Growing Young

Scripture: Mark 10:13-16

If you are not much of an Internet person, then it is possible you are not familiar with the website Kickstarter.   However, Kickstarter was a revolutionary concept for bringing creative projects to life.  Previously for artists, writers, and designers the process to publication was an arduous one.  It required an investment by a company or a lot of personal financial risk.   Kickstarter changed the game though, by introducing the concept of crowdfunding.  The way it works is someone creates a Kickstarter project for what they want to create.  They explain what they are trying to make and why they need funding.  They set a funding goal and then create “pledge levels”.  Often these pledge levels have rewards associated with them.  A lot of times this reward is a copy of whatever the project is trying to produce but it could involve other perks as well.   Kickstarter users who are interested in the project can back it and pledge their money at their chosen reward level.  When the campaign ends, all of the money is collected and the project creator now as the needed funds to make their dream a reality.  Kickstarter is used by individuals wanting to make their dream a reality, but it is also increasingly utilized by smaller companies that do not have enough capital on hand to undertake bigger projects.

I noticed a Kickstarter project this week that managed to raise over $2 million.  This incredibly successful project that made over nine times more than its funding goal was a Masters of the Universe board game.   Masters of the Universe is the name of the cartoon that started He-man in the 1980’s.  This game features miniature figures that represent some of the most popular characters from the 80’s cartoon and toy line.  This project has over 8,000 backers and 2/3rds of them backed the game at the highest pledge level, which is a minimum of $220 but with add-ons could be as much as $427.  It is a game based off a children’s show, but it likely most of these backers are not getting this game for their kids.  Most likely, the people who backed this game are people in their 40’s who grew up watching He-man and playing with the toys.  While, I am not a backer of this game I get the appeal.  When I looked at the Kickstarter page, I saw picture of miniatures for toys that I had forgotten I once had.  I felt an instant rush of nostalgic feelings. Hopefully the game is good, but I suspect the biggest motivation for backing this project is the nostalgic rush to essentially be able to play with toys again.

There is an irony at work here.  When we are children we often cannot wait to grow up and be treated like we are older, but once we grow up we chase and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  The Masters of the Universe game is just one of countless examples of how adults are willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a nostalgic rush, a reminder of simpler times, and a few moments of feeling like a kid again.  We grow old quicker than we think we will, and then we desperately want to grow young.  Often nostalgia is something we can only catch for moments, but this morning’s scripture gives us idea of how, at least from a spiritual perspective, we can grow young again.

This morning’s scripture is often lifted up as promoting the importance of having a “child-like” faith.   There are certainly some elements of a child’s faith that are worth emulating.  A child’s faith is often direct, pure, and simple in the best way possible.  I remember several years ago now, when Connor was in Kindergarten.  There was a Sunday that I would not be at church, but he would.  When he found that out he asked if he could preach for me.  I asked him what would he preach?   He said, “God loves you and Jesus forgives you.”

The guest preacher still filled the pulpit that Sunday, but honestly that person could not have said it any better than my then five year old.  A child’s faith is simple because it is uncluttered.  It is right to the heart of it without a lot of nuance, exceptions, and fine print that we try to add to it as we get older.   A child’s faith is often one of simple truth, and as we get older we can get so caught up in taking ourselves so seriously that we lose sight of those simple truths.  We become so burdened by all of our other cares in the world that we forget the simple joy of loudly singing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Recapturing the simplicity of a child like faith is probably why it has such a draw for so many people.

In the end though, the joy of a child-like faith turns out to be a nostalgia hit more than anything else.   A child-like faith is not the ideal we actually find in the Bible.  What we find lifted up multiple times is a drive to maturity.  For instance, in Ephesians Paul lifts up the importance of maturity in faith.  In Ephesians 4:13-14 he writes that “the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  Then we will no longer be infants tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there.”

Likewise, the author of Hebrews lifts up the importance of maturity in faith, and how stressed the importance of growing to more than a child-like faith.  Hebrews 5:12-13 states, “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  You need milk not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.”

There is a beauty to a child-like faith, but the scripture is clear our faith is not supposed to stay there.  Our faith should mature as we grow, transform, pursuing righteousness, and seeking the fullness of Christ.  This morning’s scripture is often lifted up as promoting a childlike faith, but that is not what it says.  Jesus does not say “have a faith like these children”, what he said is “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  As we consider just what this means, I think we can find how our faith can grow young.  We can still grow in maturity but not have the burdens, busyness, and cynicism that gets in the way of the simple joy of knowing God’s love.

To understand this scripture and what it means for us today, I think we need to be able to answer two questions.  First, why were the disciples trying to keep the children away from Jesus?  Second, what does Jesus meant that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these?

