(Homily for the University of Sheffield Chaplaincy's Ecumenical Communion on Jan 21, 2015)
Children Are Not in the Way—They Are the WayA little girl is walking home with her father. He is preoccupied with his cell phone. She is wide-eyed and enthralled by the world around her. She picks a handful of wildflowers, and one-by-one she bestows them as gifts. First to a friendly dog who crosses her path. Then to a still bird on the sidewalk whose life has expired. Next to a homeless man reclining on a park bench. Her father walks ahead all this time. To the daughter, the world around her is a mystery that calls for her attention, calls for her blessing. To the father, the world around is a hindrance. The dog, the fallen bird, the homeless man, they are distractions. The father—and perhaps we ourselves can identify with him sometimes—the father has already worked out what’s what, what’s important. He has divided the world up into what he wants and what he doesn’t want, what will help him get what he wants and what will not, things that matter and things that don’t. So it’s not that he doesn’t care at all about dogs, or fallen birds, or homeless people. It’s just that they are ultimately diversions. They get in the way of what matters.
The disciples in today’s passage bear a striking resemblance to the father. You can imagine the scene. A crowd has gathered around to hear Jesus teach. But several parents insist on bringing their infants and young children to Jesus. So you’ve got all the…lovely sounds and smells associated with small children. Crying. Screaming. Maybe diapers that need changing. And so the disciples direct a few long, hard stares at the parents and then begin to mutter disapprovingly. “These little kids are a distraction. How can Jesus teach with them around?” It’s not that the disciples are anti-children. It’s just that, for them, children don’t matter as much as Jesus matters. The little kids are getting in the way.
But funnily enough, to Jesus, it’s the disciples who are getting in the way. He speaks up, “Let the little children come to me, and don’t stop them; for it is to ones such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs” (18:15-16). In other words, Jesus says to the disciples, “You guys could learn a thing or two from these little kids. They aren’t getting in the way. They are the way.”
The Kingdom of God, according to Jesus, belongs to people like little children. Little children show us a thing or two about life in the Kingdom.
Others to Whom the Kingdom Has Been “Abandoned”?
And maybe it’s not just children who could show us a thing or two about the Kingdom. A couple months ago, I was reading John Steinbeck’s novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, in which the main character, Ethan, has surrendered his life to the pursuit of money. He has his misgivings, but ultimately he agrees with the worldly consensus of what’s what, of what matters. For Ethan and the world, money is the measure of a good life. It explains the way the world works: it explains power, it explains success, it explains happiness. And so Ethan pursues it at all costs. But in the midst of his pursuit, he pauses to reflect. And for a short moment, he realizes something. He realizes that we live our lives according to what matters to us, according to what we can measure or explain (which is usually money, or power, or reputation). And consequently we’re blind to what we cannot measure or explain; we’re blind to everything that doesn’t matter to us. “I guess,” he says, “we’re all, or most of us, the [keepers] of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics.”
Jesus singled out children in today’s gospel reading, but I wonder if Ethan’s reflection might not suggest others to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. Could it be that “a great part of the world”—indeed, the Kingdom of God—has been “abandoned” to the people whom Ethan calls “[the] insane…, fools, and mystics”? The least of our world. The distractions of our world. The people who think differently, who do not follow our way of thinking about the world and what matters. The people who are less in touch with our habits and our miseries and perhaps more in touch with their hearts and the mystery of life, with the spiritual realities embodied in daily life, like hope and love and forgiveness. Could it be that, along with children, they are not in the way but rather are the way itself? That they show us a thing or two about life in the Kingdom of God?
Being Led into the Kingdom
Henri Nouwen would answer these questions with a hearty “Yes.” Nouwen was a respected intellectual, often found lecturing in hallowed Ivy League halls, until one day he left behind his academic pursuits and surrendered his life to living in community with the severely handicapped. He tells many stories about this drastic shift in life. Particularly poignant is the story of his relationship with Adam, a man who could not speak or move without assistance. Adam—who in this world’s eyes might be considered like a little child or a fool or even an insane person—Adam showed Nouwen a thing or two about the Kingdom of God. Nouwen explains, “[Adam became] a friend and a trustworthy companion, explaining to me by his very presence what I should have known all along: that what I most desire in life—love, friendship, community, and a deep sense of belonging—I was finding with him. His very gentle being was communicating with me in our moments together, and he began to educate me about love in a profoundly deep way.”
When one of Nouwen’s friends came to visit—a minister, no less—he questioned Nouwen about his decision: “Henri, is this where you are spending your time? … Did you leave the university, where you were such an inspiration to so many people, to give your time and energy to Adam? … Surely you have better things to do with your time.” But Nouwen saw that, while Adam could not interact as most people do, he was living in the Kingdom of God—indeed, that he was inviting Nouwen into the Kingdom. “Could Adam pray?” Nouwen asks. “Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from ‘below,’ questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions that were from ‘above’ were, ‘Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?’”
Adam, in other words, showed Nouwen how to receive the Kingdom. Like a child. Not with a mind calibrated to what matters and what doesn’t, not with hands that sought to earn or achieve the object of their desire, but with a heart open to the grace of God. Outside my house here in Sheffield, there’s a profound piece of graffiti that reads, “The best things in life aren’t things.” Whether or not Adam knew this doesn’t matter, because Adam lived it. Adam depended for his life on love and hope and forgiveness. And day after day, Nouwen was led by Adam into the Kingdom of God.
Can You Let the Least of These Lead You Into the Kingdom?
And for us? Perhaps the story of Nouwen and Adam—along with the story of Jesus and the children—offers a timely reminder in this new year, as we settle back into old patterns and routines of work and life, into a mindset of what matters and what does not matter. Perhaps it’s a reminder to look outside our presumptions and habits, to attend to the distractions and things that we think don’t matter—to what disrupts our lives, what is different, what is not normal. We’re reminded that more often than not, we are not the guides to the Kingdom of God, but rather the guests. And that more often than not we’re invited into the Kingdom by the people we least expect. We’re reminded to listen with Nouwen to the questions from above: Can you let others lead you into prayer? Can you let the least of these guide you into the Kingdom? Can you see my face in the faces you so often ignore or dismiss?
Yes, yes, may it be so. Amen.
 This story is adapted from the children’s story Sidewalk Flowers. JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2015).
 John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent (New York: Penguin, 2008), 70.
 Henri Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved (Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis, 1997).
 Nouwen, Adam.
 Nouwen, Adam.