Let Them Come

Matthew 19:13-15

Let Them Come

August 20, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Why, do you suppose, were people bringing little children to Jesus?  Well, Matthew doesn’t tell us why, but we can figure it out.  Surely it was because they could tell how much Jesus loved their children--that he loved them with a special love, an unconditional love, a life-changing and soul-healing kind of love.  They knew they wanted their little ones to be blessed by this man, by Jesus.

          It’s not so different today.  You brought your children here today to be blessed in the name of this man, Jesus.  You brought your grandchildren, for all I know you brought other people’s children to be with Jesus.  Today, and at least once in a while, you abandon the soccer fields, you give up sleeping in, you call off dance lessons, you kiss your one day off farewell, and you bring your children to Jesus.  And you know why—it’s that love, that unconditional, life-changing, child-blessing love. 

          That’s why they brought their little children to Jesus.  But the story isn’t that simple, is it?  Once they got there, his disciples tried to keep them away from Jesus.  Why would they do that?  Why would his disciples try to keep people away from Jesus?  Well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, shall we?  I’m sure they did it only for the best of reasons.  They wanted to make sure Jesus spent his limited time and energy on the right kind of people—respectable people, important people, grown-up people, you know, people like themselves. 

          They took it as their job to be gatekeepers for Jesus.  They thought it was their job to stop (the Greek word is kōluō) the wrong kind of people from hanging out with Jesus.  This is not the only time this word kōluō shows up in the New Testament.  One time one of the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop (kōluō) him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38-39).  Makes sense.  But Jesus said, “No, no, do not kōluō him.”  Jesus didn’t need them or want them to be his gatekeepers.

          Jesus criticized religious scholars who heaped up moral burdens on other people.  He said to them, “You aren’t entering the kingdom yourselves, and yet you want to kōluō others from entering (Luke 11:52).

          Several times in the book of Acts, people who were outsiders to Israel—an Ethiopian eunuch (8:37), a Roman soldier (10:47), a whole herd of Gentiles—asked what could prevent (kōluō) them from being baptized.  The truth is, the disciples could think of many reasons not to baptize these unwashed outsiders.  But they Holy Spirit made Peter go ahead and do it anyway. Later Peter had to defend himself:  “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder (that is, kōluō) God?  Well, it turns out he couldn’t kōluō God . . . as much as he might want to.  Jesus doesn’t need us or even want us to be his gatekeepers.

 

          Now I’m going to pick a little bit today at some of the ways disciples of Jesus still today try to kōluō others, still volunteer to be his gatekeepers.  But I want you to know that I’m not picking at you, or not only at you.  I’m just a recovering gatekeeper myself; I’ve got plenty of kōluō in me.  I used to be a stickler about baptism.  You know, a child really ought to be baptized into the church community where they will be raised.  Parents take some pretty momentous vows when they bring their kids for baptism.  So I would say to parents, “You know, you haven’t been in church the last few years, does this mean you’re going to start being in church now?”  Or I’d say, “Grandma lives here in Columbus but you live three states away?  Are you really going to raise your child in this church?”  But who am I to kōluō God?  If parents want to bring their kids to Jesus, let them come.  I’m just a recovering gatekeeper.

          Cathy Davis and I wrestle with this whenever we offer Confirmation.  Families will say, “I want my son or daughter to be in Confirmation, but she’s got soccer games half the Sundays you’re meeting, or he’ll have to leave early because he volunteers at COSI.”  And my first thought is, “Choose church for a change!”  And then I think, but who am I to kōluō God?  If parents want to bring their kids to Jesus, even just once in a while, let them come.  If I pick at gatekeepers here today, please know I’m one of them myself. 

 

          In the Gospel reading today, it was little children the disciples were trying to keep away from Jesus.  That may sound strange, since in the church today we practically bend over backwards to get children to come.  But back then children were not thought of the way we think of them today.  Children were a burden, to be kept quiet and out of the way, until they were big enough to work and contribute.  We know better today.  And yet . . .

          Bishop Will Willimon tells about the pastor he appointed to what was a dying urban congregation, just a handful of elderly people left.  But the new young pastor noticed children passing by the church all day, and had an idea.  She talked to one of her parishioners, an old lady who’d once played piano with some of the greats of jazz music, and asked if she’d come and play at church on Wednesday afternoons.  The pastor recruited a few other ladies to make peanut butter sandwiches. And on Wednesday afternoon she rolled the piano outside, turned on a sprinkler, blocked off the street for kickball games.  That was a year ago.  Today, the bishop says, nearly a hundred children crowd that church every Wednesday afternoon.  On Sundays, Sunday school rooms are full.  The children have brought their parents.  It’s like resurrection in that church.  And then, Bishop Willimon concludes, “the administrative board met and asked the bishop to move their new pastor.  ‘It’s just not the same church,’ they said.1

          It breaks your heart, doesn’t it?  Oh, Jesus said, let the little ones come to me.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come. 

 

          Of course, “little ones” aren’t just children.  It’s anyone who might get left out, excluded, turned away, forgotten.  My preaching professor says one of the best sermons he ever heard was at a service in a nursing home.  The preacher read from Matthew 19, about parents bringing their children to Jesus.  “Great day in the morning,” the professor thought, “of all the scriptures to read—the average age is 117—and she reads, ‘Bring the little children.’”

          The preacher closed her Bible and said, “I still can’t get over the fact that Jesus’ disciples said, “Get those children out of here.”  But I guess I can understand it.  I mean, they make noise.  They have to be cared for.  Sometimes you have to get up and go out with them.  They take everybody else’s time.  Besides that, they can’t give anything; they can’t teach a class; they can’t sing in the choir.  They’re mostly powerless.  I understand that, she said.  And then after a long pause she went on, “But Jesus said, let the little ones come to me.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come.2 And we all know what she meant, don’t we?  And what Jesus meant.

 

          For centuries the church tried to kōluō women--not just tried to, did.  Oh, women were allowed to come to church--to cook and clean and watch the babies.  But they weren’t allowed to preach, or teach, or lead, or even to be an usher.  It breaks your heart, doesn’t it?  But Jesus said, let the people come to me.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come.

 

          Our own Methodist Church has split, several times, over race.  In 1787 Rev. Richard Allen led black members out of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia after blacks were physically removed from worship for refusing to sit in the balcony.  That was the start of the AME, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  And in 1844 we split into the Methodist Episcopal Church North & M.E. Church South over slavery.  And 173 years later, here we are with people parading around asserting their superiority to blacks and Jews.  And other people making excuses for them, or equating them with civil rights protestors.  And Jesus wipes the tears from his eyes and says, for the love of God, just let the people come.  I don’t need or want any gatekeepers.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come.

 

          So sometimes, like today, we’re the parents in this Gospel story, bringing our children to be blessed with the unconditional, the life-changing, soul-healing love of Jesus.  It’s good to bring our children to Jesus.         Sometimes, sadly, we are the disciples, volunteering as unwanted gatekeepers of Jesus, still being healed of our need to kōluō others. 

          But sometimes, we’re the “little ones,” the weary and lonely, the sick and the dying, the outcast and unwanted.  Sooner or later we’re all just “liilte ones,” aching to hear for ourselves what Jesus says to all:  Let them come, he says.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let everybody come.  And that is the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

1 William H. Willimon, ”The Danger of Fishing with Jesus,” The Collected Sermons of William H. Willimon (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 166-67.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 148.

 

 

Read 103 times Last modified on Sunday, 20 August 2017 11:47

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