|Celebration of Holy Baptism, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco|
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
- Mark 10:13-16
I wonder if Jesus enjoyed spending time with children.
Last Sunday, Andrew and I hosted the new rector at St. Mary the Virgin, David Ericson, his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriella (5), and John (3) for dinner. Our son, Nehemiah, is a college sophomore in Boston, so it has been a while since we’ve had little ones in the house. Andrew found a box of old toy trains and planes, stuffed animals, and books from Nehemiah’s childhood and put it in the living room. Gabriella and John were enchanted to discover these old treasures, which were new to them. John seemed to enjoy shooting a plastic cannon ball at me. Gabriella, a budding ballerina, was taken by a pink elephant wearing a tutu that I had forgotten about. No wonder Nehemiah is a dance major!
During dinner, John would periodically disappear under the table and scratch my leg, pretending to be a dog. Finally, he worked his way onto my lap and asked, “Am I sleeping here tonight?” I’m not sure if he asked out of hope or fear or both. When they left, I was exhausted. But I had a great big grin on my face.
I think Jesus welcomed the children because he knew he would enjoy it.
I wonder, though, if Jesus also found his time with these children heart-breaking. Remember that people were bringing these children to him so that he might touch them. Usually, when people wanted Jesus to touch them, it was because they needed healing. These were probably children from peasant families, malnourished, and unwell. These kids needed help.
It is easy for us to romanticize childhood. We live in a society where very few infants are lost at birth or prior to weaning. In Jesus’ world, probably a third of children born live died before the age of six. By sixteen, something like 60% would be dead. For Jesus to allow these children to come close to him, was to come close to the pain in the communities he visited. It had to be heart-breaking.
Jesus was indignant – he was angry – when his disciples tried to prevent people from bringing the children to him. I used to think the disciples were just being mean, treating these children as expendable, unworthy of Jesus’ attention. I’m not so sure now. Maybe they were just practicing triage, believing that these kids were hopeless cases. Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus from compassion fatigue. I’m sure they had the best of intentions.
But Jesus refuses their protection. By embracing these children, he embraces their vulnerability, as well as his own. In this mutual vulnerability, hedged around with love and care, they claim the blessing that is their birthright.
When the children come to Jesus, don’t think of kids sitting on Santa’s lap posing for a picture. Think of Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta. Did Jesus find joy in these children? Yes! But not before he came close to their pain. Which is the flat-out truth of the matter even for the most privileged families: children are vulnerable by definition. They just come that way. Jesus tells us that we must stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our community, we must be willing to come close to their pain, if we want to enter the kingdom of God. The kingdom happens when we make our mutual vulnerability a blessing rather than a curse; an opportunity for joy rather than for exploitation.
It is the social location of these children – as marginal, expendable, worthless – not some romantic notion of their innocence – that cries out for our solidarity with them. Notice too, that this solidarity is not just the responsibility of parents or families. Jesus is not a parent. These are not his biological or adoptive children, but he takes responsibility for blessing them and admonishes his followers to imitate him in this.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This is a radical statement in a culture where children were socially marginal and subject to exposure when unwanted or considered burdensome: literally, disposable people. Jesus says that embracing a child is embracing God! There is that of God in each of us. There are no disposable people! The only way to realize the kingdom of God is to embrace the deep truth of our intrinsic value and interdependence. For Jesus, welcoming and blessing children epitomizes God gracious embrace of the vulnerable and needy.
It isn’t easy to acknowledge our vulnerability. It isn’t easy to come close to the pain in our communities. But to close ourselves off from the vulnerability and pain, to prevent the children from coming to us, also closes us off from the joy of claiming and sharing God’s blessing.
Earlier this week, I had occasion to attend the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education meeting, along with a couple of other members of St. James, and leaders from other congregations who are a part of Faith in Action Bay Area’s faith-based community organizing work. We were there to support the efforts of Dr. Vincent Matthews, the Superintendent, who declared a state of emergency among African American children in our city.
Since 2000, the African American community in San Francisco shrank by 27 percent. Life expectancy among African Americans here is 15 years less than the rest of the population. The median household income of white households is more than $100k, while that of African American households is $30K. 48% of African American children live in households earning less than the federal poverty line, compared to 2% of white children. Our schools are failing these children, 74% of whom score well below grade level on standardized tests and have been for more than 25 years across different state tests. It is no wonder that 67% of African Americans in our city do not have a high school diploma, compared to 16% of the white population. Racial and socioeconomic segregation and institutional racism is creating a public health crisis for African American children in our city. This is what a slow-moving genocide looks like.
Are we willing to come close to the pain in our community? What would it look like to embrace and bless these children?
These are not easy questions. But I do know this: white guilt and white fragility, the attitude that issues of race are just too painful and unpleasant to address, is the resort of privilege. Jesus invites us to choose a different option: using our privilege and power to welcome, heal, and bless. In our baptism, we are empowered to be ambassadors of Jesus, agents of reconciliation. The work of reconciliation begins with relationship.
What if we chose to come close to the pain rather than deny or ignore it? What if we partnered with a congregation in the Bayview or Western Addition to adopt a failing elementary school there? What if we built relationships with the families in that congregation, listened deeply to their stories, and opened ourselves, as Elizabeth Nelson invited us last week, not only to their brokenness but also to the unique gifts they bring to the party? What if, like Jesus, we discovered that we enjoyed our time with these families and their children? What if we claimed them as our children too. I’m sure that we would feel vulnerable, even uncomfortable. I suspect that we would be changed. I trust that we would find ourselves on the inside of the kingdom of God.
Today, we welcome and embrace Boden, Brooks, and Logan in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. We promise to hold them close in their pain and in their joy. We promise to honor the unique gifts they bring to the table, a table in which all are invited and included. In so doing, they push the circle of our embrace to make it a little bit wider. May the scope of that embrace keep expanding until it knows no limits. Let the children come. It may be exhausting sometimes, but it will leave a big grin on your face. Amen.
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 4.
 Mark 9:37.
 James L. Bailey, “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16,” Word & World (Volume XV, Number 1, Winter 1995), p. 62.
 Data from the 2016 San Francisco Community Health Needs Assessment and the Superintendent’s 90-Day Report.