Language is a fascinating thing in that we take these symbolic things, be they visual, aural, or oral, and use them to point to something beyond themselves. Take the symbolic thing “water.” The letters WATER are a visual cue to point to the liquidy substance that we use our mouths to make the sound “water” so that someone else will hear it and know that we indeed mean this thing “water.” There’s nothing inherently “watery” about water, other than the fact that we, collectively, have agreed that this visual, aural, oral symbolic thing points to that very real thing.
For some things, language is pretty straightforward. Every language around the globe and down through history has had a word for “water.” But things get trickier when we get into the realm of concepts, into the realm of ideas. Some languages have words for concepts and ideas that other languages do not. German, for instance, has the word “Gemütlichkeit,” which we’ve stolen in English to mean a state or feeling of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer enveloped in coziness, peace of mind, and a sense of belonging and wellbeing springing from social acceptance. We simply don’t have a single word for this idea—but the Germans do. Sometimes words are only able to approximate what we mean visually, aurally, or orally. And therein arises the trickiness about them.
An example for us as Christians is how we talk about the benefits of God’s promise for us. Sometimes we call it forgiveness of sins. Sometimes we call it restoration of creation. Sometimes we call it peace. Sometimes we call it the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes we call it eternal life. These are all approximations to describe what God is working to accomplish in, with, and through the life of Jesus—the Word through whom all things have their existence and the same Word that became a human being and lived among us. Our words are ways of describing, but incompletely, what God is doing. And so we have to be very careful when we believe we know what something means, with a solid conviction that is unshakeable, when it comes to what God intends for us, for our lives, for the lives of others, and for the whole creation. “We know,” St. Paul tell us, “that all things work together for good for those who love God,” but beyond that, there is a whole lot that we can explore and come to know more and more about. And so today as we go into the sermon, I challenge you to suspend what you think you know about God and listen with an open mind and an eager ear. What is God opening you up to anew today through his Word of life? Do you hear something you didn’t know before?
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
A few weeks ago, I was down in Central PA to visit my family. The first day of my visit was probably the highlight of the whole trip. I got to babysit my nephew, Carl Franklin. Mariah, my sister, couldn’t take the whole day off work, so someone needed to watch Carl Franklin until noontime. I immediately volunteered. My sister, being who she is, worry-wart and all, didn’t think I could handle taking care of my three-year-old nephew. I reminded her I took care of her when she was a baby and I was only six years old—and she turned out okay. So she said we’d ask Carl Franklin at dinner who he wanted to spend the next morning with—with Grammy Kathy or with Uncle Daniel? I don’t want to say there might have been a little coaching and coaxing—and perhaps just a smidgen of bribery with a promised trip to the train station—from me before dinner, but Carl Franklin immediately jumped on “Uncle Daniel!” when given the choice.
The next morning came, and along with it directions how to make Carl Franklin his breakfast, down to a diagram drawn by my sister showing me the size to cut his sausage patty. She emailed me not long after getting to work to see how things were going. I told her things were going just fine. And they were. Carl Franklin was chipper and talkative. Boy—was he talkative. He doesn’t steal that though. The whole family is talkative. Just look at his uncle! Talk about talkative.
But it’s not just that he was talkative, but how he was talkative. You see, he asked questions. It started with, “Where’s Mommy?” I told him Mommy was at work. “Why does Mommy have to work?” I told him Mommy and Daddy work for money so they can take care of him. Then it was “When’s Mommy coming home?” I told him Mommy was coming home at lunchtime. And on and on. Question after question. Even when he would show me something or explain something to me, he’d follow up whatever he said with a new question.
