(This is the manuscript for a sermon I delivered in my preaching class at the end of the semester.)
“Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Phillip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.”
Opening prayer: Lord, I thank you for this opportunity to speak tonight to try and convey a good word from you. I pray that I’ll have a clear mind, focused on your message, and that I’ll be able to communicate it in a way that engages people, and causes excitement to participate in your Kingdom. Amen.
Ok, so we’re getting off the bus to get to our cabins. I’m a senior in high school, this is my last summer in the youth group, and it’s the beginning of Camp Goddard, our week-long kids camp for 4th-6th graders that the youth group are all counselors for. And I hit the co-counselor jackpot. I have two: Nathaniel, who’s been my best friend since before we could use a toilet, and Nathan, who’d been my friend since he moved to our church in 7th grade, and for one week, for 5 days, we are responsible for a cabin full of 5th graders which, in our book, is like ultimate power. It’s gonna be dope. So we’re unloading everyone and making the trip to the cabin and we’ve got all these fifth grade boys dragging their sleeping bags across the gravel and talking about how they’re gonna go the whole week without showering, and go to the bathroom in the woods, even though we’ve got perfectly good bathrooms, and how they’re gonna scare the girls so bad they’ll have to go home early- things are going great. We’re setting up our bunks and everything, and one of the kids, who’s a visitor with one of the regular campers, his name’s Greg. Greg is this little black kid and he’s just as little as all the other guys, but his muscular structure is like Dwayne the Rock Johnson, and I promise that’s only a little bit of an exaggeration. This was the kid we had to sit down on the bus and explain why he couldn’t take his shirt off because he was showing off his six pack and pecs. When the campers took the swimming test, our youth minister thought that he was the camp-provided lifeguard. That’s how ripped Greg was. So as we’re packing, Greg come up to me, chest puffed out, gives me the eye and says, “Hey man, I heard you rap.” And I did, this was true. Nathan and I had recently started making music together for fun, and it was a good time, and Greg had apparently caught wind of this. So I say yeah that’s right, and he goes, “I bet you can’t rap battle me.” Now from the start, this was a red flag. I wasn’t that great a rapper to begin with, I definitely wasn’t a freestyler, and I just got challenged by an 11 year old who could bench press me. But I went ahead and took him up on it, because hey, we all make bad decisions, right? So Nathaniel gets out his speakers because he, too, is not a great rapper, but is always ready to drop a beat, and Nathan’s watching, and by this time our friend Cameron’s also in the room because apparently word’s spread that Kevin’s about to reenact 8 Mile with a tiny bodybuilder and everyone’s getting pumped up as the instrumental for Kanye West’s Power begins. With the claps and the guitar and all that. So I start and I’ve got this impression of like, “Hey, we’re here to talk about Jesus, I better not actually rap battle this child because something about that seems unproductive.” Like, what’s his week gonna be like if this is his only exposure to the gospel, and it starts with a talking Slim Jim with a beard (me) making fun of him for 16 bars during a rap battle? So I’m saying stuff like “Yo Greg you’re a pretty cool guy, gotta wear shades looking up to you cuz you’re just so fly” and I’m talking about Jesus and stuff, and basically doing the opposite of a rap battle. So people are like ok ok ok, cool, after I finish, and I’m feeling good. Like, I rhymed, I was uplifting, it was solid, I feel like I set a good example. And then Greg starts in on the track. And it’s like everything I was working toward just flew right out the window, because first of all, I’ve freestyled with a lot of people, and I have never ever seen anyone come in on a verse harder than Greg did that day. He was like barking and stuff and it was like his body said, “Let’s hit puberty for like a minute and a half so we can scare Kevin, and use a deep scary voice.” It was so aggressive! And Greg was just merciless. He’s saying stuff like “Man, look at your legs! Your legs are so hairy, man! You’re like a bear! You got bear legs! Why don’t you go back to your bear family!” and “Your teeth are so yellow, they’re like the sun! Your teeth are yellow like corn! Corn teeth!” And everyone went wild, it was nuts. It was totally bananas. He didn’t rhyme once, he pretty much pretended the track wasn’t there, he just said, “Yeah, I’m gonna say this,” and did.
