Sunday, September 19, 2010

Children in Church

It was Becky’s doing!

I say that neither by way of blame, nor by way of praise.

I say it by way of explanation.

It was Becky who said that we should have a commissioning of all those who help with children’s work. It needs to come towards the beginning of a new session … and when we are all going to be around. And today’s service seemed a good moment to do that.

So, over to you. I then thought of readings we could draw on, a story to tell the children. What better story to tell than of the childhood of Jesus – the value he attached to learning, the place of ‘synagogue’ and ‘temple’ in his upbringing. The importance of church in the upbringing of our children.

And then a reflection, for the part of the service when the children have gone to their groups, on the place of children in the church family. We are thinking broadly at the moment of growing disciples. And what better place to start than with youngsters.

I turned once again to Matthew 18. Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel that brings together the teaching of Jesus in blocks. They have a certain symmetry to them. Matthew 5,6,7 the Sermon on the Mount are balanced b y Matthew 23,24,25 – those are all chapters about living life in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’s way of living for all who follow him to take to heart. The middle block of teaching is in Matthew 13 and is a whole series of parables and stories about what that kingdom is like – how it grows from the tiniest of seeds. And then on either side are two blocks of teaching on what it takes to be disciples of Jesus – in Matthew 10 Jesus commissions the twelve.

And here in Matthew 18 Jesus talks about what it takes to be church. This is the chapter in the Gospels where Jesus uses the word ‘church’ and where he speaks most about the nature of ‘the church’. Here in this chapter, we get that wonderful verse that is so important to us in our understanding of ‘church’ ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

So what is ‘church’?

What is at the heart of ‘church’?

Church is very much a grown-up institution for grown-ups. We want to teach children so that they can grow up into the church. And become part of this grown-up institution that we so value. The children’s bit is great. Good fun. But now we can get down to the real business of being church. We are grown-ups together. And this is a grown-up institution for grown-ups.

The whole idea of ‘church’ was something new for those disciples who came to Jesus on this particular occasion.

They knew what the grown-up world was like. There were people you looked up to. And as grown ups you knew who those people were.

So their question was quite a natural one.

At that time The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Natural though there question may have been, the response Jesus gave was not all that they expected. In fact it was not what they expected at all.

And to people who live in the grown up world it comes as rather a shock.

He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

This turns on its head the grown-up world’s thinking about children.

It really does come as a bit of a shock!

In this church that Jesus is forming, that is later to be thought of as nothing less than the Body of Christ, children are central. In Jesus eyes they are not the church of the future. Our task is not to help them grow up into the grown up world and adopt its values.

It’s the opposite way round. Children are important. They belong. They are part of us. Because they are the most important part of us. They are around constantly as a reminder to us grown ups of what we must be like.

We have to learn from them.

Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Last Sunday night those of us who were at the evening service were privileged to hear one of the most personal sermons that I have ever heard, preached from the heart, in the raw only three months after losing his wife. What’s after death? Was the question Eric Burton addressed. And it was most moving to hear. He gave Diana a transcript of the sermon … it is up on the web site and it will be in the next issue of Highbury News. It is well worth reading. During his sermon he played a song by a young Salvation Army member – it’s on the website – The road is long but I want to reach my destination – I want to see this man called Jesus.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to catch a glimpse of this Jesus before reaching that destination?

And that is exactly what Jesus offers. And it is here in church.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

That goes right to the heart of the thinking that Eric Burton brought with him from the Youth and Chidlren’s department of the then Congregational Union in England and Wales in 1966 when he moved here to Highbury. It is what he encapsulated in his manifesto for a family church of all ages where there are ‘No Walls Within’. It is the ethos of the church we now belong to here.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

And the opposite holds as well.

Where were you 28 years ago this weekend? I remember it well.

It was the Sunday of the very first visit of a Pope to these islands. There was in 1982 an excited spirit of ecumenism about the church. His visit was greeted with excitement, not least because it was part of a moving of the spirit that was beginning to take a hold in Eastern Europe and here was a Polish Pope. And as he was taking mass, I found myself preaching at a mass in the Roman Catholic Church in the neighbouring village to ours in Yorkshire.

How times have changed!

As one set of walls came down, others took their place – and too many of the new walls have to do with religion. The spirit of ecumenism is harder to find. Animosity has been far more evident. Indifference too. But most awfully of all … the child abuse scandals, not least in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a shame that has tarnished us all … and not just in the church! Other scandals that have emerged in our society as well are to our shame.

Suddenly these words of Jesus take on an ominous significance.

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!

We have to take to heart these words, and couple them with the words earlier. And re-commit ourselves to our children. Not as the church of the future but as the very ones who make the church – the ones in whom we can see the face of Jesus.

So what have we done?

We have a set of guidelines we have followed – every room has windows in the doors – nothing can be done out of sight of others happening past. Each children’s group has a leader – but also a helper. An adult not on their own with a child. Safe from harm guidelines we are reminded of in our Annual Meeting each year. We have an inspection. Procedures to follow in the event of anyone being unhappy with something that they have seen an adult do with a child. All working with children properly checked and prepared. Mary Michael as our named person who is the person to share any concern with. Good practice we seek to follow. All of it common sense. But common sense we commit to putting into practice. A poster that has to be renewed every three years. And on top of that as we shall be hearing in due course ‘the child friendly church’ award we have just passed to show we are ‘child-friendly’.

But it’s not just for the leaders out there.

It is for all of us. We all of us must be on the lookout for our children. We all of us have to be careful, and caring in how we relate to our children.

For us to be welcoming to children is at the heart of what it means to be church.

Out of sight and out of mind? Or in the midst?

One other change in recent years. On the night when he was betrayed Jesus met with his disciples to share in the Passover. One thing that has happened in recent years is that people have made links with Christian things like communion and their Jewish roots. The Jewish Passover is a family gathering – when all the family comes together. The youngest has a key part to play asking a question that prompts the head of the household to recount the story of Passover.

And what of us in communion.

Our of sight and out of mind? Or in the midst?

There are different ways of looking at it. And we have decided not to do it every time, but every other month instead.

But this is a month when the children will come back and be with us in communion. Part of the family. Doing what we as the whole family of Christ’s body, the church in this place do together as a family – taking bread, taking of the cup and remembering this Jesus Christ.

‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

* 12What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of your
* Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

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