Let me first announce my new book, in case you haven’t caught it on the other blog I write. It’s great for small groups as well. Here’s my write up on my new book in case you’re interested. Please share with others.
This week I’ve been writing and meditating on Jesus’ kingdom in Matthew 18.10-14. It’s a message about who the most important member is within God’s great kingdom. Here’s the text in New English Translation (NET Bible), one of my favorite translations.
10 “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. 11 12 What do you think? If someone owns a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go look for the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14 In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that one of these little ones be lost.”
The passage is very straightforward and the surrounding context is not difficult. What does it have to do with preaching though? Before I answer this question, let me share a story.
I recall coming back to the US after having been gone for a while studying for my PhD in England. We visited a very large nearby church. We had our two young children with me at the time around three and one. In our family, we are in the habit of having our children worship with us in the “big service.” Not so this church! The greeters at the door firmly told us that we needed to bring our children to their respective children’s program, and children were not allowed in this or any other service in the sanctuary. Upon further inquiry, they assured us that little children making noise would bother the preacher. Besides, the children had to be ordered to their own program so that the church could accommodate more “big people.” Yes, this is what they told me.
You see? Jesus was talking to his disciples when he was answering their question about the greatest member of the kingdom. Jesus said that the humble child and all those who welcomed this child would be. In Jesus’ day, children had very little legal rights. In fact, some Roman laws indicate that they had about as much legal rights as the household slave until they came of age. Jesus was talking about little children’s humble (or “lowered” social status). Jesus viewed the greatest members in the kingdom to be the lowest of the world. Jesus was talking to future preachers of the kingdom, the disciples. Now, do you see what this story have to do with our pulpit?
Many preachers get bothered by crying and disruptive children. More than once, they also were pests to Jesus’ disciples. I admit, in my own preaching experience, I do not like disruptions. In fact, we preachers love to have this nice and neat (and often harmless) packaged experience called the sermon. Life in the kingdom, however, is messy. How we deal with children both in our preaching and our church ministry reflects whether we truly believe in kingdom value. This is not to say that I do not appreciate the hard work of having separate children’s program. Children programs during the service are good options for some families. For example, my present church, Rose Hill Presbyterian Church of Kirkland, WA, is pretty easy-going about this issue. The bigger question should be, “Have we actually thought through what it is Jesus was saying about kingdom membership though?”
I know many of you will say that it’s the parents’ fault for allowing the children to make a mess or for not sending the children to their “age-appropriate” (how I hate the label “age-appropriate”) programs. We notice that Jesus never blamed anyone (other than Pharisees) for minor inconveniences. Sometimes, we lose the big picture when we center on our own ministry rather than kingdom ministry. Crying children can quickly cause us to lose that focus. I have even seen pastors reprimand parents or children or both in the middle of the sermon because of such disruptions. It takes clear understanding of the kingdom, spiritual maturity and godly patience to deal with crying children or any other mess while preaching. I wonder if Jesus were in attendance, would we do things differently?
What is the reality of the kingdom? Reality of the kingdom is that the lowliest were valued as the most important, and we must treat them as such. I recall speaking in Vancouver in a large church. In the middle of the service, a mentally ill person came forward and began asking if he could use my mic to say something. Before I could say anything, his parents and several deacons restrained him. I had no idea who he was or what caused him to do what he did. I was a bit dumbfounded. In all honesty, I was not as prepared as I should have. In retrospect, I thought to myself, “What would you do if he really did try to grab the mic?” I’m not telling you what you should do, but we need to think about this “little one” and all other “little ones” to prepare for this kind of unexpected situation. I realize, upon reflection on that situation, that I really need to be better prepared about what I would do, in the light of what Jesus had said above. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I too struggle with the rest of my colleagues on the pulpit, but I think we need to ask realistic questions that line up with the kingdom vision.
In my opening story, the philosophy of the church goes directly against the simplest and plainest understanding of Jesus’ teaching about the lost sheep. Children are not numbers; they are kingdom citizens too. The church is not just an organization; it is an organism. Membership in the church (or membership in the kingdom) are not transactions in an age-appropriate middle-class country club. The seats in the church are not reserved for paid customers, or what the deacons told me, “big people.” The kingdom is not a series of transaction; it never was, and it never will be. The church can easily turn into a business, our preacher its salesman, our sermon its sales pitch, and our pulpit its sales office. This is what I’m afraid of. What kind of church would we worship in if our sermons are understood by children and adults alike and children are valued for their greatness and not their smallest? What kind of church would we worship in if we were to act like Jesus is in attendance?