A Sermon Given to Madison Baptist Church
By Rev. Stephanie Little Coyne
July 15, 2018
Much of my sermon today comes from the experiences that our youth and children and I had during our youth trip and at Kids camp.
While I was at Kids camp, I began brooding about my message today and shared with Jacob Beckham, willing chaperone, and thus now, my best friend, that I always start with more than I need and the process of paring down of my words and scripture is always a difficult one.
So, our scripture passages today are a little choppy, for no other reason than to be respectful of our time together this morning. I encourage you to read these passages in their entirety for your devotional time with God. The lessons are overwhelmingly poignant.
5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
12I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.
11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
16But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
And Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”
His name is Charlie.
He is an addict, but now, thankfully, has many years of recovery to claim. He was homeless; he was lonely; he lived in lands East of Eden.
And now, the world that held him captive for so many years has now become his church without walls, and his congregants fellow unsheltered people. Charlie walks around his church—wooded areas behind Wal-Mart, Academy Sports, and alongside well-traveled roads in Cartersville—and greets his congregants by call or by name. His hands get dirty while he worships.
On our trip, our youth followed, always several steps behind Charlie, allowing him to enter the homes of the homeless first. He would gently shake their tents, even clap or call their name out loudly if he did not receive a quick response. Several of his church members were not home, some came out and greeted us all, and a few could not be awakened or could not come out of their tents.
The water, coffee, and food were always welcome gifts, and they each said “thank you,” some, able to look at us, some, unable to let their gaze meet ours.
At the end of each encounter, Charlie would tell each person that he loved them and that Jesus loved them too. He invited them to dinner at the homeless shelter and to the recovery program. He invited them, and I believe Charlie offered invitation each time he saw them, to come forward…to church, to a different path, to a more loving home, to sanctuary.
Her name is Angela.
Her church is less than a mile from the homeless shelter. Fluent in both Spanish and English, she makes sure that both languages are heard and can be read in their church services, bulletins, and during their activities.
There is nothing that can be described as “elaborate” in the church. Their symbols of worship are not fancy liturgical linens or architectural ornaments. Rather, their displays of active ministry in their community are their offering. They love as they have been taught to love. They love as they have been commanded to love.
Though the offering plates of Douglas Street UMC may not be filled to the brim each Sunday, they share and give and do the work of the church faithfully and often.
Their ministries are both financially and emotionally burdensome. The needs of the community are constant and extensive. Most of the money that comes in, goes out. The phrase, “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” means nothing to this church. And as long as people hunger, that would have their church be no other way.
Our group helped serve lunch to children and adults. Children, 18 years of age and younger, eat food supplied by the local school system. There is not always food available for adults. The church relies on donations from local restaurants and grocery stores, or groups like ours who are able to bring lunch for the day. Because of our church’s financial donations to mission work, we were able to leave enough food with the church for two more days of adult lunches.
Her name is Jessica.
A graduate of both the University of Georgia and Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor, she uses her skills as minister and social worker to aid the community of non-profit organizations in Cartersville. The Good Neighbor homeless shelter was in desperate need of financial and structural management.
Jessica revamped the program, setting up stages of transition for the people who entered the program. She worked with the other non-profit organizations so that monetary and emotional support could be more efficiently and effectively offered to those individuals who needed such help. In doing this, she and the other directors were able to eliminate some of the duplicate services, making sure that the funds they received were distributed in a more fiscally responsible manner.
Jessica was able to secure funding and materials to build eight transitional homes for those who were entering into that particular stage of the program. The homes have filled a gap in the tiers of homelessness.
But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
“Despised Zacchaeus, come to me! Come down from that tree! I’m going to your house today!”
“Despised Adulterer, come to me. I can give you living water. Go and sin no more!”
“Despised, blind beggar, come to me! Let him come to me! Sir, receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus called for the despised to come closer. He called for the addict and the rebel and the mentally ill. He called for the rich and he called for the poor. He called for the refugee and the citizen and the exiled. Jesus even forgave them and healed them. Christ Jesus even praised them—“Go, and be like the Good Samaritan.”
The life of Jesus—his teachings and his actions—are as offensive today as they were in his time. And why are they offensive? Because they shed light on our hypocrisy and our acts of “un-love.” They offend us because his words speak to us personally and we don’t like to be wrong!
Just as in the very politically-charged time of Jesus, our own “us and them” culture seeks division in our communities and nation and world, and in the Church. We are all party to and agents of our society’s segmentation.
Conversely, in welcoming all, Jesus was closing the gap between the minority and the powerful, the clean and the unclean, or, as we might say, the blessed and the…unblessed.
