I’m thrilled to be back among you this morning at Marsh Chapel, and I want to thank Dean Hill for the invitation to, in his words, “bat clean up” in this summer’s national preaching series. I’ve had a chance to listen to the fine sermons that have been preached in this series, and they are available on the Marsh Chapel website for you as well.
I must say, though, the last time I preached here, I was a lot less nervous in preparing my sermon, because I really had no idea just how many people listened to this broadcast. But then the following week people kept coming up to me or emailing and saying, “Hey, I heard you on the radio!” In fact I’ve learned that there are people out there right now listening who went to church this morning and heard one sermon already, and now they’re listening to another service on their way home. If that describes you, I just want to say, “Wow.” That’s like what the Puritans did, two sermons on a Sunday. It’s wonderful to think of what an eclectic Communion of Saints this service brings together over the airwaves; God bless you all.
The theme for this series has been “The Gospel and Emerging Adults.” That’s a category used to refer to younger adults, 18 to 29 years of age, or sometimes more generously 18 to 35. Sometimes even beyond that, though I feel like by the time you hit 40, you’ve emerged, for better or worse.
So the preachers in this series have reflected on many important virtues and values: on wonder, wisdom, simplicity, silence, hospitality, and how these relate to ministry with emerging adults. This morning I want to go in a bit of a different direction, and talk about how the church understands young adults. This topic has some urgency, as so-called emerging adults are leaving the church in record numbers, a phenomena sometimes called “the rise of the nones,” N-O-N-E-S, those who do not identify with any particular faith. This is a fast-growing group and includes a third of all Americans under thirty.
But “emerging adults” emerge from somewhere; I actually want to go back even further and meditate on how the church understands emerging emerging adults: what we usually call “children.” I want to suggest that many of us who are followers of Christ, despite our best intentions and our desire to welcome children, youth, and young adults into faith and into our churches, have a flawed paradigm of spiritual development. And this flawed understanding is helping to bring about the opposite of what we desire, namely, young adults abandoning the church in record numbers. (pause.)
A few weeks ago my family was vacationing in Maine, and I decided to do something that many of my parishioners do all the time, but that I, as an Episcopal priest serving a church, don’t get to do very often: go to church and sit in the pew with my children. My husband and son decided to sleep in, but I found a church nearby and went with my three-year-old daughter, Cecily. We brought a small backpack full of My Little Ponies to aid Cecily’s worship experience. She was very excited to go.
But the people who were already in the pew when we arrived seemed . . . less excited to see her. No one said anything, but when we sat down, their mouths were set in the stiff lines of those who must endure. We were in the back, so there was room to unpack the ponies. The usher brought us another box of books and crayons. Cecily had a great time at church. She liked the hymns, she loved the stained glass windows. We stood in the back in the aisle for Communion so she could see the priest consecrating the elements. She noticed the paschal candle, and the font where babies are baptized. She was so eager to receive Communion, that she suggested we cut to the front of the line. When I said that we needed to wait our turn, she complimented some people near us on how patiently they were waiting. She talked about Jesus, in her best stage whisper (which, admittedly, is not great as whispers go). Cecily was worshipping in her way.
But we didn’t get much of a welcome. At the end, the other people in our pew left as quickly as possible. No one really spoke to us, and I felt how I imagine the parents of many young children feel at the end of a service, like we had “pulled something off” or “gotten through the service.” Like airplanes and fancy restaurants, worship at church is one place parents of young children can feel acute anxiety, as if we’ve brought our kids somewhere that they don’t really belong.
Today’s gospel reading from Luke tells us, “People were bringing even infants to Jesus that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.” Parents wanted their children to experience Jesus’ blessing. They wanted to bring them close to the presence of God. But the disciples decided to act like bodyguards, and send them away. There are two reasons this passage is surprising to me: first, because, think of all the other kinds of people who were permitted open access to Jesus: reviled tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers, people possessed by demons. But really, no babies? What were the disciples afraid they would do? And the second surprising thing: these are the disciples, not the Pharisees. These are the people who have left everything to follow Jesus, to align themselves with his message. These are the people who love Jesus the most—and yet they totally misinterpret what response best expresses the kingdom he is preaching about.
Jesus tells the disciples to “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them or hinder them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” And then he adds, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
This story appears in three of the four gospels; it is a cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching. A passage in the gospel of Matthew contains an even more pointed warning: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (pause.)
Now, the Bible doesn’t contain any stories or references to the Grown-Ups of God. They don’t exist! We are all, always and forever, children of God. The disciples didn’t understand this. But understanding this is key to following the way of Jesus. The Greek word for “change” that Jesus uses in Matthew also means to turn or to convert, to make a dramatic change of direction. “Unless you convert and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I’ve observed that many of us today who follow Jesus don’t have proper perspective of the faith lives of children. Pretty much all churches I know of say they welcome children and families with young children—in fact, these families are highly sought-after, since a church full of children is taken as a sign of health for the future. But we must ask ourselves: are we valuing children for what they represent, especially in terms of institutional vitality, or are we valuing them because of who they are, and what we can learn from them? Are we welcoming children, but not honoring them and the unique contributions they make? Are we truly considering them as spiritual equals, and full members of the church, with real, meaningful and regular opportunities to worship, to learn, and to serve?
