“Jesus Loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
It’s a classic, you’ve probably all heard it, but since it’s All Saints Sunday, it has to be done. There were once two brothers. And they were the worst, most miserable, most miserly people in town. They were rich but not generous, they were mean, and they never had a kind word for anyone. Now, one of the brothers died. So, the remaining brother went to the pastor to plan the funeral. “I don’t really care about your service,” he said, “except, I want you to say that my brother was a saint. If you say my brother was a saint, I’ll give the church $100,000 dollars!” Well, the pastor was in a real bind here. He didn’t want to lie but the church sure could use the money. And what’s worse, rumor of the offer spread, so, on the day of the funeral, the entire population of the town crowded into the sanctuary to see what the pastor would say. “This man was awful,” the pastor began, “he was mean-spirited, he cussed and drank, why he would cheat an old woman out of her last penny.” You could have heard a pin drop in that church as the pastor continued, “but, but,” he said, “compared to his brother this man was a saint!”
Today is All Saints Sunday. A day to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us and especially those whom we loved. You know, one of the great things about a church community, a church family, is that we are comprised of more than just those who are sitting in the pews today; we are surrounded by the “saints,” by all the faithful disciples who sat in these pews for so many years. And on All Saints Sunday, we are invited to listen for the echoes of hymns and prayers and sermons lifted to God across the arc of time and understand that these echoes are a part of our very being. And in this service, we are invited to add to those prayers, and songs, and words, as we create an echo for generations to come.
And in that spirit, and as we consider the second of the 3 Great Loves today: Love of Children, may we hold onto that past, the living history of our congregation; may we live in the present, attempting to be as Christ-like and compassionate and caring as we can in this moment; but all the while, imaging and securing a future that’s faithful to Jesus’ mission and ministry in our congregation, our community, and across the globe.
Now, bearing this in mind, let’s look our Gospel lesson for today. First of all, I love this text. And for so many reasons. It begins with a time-honored and classic image of ordained ministry; Jesus welcoming the children. Incomplete? Yes, but the image of Jesus blessing the least of God’s family finally rests at the heart of what it means to be a pastor. But this image goes beyond the pastorate. It affirms our belief in family; biological family, blended and extended family, and our church family. And what’s more, Jesus welcoming the children is a blueprint for the church in our task of offering a wide welcome and propagating an inclusive environment. And finally, I love this passage because reminds us of the innocence of childhood and invites us to reclaim some of that innocence as we go about being the church in the world today.
And I don’t stand alone in my love for this passage. Oliva Hinnant reminds us that “these three verses have been the subject of many paintings since this story was first told in the gospels. One painter has Jesus sitting on a rock with the children gathered around. Another has Jesus on the steps of a great temple with the mothers and their children, but no disciples. And yet another has both.”[i] I’ve see more contemporary images showing Jesus holding hands with children of all races and nationalities from all around the world.
The image of Jesus blessing the children, however, surpasses that which is immortalized in oil; consider music. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” or my favorite, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”[ii] An aside here. “What you may not know about this hymn is that the words were originally part of a novel, written as a poem offered to comfort a dying child.”[iii] That adds another dimension to this classic children’s song, doesn’t it?
But whatever the case, it’s safe to say that this narrative is one that warms our hearts and enlivens our spirits as these comforting words of inclusion invite even me to sit with Jesus and to be embraced by God with the unabated joy of a child.
“[But] what does not appear in the sweet and gentle interpretations of this passage is a depiction of how Jesus’ welcome of the children was a radical action in his first century Greco-Roman world.”[iv] Remember the disciples tried to shoo the children away. Children weren’t cherished in the same way they are today. Culturally speaking, children were literally to be “seen and not heard.” But of course, we see Jesus breaking the norms, crossing societal boundries, and once again demonstrating religion and its rules were created for benefit humanity and not the other way around. He was very clear that we don’t live to serve the law, but rather we are to interpret it in the most gracious, most compassionate, most loving way possible.
So, if that’s the case, then how are we to look at and then act upon this text? “[Well,] various scholars and bible teachers may interpret this differently, but I believe Jesus was referring to the necessity of unlearning all those broken ways of thinking that drain the life and faith from us.”[v] In other words, how should we become more “child-like” in our ways of thinking? I don’t know. Think about racism, or terrorism, or sexism, or nationalism, or any of the other “isms” that fill the headlines and plague our society today. We aren’t born with these “isms,” they’re not intrinsic to our being nor are they a natural state. These “isms” are learned behaviors. And what is learned can be unlearned. That was the brilliance of Christ’s teachings. He offered those around him, and through the presence of the Spirit, he offers us a different way of relating to others; especially those on the margins.
One of my seminary professors summed it up this way. “Welcoming children,” he said, “is a theological matter in this text: it’s a particular and necessary expression of the call to love our little neighbors as we love our big selves.”[vi] “…to love our little neighbors as we love our big selves.” I like that. I like it because it becomes a metaphor for loving our neighbors; all our neighbors. I mean, consider all the ways we, as a people and as a nation, consider ourselves “big.” We’re geographically big ‘from sea to shining sea,’ …right? And in comparison, with most of the rest of world, we have big stuff; big houses, along with big bank accounts, big cars, big food, big dogs …well some dogs are small, but you get the picture. But big isn’t always bad. Unlike the miserly brothers in my opening story, we have big hearts and a huge desire to use our resources for the betterment of those less fortunate then ourselves.
Which leads us into the conclusion of our text. When approached by a righteous man who wanted to know the secret of eternal life, Jesus offers these words, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” (CEB)
Now, this is kind of a tough passage for those who want to view Christianity as practice in morality and that’s it. Those who want to separate faith from works. If you want to be “complete” then put your righteousness and your faith into action, and bonus, you’ll have “treasure in heaven.”
But Jesus is not only teaching about an active faith here, he’s living it! We see this over and over again in the gospels. Jesus teaches his followers, including us, a lesson, and then in the next moment, proceeds to demonstrate that teaching by acting upon it himself. Examples. He tells us to live abundantly and then he feeds 5000 people; he tells us be instruments of healing and then he in turn heals the lame, the blind and the mentally ill; he tells us to be servants of all and then he washes the feet of his disciples; he tells us to “fear not,” and then he fearlessly goes to the cross; and finally, he tells us to choose life and practice love, and then, through his Resurrection, Jesus becomes the Risen and Living embodiment of God’s love.
And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter. Christ is challenging us to become living embodiments of God’s love as well. And for me, that’s finally the definition of “saint.” Will we be perfect saints? Fully-formed embodiments? Or course not. But if we take seriously the invitation of this text to be both welcoming and generous, inclusive and compassionate, to unlearn our lesser ways and gain a more innocent, more child-like approach to God and humanity, then, we will continue to add to the echoes of our forbearers; echoes that will ring true for generation upon generation. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Olive Elaine Hinnant. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. II. Cynthia A. Johnson & E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) pg. 110
[ii] Susan Bogert Warner & Anna Bartlett Warner, Say and Seal. (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1860)
[iii] Ibid. Hinnant. 112.
[v] Benjamin L. Corey. Unafraid (Harper One: An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2017) pg. 18-19
[vi] Gary Neal Hanson. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. II. Cynthia A. Johnson & E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) pg. 112