Welcome the Children, Change the World
Rev. Christin Fawcett
Grace Lutheran Church
Sunday, September 19, 2021
Anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African president, Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats it’s children.” Friends, if this is the case, then I fear America isn’t fairing well. Look no further than the all-too-common school board meeting fights about mask mandates to see that that as a society, we are failing.
This pandemic has brought the vulnerability of children into a new and obvious light that reaches far beyond the issues of masks. From the beginning of the shutdown, people ON BOTH SIDES OF THE POLITICAL AISLE struggled – how can we work if our children can’t get free childcare from schools? Or at least, paid childcare at daycares? Which then begs the question, if our own work is only possible because of the work of teachers and childcare workers, then why are they so woefully underpaid and underappreciated?
Further, studies have shown that women – whose work of child-raising has been underappreciated, often unnoticed, and almost always unpaid – were the primary ones who have quit their jobs or put their careers on hold during this pandemic to stay home and educate their children.
Moreover, domestic violence has increased, especially when stay-at-home orders forced children from abusive homes to stay with their abusers without the escape of school hours and without any eyes or ears of teachers and school staff to notice any unusual bruises or behavior. On August 16, 2020, a six-year-old child who attended the same school as my daughter was beaten to death by his mom’s boyfriend who was watching him and his brother at the time. This type of scenario was increasingly likely in the later months of 2020 as the pandemic waned on longer and longer than we initially imagined.
In Lansing, our own horrifying surge in violence and homicides can be directly linked to the pandemic as one of its main stressors – and far too often the victims of the violence in Lansing has been children.
In 2020 it was reported that Lansing had seen more homicides than it had in 4 decades. This past June the Lansing State Journal reported that 22 people had already been killed in Lansing in 2021, and of those 22 people, four of the victims were teenagers and two were children. Many of the other victims were in their early 20s – and studies are showing more and more that delayed adolescence makes this population much more child-like and vulnerable than previous generations.
Recounting some of the hardest parts about connecting with the parents of survivors of gun-violence in Lansing, Rena Risper, editor of the New Citizens Press, said that one family member of a teenage victim stressed that their loved one still had superman sheets on his bed. So, no matter how much the media tries to desensitize us by naming it “inner-city violence” or “gang violence” – the fact is that someone who still had superman sheets on his bed is still a vulnerable child and their death is an absolute tragedy.
Additionally, this past weekend as those in the Westside Neighborhood heard gunshots and nearly all of us received an Amber alert, we were reminded that intimate partner violence also has its damaging effect on children. I can hardly imagine what those two little children experienced that night and the trauma that they endured will no-doubt last them a lifetime.
But violence against children, sadly, isn’t anything new.
So, perhaps the antidote to this evil is welcoming children, valuing children, protecting children, and investing in children. Perhaps Jesus’ command to welcome children in his name is more radical and more subversive than we ever imagined. What if welcoming children, embracing children, empowering children is our best defense against violence? Isn’t that why there are youth center? Isn’t that why we have organizations like Samaritas that help refugee minors? Isn’t that why there was a call for organizations across Lansing to focus on activities for youth as a way to end the pandemic of violence here?
When Jesus speaks of welcoming children, it is in response to the disciple’s discussion of “who is the greatest?” Isn’t that the same conversation that leads countries to war, politicians to demonize opponents, and extremists to do unspeakable acts? What if the very best way for us to relinquish our desire to be great, is to treat children well and to welcome them fully?
It is clear that this care for, respect for, and empowerment of children is a large part of discipleship. Afterall, Jesus says when you welcome a child, you are welcoming Jesus. So if children are so very important, dare I say central to Jesus’ mission of uprooting unjust systems in the world, bringing about peace, and creating the kingdom of God – then we have to ask ourselves, are our churches living up to this qualification of discipleship?
What would churches look like if we all said that welcoming children was our number one priority?
Why is it so hard to welcome children? Why do we want to keep them at bay and make them earn a spot in the church either by age or understanding? Why do we expect them to function like mini adults who understand the reverence and traditions of the past?
The thing is, children, no matter their age are integral members of the body of Christ; they are disciples of Jesus, and they are no less worthy of approaching the altar of God than any of us. And yet, we put up so many stumbling blocks – rules, age restrictions, impossible behavior expectations. Sometimes we worry more about keeping them in line than discovering their gifts for ministry. Sometimes we worry more about what Biblical facts they are learning than if they are learning how to love through our example.
They don’t have to complete confirmation or turn 18 to be real disciples. And that’s precisely why we baptize infants. Because our value does not come from what we know, how we act, or what we’ve done – our value comes from God. An infant cannot confess their faith, but God can still claim them, make them Holy, and promise to protect and cherish them always.
And in those baptismal vows, we, the community, also promise to welcome them, to cherish them, to teach them, to guide them, and to love them. When we welcome them we are fulfilling our promise to God – and, I believe, there are no limits to welcoming children.
What if treating children with grace and patience, even when they are testing us meant there would be no more school shootings? What if investing in children in our church and in our neighborhood meant no more homicides in Lansing? What if finding ways to incorporate children into worship even when they are wiggly or talkative or silly meant an end to war and destruction?
What if welcoming children in our churches was a more radical act than we ever imagined? Because according to Jesus, it is. Because welcoming children, even in its simplicity, can root out the evil of violence and hatred in this world.
If all goes according to plan, it won’t be long until we are back in the sanctuary. And one change you’ll notice is a children’s area with quiet toys, children sized chairs and tables, a rocking chair and baby bassinet. At first it might be jarring, you might think that these things belong in a nursery, not a sanctuary – you might worry that this will cause disruption or make it hard to hear the sermon; you might worry about how distracted you will be.
But what if welcoming children is the most revolutionary thing we can do? What if welcoming children, loving children, embracing children, empowering children, showing grace and patience to children – what if welcoming children is the most important thing we do on Sunday morning? What if welcoming children is the most important thing we do as a church? Just think about how our priorities change. Think about how our actions change. Think about the transformation we would experience.
Let’s let the little children lead us. Let’s embrace a new form of community where age doesn’t matter – young and old alike are integral, valued members of the community where we participate together in the life of faith. Because, beyond being the antidote to violence and power-grabs, loving children also is the way to ensure that our church will continue to grow and thrive into the future. Loving children is a way of saying, I love this church so much that I want it to be here in 20 years, in 30 years, in 60 years. Making children feel welcome might not seem to matter too much to them today, but the fact is, if they feel loved and valued as children, then that positive association with the church will probably lead them to a lifelong faith. And they’ll take that faith with them when they go out into the world – and they’ll use it to make decisions; they’ll use it to put good into the world; they’ll use it to help people, to make peace, and to love others. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that when you welcome children, when you treat them with patience, when you give them the benefit-of-the-doubt, when you embrace them fully just as they are – when you welcome them as if they were Jesus, you are helping to transform the world; you are helping to end violence; and you are helping to build the Kingdom of God. Amen.