Upside Down Kingdom: Where the Children are Blessed
Rev. Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: MARK 10: 13-16
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But 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. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The person I wanted to be my best friend in elementary school was a very popular girl named Jennifer. Jennifer was beautiful. She had long blonde hair, bright blue eyes, she could paint and draw and do math… and Jennifer could hang upside on the money bars. And I could not. Just like I was afraid to talk to Jennifer, I was afraid to let go on the monkey bars. I could get my legs over the bars and I could tilt my head back a little if I kept my eyes closed. But to let go and open my eyes and hang… that was terrifying. I was also scared that if I didn’t do this, Jennifer would not be my friend anymore. I had heard other girls say that to one another, if you can’t do this or if you won’t do that I won’t be your friend. So this made it difficult to make friends…
One day, when I was sitting on the bar, dreaming of turning upside down and letting go Jennifer helped me. She got off her bar, walked over and said, you can do this, I will help you. She explained how to lower down and hang fully while still holding on. She encouraged me let go with one hand and then the other. And then she said you’re doing it! Open your eyes! I opened my eyes, trusting, not thinking, and what I saw was a whole new world and the same world all at once. My hair was brushing ground, the building looked like a different school, I had to let my brain adjust to the new view before I could recognize the people around me and turn the trees the right way in my head. It was fascinating and exciting and dizzying–as happens when one is upside down. That day, I saw not just the earth from a different perspective, but I saw Jennifer with new eyes too–not as the popular girl that I was too shy to talk to, but as a fellow human being, a kind person like me and not just the untouchable super popular girl.
I think that is why I love this photo that we picked for the opening of this series so much. A child, hanging from her mother’s lap, seeing the same world in a new way, seeing it with open eyes and hands free. Allowing herself to feel the earth from a different perspective and to see the sky from another direction. This is an experience of hanging upside down. It’s an experience of allowing another person’s point of view to influence our own. It’s an experience of seeing where God is and what God is up to in a whole new way. All the while still being in the same place, the same body, the same mind and spirit. It’s about being open, letting go, and trusting.
In today’s gospel, parents are bringing children to be blessed by Jesus. It’s a story I tell our preschoolers on the first chapel of the year so they are sure to hear first the words that God wants them and welcomes them. It’s a story that gets painted and drawn usually with a grassy field and bright sun and blue sky with children of all the colors surrounding Jesus, smiling, running, laughing, full of joy. This is a beautiful way to see the story and it’s not the only way to see the story.
This story is in the middle of other other stories. Stories of how Jesus talked about human relationships, marriage, leaders, followers, divorce, community and the coming kingdom. As we continue through Mark this month we will hear about who is last and first, what God may be like, and where the kingdom of God comes to be a part of our place here. This story is not just a cute moral reprimand to the disciples where joyful well behaved children come to bounce on Jesus lap like some kind of biblical santa claus. This story is much more challenging and pointed than that and is asking us, the readers, to turn upside and see the world a different way.
In order to do that, we need to understand a few things about what it meant to welcome children in the time this story was written. Today we have children’s sections of libraries, playgrounds, schools and day care centers, drinking fountains set at child height and birthday parties that center around celebrating and counting the years since birth. None of this was true at that time. In fact, it was almost opposite and at least a little upside down from our current perspective. In the honor/shame society of the time, people were very quick to see and welcome and want to be in the presence of those who were in high status because that would bring honor and status to their own. Children had no status. They were vulnerable, they needed care, they could be a drain on a family as much as they were hope for a family. Things were not geared for children or held in esteem to accommodate children, they were instead seen as not quite all human until they were grown and contributing to the physical needs of the family or village.
So when Jesus says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child (paidion) will never enter it.” These are not nostalgic or passive worlds. They are words of challenge to the mainstream and words of power and change. There are two ways to understand the phrase in Greek. One could be the interpretation we often hear that Jesus means to become ‘as a child’ to be like a child in your faith and in welcoming the kingdom of God. In one way, this understanding can run the risk of putting children on a pedestal, saying that they always see things more purely somehow… and I know plenty of children who can use the word no or ask why 1000 times before they accept or welcome anything with open arms. And yet, at the same time, the open eyed newness and wonder of child who sees snow for the first time or discovers their reflection in the mirror or who sees others not for their skin color or body type but just with accepting curiosity is a gift in helping us to see ourselves and others from a stance of grace instead of judgement, joy instead of competition.
The other way to understand the greek here is to know that the noun could be accustive instead of the more descriptive, which change the meaning to Welcome the kingdom like you would welcome a child. This brings us back a couple of weeks to Mark 9 when Jesus actually picked up a child in the crowd and said, welcome this child and you welcome God. Here Jesus is turning the idea of who gets welcomed and lifted up to not be the strong, but the weak. In the kingdom of God, it is the vulnerable who are welcomed–those who do not bring status or honor or wealth to the table. In the kingdom of God, it is turned upside down and those who are to be welcomed are the very ones that are cast aside or hidden away in our world.
What we see in this text we will see repeated over and over. Jesus has not come to bless the status quo, but to bring forth blessing for all kinds of people–those this world sees has having value and those this world sees as not having value. Where would Jesus stand among us today? Who would we try to stop from getting to Jesus? Who would Jesus pick up from the crowd and say, “Welcome him the prisoner. Welcome her the refugee. Welcome them the victims of violence and abuse. Welcome him the unemployed, Welcome her the one who loves broadly. Welcome them the muslim, the Jew, the atheist. Welcome him with the broken body. Welcome her with the broken heart. Welcome them with the broken minds.”
In the kingdom of God, it’s all welcome. That is the point of hanging of upside down in the scriptures, that we see the humanity in the person next to us and in the stranger who we don’t know and may not even have the capacity to understand. The person who was assaulted and the person who has lost their child to suicide. The person who has it all and the person who has nothing. Jesus says, this, this is all blessed and this is all held by God. There is wholeness and value in all of “them”, in all of you. That is the fascinating and dizzying part about the welcome and grace of God. It is there and the same for each person, each life, each community no matter what angle we view it from, no matter what lens or perspective we do or do not see, no matter how terrifying it is, no matter how we turn it or shake it or spin it. Jesus ushers in the welcome and love of God when he opens his arms wide to the children and when he goes to the cross and enters into the depths of humanity– from the cross he turns us upside side, shows us how to let go with one hand and then the other and then from that place opens our eyes to bring us life, show us love, and welcome us with open arms right where we are.