We are blessing the children this Easter morning at UUCA, and I’d like to add to ministerial intern Taryn Strauss’ reflections on what that can mean for us by diving deep into the inspiration for our blessing ritual today: a story from the Christian scriptures, the Gospel of Mark.
One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.
That’s the story.
Now, as we dive deep into its meaning for us today, know that we bring to it the long tradition of Unitarian Universalist biblical scholarship that acknowledges the importance of historical context. It’s so easy to apply Bible insights to our day recklessly, overlaying present meanings onto the past. We read into the Bible our contemporary understandings, our own standards, and absolutely our own agendas and that’s how the Bible voice is squelched. It wants to say a word to us, but we can’t hear because we’re talking over it.
So we want to understand the Bible story on its own terms. Let it speak, in all its power and all its strangeness.
Perhaps the strangest part is how the disciples scold the parents for wanting something that, to us today, might seem quaintly equivalent to “thoughts and prayers.” You know? As in: children dying by gunfire, and politicians tweeting their “thought and prayers” but then doing nothing practical about it?
It’s just a “blessing,” after all.
So the key interpretive question boils down to how people in Jesus’ time would have understood the ritual of blessing. They see the ritual happening, and what cultural understandings get triggered? What memories?
2000 years ago, if you were a descendant of Abraham and you belonged to the People of the Book, an old story would have come to mind. The story of Joseph and his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, born to him in the land of Egypt. Their Mother was not Hebrew, however. The mother was Asenath daughter of Potiphera, a priest of On. Therefore, when Joseph traveled to Canaan to meet his father Jacob, Joseph knew that Ephraim and Manasseh would be seen as outsiders, not eligible to live in Jacob’s house and definitely not eligible to receive any of the family’s wealth or inheritance. This was the way it was.
The bloodlines needed to stay pure.
Joseph went to his father’s house, all the way from Egypt to Canaan, knowing this.
But what happens next, as the story is told, in Genesis 48, is that Jacob says to his son Joseph, “Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt … will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine….” Then Jacob says, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”
Jacob literally adopts them, and when that happens, everything changes. This is no mere “thoughts and prayers” blessing. With the blessing came a commitment to care for the children with whatever material resources could be mustered, for that slice of time, and for the rest of their lives.
And so fast forward thousands of years, to Jesus’ time. THAT was what was on the minds of the disciples. And so was the attitude of the time—same as now—that children are the weakest link in the social chain. So if you want to join yourself with anyone, and you have any worldly wisdom at all, join with the capable and the self-sufficient, join with wealthy, join with the gifted, join with the respected, join with whatever was comparable to the NRA 2000 years ago.
Don’t bring Jesus the weak! Bring the mighty!
The disciples’ irritation was only increased by the fact (as some scholarship says) that the children brought to Jesus were being thrown out of their homes. The parents didn’t want them anymore. They were weaker than the weakest link. Kids who might have been born of unlawful unions, children with mixed-race heritage, children born of rape. Or children who were physically disabled in some way—blind, mute, deaf, with only one eye or arm. Mentally disabled children too, although back then it would probably have been chalked up to some kind of demon possession.
That’s the children being brought to Jesus. And the disciples were having none of it. How do you build a Kingdom with that? What happens to a Kingdom when the inheritors are that?
Jesus, you have got to be more ambitious than that!
But Jesus’s wisdom was different from the worldly wisdom of his disciples. His Kingdom was never about conquest; it was about expanding the circle of Love until all can belong in all their vulnerability and all their humanity.
It’s about Beloved Community. It’s about transformed hearts that love what is good.
Jesus also knew that children are the most vulnerable and yet, paradoxically, the most powerful too. Children are the future.
Jesus knew something that Mahatma Gandhi closer to our time has said very well: “If we are to teach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children; and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle; we won’t have to pass fruitless, idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering.”
The Kingdom of God—the Beloved Community—begins with the children, of all kinds, the wanted and the unwanted. We can’t make their invitation to the dignity table an afterthought. We must not make them last on the list.
Jesus chides his disciples and he blesses those unwanted children, those lowest of the low.
It means that he will commit to caring for the children with whatever material resources he has. Loving words but more than words.
It means that, if Jesus were alive today, he would work to demilitarize the police so that instances of shooting people before asking any questions would disappear, as happened recently to a young black father of two named Stephon Clark who was shot twenty times and killed while in his grandmother’s backyard because police thought he was pointing a gun at them—but it was just a cellphone. And he was scared out of his mind.
Stephon Clark was someone’s child. And now he is dead.
We need to bless Stephon Clark. We need to commit. He’s part of our family. We have to love him.
Same with the children afraid to go to school, who hear an the alarm going off and it’s just a drill but they immediately think that there’s a gunman loose and they may die—it’s just horrible.
Bless all those children. Meaning, talk to your legislators. Meaning, vote this November.
Bless the children. It doesn’t have to be about trauma and crisis. The children of this community, who are going to find your plastic egg with your blessing inside, are beautiful with their innocence and curiosity and openness and playfulness.
How can we put them first on our list, not in the middle, not last?
I’m going to start leading Children’s Chapel once a month. It will always be on a Sunday I’m preaching, so I will miss the first 15 minutes of worship, I’ll be coming in late and slinking down to my seat. But I’m going to do that.
What can you do to share the wealth of your time and wisdom with our children?
Bless the children.
More than 450 years ago, it was Faustus Socinus, our Unitarian Universalist ancestor, who said that though Jesus was only human, still, he saves; but he saves not by virtue of his blood spilled through violent death but by setting an example of a truly loving, good life.
People are saved as they follow the example of Jesus’ goodness in their own lives.
Let’s follow Jesus, and be saved from our selfishness and saved from his disciples’ so-called “wisdom.”
That is how Spring will go from something happening all around us to something that gets into our relationships and gets inside our very souls.