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January 30: Letting God Hold Us

Isaiah 49:14-16

Matthew 18:1-5


There's this thing that happened pretty frequently when our kids were younger. We'd be on the road late, after their bedtime – maybe because we'd been out late at a restaurant or spending time with friends – or maybe we were on the road back from visiting family or some other kind of roadtrip – and, we'd pull in to our driveway after dark, and the kids would be passed out – sound asleep. Sometimes, especially when they were really little – we would try to keep them awake until we got home – singing really loudly, or trying to engage them in conversation – but, more often than not, the sleepiness won, and as we pulled in, they'd be totally zonked. And, so, in order to get them into bed, we'd carefully unbuckle their carseats, and carry them up into bed – trying not to move too much, walking carefully and gently, trying not to wake them. And, then, we'd place them gently into bed, tuck them in, give them a kiss on the head. It was often an exhausting moment at the end of a long car trip, but it was also beautiful – there was a holy moment of connection, as we got to carry these children who we love, to remember that these little balls of energy can also be so calm and so still.

We don't get to do that anymore – the kids are too big, and my back won't allow it, and they sleep in bunk beds, and trying to lift an 8 year old into a top bunk is just really not a great idea – and, also, our eldest now makes it his mission to stay awake until we get home, because, you know, he doesn't want to miss anything.

I sometimes miss carrying my children. I miss how, when we'd go for family hikes, we had one of those backpacks where you could strap the kid onto your back, and I'd get to carry them through the woods as they held onto my shoulders and giggled or yelled and eventually fell asleep. I miss the phase where in every family picture one of them is on my hip. That one was hard to lose – I kept holding our youngest in photos far beyond when he needed it, far beyond when it was a good idea for my back – I don't know why, maybe because I wasn't ready to let go of him being little.

But, there are still moments when I carry them – not physically, not so much anymore, although they are both still small enough for me to launch them into the air during a hug, and I reserve the prerogative to do that with no warning. But, the carrying is different these days. These days the carrying has to do with sitting with them as they tell me about frustrations at school, or with friends. The carrying is about pulling them close when they're sad, or when they're so mad – sometimes at me – that they just can't see straight. It's less of a physical carrying. But it's not that different from what I used to do, when they couldn't make it up the stairs at night on their own, or when something had gone wrong and I held them and tried to comfort them as they cried – what I'm doing is lending them some of my strength, what I'm doing is saying "you can't do this on your own, and you don't have to do this on your own. I'm with you. We've got this, together."

Not every child gets to have that kind of supportive relationship with their parent – and I'm certainly not perfect at it, sometimes I am not the most supportive dad, though I try – but, the model we are called to – the model Jesus presents, and just the natural instincts that have been built into us over millenia – parents are supposed to care for our children, to carry our children – which is why it feels so wrong, why it hurts so much, when it doesn't happen. If you have pain in your life for times when your parents failed to carry you, failed to hold you in love – or if you regret times when you have failed to do that – first of all, I'm with you, my moments maybe aren't as big as yours – or maybe they are – but, I too have felt that hurt. And, more importantly, that hurt we feel when a parent fails to carry a child well is a reminder that it's not the way it should be, that there is and should be something better, that God longs for a world in which children – in which all of us – always receive the care and support we need – are always carried in love.

For the last few weeks, our sermon series has been called "Dying to Slow Down," and we've been talking about the rush, the stress, the anxiety and busy-ness of modern life. And we've been talking about how God offers us something different, how God calls us to rest – even when we think we can't afford to rest – and how God calls us to admit that we can't control everything, to let go of the pressure to do and be everything – how even Jesus, who had the most important job in the history of the universe – sometimes took a break and took a nap.

What we've really been talking about is the alienation that many of us feel. Many of us feel like we can never catch up, like we always have to be doing more and more – or, maybe, we just feel like what we do is who we are. Our society tells us that the highest ideal is for us to be self-made people, for us to be achievers, for us to climb to the top of the mountain, for us to be the very best. But, of course, not everyone can be the very best. And, even the people at the top of the mountain often find that when they get there, it's not as rewarding as they had thought it would be. We spend our lives chasing the good life, thinking that if we could just run a little faster, achieve a little more, that we'd finally be able to enjoy life – but, the thing is, we never really get there, we never really reach the destination, there's always another mountain to climb. And, we can't leave the race, we can't slow down – because then we will fall behind, then the world will pass us by.

So, what are we to do? Andy Root, who has spent his year doing youth ministry and writing about what it means to be the church in the modern world – we've talked about Andy Root already during this series, when we talked about the concept of resonance – how what God offers us is those moments that stick with us, those moments when things really connect – the joy-filled laughter of a child chasing a bubble, or that moment sitting by the ocean listening to the waves and watching the sun rise.

Anyway, Root suggests that the Christian response to all this busy-ness, the rat-race, the rush, the constant need to climb, to try to get ahead – that pressure, that anxiety and stress we feel – Root suggests that the Christian response to all of this is found in carrying children.

