At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea..." — Matthew 18:1-6
And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them. — Mark 10:13-16
We've just read two closely related Scriptures that should say a lot to us. And as we study them, we find that their messages are intertwined with several other Gospel passages. One obvious point is that Jesus cared very much about children. The events described in these Gospel stories occurred during a time when Jewish society didn't pay much attention to children. At best, they should be seen and not heard. But Jesus made it clear that the well-being of "little ones" was of supreme importance to Him.
In our first scripture (Matthew), we can see one of many examples of the disciples just not getting the picture. They had been sitting around arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Jesus brought a child to them and suggested that they needed to become as humble and trusting as this child if they were ever to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
It's interesting to note the kind of punishment that Jesus said is reserved for those who cause harm to come to our children – that those who cause little ones to stumble would be better off being thrown into the depths of the sea with a great mill stone around their neck. If we look at the original text, and our Spanish Bible is usually close to the Greek, we find that he didn't mean any small mill stone – un metate – like a housewife might use to grind some grain at home, but rather a millstone so big that it required a mule or an ass to move it – una piedra de molino de asno.
This scripture can be compared to what we read elsewhere in Matthew, where Jesus describes Judgment Day, when He will welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven those who had fed and clothed Him when He was in need. When asked when that was, Jesus answered "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." We show our love for Christ Himself by our treatment of the poorest and weakest and most helpless people who come to us, even the little children.
Our second scripture (Mark) follows immediately after the passage on marriage and divorce which contains those lines most often quoted at weddings:
But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one." So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.
Is this a coincidence? I doubt it. Whether Jesus actually went right from a discussion of divorce to bestowing His blessing on children or whether St. Mark was inspired to link two separate incidents together when writing his Gospel, the message should be clear: A safe and happy home environment is essential to the well-being of children. How many of us here have seen the lives of children we know affected by the divorce or separation of parents on whom the children depended for nurture and care?
In this passage from Mark's gospel from which we take the theme of our morning message, we see once again that the disciples just didn't get it. Children were just a nuisance to them. But Jesus quickly put them in their place, not only taking the children in His arms to bless them, but also telling the disciples that they, and all of us, need to change and become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of Heaven. This passage is surely the equivalent of John 3:3, in which Christ tells Nicodemus that he must be born again to enter the Kingdom.
But what are these child-like qualities that Jesus said we should acquire if we are to enter the Kingdom of God? All of us parents can think of a lot of qualities which we would NOT want anybody to copy: the tantrums, the selfishness, the disobedience.
But when Jesus spoke of becoming like children, the child-like qualities which interested Him were those of humility, dependence, trust, openness and "teachability". In their innocence, little children are capable of learning and accepting God's Word and of being a blessing to all those with whom they come in contact. If we, as adults, are to enter the Kingdom, we must set aside the years' accumulation of bad habits and regain these child-like qualities.
And we must also make it possible for children to enjoy the physical and spiritual well-being that are necessary for them to continue to grow and develop as the children of God that they are.
But nearly every day, we see in our morning newspaper, or on the evening news program, another horrible event that has a tragic impact on the lives of children. In the world news, only last week we heard of the shelling of a refugee camp in Bosnia in which dozens of childen were killed or maimed. The images of starving, emaciated children dying of hunger during wars in Somalia and Rwanda are still fresh in our minds. When Communism collapsed in Russia, we learned of thousands of children who had been born with birth defects because of the pollution that was allowed to take place there.
Closer to home, things aren't any better. If you attended Vacation Bible School last Summer, you may remember the very moving description Carl Washington gave of his work with young gang members. Carl called the current situation a conflict between Satan and God for the souls of a whole generation of children. When we turn on our TV, we learn of the murder of a three-year-old when her dad turned into the wrong street at night. We learn of a little boy being shot on the freeway on his way home from a Dodgers game. We hear of children who have to sleep in the bathtub to be safe from bullets being shot through the walls of their homes. And what is probably most tragic of all, we hear of children killing other children in the gang warfare that rages in our cities. The schools have become battlegrounds and there's talk of installing metal detectors on campus to keep guns and knives from intruding on the learning environment, such as it is. Surely there are a lot of people in today's world who easily qualify for the mill stone award that Jesus was talking about!
Sometimes we're so overwhelmed by the terrible news we hear every day that we feel like giving up hope. The world seems to be going so out of control that it is no longer a fit place to bring children into. We feel tempted to withdraw from the world altogether, to stop watching the news, to move into a gated, guarded community somewhere to escape from all the evils around us.
Attractive as that alternative might seem, though, it wouldn't be in keeping with Jesus' teachings, so let's take a look at what we ARE doing and what we CAN do, right here at Orangethorpe...