And, though that’s an exceptionally extreme case, I think that’s really reflective of the way children interact with the world around them. If you want conviction in truth, look at kids. Because, while I may not have the whitest teeth in the world, I don’t think they’re the same shade as corn, but guess who brushed with a little more purpose that week? Kevin did. And he was right, my legs are pretty dang hairy, thank you genetics. But here’s a prime example of a child doing what children seem to do best: observing the world around them and stating it as truth. And it’s funnier and a fresher memory that this was a negative experience, but that’s not always the case, and I’d even say isn’t the case most of the time. Some of the most endearing encounters people have and remember with kids are the most tender and loving. When a kid tells you “I love you” or “I missed you,” or when your three year old brother is sitting next to you when you’re first born with an orange popsicle in his hand and says “you’re terrific!” I don’t remember that happening obviously, but I’ve heard the story. Kids at church talk about Jesus and it’s one of the most fulfilling things to hear because they say what they’ve been taught and what they’ve seen as truth with so much more confidence than any adult will. Ask them why they’re special and they say “Because Jesus loves me,” and you just sit there like yeah, that’s about as wholesome a human experience as you can see.
I love movies, and I recently realized that one of my favorite genres of movies is children’s movies. And there are several reasons for this, but I think a big one is that at the end of the day, they’re simple. Adult movies, you’ve got all these twisting subplots and character development, and all this complex stuff going on, right? Like Inception you’re like this one girl’s an architect, and Leo’s the main dude and he’s trying to get to his wife, but also there’s this whole corporate thing going on, and I’m not really sure who the bad guy is, and people keep waking up from dreams inside of dreams, but eventually Leo sorta wins I guess? And then the top spins and it’s over and you’re just sitting in the seat like “I’ve got to go on a vacation and clear my head for a while,” right? Moral of the story? I don’t know, I guess just don’t fall asleep because people are gonna sneak into your dreams. But then you get a movie like Wreck-It Ralph and you have a bad guy who wants to be the good guy, so he helps this girl and proves that he can be a good guy after all, and he wins. Boom. Moral of the story? There’s no one I’d rather be than me. And most every kids movie is like that: there’s one main point and the whole movie is spent making it and remaking it so that by the end, kids have learned a lesson about how to live well. And I think there’s something beautiful in that. And I think that’s the sort of cutting through the noise that we see in Matthew 19.
In Matthew 19:13-15, we get a short little snapshot of a scene. It says:
“Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.”
Now, for a little context, this is sort of a random little episode. This happens while Jesus is teaching, and teaching some pretty hard things at that. Before this, he’d been teaching some parables, then he comes to Judea and starts talking about divorce as to answer a question from the Pharisees. And on the other end of the story about the children, Jesus is approached by a rich young man who asks him how to get eternal life, and this grows into a teaching about riches. Parables about the nature of God, points about divorce and our relationships with one another, and points about our relationship with money. See, this is grown up stuff. These topics were some of the most hard-hitting issues of the day, and continue to be even today. Because it’s complex, right? Money and relationship problems can become so complicated and navigating them can become so convoluted that, yeah, of course we want to look to Jesus for answers about them, but I think the pause that he takes in the middle of these two topics is vital.
Because Jesus isn’t teaching how to have a good discourse about divorce and relationship, or how to develop and refine theories about marriage and the ways people relate to one another. He’s not giving a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace seminar so that we can balance the nuances of finances and our ethic on how to reconcile our relationship with money. Part of the reason Jesus’ words are so hard is that they’re action-based. It’s all about your actions in regards to these things, not just what head knowledge you have about them. And that’s why it’s significant that when he addresses the children, he addresses the Kingdom of Heaven. Because the Kingdom isn’t a set of guidelines and modes of thinking and ethics, but a living, moving presence of God in the world. And maybe the reason the children are the ones he points to as an example of the Kingdom is because they aren’t stuck trying to navigate subplots and complexities so much as they are concerned with the active nature of the Kingdom. For them it’s not about developing this or that principle, but being eager and ready to participate in and be drawn into this living movement of God’s Kingdom.
