Text: Luke 17:5-10
In preparation for Children’s Sabbath, I spent some time this past week with the Pullen children. I wanted to have conversation with them—to hear their voices and see what was germinating in their minds. It is often when listening to the youngest among us that I am reminded of some simple, yet profound truth about God or faith or some aspect of life. As we all know, children are some of the greatest teachers in the world and I have always enjoyed learning from them.
When I sat down with eleven of the Pullen children on the chancel steps Wednesday evening I didn’t have any real specific questions in mind. I simply wanted to hear, in their words, what it was like being them in this big world we live in. And so I asked each of them, “What is it like being you in this big ole world?” One of things I like about talking with the children that is different from talking with adults is that when you ask them a question, they are eager to answer and they don’t hide their eagerness. And so, from the moment I asked my question, we were off and running.
For the next thirty minutes, I listened as some of the Pullen children shared with me what it was like being them in the world.
“You know it’s not easy being me. Every day I have to go to school and then I have to stay for after-school and it’s all boring. I get tired and you know it’s really boring. All day long it’s boring.”
“Well, I feel pretty small in this big world. Sometimes when I’m talking to my friends I don’t know whose listening and I don’t know if it’s always safe to tell someone else what I am thinking.”
“It’s hard being young. It feels like grown-ups are always bossing us around but then they tell us not to boss our younger brothers and sisters around. It’s not fair. They get to boss us but we can’t boss anybody.”
“When you are young, you get blamed for things that are not your fault and for things you really didn’t do.”
I continued to listen to Ruth, Mila (Me-la), Henry, Bryce, Milena (m-lana), Hannah, Luka, Cecilia, Sutton, Lillian and Caira. I learned that one of them likes drawing and math because he feels a sense of confidence in those areas. Another said their favorite subjects in school are writing and reading. I learned that some of our children have chores to do at home like washing the cat; and that several others in the group would rather that I not even speak of chores this morning. One child shared with me that he has to be very disciplined in order to get all his practice time in for the sports he plays and that he has lots of responsibility. And I learned that several in the group enjoys football, drawing, reading, money and food and they all love coming to church to see her friends.
My follow-up question to “What is it like being you?” was “What do you feel like when you are out in the world?” They mostly agreed that sometimes they feel scared and really small; and that their safety was most important. We ended our time together with one last question, “What would you like to do more of when you are at church?” Their responses to this question ranged from drawing more to playing outside more often to helping the elderly and feeding the homeless and going Christmas caroling.
When I went into my conversation with these eleven Pullen kids I wasn’t consciously thinking about the lectionary text for today. But there was an “ah-ha” moment for me in my conversation with them that helped me understand something about this Luke passage that the adults had struggled with in lectionary group a few hours before. When one of the children responded, “It feels like grown-ups are always bossing us around but then they tell us not to boss our younger brothers and sisters around. It’s not fair. They get to boss us but we can’t boss our brothers and sisters.” I scribbled at the bottom of my piece of paper where I was taking notes on our conversation these words, “It’s not about faith or belief. It about practice.” Or as this child reminded me, “It’s not about what we say so much as it is about what we actually do.”
The disciples came to Jesus and said, “Increase our faith!” or as some have suggested in translation of the original Greek that what the disciples actually said was, “Give us faith.” To which Jesus responds, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” A quick poll here. How many of us have heard a sermon on this text in which the point of the sermon was that if you just had enough faith all will be well? And how many of us, at some time in our life, have tried to have faith and all has not been well? It’s a slippery theological slope that has serious implications about what it means to “have faith.” And I choose not to go down that slope because I don’t think that is what Jesus was saying.
Instead, I think this is another one of those passages in the gospels where what Jesus is really saying to the disciples is, “You don’t get it.You really don’t get what I’m teaching. It’s not about having more faith. It’s about how you put into practice loving and serving others.”
Why do I believe this is what Jesus is saying? Listen to the continuation of Jesus’ response to the disciples. Verses 7-10.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you many eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
If you can struggle through the language of “worthless slaves” and the “ought’s” there is this sense that what Jesus is trying to get the disciples to understand is that his message is one of servanthood—of putting however little or much trust and love and compassion for our fellow human beings we have into practice. Jesus is saying that it is about believing that God is in you loving and serving humanity. It’s really isn’t about having faith or more faith. Rather, it’s about serving your fellow human beings—your neighbor, the poor, the children of the world. And in so doing, and this is the beautiful part, faith becomes a possibility in our lives.
It’s radical thinking. It’s Jesus once again turning our thinking upside down and backwards. We think we have to have faith to act. And Jesus says act and faith becomes a possibility. Or as one theologian has said: “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” We say, “Increase our faith—give us faith.” And Jesus says, “Practice kindness, love, compassion, generosity to your neighbor and faith will come.” Our children need fewer of our words when it comes to teaching them faith and more moments of watching us and joining with us in practicing doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
If the Catholic Church has become too obsessed with abortion, gays rights and birth control as Pope Francis has suggested and thus needs to focus more on loving people, then we might say that the Protestant Church has become too obsessed with faith, right belief and doctrine and thus needs to focus more on simply loving and serving one’s neighbor—near and far.
When asked what it is that they would like to do more of when they come to church, our Pullen kids said, help the elderly, feed the homeless and spend more time outside in creation. What wise children we have! Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said that unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Our children, in all their wisdom, are saying to us increase our faith by teaching us to feed the hungry and homeless, to help the elderly and help us connect to God’s creation. May we have the wisdom to listen to our children as they lead the way as we strive to constantly live our way into a new way of being Pullen Church.