Rev. Rebecca Heilman

There is something you should know about me before I tell this story. I’m dramatically afraid of snakes. You’ll see. And so when I lived in the capital inner-city of Lusaka, Zambia teaching 5th and 6th graders, I thought, there’s no way. It’s too crowded. It’s too much city. I won’t see a snake here. My students, they had full confidence in me. I learned about their home life, they learn about my home life. I taught them English and they taught me Chinenja. I learned about their fears and yes, they learned about my fears. You see where this is going. So, they trusted me. We had built a relationship. I was the adult, the teacher, the one in charge, the one who cared for them, and truly believed that they could fly to the moon if they wanted to. One hot, especially muggy morning in our run-down school room, where it was not unheard of to have critters, like bugs or giant, and I mean giant, millipedes on the wall outside our window. A mischievous student, who was the class clown, points to the wall through the window and yells at the top of his voice, “SNAKE!” I’m not proud of this and I’m even embarrassed to tell you about it and believe me, it’s all true. I was the first person out the door. I should have been the second person, actually probably the last. But no, with my extraordinary strength when I’m scared out of my wits, I lifted a student up and moved them aside so that I was first out the door. I was their teacher, the adult, the one who cared for them deeply and I made sure that I was NOT going to be left in that room with that snake. No way. No how. Well it was pure chaos after that! I’ve never seen my students move so quickly through the door and they relentlessly joked with me afterwards, saying I left them with the snake when I was the responsible adult, the teacher. I left them there to fend for themselves, to fight it off! Well funny enough, good people of Trinity, there was no snake. It was all a joke and they just wanted to see how I would react. And I reacted terribly, hilariously, some might say, but how I see it, irresponsibly. And so just when you think you know a person, they surprise you. When you think you trust your people, your students and then they call “snake” on you. Or when my students think they trust me and that I would do anything in the world for them, and then leave them behind with a snake. When you think you know a person…and then they end up surprising you. It can be goofy like this story, or it can be an absolute shock to the system.

I imagine this is how the disciples felt after they asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They must have been shocked by Jesus’ answer. Maybe they were expecting praise for their actions, for they have given up their life, their livelihood, their comfort, their safety to follow Jesus. They have made so many sacrifices for this new idea of entering a kingdom, following a savior, glorifying a new king.[1] Maybe they thought, Jesus would say, “Good siblings, you are the greatest.” Or maybe we should give the disciples a bit more credit. Maybe they thought Jesus would say, “The greatest are the poor, the crippled, the Gentiles, all those who follow me.” But Jesus doesn’t say this to their surprise and maybe, displeasure. Jesus not only tells them, but physically shows them by lifting a young person, a child and placing that young person in the midst of their group. Jesus has met so many people in his ministry. He has called disciples, healed the sick, conversed with the poor, loved sinners, acknowledged women, welcomed the Gentile, even touched the unclean, however, as one theologian writes, “at no point does Jesus choose one of these as a sign of the kingdom of heaven by placing them in the midst of the disciples.”[2] Instead, Jesus lifts up and moves to the midst a wiggly, curious, naïve, lovable, sarcastic, intelligent lowest of the low in the status during that time child, a young person.

It’s hard for us to imagine how lowly a child was in the eyes of the Greco-Roman culture, since most of our children today are thankfully placed at the center of our families. We will go to great lengths to make sure our children are well-educated and well taken care of. We make sure they are loved, and safe and well fed. Thanks be to God. I wish that for every child, every young person and I know it’s not true everywhere and for everyone, just like the young people in the Greco-Roman world. They were considered the least in social status, insignificant to nearly the point of invisibility.[3]  They were often at risk and quite vulnerable to the diseases and hard labor of the day. No doubt, the Greco-Roman parents loved their children, but children were naturally overlooked and lived short childhoods, which might be why we hardly know the names of children in the New Testament. And so when Jesus placed a child, a young person in the midst of them, it may have been inconceivable. Jesus has turned the earthly hierarchy and social status on its head, revealing a new social order existing within the kingdom of heaven. This radical kingdom that Jesus talks about throughout the Gospel of Matthew is now completely upside down. Jesus is asking the disciples to acknowledge the unthinkable by placing a child or a teen a head of them in the kingdom.

And Jesus continues to turn it inside out and backwards by saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  The kingdom that Jesus is referring to, is not for the powerful and even the most pious, but for the humbled, the curious minded, and the one who can be placed in an empty room and still imagine a magical forest. The kingdom is for the one who loves even before they know what love truly means.