John Westerhoff wrote a wonderful book many years ago called Will Our Children Have Faith, that I highly recommend to you. He had a term for what I’m talking about. He said that in order to transmit and sustain faith, there must be “Shared experience, storytelling, celebration, action, and reflection between and among [what he called] equal faithing selves.” Equal faithing selves. (p. 89)
Children don’t want to know about God. They want to know God. That is a line from Jerome Berryman, the developer of a method of Christian education called Godly Play, which is based on Montessori educational practices. Children don’t need Grown-Ups of God acting as mediators to the divine. They need companions on their journey. They don’t need ministry for them, but ministry with them, that includes them fully. Children want to learn, children want to serve, at church and in the world, and children want to worship. However, adults often act towards young people in church as if children don’t want any of these things, and in fact are incapable of anything but a poor imitation of them. (pause.)
There was a little boy named Joel in a previous parish where I served, and when he was three, his mother began to let him help her usher at church. Or, rather, I think, Joel insisted that he be allowed to help usher. He loved greeting people and handing out bulletins. He never once dropped the offering plate. He saw a place where he could serve, and he did serve. His mother, Emily, taught him how. One Sunday, Emily told me that during the week he had been misbehaving in a store, and she said to him, “Joel, if you don’t calm down right now, I’m not going to let you usher with me on Sunday!” And that did the trick instantly.
Faith is taught, and faith is caught. Emily knew that. The Greek word that the early church used for teaching is “catechesis,” like catechism. Catechesis literally means echoing, echoing back. But for our children to be able to echo back, that means they have to be within earshot. That means they have to be alongside us, worshipping, learning, serving.
John Westerhoff, in Will Our Children Have Faith, writes about how in the last fifty or so years, the church did something it had never done before, in its whole history: it began separating children out of the main congregation, putting them out of earshot. The larger culture changed, with the generations becoming more separate from each other, and the church, for the most part, changed along with the culture. But it wasn’t always so. (pause.)
Of course, Jesus didn’t say just to include children, to honor them, to welcome them: he tells us to convert and become like them! To receive the kingdom of God as they would! To learn from them; to echo them in our lives of faith. What can this mean?
First of all, it means humility. In the ancient world, there was no romanticizing of children as paragons of purity or innocence. Children had no status; they were the lowest in the pecking order. Children are aware of their own vulnerability. They trust and rely on those who care for them. We are called to have this same kind of trust and dependence on God. We are called to be humble in heart. We can learn this from children.
Second, awe and wonder. Children revel in the newness of everything around them, in the natural world, in new experiences, in beauty, in friendship. My son said to me yesterday, “Look at this awesome drop of milk sliding down the side of my cup.” Children recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary. We can learn this, or re-learn this, from children, and our souls can grow in wonder and gratitude and appreciation for the lives we’ve been given, and the world in which we live.
More virtues: curiosity: knowing that we don’t know, and wanting to know more. The ability to give oneself over to joy, and to mystery, and to silliness and fun. All these things we can learn from the children in our midst—but they have to be in our midst.
And this brings us back, by the long road, to “emerging adults.” I am not a sociologist, though there are some fine sociological studies of why so many young adults are leaving church after college and not coming back. But here is my hunch, which is backed up by some of these studies: young adults are leaving the church, in part because: they were never really invited into a full life of faith as children. They were not really given authentic opportunities to worship, to learn, and to serve. They were not immersed in the stories of our faith, and told that these stories were about them. Instead they were told to be quiet during church, given coloring worksheets, and asked to put some pennies in a cardboard box during Lent. They were given a sanitized gospel, like one of the toddler children’s bibles we have at home, where every story ends before anything bad happens: so Adam and Eve are happy in the Garden, and Joseph gets to keep his beautiful coat, and baby Moses sleeps in a basket. The end. No sadness, no pain. But no redemption, either. They were given a kiddie-sized faith, without the language of death and resurrection, and new beginnings out of calamity. And so if calamity ever happened to them, faith had nothing to say about it. No wonder they lost interest.
I’ve noticed over the years how the church takes an interest in adolescents that it never had in children. After all, adolescents can reason abstractly. They are somewhat better at sitting still. They can go on service projects and mission trips. They are on their way to becoming a Grown-Up of God.
But by then, it is usually too late. They have been out of earshot too long. All those best years of echoing back the faith are past, and of course the desire for closeness with adults has waned with this new developmental stage.
But there is a new paradigm of faith formation. Which is really an old paradigm, from the parables of Jesus. Jesus tells two of his pithiest parables about a mustard seed: the first one says, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move mountains. The second one says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into the largest of shrubs. (I always like the anti-climax there—the largest of shrubs!)
With Jesus, humility always wins the day. This is why children are the best receivers of the kingdom. Faith like a mustard seed: the smallest amount of faith, is still faith! The faith contained in the smallest of people, is still faith! And it can grow and flourish continually. This is truly good news, not just for youngsters, but for us oldsters, who are still trying to figure out who we are in God.
We are not called to be mediators or gatekeepers to the youngest among us. We are called to be fellow pilgrims who learn from each other. That means spending time together, learning together, listening to each other, serving together, wondering together, worshipping together, young and old. It’s not always easy. It takes practice and patience, this echoing and echoing back, this sharing, this mutuality. But this is how, together, we receive the kingdom of God, as children of God, still growing, wherever we are on the path—with or without My Little Ponies in the pew. In God’s name, Amen.
~The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton