Today’s Gospel text reminded me of a conference I attended recently on passing along the faith to the next generation. You might think that it was the text’s teaching on divorce which brought the topic to mind. Indeed, divorce certainly can undermine our efforts to pass along the faith. Often there are new time constraints to deal with, maybe two different churches, certainly lots of hard feeling. I don’t think it’s an accident that the story of Jesus blessing the children comes right after his teaching on divorce. Children always have struggles when a divorce takes place.
However, it’s actually the second part of today’s text that reminded me of the conference. The presenter was talking about the need for parents to take a more important role in teaching the faith to their children. He made many excellent points and offered many good ideas. One of the phrases, however, used to convey this idea was that parents should be the chief teachers of the faith to their children. I recalled that I had heard that idea many years before and had embraced it eagerly myself, until one day when I presented it to a group of parents who said, “Are you kidding me?!” Pastor, we need you to be there as the chief teacher. You know more than we do. We’ll do our best to teach the faith, but at some point we’re going to have to bring them to you.”
My view today is that I don’t worry about who gets the label as “chief teacher.” Jesus is really the chief teacher, of course. The way I see it, parents should be doing lots of teaching, and I expect the pastor to have a big role also.
Here’s what I do get concerned about though—parents hearing about their chief teacher role and concluding that conversations at home are more important than going to church. The presenter at the conference was not saying that. In fact he spoke quite clearly about the need for children to be in worship. Today’s Gospel reading shows parents who were bringing their children to Jesus so he could touch them and bless them. Jesus encouraged this. I think there are important lessons here for how we pass along the faith to our children.
People brought their children to Jesus because they anticipated an extra blessing to come from it. They could have chosen to simply tell their children about Jesus while they all stayed home, or they could have gotten close and looked at Jesus from a nice, safe, respectful distance, but they sensed that this wasn’t enough. They wanted to be in his presence. They wanted there to be as strong a connection as possible.
We can spend a lot of time teaching our children using textbooks, and good learning will take place. But it’s not the same as a field trip, or a personal application of those math problems, or using that foreign language in an actual conversation, or honing those English skills by putting something in print for others to read. So also, hearing about Jesus is one thing, but touching him and being blessed by him is another.
Of course this begs the question, just how does Jesus touch and bless us today? Jesus is in heaven sitting at the right hand of the Father, isn’t he? Yes and no. Our Creeds tell us he is, as do the scriptures, but the scriptures also tell us he is with us always. The resurrected and glorified Jesus who leaves the sealed tomb, walks through the walls to visit his frightened disciples and appears to Paul and the apostles at different times and places can also come to us in such ways. “Sitting at the right hand of the Father” means that Jesus reigns and rules from a place of honor. It doesn’t mean that he just sits there. The Jesus who opened his arms to receive little children long ago is the same Jesus who is active and present in our world.
Jesus told us where we can find him. He told us that when we gather together in his name he is there among us. The primary application of this promise is the church. Yes, it can also be a small family gathering when God’s Word is present. Family devotions are indeed a very holy time. But they are not a substitute for the gathering of many families and individuals which constitutes the church. In the church we also gather around Christ according to a second of his promises—that he would be with us in his Holy Supper. “This is my body and blood” he tells us. “Do this” he instructs us. And in this blessed communion we are touched by Jesus.
We all know that children need to be touched. Child care is a hands-on activity. They need hugs and affection. They need re-directing sometimes too. As you might imagine, I’m always careful when talking about the equating of physical touch at church with the touch of Jesus. Like many other institutions, the church has sometimes become a place where children are touched inappropriately. I will rarely initiate any kind of hug with a child even in the most public of places, but oftentimes they are given to me and I will gladly receive them. After church we have handshakes or “high-fives” as people leave. Sometimes we pass the peace and shake each other’s hands. Touch is important. The pastor has a designated role of standing in the place of Christ. Teachers will serve that role in ways too. We must not be afraid of touch. The touch of the Church, when done according to the Word of God, is the touch of God.
It’s not just children who need the touch of God either. In a society where fifty percent of adults are unmarried, where solid, long-time friendships seem to be rarer and where inappropriate touching by some has made everyone more skittish about touch, the touch of God is certainly more important. Adults, too, need to feel themselves embraced by a God who loves them and forgives them. This will happen at the church through the message of Jesus Christ. But it will also happen through loving, caring relationships where names are known, stories are shared and time is spent. It will happen when religion isn’t a subject for debate but a way of life. It will happen when the teachings of Christ guide our interactions and inspire our choices.
When Jesus said, “Let the children come to me,” he was certainly making a point about kids. But all of us are to understand ourselves as children of God. Jesus tells his adult disciples to receive the Kingdom of God like a child. The scriptures tell us that those who have received the washing of forgiveness have been adopted into God’s family.
On this day when we hear Jesus say “let the children come to me,” let us think about the importance of both bringing our children to church and bringing ourselves. God has promised to show up and do important things when we gather in his name. There will always be a side of us which doesn’t believe it, or that thinks we have a better way, or that would just rather be sleeping in, but we must overcome those thoughts and place our trust in the one who gives the greatest gifts.
Once we commit ourselves to the gathering, we are then ready to take the blessings out to others. We go to Jesus first. He then uses us as his hands to bless others.
Parents take their children to church to be blessed by God, but parents themselves can also be that blessing from God. Perhaps the best way we can be a blessing to our children is by maintaining a strong marriage. Jesus says some very strong words in today’s text about the importance of preserving marriages. This is because God has instituted marriage as a means whereby a man and woman can be a blessing to one another. Being married is not just an arrangement for two people’s mutual benefit but also a way of carrying out God’s command to be a blessing to others. A husband and wife bless each other. Their committed relationship is a blessing to their children. As we think about marriage today we who are married should commit ourselves to being that blessing to our spouses and children that God would have us be.
Divorces will still sometimes take place. The church recognizes this, as did Jesus who allowed for divorce in cases of unfaithfulness. But divorce should always be a last resort, never an easy way out for those who simply want something better.
Our calling as Christians is to be people through whom God can extend his blessing. We recognize the special calling we have to extend blessings to our spouse and children. But God’s calling to us extends beyond this as well. God’s people are to extend blessings to all people, especially by working with the Church.
The Church gathers people so that they can work together, sharing their gifts and inspiring one another with the Word of God. The Church meets a variety of needs, especially of the soul, but needs of body as well.
Today our church is recognizing the work of one particular group—the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML). For many years the LWML has worked in congregations, gathered at regional and national levels, and raised money and awareness for mission opportunities. All women of the Church are invited to participate in LWML activities. Over the years our congregation has been blessed immensely through the projects, gifts and fellowship opportunities that have come from the LWML.
As we think about people of the church working together I’m reminded of how that work is symbolized in our worship. In particular, I think of the hymns we sing together. One of the best ways we can bless others through the church is by joining our voices together in song. Our hymns proclaim the Gospel and model our unity in Spirit as we work together to make beautiful music.
Our Hymn of the Day today, which we will sing in a moment, is a hymn about God’s blessing of our families. Our Father by Whose Name is a Trinitarian hymn, meaning that it contains a stanza about each member of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s a beautifully constructed hymn with fine poetry and meaningful thoughts. And it’s written by a Virginian—F. Bland Tucker, born in Norfolk, educated at UVA and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. I know you will enjoy it.
As Jesus blessed the little children that day so many years ago, so also he wishes to bless each of us. As we bring our children, and ourselves, into his presence through worship and prayer we will be blessed immensely, in ways which we will perceive and ways which we may never know. Jesus is waiting with arms wide open. In his holy name, amen.