If I say that my privilege, my wealth, my health indicate the amount of blessings that God has heaped upon me, I cheapen God’s blessing and I cheapen grace. I equate blessing with luck. I distinguish between myself and those who have nothing, not even good health. And why? This is a distinction that God does not make, for we are all God’s children, fearfully and wonderfully made.
When I highlight my perceived blessings, I raise myself above others and my “isms,” my racism, classism, and ethnocentrism, rear their ugly head and I become like the Publican praying at the temple—conceited, proud, and superior—rather than like the tax collector, humble, unjustified, and reverential. Blessing does not come in the form of wealth or material goods, of pain-free lives. Blessing is found in those moments when we are drawn closely, near to the heart of Jesus, and we hear, and we are heard, and we know, without a doubt, that we are loved.
Our political environment—on either side of the metaphorical, and sometimes literal, aisle—contains divisions of people who require their members to assimilate their ideology, sometimes subverting one’s personal theology. They, we, require adherence to human law rather than God’s greatest laws—to love God with our whole beings and to love our neighbors and ourselves.
We are all God’s children—sinners, in desperate need of forgiveness.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.”
They are our pre-teens and teenagers. Annabelle, Eli, Claire, Grace, Shea, and Eli. They sometimes have trouble hearing. They are often loud and messy. They get tired during the day and yet stay up late at night.
But they are bold enough to serve. On our trip, they filled plates, held babies, played with animals, jumped in on basketball games, learned about history, ate at tables with people who do not look like them.
They sometimes came close for head rubs or hugs. They asked thoughtful questions and gave mature responses. They played with kids who idealize every part of their beings. They gave drive-by smiles and hugs to children—and ministers—who were unaware of their need for one.
“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in someone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Henri Nouwen, in his book, Prodigal Son, reveals that his interpretation of Jesus’ parable, and even Nouwen’s own understanding of his ministerial calling, changed when he saw Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal’s return. Among his visual revelations was his noticing the people in the background of the painting, the “bystanders,” as he refers to them.
Certainly there were many hours of prayer, many days and months of retreat, and countless conversations with spiritual directors, but I had never fully given up the role of bystander.
[Those in the painting] all represent different ways of not getting involved. There is indifference, curiosity, daydreaming, and attentive observation; there is staring, gazing, watching, and looking; there is standing in the background, leaning against an arch, sitting with arms crossed, and standing with hands gripping each other. Every one of these inner and outer postures is all too familiar to me. Some are more comfortable than others, but all of them are ways of not getting directly involved.
Charlie, Angela, Jessica, and our youth, understand that the work of the church is not always in being the bystander. It’s dirty and it’s burdensome! It calls for time and strength that we do not always have. But in our exhaustion, our hearts turn us toward the need for communion with God. We pray and we listen, and we kneel as we return to God’s welcoming house.
“Little children, come to me.” “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
They are our children. Hollis, Payton, Robert, Asher, Mary Ella, Joe, and Michael. They are often whiny, clingy, needy, and muddy. But they are eager and reflective. They listen and understand far more than we adults believe. They absorb and are touched by the presence of God far more than we adults can expect for our own selves.
They are not always welcome because they are loud and unaware. After all, they are all still learning about themselves and their surrounding. But the fews years that they have accrued on this earth means that they are closer to the Creator than we are. They still have forming clay in their innermost parts and hearts. They are often willing to share their emotions, but they are also keenly aware when adults are emotionally needy too.
Thus, they are both impressionable and receptive and we, as Disciples of Christ, have the responsibility to teach, nurture, and model faithful journeys with the Almighty. We are all called to be present for their needs and present in the life of our church. We are called to participate in and even call for mediation and reconciliatory opportunities. We are to pray as Jesus taught us to pray and call to and love children as Jesus called to and loved and still loves us all:
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” “Little children, come to me.”
“Easy Like Sunday Morning,” may be a relaxing tune, but it is not Truth for the Church. It is not always “easy!” But our aim is that God’s kingdom will be on earth, just as it is in heaven—a loving place, without walls, and without conditions for love.
Come, little children, come. Rest in the arms of Jesus, ye servants of the Lord. Amen.
Oh Lord, you are mindful of us and we praise you for your presence. Your Spirit knows of and understands our deepest emotions and stays with us as we walk through the degrees of each one.
We give thanks that you are in our hospitals, rehabilitation, and nursing facilities.
We give thanks that you are in our funeral homes, chapels, and at gravesides.
We give thanks that you are with us in our homes as we recover and as we mourn.
Lord, you know that we do not understand everything, and we will continue to wonder and wander, but we pray and we believe that you reside with us still, and that your presence will be made known to us.
When all we have left is prayer, we kneel and humbly come before you: hear us as we pray, conscious of the strength of the words Jesus taught us to say: