Open Door Mennonite Church
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
When I was in Raleigh, I got called to consult with a downtown church that was concerned because people who were homeless were showing up each week for the service. This church, like a lot of downtown churches, was dying. The families had moved away, and a building designed for 300 had less than 40 for worship each week.
And then these homeless people showed up. They weren’t making demands; they weren’t asking for help. They were just showing up to worship.
I congratulated them on increasing their worship attendance, but I said didn’t understand why they called me, because I thought they wanted more people to come to their church. They started telling me all the reasons they didn’t want people who were homeless to worship there – concerns about how they smelled, concerns about “attracting the wrong element”, and “what will the neighbors think?”.
Basically, their concern was that these new people weren’t like the old people, and that would upset the community norms.
Every community – whether we are talking about a neighborhood, a church, or the Elks club – has community norms. These norms are the rules – often unspoken and unwritten – about things like who the community is, what is acceptable behavior, and how does one become part of the community?
Very quickly in the life of a community, you end up having to answer two questions: “What kind of community are we?”, and “Who can belong to our community?” I guarantee you, if you have been a community any length of time, you have already answered those questions, even if you have never thought of them in those terms. You either did it implicitly or explicitly, and I am convinced that if you do them explicitly, you will get better results.
Often we try to avoid thinking about them by saying things like, “Anybody can belong! All are welcome!”. And that sounds all good, and holy, and inclusive. And it’s fine, as far as it goes. And it usually quits going the moment someone who isn’t exactly like us shows up.
I bet the disciples believed everyone was welcome in their community too. But when the kids started to make a little too much noise, or be a little too bothersome, the disciples started acting like gatekeepers and tried to put up barriers to keep them out.
And that is what we do too. When folks who are not like us, who make us uncomfortable, who don’t quite fit in, show up, sometimes we try to serve as gatekeepers to keep them out. Oh, we don’t say it like that. We use respectable sounding reasons to justify it.
Earlier, I said that every community has to answer the questions “What kind of community are we?”, and “Who can belong to our community?” You see both of these questions being answered implicitly in the passage we read today.
To the question, “What kind of community are we?” – there are two ways to structure a community, and neither of them is inherently wrong. The first way is to build around the boundaries, and the second way is to build around the center.
Building around boundaries is the default way to build a community, so it is the one we are most familiar with. We call them bounded communities. Fondren. First Baptist Church. The Elks Lodge.
The community known as Belhaven has boundaries, and so it is easy to know if you are a member of the Belhaven community, because you live within those boundaries. If you live in Alta Woods, then you don’t belong to the community known as Belhaven.
One reason community life is so contentious sometimes is that once you have determined the boundaries, somebody always feels the need to defend those boundaries.
The other way to form a community is by building around the center. The centered community, instead of asking what are the limits to being in our community, asks itself, “What is at the core of our community?” and then they build out from that.
This means that not everyone in the community finds themselves in the same spot, or on the same page.
Take the community called “Conservatives”. If I say that someone is a Conservative, you know what I mean, even though individual conservatives believe different things. Being a Conservative means that certain principles are important to you, even if different Conservatives exercise those principles in different ways. And if I said I was Conservative, there are no boundaries to say that I am not. That is a centered community, and you belong to it by identifying with it.
So every community decides early in its life if it is a centered community or a bounded community.
If you remember, the other question was, “Who can belong”? There are two ways that works too. You can be a community where people opt-in or a community where people opt-out.
In opt-in communities, you do certain things to join, like move to Belhaven or enlist in the Army. If you don’t sign the enlistment papers, then you aren’t in the Army, and if you didn’t move to Belhaven, then you aren’t a member of Belhaven. Those are communities you opt into.
Opt out communities, on the other hand, are communities where you are automatically included unless you decide to leave. An example of this is your family – you are assumed to be part of your family, and you didn’t have to do anything to join. You are just in unless you decided to leave and change your name.
So in the passage I read, what we see is the Jesus community struggling with the answer to these two questions: What kind of community are we? And Who can belong?
The disciples were acting as gatekeepers to keep people away from Jesus. And you can’t have gatekeepers if you don’t have gates, and gates only exist where there are boundaries. So the disciples had believed that this was a bounded community.
But when the disciples tried to keep people away, the Gospel says that Jesus was “indignant”. Jesus was upset that they were erecting boundaries. No, everything we know about Jesus is that Jesus was building a community centered on the idea that The Kingdom of God was at hand, and we need to get ready to live in it.
In opt-out communities, all you have to do to belong is want to. And here, the children want in, and they show up, so Jesus considers them in. The disciples, however, see the children as an intrusion into the life of the community, so they want them out.
The Kingdom of God is a centered, opt-out community. We are centered on the idea that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we need to prepare ourselves to live in it, and everyone is a part of this vision unless they specifically want out of it. After all, the Kingdom of God will be filled with humans, not just Christians.
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”, Jesus says.
So, if we are to be part of this centered, opt-out community, we should listen to Jesus. Let the people in. Don’t try to keep them away. The Kingdom belongs to them, after all.