When Jesus was teaching his disciples, perhaps there was a time when they thought they were there to take in the lessons, to receive knowledge and become wise, as if that’s all there is to discipleship—just listening and nodding along. Or maybe they were dazzled by the proximity to power—look at this Jesus who can still storms and cast out demons and heal sick people! Maybe if we hang around him, we can get some of that power for ourselves!
But then Jesus explains that he will die. It’s not that the disciples couldn’t understand what death means; they just can’t process this information. It’s too big.
Years ago, I visited the bedside of a woman who was dying; she was no longer conscious but her adult children and several grandchildren gathered around. Nothing more could be done for her, and machines were keeping her alive, and the family had decided it was time to turn the machines off and let their mother die peacefully.
One of the sons, a grown man, remained confused about what was going on—he knew the machines would be turned off, but he didn’t recognize this really meant the end. His sister was annoyed with him, saying “We already told you this.” Then she turned to me, saying, “He just doesn’t listen.”
But I could tell that it’s not that he wasn’t listening; the information was just too big to take in and process. How do you say goodbye to your mother? How do you accept such grief? For someone who has taken up so much space in your life, in your psyche, how do you acknowledge that person’s absence? People describe the death of a loved one as a hole in their heart—a hole that may never entirely heal. It’s that difficult to understand.
I think Jesus knew this might happen with his disciples. People in grief can sometimes do really strange things, like get angry at people they love. Sometimes grief comes out sideways like that. Have you ever seen adults fight with each other after a parent’s death? The grief doesn’t know where to go.
Our entire world is experiencing collective grief during a pandemic. Sometimes that grief is coming out sideways, getting angry with one another over political differences. We don’t know where to put our anger, our fearfulness, our deep sadness. Grief has scrambled our sense of what’s right in the world. Our understanding has crumbled, and we don’t want to be buried underneath the rubble. We want to be on top somewhere, safe and righteous. We don’t want more questions; we want certainty, as if our own understanding is a safe place upon which to build our sense of permanence in the world.
Jesus asks his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Can you imagine if Jesus walked onto a cable news show and asked that question? What are you arguing about? Who would even want to tell him the truth? But Jesus already knows the truth.
And this isn’t the time for shaming. This isn’t the moment for thundering righteousness. Jesus sits down. When the rabbi sits down, it’s time to listen up because now is the time to teach. You can see the disciples perking up. Here it comes: the succession plan. Who’s in charge after Jesus dies? Who gets the power, or do we divide it up amongst ourselves somehow?
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He took a child and put it among them, and he took the child in his arms—you know, the way a loving parent might do, or a caring teacher, or a doting aunt. This isn’t the lesson the disciples thought they were getting. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus is sent from God, so we’re supposed to believe that welcoming a child is like welcoming God? Yup. And we’re supposed to trust that this is the plan in place for after Jesus dies? Yep, that too.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. The way to be great is to look out for other people. What if we actually did that? What if we actually did what Jesus said? What if we even took our grief and confusion and instead of raging in anger, what if we took that energy and made it about serving the least and the lowest and the youngest and the weakest? What if we weren’t all fighting to be on top or fighting to win, but fighting to care for others and make space for the littlest ones?
This pandemic has been so disorienting that there are things we used to do as a church as a matter of course, but we just stopped because we didn’t know the way forward. Sunday School is one of those things. We knew we couldn’t put little children into a tiny room with the threat of viruses floating around—the risk is too great. But we knew more or less how to do Sunday School, and the teachers were experts at this: setting up a classroom, having everything in place, knowing your class list, knowing the boundary lines and how to do this. It’s beautiful when that happens. But we just couldn’t do that.
So we had to look at the essence of what we’re doing—teaching faith to little children—and find a new way to do that. Last week was the first time we gathered little children with their families for Family Sunday School, outdoors!
There were no walls, not even a ceiling. We had a rough plan for our time together, Dr. Thome would lead some songs to gather us, I would tell a story from Scripture—the creation story!—and our Sunday School teachers Ami and Ella would lead a craft project, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk.
We didn’t know exactly how it would go, and we didn’t give specific instructions about exactly what to do. There were no tables, no chairs set out, just carpet squares for children to sit in the grass. And can I tell you what happened, without any prompting?
By the time I got outdoors with my lesson materials, the children were sitting in the grass, and the adults were kind of standing around the children like a human fence line. No one told them to do this; this is what came naturally. We want to protect our kids and make sure they don’t run into the street. And we want to put them in the center and entrust to them the gifts of Scripture and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
And just imagine what it’s like to be a child there in the center of that much loving care, surrounded by people who care, enveloped in the love of the saints. I saw a vision of what Jesus meant when he talked about welcoming children—caring about the stuff that really matters.
It takes a lot of humility and a lot of wisdom to submit to the call of teaching and welcoming children. Some people are naturally good at this, and others of us have to work a little bit. This isn’t just about entertaining kids and keeping them safe and busy long enough to grow up. This isn’t about forcing some model of behavior.
This is about telling the story of Jesus, over and over again, until it becomes such a part of you that it’s natural to share it. And it becomes easy to serve your neighbor, it becomes easy to put children in the center.
Jesus made the hardest lessons just devastatingly simple. And maybe submitting to this wisdom becomes a pathway out of our collective grief. Indeed, God is making all things new.