Kids love to ask questions. There’s a fundamental reason for that. It’s how they learn about their world. Kids will ask all sorts of questions, some of them easier to answer than others, like “How do birds fly?” or “Why does it rain?” and some a bit trickier, like “How come people get sick?” or “How come Matilda has two daddies?” and then that all-too-favorite question that every mother with one on the way loves—“How did baby brother get inside your belly?” Kids’ little brains are like dry sponges thrown into a big bucket of water, ready to soak up whatever is there. That’s why it’s important to give honest answers to kids about their questions. Not too many details that aren’t necessary for their age, but honest answers nonetheless. You don’t need to go into a biological, physiological dissertation about the birds and the bees with a three-year-old, but telling them an age-appropriate answer about where babies comes from is far healthier for them than telling them some fable about a stork or some such. Kids ask question to learn about their world, and the more they know about their world, the more comfortable they are with it. The more comfortable they are with it, the more confident they feel about themselves and their place in the world. And it all begins with the questions they ask.
In today’s gospel account, Jesus tells the disciples, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” This line from Mark’s gospel is one that has been looked to for centuries for justification for any and all manner ways the church has approached ministry with children. Should children be baptized? Must you be born into a Christian family in order to have a shot at getting into heaven? If you question your faith as a child but later in life come to believe, are you still out of luck because you didn’t receive the kingdom of God as child? Were you somehow doomed from the outset? These and other questions like them arise out of this one line from Jesus, and like so many of his one-liners, people have abused it.
No doubt—this verse can be used to justify any number of things, but we must always be careful how we use Jesus’ words, and the words of all Scripture, for that matter, to understand our world. Is the way we are using Jesus’ words radically inclusive and life-giving to everyone, or only to a some? Do we use Jesus’ words to embrace each other, those we know and those we don’t know, with God’s love, or do we use God’s Word to inscribe lines and make boundaries that say “I’m in and you’re out?” Any time we use Jesus’ words that creates division, we use them wrongly, and in fact we break the Second Commandment. We vainly–that is, arrogantly and wrapped up in our understanding assign meaning to God’s intentions that aren’t there. And we by our own definition make God out to be a liar. For as Christ himself says, in St. John’s gospel, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” This is the essence of God’s work in Christ, the essence of God’s promise, the essence of the kingdom of God. God desires for us to have a full, abundant life—and that life inherently, by its very nature, includes a relationship with God. In fact, any life without a relationship with God is not a full, abundant life. It’s for this very reason, as he said, that Jesus came—that we have life, and have it abundantly.
And so what does Jesus mean by these words—“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it?” What he means, when we don’t draw lines that create margins, borders, or divisions, but instead understand what he says as an invitation to deeper relationship—what he means is to approach life as a child approaches the world and you will experience more fully the richness of life as God desires for you. What does this mean? It means asking questions, sometimes difficult questions, about your life, and in particular your relationship with God. It’s okay to ask questions about your faith—that is, about your relationship with God. Sometimes the questions might be just to know more about our family history as members of God’s family, and other times it might be more complex, like “If God is so good, why is there evil?” or “If God loves me no matter what, what difference does living a good life matter in the end?”
These are questions that an abundant, healthy, robust relationship with God asks. And they’re asked in the heart of relationship with one another—like a kid asks an adult to know more about her world. Kids ask in trust for honest answers, even difficult questions. And honest answers build a solid relationship. And so we too as God’s children, in the family of God, ask questions about our relationship with God, about our faith, and we listen without condemnation of one another. We wrestle with the difficult questions and provide comfort when things are hard. And it’s in those moments, at those times when we’re there for one another and support one another, that we receive and enter the kingdom of God—a kingdom where love, mercy, and grace reign supreme.
The more we ask about our relationship with God, the more we come to know about our own lives, the more content we are knowing our role in God’s design. The more comfortable we are with it, the more confident we feel about ourselves and our place in the world. And it all begins with the questions we ask. It’s okay to ask questions about our relationship with God; in fact, it’s what we’re supposed to do. Whoever does not ask, whoever does not delve deeper with curiosity, hunger, desire to grow and become more intimate in their relationship with God, will never truly live the abundant, endless life God desires for us.
Ask questions of your faith. Test what you think you know. Go deeper. Expand your mind and your heart. Go higher and higher, and you may come to graze the fringe of heaven with your questions. As a child, ask your heavenly Father one more question. And one more. And one more. And, just maybe, one more…
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.