And that brings us back to the scripture I read at the beginning. John 6:5 and on:
“When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Phillip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.”
Did you catch that? The food came from a child, from a young boy. And this wasn’t like the cool kid at school who seemed to have a bottomless lunchbox, right? Like, pulling out leftover mac n cheese and every flavor of pudding and like a bottle of Dr. Pepper. No, this kid had five barley loaves and two fish. The bread especially signifies that this was not a special lunch at all. Barley loaves were the kind of bread the poor people ate. This was the paper sack at the end of the lunch table with a soggy PB&J and half a Juicy Juice.
Adults would look at the situation of having to feed so many people and say exactly what Philip did: Do you know what this would cost? What sort of resources this would take? And instantly, the situation begins to take the form of a system, a bunch of intricacies and complexities that need to be solved before we can do anything. And it would be so easy to write off a kid who wanted to help.
But the way this child helps is by doing first. And whether it was his own volunteering or Andrew who found him and brought him back, the fact remains that the kid had something to offer, and he offered it. And that was more than sufficient. Out of that came plenty. All because there was a call, and he took up what he could offer, and held it up.
I think the simplicity of that is beautiful. I think it’s encouraging. That whether it’s verbal or an action like offering a lunch, Jesus points to children and says “this is what the kingdom of Heaven is like.” It’s like someone who’s ready to use what they have for God.
I want to use an example as we start to wind down from, appropriately enough, a kid’s movie. Coincidentally, this is my favorite movie of all time, The Iron Giant. And I think it’s a great sort of summary of what the innocence and readiness that children have to offer themselves up can do in the world. What it looks like to be able to say things with the same conviction as a child because it’s a way of participating in the Kingdom. So for a little context, this scene comes right after Hogarth and the Giant see a deer get shot by a hunter, and it’s the first time the Giant’s ever encountered death, and it falls on the shoulders of Hogarth, a child, to explain it to him.
Souls are tricky business, and I’m not going to try and divulge the secret of what exactly a soul is today. Maybe some other day. But I will say this: when the Bible talks about souls, typically two words are used: Nephesh in Hebrew which means a “living thing”, and Psuche in Greek, which is where we get words like “psyche” and “psychology”; so in general it’s used to sort of portray this sense of self, a true being. And this makes me think back to Jordan’s message from a few weeks ago- that we are all good, and life becomes challenging when we struggle to see ourselves and those around us as less than good. And that’s the closest I have to saying what a soul might be- it’s that thing in you and in others that is wholesomely good because it is wholesomely made and loved by God, and in that way, especially us, wanting to go into ministry, so much of life is people going around, hoping to tell people in some way or another that they have a soul. Every good act, every act of love, comes from our being good.
But we would seldom do what Hogarth does here. You look someone in the eyes and tell them “you have a soul,” you’re gonna get some weird looks. But I think that’s one thing that we can learn from Jesus’ interactions with children- is that those offputting and uncomfortable truths, spoken so explicitly, fill people up. Speaking like that and acting like that is both a participation in the Kingdom, and an invitation to others into the Kingdom.
So, knowing I’d be one of the last ones to preach in this class, I thought for a long time what I wanted to end on, what I wanted to be my sort of final word to all of us as we get so dang close to growing up and finding ways to spend our lives pointing to God. And I want to leave you with Hogarth’s words because I think we can handle the awkwardness of that: You have a soul. Each and every one of you. I do, too. So may we spend our lives remembering that with the trust and excitement of children. May we be eager to offer up what we have, meager as it may be, because we know that Christ will do great things out of what we hold up to give him. And may we be ever-ready to participate fully in the living, moving Kingdom of God with childlike innocence and enthusiasm. Let’s pray.
God, thank you for loving us. Thank you for making us to love. I pray that we might have the boldness to be like children in our readiness to participate in your Kingdom here on earth. I thank you for the example that Jesus set, and for the promise he made that we might live eternally with you. It is with that hope that we pray, amen.