I hate high school graduations. There, I said it. I’m sorry. The event is harmless enough. And I’m proud of the accomplishments of the students. But, oh my goodness, after having attended far too many high school graduations over the years, I’ve gotten tired of hearing the same speech, over and over. It’s true. I’m convinced that there has only ever been one High School Speech, and all others are merely copies of the original.
The speech goes like this: “Congratulations, seniors! You’ve accomplished so much! We’re proud of you! We cannot wait to see what you’re going to accomplish! You’re the graduating class that will solve all the world’s problems! You are our future, and our future looks bright!”
It’s that last part — about those seniors being “the future” — that gets me. That’s a lot of pressure! You, dear eighteen-year-olds who only recently learned to drive and not long before that learned to sleep without diapers, are the last hope for humanity! If you get this wrong, we are all screwed! Plus, let’s be honest (dear seniors, if any of you happens to be reading this, please skip to the next paragraph): we all know that’s not true. In all likelihood, this particular class of students will not, in fact, “change the world,” will not, in fact, make much of a difference in world history. To get real dark, it’s totally likely that in about 150 years, the names of most of these students won’t even be remembered.
People in the church have expressed similar sentiments. “The children are the future of the church!” This comment is made usually with good intentions. But it carries the same weight, if not more, in the church, where attendance is dwindling in many areas. If you, five-year-old children, don’t do something in the future, then our church will no longer exist! These kids just wanna listen to “Baby Shark.” Give ‘em a break.
I sense something below the surface of this mindset that bothers me even more. In Luke 18:15, we readers are told that people were bringing infants to Jesus so that he might touch them and bless them. The disciples see it, and they flip. They “sternly order” (as the NRSV has it) the people not to do it. “Ma’am, I don’t know if you saw on your way into the sanctuary, but we have a sign that is CLEARLY POSTED and VISIBLE that tells you where to take the children!”
I’m a parent, and I was once a kid, so I feel completely comfortable admitting something: kids can be distracting and annoying. They are messy, they are quiet when you want them to talk, loud when you want them to be quiet. They say things that they “shouldn’t say,” they remember only the things that you don’t want them to remember, they cry for unpredictable reasons. They can completely disrupt Important Adult Stuff.
I can resonate with the disciples. I’ve been leading a church service when a baby cries. I’ve had to preach through kids wandering up and down the aisle. I’ve even had to give a sermon while a bat swooped through the air. (O.K., that one was unrelated, but still.) Jesus was here to deal with adults, they assumed. He didn’t have time for the kids.
But see what Jesus does: he calls for the children, and then he says, “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.” The word I especially want to focus on is that last one, belongs. Jesus did not say, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God will one day belong when they grow up and become important adults.” He says belongs, present tense. The kingdom belongs to them now. As they are.
The Gospel of Luke concerns itself regularly with who belongs to the kingdom of God, and when they belong. Throughout, Luke urges readers to see that Jesus welcomes all, and he welcomes them now. In the world as Luke sees it, it is to these children — along with the sick, the widow, the foreigner, etc. — that the kingdom belongs.
If we want to find Jesus, if we want to encounter Jesus more deeply, then we have to go where he is — among those whom the world deems humble. Children aren’t the future of the church; they are the church now.