Faith United Methodist Church

June 26, 2016

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Matthew 19:13-15

Sermon:  Who Does Jesus Love?                                                      

When I was in Sunday School, we had what we called “opening exercises.” This was when we would all gather together ~ all ages~ for songs and bible stories before breaking into our individual classes. Every Sunday, and I mean every Sunday we would pledge allegiance to the American flag, to the Christian flag and to the Bible and we would sing two particular songs. You probably know the first one:

Jesus loves me, this I know.

For the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong.

They are weak, but he is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.

The Bible tells me so.

You may know the other one as well:

Jesus loves the little children.

All the children of the world.

Red and Yellow, Black and White

They are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

So every week of my formative years it was drilled into my little head that Jesus loves me ~ and not just me, but every child. And I think that was important because I knew that even if everything else went wrong, Jesus loved me and that’s something I carry with me even today.

About a week and a half ago, at Annual Conference, we spent a morning sharing stories about our experiences of discrimination in the United Methodist Church. People raised concerns about discrimination based on race, disability and sexual orientation. We actually have words in our Book of Discipline that condone ~ and even encourage ~ discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks. Discrimination based on race and disability is not outwardly condoned, but is still present in our denomination.   The pain that was shared in the Expo Center, where more than 800 United Methodists gathered, was palpable. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that everyone present was moved in one way or another.

Two stories, related to the discrimination of LGBTQ+ folks, struck me most strongly. One woman (about my age) stepped to the microphone to share that, as a child, she learned the same songs I learned and felt peace in her heart that Jesus loved her. When she was 12 years old she “came out” to her pastor, a person she loved and the first person she told about her growing realization about her sexual identity. Her pastor told her that she would go to hell if she lived her life as a gay person. Following this she spent many years believing that God hated her. Luckily for us, as the United Methodist Church, she stayed in the church ~ feeling her call from God stronger than the hate she felt from her pastor.

The second story is about a woman who I have known and respected all my life. This woman served as a pastor in the Maine Conference, before the formation of the New England Conference. She is one of the reasons I went into ministry. She was a District Superintendent in Maine and was later nominated for Bishop from the New England Conference. Before retirement she served a downtown church in western Massachusetts, not far from my appointment in Connecticut. There she led an amazing urban ministry working with the poor and with recent immigrants. She served in active ministry for over 40 years. In New Hampshire, a week-and-a-half ago, she went to the microphone to say that the United Methodist Church ~ that she loves and served for decades ~ tells her that she is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” She is a lesbian and has never been able to live her true life because she felt called to serve the church. She apologized to the churches she served for living a false life among them. The way I see it, she has nothing to apologize for…. We, as a Body of Christ, need to apologize to her for not allowing her to live her full humanity.

The day after this sharing we passed a resolution that says that we, as the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, will not abide by the discriminatory language in our Book of Discipline that states that our LGBTQ+ siblings are incompatible with Christian teachings.   We will ordain based on preparation and fruitfulness, and not based on sexual or gender identity. We will officiate at the weddings of our LGBTQ+ congregants based not on their genders, but on the love and commitment they have for each other. Countless people have been hurt, and even turned away from God, based on the teachings of the United Methodist Church. What New England United Methodists did at Annual Conference is a huge step. I just hope it isn’t too late.

Jesus loves the little children.

All the children of the world.

In addition to the stories of discrimination from our LGBTQ+ siblings, we heard the witness of Africans, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians to the institutional racism they experience in the church.   We heard stories of minority pastors being sent to all-white rural churches without any cultural sensitivity training, of churches asking the Conference for a “real” pastor (meaning white, male, with English as his first language). We heard of pastor’s families having to live as the only minority family in their town and the discrimination they experienced. We were even questioned, as a Conference, whether some of our attitudes and actions towards our Bishop might stem from racism, as our Bishop is Indian. In 2016, the 60th anniversary of women’s ordination, we have much work to do as a church.

Today our reading from the Gospel of Matthew is about how caregivers (parents, grandparents, possibly others) brought the children to Jesus so he could bless them ~ lay hands on them. They probably heard of all the wonderful things Jesus did, so naturally they wanted their children to be part of that, to be blessed by that….. The disciples, though, weren’t so keen on the idea. They acted like Jesus’ bodyguards, keeping the children away ~ like bouncers at a nightclub. They apparently didn’t think that the children were important enough to disturb the master. But what did Jesus do?

That’s right. He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. That must’ve brought the disciples up short…. It is to such as these (not you, Peter or Thomas or John or the institutional church or the Book of Discipline) but to such as these little ones that the kingdom of heaven belongs.

Jesus loves the little children. The Scripture tells us that Jesus laid hands on these little ones and went on his way. But I think that this is more than a story about being kind to children. In Jesus day, just like in our day, children were among the most vulnerable. They were the least, the ones who couldn’t protect themselves. Jesus association with children says something about his concern ~ God’s concern ~ for the most vulnerable in the world. Jesus associated with other vulnerable groups, others considered ‘the least,’ during his ministry: Women, lepers, Samaritans, the blind, the lame, sinners… the list goes on and on.

Tony Campolo is an evangelical pastor and professor who is extremely involved in Compassion International. He has visited and worked with children in desperate situations both in the streets of Philadelphia and around the world. Campolo said once, “Children are so intense. They cry with agony; they laugh with joy; they are really turned on to what it is all about.” I think what he is saying is that children are authentic. And I think that might be what Jesus was getting at as well. It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. Children aren’t weighed down by worry and insecurity. They see the possibilities. They are uninhibited. They don’t say, “Well, Jesus, we’ve never done it that way before.” They are often more open and accepting than the adults in their lives.

To quote Campolo again, “Children believe that they can do something incredible with themselves, that there are no limits.” What if we were to take that attitude? What if we were to believe that there are not limits, no boundaries, that anything is possible? I believe our New England Conference took a step in that direction. I hope we can follow this path and welcome all people, just as Jesus did.

Jesus loves the little children.

All the children of the world.

Gay and Straight, Black and White, Transgendered and Differently Abled,

Those living with mental health challenges. Those struggling with addiction

Those without homes. The rich, the poor, the victimized.

Asian and Latino, English Speaking and Not English Speaking

United Methodist and Not United Methodist

They are precious in God’s sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.