At our recent all-Church planning retreat, we decided that the highest priority of anything we do during the coming year must be given to EDUCATION. If we are to survive and grow into the 21st Century, we must be able to offer a quality Christian Education program to both adults and children. Our Sunday School must be a lively place where children of all ages can grow in their knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith. Watch for exciting things to start happening soon!
By placing our emphasis on education, we are committing ourselves to the spiritual nurture of our own children AND of those of any new families who might join us. We are commiting ourselves to being a lot more than just a "social club with a steeple" as some of our mainline Protestant churches seem to have become. In the words of one of our Vision 2000 speakers, we are recognizing that "a crying baby is a sign of life" and that we want to welcome that new life. We parents and grandparents want to leave behind us a lively, healthy church that will be a source of light and truth in the midst of a dark and evil world.
For quite a few years, our Church has been an active participant in the Fullerton Interfaith Emergency Service, or FIES. This ministry helps people, especially families, who are facing a variety of problems, by providing temporary housing, food supplies, counselling and other assistance. As its name implies, it is a partnership with various faith communities.
When we got involved in the Orangethorpe Christian Church's Hot Meal Ministry in 1993, we didn't really think of it as a family program. We were simply obeying Jesus' command to feed hungry people. And at first there were only a few children who came to dinner on Monday nights. But as time went by and the word spread, our guests came to include more and more families. Parents who were not earning enough to make ends meet, and who were unable to buy enough food for themselves and their children, started coming in regularly. Now, more than half of the 180 or so people who come in each week are parents and their children. 10 or 15 of them are babies to whom we provide a package containing some diapers, some formula and three jars of baby food. One of the many things we've noticed about Hot Meal Ministry is how many of our own children have joined us in serving. Young people like Alana, Melissa and Thomas have had no trouble grasping the Gospel message and putting it into practice.
Our conversations with educators and with parents in the neighborhood around us led us to see the need for a place for elementary school kids to go after school. A place where they could work on the homework their teachers assigned them and receive help and tutoring from caring adults. This wasn't really an original idea on our part; we had heard about it through our connection with OCCCO and were able to draw on experience acquired by other churches who had already set up such after-school centers.
On a rainy day in February, the Orangethorpe Learning Center opened its doors in our Patio Lounge, a joint effort of OUMC, Cornerstone and the Orangethorpe Christian Church. We only had two children that day – they were Clarice's granddaughters – but within two weeks more than 20 children were coming in each day. As you can imagine, they can be quite a handful at times. But we have felt blessed to have an opportunity to touch the lives of so many young people. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by all our little blessings and could use a few more volunteer tutors, so this is your invitation to join the Learning Center team.
Whether or not you're already a volunteer or intend to become one, you are all invited to the Learning Center open house which will take place Thursday between 4 and 5 pm. You can meet the children and their parents; we've also invited principals from the children's schools and representatives of Hunt-Wesson Foods, which has been most generous with its support.
With our commitment to education in 1996, our strong support for the learning center will continue.
You've probably all heard me and our pastors talking about a mysterious organization called OCCCO to which our Church belongs. The Orange County Congregation Community Organization's 20 member churches are committed to working together to improve the quality of life for their families. We help our members make their voices heard so they can influence public policy. Whether the issue is clearing the gamblers and drug dealers out of a park to make it safe for children to play in, or getting a City Council to include family programs at community centers in the annual budget, OCCCO churches are right there letting local government know about our families' concerns..
OCCCO is now about to embark on its most ambitious campaign ever. It's called CALIFORNIA PROJECT and has been more than a year in the making. Next Saturday, 1,000 delegates from OCCCO and other organizations all over California will meet in San Jose with the U. S. Secretary of Education and the California Superintendent of Public Instruction to ask for their support for vocational education programs which will benefit the vast majority of our high school students who don't plan to go on to college. As it says in Proverbs,
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.Marian McGee will be going to San Josť next week to represent OUMC.
As a local kickoff for its participation in California Project, OCCCO is having a big public meeting tomorrow night in Santa Ana which will be attended by a number of our local school district and political leaders. We'll meet in the parking lot here at 6 pm to car pool together. If you would like to join us, please see Marian or Annabelle or Martha or me after Church today. They have a pledge form which they'd like to have as many people as possible sign to show their support for California Project.
We've had a lot of opportunities here at Orangethorpe to welcome little ones in Jesus' name, and we've tried to make the most of them. We may be a small church, but we've had some very big achievements. And there's a lot more to come! It is my hope that not only will we continue to have a positive influence on the lives of the children of our Church and our neighborhood, but that some of the spontaneity and wonder of these little ones will rub off on us and enrich our own lives.