tideshift

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Welcoming a Little Child

A friend forwarded this sermon to me. It's by her Jesuit professor friend, Simon.

Dear friends,

Today Jesus is visiting a house – probably a friend’s home – in Capernaum. And once again He’s trying to teach His apostles what it means to be in His company – what it means for us to be disciples of Christ. And in the course of this, one of the family’s children comes running by, full of energy and probably mischief, and Jesus sweeps the child into His arms – the Greek actually says that – restrains the child in a hug, because the child is probably antsy, and then tells His disciples that welcoming Him is like welcoming a child.

What does welcoming a child teach us about being a disciple?

It’s probably easy, especially for a celibate, to romanticize and idealize this. About how lovely and tender and cute children are, and how when Jesus enters your life, you get all these warm and fuzzy and cute feelings.

But the truth is that children can be really difficult a lot of the times. Really demanding by their very nature. You know: from the very first day that this “bundle of joy” comes home from the hospital, or from the room with the midwife, that child takes over your life. You can’t sleep when you want, you sleep when the child sleeps, you wake when she wakes, you eat when he eats – sometimes the same food. All of a sudden, your whole life changes, your whole life is taken over because you’ve welcomed this child into your life.

Now I don’t know a lot about raising children, but one day, I was visiting my sister when her two sons were very young. And as soon as I got there my sister told me that I had to do “uncle duty,” which in this case meant taking them both for a hair cut. Well, my sister is not someone to argue with, so I agreed.

But I’m sure you all know what happened next. I had to get them dressed. I mean, even putting their socks on was hard, because they kept pulling them back off.

And: “Where are you shoes?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, where did you last have them on?”

And the four shoes are in four different places, and you have to lace them up yourself, because they don’t know how.

Then it was: “Where are your coats?”

“I don’t know.”

And so find the coats, and put them on and button them up. So maybe it was almost about twenty minutes, maybe even longer, before I even got them out to the car.

And then we had the fight about who was going to sit in the front, and who sat in the front last time. But I finally got them strapped into their car seats, and drove them to the barber. We had to wait a while, of course, and I had to entertain them both during that time. Finally the barber was ready, but now … who was going to go first?

OK, the elder brother. But somehow, getting his hair cut distressed him, and he began to cry. I had to try to calm him, AND his younger brother at the same time. Then finally it was the little brother’s turn. The roles were reversed for them, but it was the same for me: still working overtime to keep the peace, and to entertain, and to divert and to comfort.

And at the end of all that time, using a multitude of skills, I had to pay the barber. No one paid ME for doing all that work. I had to pay someone else.

And then the ride home and would you believe it? The same fight over who was going to sit in the front. And you can’t take them straight home, because they want ice cream now. So you drive to the ice cream shop, go through the struggle of helping them choose the flavors they like, and pay for the ice cream. Then you have to stop and pay for gasoline that you have to pump yourself. By the time I got back, it must have been about two and a half hours total from when my sister said “uncle duty,” and I had to work pretty hard and pretty constantly during that time and no one paid me for that. In fact, it cost me a bunch of money.

The very next day, I visited a university and gave a talk for about an hour, answered questions for about 30 minutes, and they paid me $1000. Yep, that’s about the going rate for a university professor with a bunch of books published.

But on which of those two days, do you think, was I closer to following the way of Jesus?

I was reading this week’s New York Magazine, and they had totaled up what it would cost from birth to 18 years, if you paid someone to do what parents and grandparents do for a child. I mean, beyond the schooling and the medical care and the housing: What if you had to pay someone for day care, for the home tutoring that parents do after school? What if you had to pay someone to read bedtime stories to the child and tuck her in at night, to shop and pick out his clothes, to drive her to school every day, to teach him manners, to drive them to get haircuts and ice cream? They actually have people you can hire to do all those things. What if you did hire someone for every phase of a child’s life like that? What would it cost?

The magazine totaled it up and over the course of 18 years, those experts would charge 4.1 million dollars. I can show you the article. Four point one million dollars to raise a child to 18 years old.

And that’s just the money. What about the sleepless nights, worrying and praying about your child. Even if he isn’t sick, even if he isn’t away past curfew. Just worrying and praying about how to be a good parent to this child? A number of years ago, I read that priests on the average live longer than most folks. And monks even longer than priests. The article was speculating that this was because of the practices of meditation and prayer which extend life. Maybe, but I also think that that priests and monks live longer lives because they don’t have children to shorten their lives for them.

The point is that Jesus is no idealist; He’s no romantic. So when Jesus says that welcoming Him is like welcoming a child, Jesus is telling us about the tremendous cost of discipleship. How much sacrifice it will take to welcome Jesus every day into our lives, to center our lives around Him, to nurture the Christ life within us, and to bring it forth into the world. How Jesus, really, is asking us to give up our lives for Him – as He became a child and grew up to give His life for us.

And once we say that, we see something else – a deeper thing, I think. We can have a certain human anger at our children. A lot of the Greek myths talk about this: competition between fathers and sons – how the fathers sometimes try to kill the sons, and the sons sometimes have to kill the fathers. Why? Because the Greeks recognized that something going on in the human soul. On some level – usually unconsciously – we resent children. And not just because they demand so much sacrifice from us, so much service, so much humility.

On some deep level the Greeks knew that we resent children because when we look at them, we see that there’s going to come a day when they’re in the world and we’re not. When they’re alive and we’re not. Children remind us of our own mortality. And we don’t want to be reminded. For all their vulnerability and dependence, odds are that our children will outlive us. In some strange way, accepting a child into your life means accepting a future in which will not be in your hands at all.

And maybe that’s why the same Jesus who tells us we must accept Him as we accept children, that same Jesus also tells us we must love our enemies. Yes, enemies who make us feel weak and vulnerable and wrench our lives around themselves and threaten the security of the future we had planned for ourselves. You all remember 9-11. How vulnerable and scared we all felt.

And yet now, five years of unimaginable violence later, do you feel more or less secure? Even government agencies now tell us that our wars have increased global violence, making us less secure. Violence is not the solution. And violence against your children, beating them out of fear and anger or a false understanding of discipline – will that violence fare any better in the home than it has in the world? No … the only way to overcome our fear and anger at our enemies and at our children is to reject violence and to accept the way of Jesus. The only way is Love.

And something else: we Christians have no guarantee that loving our enemies will bring a brighter future. Jesus never says that if we follow Him, the world will be better. In fact He tells us that if we follow Him, everyone will persecute us, will hate us – like the people in today’s first reading who persecute the Just One, or maybe like hearing our teenage children telling us that they hate us. Jesus knows what following the Father’s call for compassion and justice and love of enemies will get for Him. But he has faith that obeying God will bring the Spirit of Love into the lives of His disciples and the Spirit of forgiveness into the hearts His enemies. Jesus wants us to trust His Father as Jesus does. Like a little child. For as the Father loved Him, so also He has loved us, His children.

And there’s no guarantee for raising our children either, is there? We pour our time and talent, our prayer and money and energy into them, and there’s no guarantee how they’re going to turn out. We have to have faith that God will bless our poor efforts. And, unlike the Greeks, we Christians can look to the future of our children with hope. Because we do not hope in the children of our bodies to guarantee our immortality and the security of our future. We hope in the first-born Child of God to save us from death and grant us eternal life with our Father in heaven.

So … to welcome children, to welcome Christ, to welcome enemies into our lives – for all of these we seem to end up needing the same three things. We need faith. We need hope. We need love.

And the greatest of these …

G. Simon Harak, S. J.
gsharaksj@gmail.com

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