One of the fundamental ways that American culture of the 20th and 21st centuries is different than just about every previous century is how child centric our culture is.  Now clearly parents in previous centuries valued and loved their children, but children did not get as much consideration as they do today.  An example of how this is true, is that the first playground for children in the United States did not exist until 1887.  Human society of previous centuries did not place the same level of emphasis on children that we see today.  This was true in the first century as well.  Jesus, as a traveling rabbi, was considered a teacher of the Torah.  Learning from a rabbi was simply not the place of a child.  It was not for them.   The disciples, likely did not see themselves as doing anything wrong.    By rebuking the children, they thought they were preserving the solemnity and importance of Jesus’ message.  In just about any other instance of this kind of interaction with a traveling rabbi, the actions of the disciples would have been viewed as correct.  Most rabbis of the time kept their message exclusive, it was only for those who it was meant for-and in a highly patriarchal culture this of course meant adult men.

However, Jesus was not like most other traveling rabbis.  At this point the disciples had not yet grasped that Jesus’ gospel was not exclusive it was fully inclusive.  Because by including children, Jesus by extension also included women who often were also excluded because they had to care for the children while the men learned.  The disciples were engaging in the time honored tradition of gate-keeping, of ensuring the purity of whatever is preserved for those they believe it is intended for.  However, Jesus radically broke from tradition by demanding that the little children should come to him.

Unfortunately, churches and Christians communities have historically found themselves more aligned with the disciples on this than with Jesus.  In a lot of places churches have a reputation of engaging in gate keeping.  Instead of being places that let the sinners, the rejects, the broke-hearted, the lost, and the children come to experience grace we put gates in the way that require a certain look, a certain attitude, or a certain lifestyle before we allow people to experience the fullness of Christian community.  I realize this is not true for every local church and this is not everyone’s experience.  However, there are many people with many painful stories of how gate-keeping has pushed them away from faith.   We can see this evidence in the demographics.  The median age of the US population is 35 but the median age of a United Methodist church member is 57.  To help reverse this trend, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin wrote their book entitled Growing Young.  In this book they share six essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church.  Two of these strategies reveal how gatekeeping has harmed the church.  The second strategy is “empathize with today’s young people.  Instead of judging and criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.”  The sixth strategy is “Be the best neighbors.  Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.”    Judging, criticizing, and condemning are all strategies of gate keeping.  They are all done to keep the “wrong kind” of people away, and we should have nothing to do with it.   We should get out the way and let the children and all the people come to Jesus.

The second question to consider then is why did Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like little children?   I think to answer this question, we have to remember that the bible was not divided into chapters and verses when it was written.  As originally written it was meant to be considered a bit more holistically, so if we flip back just a page or two in most bibles we will find this is not the first time Jesus mentions children.  In Mark 9:33-34 the Disciples had one again been arguing to themselves about who was greater.  Jesus once again tells them “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”   To further illustrate this point, Jesus picks up a child among them and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

Again in a first century, patriarchal culture that puts adult men at the top of the hierarchy, a child is the last person who would normally be welcomed.  In this culture, in an argument over who is greatest a child will always be the last picked.  Which is precisely why the kingdom of God belongs to those like little children.   A child in the first century could not earn a place of honor.  There is nothing that a child could do to be allowed pas the gatekeepers into the area they were not permitted.  For a child to gain the kind of access that Jesus granted them it was a gift, it was an exception, and it went against all of the rules.  This is why in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we have to receive it as a child would:  with joy, open arms, and wild expectations.  We treat it like a special treat because that is exactly what it is.  The kingdom of heaven is not reserved for the greatest among us, it is not reserved for those who prove themselves, and it is a gift of God that is given to those undeserving because of God’s great love.  Our citizenship in God’s heavenly kingdom is a gift of grace through faith not through accomplishments.

Never ever forgetting that foundational truth is how we have a faith that grows young.   God loves you and Jesus forgives you.  It really, really is that simple and when we remember that then we will never lose the joy of a child-like faith.  We can still mature in our faith and in righteousness while never letting go of the happiness that grace brings.  No matter how busy we get, no matter how distracted we get, no matter how hard life feels, if we remember that God loves us and Jesus forgives us then our faith will manage to stay eternally young and vibrant even while we reach the full maturity of Christ.

So may we collectively be a church that grows young.   May we not seek to be gate keepers and stand between people getting to Jesus, but may we let all the people come to him.   May we not get so serious and dour about life that we lose sight of the greatest reason why we should have a laugh out loud joy:  God loves us and we are forgiven by grace.   May we keep that joy down in our hearts, down in our hearts to stay.



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