Root reads Matthew 18 – our Scripture lesson this morning – and points out that the disciples look a lot like strivers, acheivers, folks who are trying to climb the ladder of success. The story begins with the disciples asking who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. The way that the Gospels of Mark and Luke tell it, this happens in the context of the disciples having a fight over which one of them is the greatest – which one of them is like, the most super awesome amazingly holy disciple. Sound familiar? We find ways to strive in every area of life - we will be the best employee, or the most successful business person, or the best leader or the best teacher, or have the most instagram-worthy house, or we will eat the most interesting food, or we will do the most amazing travel, or, even we will be the most awesomely humble holy religious people – we are addicted to comparing ourselves to others, we are desperate to prove just how good we are – that we are worthy of love, that we are worthy of attention, that we are good enough, worthy enough – we strive and work to prove that, to climb the ladder.

That's what the disciples are doing in this story. And Jesus responds by pointing them to a child. It's important to remember here that, while our culture values children, children are to be loved and cared for – part of the reason our culture does that is because it's been influenced by two thousand years of Christian teaching. In the ancient world, children were seen as less-than-fully human, maybe even as potential humans. The Greek word that's used for child in this passage can also be used to describe a slave or a servant – because children and slaves were seen as equally unimportant, equally unworthy of full inclusion. Children weren't considered important until they changed – and became like adults. So, when Jesus puts a child in the middle of disciples and says that in order for them to be great, they need to become like this child – he's flipping the world on its head, he's turning everything the disciples thought they knew about success and striving backwards and upside-down.

What Jesus is doing is reorienting the disciples' striving – trying to reorient our striving – he's saying that your goal should not be greatness, your goal should be humility, you are to seek to be like this one who is at the bottom of society. Children cannot survive on their own – they need people to care for them. Children are, very obviously, dependent upon others. What Jesus is saying to the disciples – to us – is that our goal should not be achievement – our goal should be relationship. Children exist within – cannot survive without – a complex network of relationships, supporting them, nurturing them, sustaining them, helping them to grow.

I want to say this part slowly, because it's really important. The Good News, the point, of this whole sermon series, the thing Andy Root is trying to get modern Christians to understand, what Jesus is telling us in this story is that you are a child who needs to be carried, and God is offering to carry you. Hear that again, because it's important: you are a child, you are God's beloved child, and the only way for you to survive is for you to be carried. We are to become like children not because they're cute or innocent or anything like that – we are invited to become like children because they are not yet able to deny that they are dependent upon others for their very survival. That is true for all of us – all of us are dependent upon others, none of us can make it on our own – but most of us spend much of our adult lives hiding from that, pretending it's not true – the modern world thrives, depends upon, us thinking we can go it alone, make it on our own, that we don't need community or support. But we do. We are not God. We cannot sustain ourselves. We are dependent creatures, who cannot make it on our own. We can't keep up with a world that gets faster every day. We can't keep running all the time. We need to rest. And that rest is possible only because there are others – and there is a God – who holds us in their arms and carries us when we just can't make it up the stairs on our own.

The child in this story – the child to whom Jesus points us – is a model for humility. Humility is the vital virtue – it is the antidote to thinking we can do it all, we can have it all, we can make it on our own. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves – humility is admitting that we need other people. The Christian response to the alienation and stress and busyness of modern life is admitting that we can't do it all, that we can't make it to every appointment, that we can't achieve every possible awesome thing, that we can't save ourselves or will our way into the good life – it's admitting that we need others to walk through life with us, and sustain us when we can't go on, that we need God to hold us up.

This is why the way a church treats children is so vital to Christian faith. It's part of why caring for children is so important to me, to us, to our church. We love children for their own sake – because they are full people, they are not potential Christians, they are Christians, disciples of Jesus, in the present tense – they are part of this community, part of the body of Christ that we call the church – whether they know it or not, whether the understand it or not – after all, who really understands the mystery of faith. We care for children because they matter, and because God loves them, and because our calling is to help all of us, no matter our age or life stage, take our next faithful steps. But churches are called to particularly prioritize caring for children because children remind us of the truth of who we all are. Children can remind us of the pure joy God invites us to experience. But, more importantly, children remind us that the rest of us are more like children than we are like God. We pretend we are like God – self-sufficient, able to make it on our own – but we are not. And, so, we are invited to admit that we, too, are dependent on others, we need others to carry us – we need God to carry us.

So, at the end of this series, I do not have a five-step plan to help you get your life under control. I don't have 6 essential habits of an organized, less-stressed Christian. That's not how God works. God is not a formula that helps you achieve the good life, that helps you get what you're striving for but in a way that feels better and holier. That's not Jesus. That's a sales pitch. Here's what I do have for you: Good News. You cannot do it on your own, you cannot strive your way out of striving or climb the ladder to God or the good life. But, the Good News is that you don't have to. The good life is here, waiting for you. The good life is a life lived in relationships – with God and with others. The good life is a life where, when it all falls apart, you’ve got someone to call, to sit with you while you cry. The good life is a life where, when things don't go your way, you have someone – a group of someones – who love you anyway. The good life is a life with a community that shares your joys and sorrows – that laughs with you when you are laughing and cries with you when you cry. That's the life Jesus offers. That who the church is called to be.

May we all discover, in this new year, that we are children, who need to be carried by others. May we all remember that we are defined by our relationships – to others, and to God. May we be the kind of people who carry each other. And when we fail at all of that, when we get caught up in the rat race, when we think we can make it on our own, may we know that Jesus is carrying us, that God is holding us in the palm of her hand, and that all shall be well. We are God's children. God carries us. And, therefore, we are free to slow down, even if only for a moment, because God will catch us when we fall.

Amen.

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