I don’t think this passage means to diminish our adult faith or revert to our childhood, because for some of us, our childhood may not have been easy. And so, instead of trying to remember how we used to be, we just have to make room in our hearts for who we are supposed to be. Maybe that means, thinking more child-like – making room for something different, something that comes with imagination and endless love, something we can grasp onto because we once understood it. Maybe it’s a different-type of language and we just need a little refresher. Just a small hint of the child-like language we used to speak. A language that belongs to God and carries a playful tone. A type of communication that has laughter and happiness, fun and pure joy. A communication that forgives easily and welcomes an unknown friend. A heart that feels deeply and may cry when things don’t go as planned. A mind that asks curious questions and speaks aloud the obvious authentic answers that others are too afraid to say. The wonderful, wonderful thing about this passage, is that we don’t have to get rid of our existing adult faith or intellectual knowledge, we only make room in our hearts for a language we once loved and that has merely gone away. Maybe we had to grow up too fast and take care of family members long before we should have. Maybe someone took away our imaginary friend or hurt us so deeply, we had no other choice, but to mature. Maybe the reality of this world hit us hard in some specific way. It would be so nice to find that natural language of our young people all over again and merge my adulthood with that carefree nature.

In the film, Saving Mr. Banks, P.L. Travers, the author of our beloved Mary Poppins, resisted signing over her stories to Walt Disney for 18 years. When her finances were running low, she had no other choice, but to give Disney a chance at producing her family in ink, into a reality on the big screen. Travers was not afraid to express her opinion or have strict guidelines for the film writers before she signed any papers. Some of her restrictions included: no music, nor the color red or ridiculous words like “responstible”. And absolutely, positively no cartoons. Travers tells Disney with gut passion, “I won’t let Mary Poppins turn into one of your cartoons.” Disney replies, “Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children.” Travers pauses, looks at Disney, with a deep sadness in her voice and reflected in her face, she said, “You think Mary Poppins has come to save the children…oh dear.”[4] It took Disney quite a while to discover that Mary Poppins was not there to save the children, but to save Mr. Banks, the father. To help him add some play and silliness to his serious bank life. To encourage attentiveness to his children and laughter to his stern voice. Mary Poppins was there to help the adults who had lost their imagination and creativity and to connect with their children and with their childhood language. Walt Disney should have caught on to that quicker, seeing how he quoted earlier in the film, “There’s no greater joy than that seen through the eyes of a child, and there’s a little bit of a child in all of us”[5]

Children as children, young people as young people, teens as teens, they are God’s image. They are God’s language, as one theologian writes, “in and through which God reveals God’s true nature and therefore, the nature of God’s Kingdom.”[6] Children are “God’s language…by virtue of being children.”[7] God is not bound to only one language of sophisticated theological words, or in-depth discussion or deep, deep thinking but through words and actions of children as well. As Jesus tells the disciples, children convey the kingdom of heaven most easily and most naturally.[8]

Trinity, we encounter God when we welcome children into our midst and we encounter children when we welcome God into our midst. God is in each child and teen’s face that walks through these doors and we are called as covenant people to embrace our baptismal vows: to raise and nurture, to love and to care for, to play and be ridiculously silly in Sunday School or in Morning Watch. We know God loves them. It’s right there in scripture. And Jesus didn’t only use that child as a metaphor or a sign. Every person Jesus met, he was genuinely interested in and concerned for their well-being. And so, because we know this, it’s our responsibility to teach it to the children of this church. We teach our children about God, so that when they grow up in this broken world, they shine light into darkness and value all people, just as God has meant it to be. By embracing our baptismal vows, our children learn that they are loved by God and by this church. We are witnessing that today with our confirmands and it’s so important for them to know this. That yes, we require them to say what they believe out loud, but it’s more important for them to know how much we love them and how they belong here at this church, in this community no matter what stage in life they are at, no matter what doubts they have, no matter what challenges they might face.

You never know what influence you might have on a child. And by simply welcoming them into our midst, into this congregation, into every major fellowship moment we do here, you are already giving a beautiful message.

And I can promise you that when you welcome children into our midst, you welcome God, and when you welcome God into our midst, you welcome children. For when a beloved child I know was asked, what color are God’s eyes? That child responded with, “well, they have to be rainbow because God loves everyone”.


[1] Keith J. White, “’He Placed a Little Child in the Midst’: Jesus, the Kingdom, and Children,” ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids: B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 364.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Saving Mr. Banks

[5] Ibid.

[6] White, 737

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.