Matthew 19: 13-14
Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Mark 9: 35-37
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We have come now to the latter part of August, and our thoughts turn towards those who are beginning another school year. Educators, parents, families and especially students and children are beginning a school year that will be unlike any they have experienced before, with the COVID virus having created numerous challenges to nearly every aspect of how we operate our educational system.
We know that in our world today there are children for whom schools function not only as a place for learning and development, but also as a vital link to the larger community. We know that there are children who, if they do not attend school, are at risk of going unnoticed. “Going unnoticed,” for some children, means that no one will be paying attention while they live in situations that lack basic care and a safe living environment.
Jesus gave us very specific guidance on the place of children in our communities, and how we should value them. On the one hand, he spoke of dire consequences for anyone who causes harm to a child. In addition, he reminds us that we should seek to become like children, as a way of entering more fully into the path of following God in the world.
And, perhaps most importantly, he said that whoever welcomes a child welcomes him, and thereby welcomes God. To put it another way, the admonition is this: Pay attention. Pay attention to the children in your community so that they feel welcomed. When they feel welcomed they will also feel safe and accepted.
Stephanie Paulsell, who teaches the practice of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity school, writes in The Christian Century this week about the capacity of human beings to cultivate a “spiritual atmosphere – a climate of compassion and attention – that one could pass on to another.” She writes about how the spiritual climate that Jesus created “is what made people around Jesus feel that they had been forgiven…..it was the thing that drew children to him and allowed those harassed by their demons to feel calmer in his presence.”
In other words, paying attention can be, in its most basic but elevated form, a spiritual practice. It goes beyond the cursory and also has a particular set of behaviors
associated with it. When practiced, it has the ability to make the presence of God real.
We all remember Mr. Rogers, and how he related to children on and through his television program. He consistently related to children as people in their own right. His approach was not comic or sentimental, but focused entirely on the child as a full human being. He paid complete attention, and worked to validate their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. By his example he taught us a relational ethic, one in which he said and demonstrated that “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.” He said, “We speak with more than our mouths. We listen with more than our ears.”
For us, building community and a spiritual atmosphere is one of the reasons that we worship and gather together. Within that community, each of us is called to create a climate of compassion and attention, where no one goes unnoticed and where all are welcome, affirmed, and accepted. First we work to create that climate within ourselves, individually, and then it becomes the climate of our community.
And so in the latter days of this month of August, Jesus reminds us that the children of the world need and deserve our full attention. He reminds us that where we truly welcome and affirm God’s children, we welcome God.
A hymn that speaks to this is the beloved “Jesus Loves Me.” The words say:
Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak but he is strong.
Jesus loves me! This I know, as he loved me long ago, Taking children on his knee, saying, “Let them come to me.”
Jesus loves me still today, walking with me on my way, wanting as a friend to give light and love to all who live.
May we seek God’s grace through which we may receive the spiritual gifts of true compassion and attentiveness. Thanks be to God. Amen.