During the season after Pentecost, we focus on what it means to be a Christian. At Christmas we heard the Good News of Christ's incarnation. The Easter acclamation - Alleluia! Christ is Risen! - is still ringing in our ears. At Pentecost we heard that we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Christ's body in the world. Now what?
Well, according to Jesus in today's reading from St. Matthew, if we have truly heard the revelation of "these things" in today's passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, then we are infants - babies.
When I was a young child it was a terrible slur to be called a 'baby' by a sibling or a friend. And we use the word 'childish' to describe an adult who seems immature. So, how are we to feel when Jesus declares that it is not the wise and understanding who grasp God's revelation, but the infants? Is Jesus telling us that unless we become innocent, cuddly and sweet, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven? No. I believe Jesus understands children, just as he understands adults, and that he is speaking here of the true nature of children, not their cultural caricature. The two characteristics of the child that are particularly helpful to be in our Christian lives are their humility and their essentiality.
Let me begin by discussing humility. Have you ever known an infant who was not teachable? The very young child absorbs and digests tremendous amounts of information every day. Yet how many adults do we know who have no humility before the great mysteries of God, who have stopped feeling awed by God's creation and no longer have a sense of wonder when they hear God's revelation proclaimed? It is easy to become jaded and cynical, even in the church. But humility is one of the great Christian virtues, and one we can learn from observing the children in our lives.
Children are humble by nature, that is, they have very little power over their own lives. This may be why children are so fascinated by power. Children need to know that violence and domination represent only one kind of power. I often discuss with my children the difference between physical power and spiritual power. I even tell them that Jesus is the most powerful because his love is the greatest and that love is far more powerful than hitting or kicking. But, like all parents, I used to wonder if the message was sinking in.
Then, one day, when my eldest son was five and at the height of his infatuation with the Power Rangers, he came into the kitchen with his arms outstretched at his sides and said, "Guess who I am."
I said, "I don't know."
"Oh, I see," I replied.
Then he asked me, "Do you know how I fight the bad guys?"
He swung his outstretched arm and lightly touched his little brother on the shoulder, then, looking me square in the eye he said, "I touch them. I touch the bad guys and I make them good." My five year old had already absorbed the essential message of redemption. In years to come, he will discover terms like imputed righteousness and sanctification, but he already has the essential message.
That is the other thing we can learn from children - their essentiality. Contrary to popular beliefs and most of the toys and Sunday School curriculums on the market, children are not very interested in fluff. They want the essential message. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is what satisfies the young child - not Easter Bunnies and badly illustrated Children's Bibles. Children respond to the essential proclamation of the Gospel.
As some of you know, I am a Catechist for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This is the program of Christian formation we use for our children here ar St. Andrew's. It is based on Maria Montessori's approach to the child, Maria's quality of essentiality she observed in children.
In my work as a catechist I have seen for myself that children respond most powerfully to the most essential messages of the Gospel. Patient observation is one of the main works of the catechist, and it is often rewarding. I was working with a four year old one day, early in Epiphany. The child's mind was still full of the images of the nativity, but we had moved on to present the parable of the pearl of great price. To present this parable to the children, we have a simple wooden house, a wooden figure of a merchant, some pearls in baskets and one pearl (the pearl of a great price) glued to the middle of a small scallop shell. I narrated the story of the parable, then lit a candle and read the parable from the scripture. As I read the parable, I moved the figure of the merchant to enact his search for the discovery of the pearl of great price. The four year old started picking up the candle stick and holding it over the house of the merchant while I read the parable. I didn't stop him, but just observed his action. After I had read the parable he said, "You hold the candle." (over the merchant's house).
I did as he asked, and watched while he started moving the merchant around the house. He told me, "The candle is the star of Bethlehem. The merchant is God." I asked him, "Where is Jesus?" At that point he paused and solemnly surveyed the scene. Then slowly, and with confidence, he pointed to the pearl of great price, cradled in its scallop shell. "This is Jesus." It was a poetic insight into the nature of Christ that is both simple and profound; something a patristic writer might have said. Jesus is the pearl of great price.
If we become like infants in our essentiality, then we will only be satisfied with the eternal truths of the Gospel message. We won't settle for pat answers or a message that avoids, prettifies or distorts the essential proclamation of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
I'd like to close by telling a story that helps me tie together the qualities of humility and essentiality that help me walk the Christian walk. I have a friend who is a priest in Texas. He grew up on a ranch and one day was talking about a "made" priest. He explained that this is a term cowboys use when they are breaking in a new horse. Once a wild horse has been broken, knows the ropes and is ready to work, it is called a "made" horse. I asked what was required to have a "made" priest and he replied, "The Humbling."
I would say that a "made" Christian is one who has experienced "the humbling." Any experience can become a humbling one - a death, divorce, career setback, broken heart, moral failure...any experience that puts us in our place or reminds us of our limitations or sinfulness...When a humbling is accepted graciously, as a gift from God (not caused by God, but redeemed by God), it can help us become a child again. We can become like an infant disciple, ready to receive the essential revelation: Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and rose again to touch us - to make us right with God - to turn us bad guys good. AMEN.