of those moments, just as we all are. And if they stand in a church like this one to be married someday, or become parents themselves, they can take comfort then, too, in words we had a part in helping to stick, in their minds and hearts: “Behold what love God has for us, that we should be called children of God…” Even when they take their final breath, they will know they still belong to the God who loves them in life, in death, in life beyond death. Just as we all do.
Between now and then, when we remember that we are God’s beloved children, when we really internalize those words, it helps a bit to cushion the blows life tends to throw our way. Because no misguided coach or boss or partner or parent, no one in our peer group – no one, no matter how much they might try to undermine your confidence – can change the fact that you are God’s beloved child.
So let the children come. Children of God of all ages. For we in the church have a message that badly needs to be heard by those who feel unworthy of love the way they are. It’s a message of amazing grace. It’s a message about a God who is always sitting right there next to us, trying to be heard over the negative soundtracks spewed at us by others or playing in our own heads. Gently but firmly reminding us: “It isn’t true, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are less-than. You are more deeply loved than you can imagine, my precious child. Not some better version of you than you seem to manage most days. Not an imagined, less flawed version of yourself. But you as you are. Right now.”
The opening words of our worship service this morning are actually borrowed from a children’s catechism published by the Presbyterian Church. The word ‘catechism’ may call to mind difficult tests on long, complicated statements of doctrine, but this particular document takes a different approach, concentrating on the bare essentials and distilling them into words even a very young child can understand.
Leader: Who are you?
All: I am a child of God.
Leader: Who are we?
All: We are children of God, the family of faith.
Leader: What does it mean to be children of God?
All: We belong to God who loves us and calls us God’s own. In life and in death we belong to God.
We taught these words to children in another congregation years ago, drilling them a bit each week, explaining what everything meant and offering lots of repetition. Months later, well after we’d finished the lesson, one of the moms in the church was having a particularly frustrating day with her pre-teen son, and found herself blurting out to him: “Who are you?”
Can you guess what that young man answered, without missing a beat? “I am a child of God!” There was a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he teased his mom, and as exasperated as she’d been, she was also thrilled. The church had done its job. She had done her job. The message had stuck.
“See what love [God] has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” (I John 3:1)
Whether you can believe it or not, it’s true: you are God’s beloved child. Whether we are 3 years old or 103, may it be a point of “sticky faith” for us all. One we can’t shake off even when we might be tempted to leave it behind. Lodged somewhere deep within our consciousness like a song we learned years ago for which we still know all the lyrics.
For it is the most beautiful of all possible songs. And when it sticks, its truth will well up in our hearts just when we need it most. Amen.