READING FROM THE GOSPEL (Mark 10: 13-16)
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But 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. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Sermon “A Person’s a Person No Matter How Small”
I don’t talk about this very much, because I am far more interested in what unifies us in this multidenominational church than what divides us, but I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. Unitarian Universalists have seven principles. You may or may not know this. The first principle is that Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, which is not easy to do when you think about it. I know I have trouble seeing the inherent worth in everyone.
But I do believe that Jesus did. He’d take a person who other people deemed less worthy and less dignified, and he’d say—see this person? She is here. She has worth. See this homeless person? He will inherit the kingdom of God. See this gentile? She is worthy of my time. See this leper? He is worthy of my care. See this prostitute? She is a person. She is worthy of my water. See this child? She will go first. She is worthy. The last will go first, the least of these is the greatest of these. Give ear to these people, who are people of God. Hear them. That’s what Jesus’ upside down kingdom looks like. Hearing and seeing the people we usually overlook.
In the scripture we heard this morning, Jesus says, “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 fought for--died for--the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Especially the children. And so Jesus is reading the news this week with us, and Jesus weeps. We see more young people gunned down in their classroom at school. So does Jesus. We see more people asking “why?” So does Jesus. We see Syrian refugee children sleeping on the ground in forests and on dirty blankets on sidewalks with flies covering their faces and robbers stealing their things, as they attempt to flee their bombed out homes to safety. So does Jesus. We see Baby Bella, a two year old killed by her mother’s boyfriend in Dorchester and thrown in the ocean in a bag and washed up on shore. So does Jesus. And a few weeks ago: we saw a precocious child, proud of the clock he figured out how to make, accused of making a bomb because of his name and the way he looks. So did Jesus. Jesus weeps over the abused children, the poor children, the dead children, the starving children, the children from oppressed cultures and war torn countries. When children and their families flood the borders from Syria, when the children flee school buildings to protect themselves from mass shootings, when they hide in closets to protect themselves from their parents: Jesus is there saying, “let the little children come to me. Do not stop them. For it is to them that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Those of you who went to see the wonderful production by Sterling Community Theater in our parish hall, Seussical the Musical last weekend or the weekend before were treated to the profundity of Dr. Seuss stories set to beautiful music by fabulously talented actors. Most notably you were treated to the story of Horton the Elephant, who is an unlikely God-like figure charged with protecting both dust specs and bird eggs with faithful care and great devotion. He believes in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, and he’s willing to die for it, like Jesus.
You know this story, don’t you? It begins, iconically: “On the 15th of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys… When Horton the elephant heard a small noise. So Horton stopped splashing. He looked toward the sound. “That’s funny,” thought Horton. “There’s no one around.” Then he heard it again! Just a very faint yelp as if some tiny person were calling for help. “I’ll help you,” said Horton. “But who are you? Where?” He looked and he looked. He could see nothing there but a small speck of dust blowing past through the air.
“I say!” murmured Horton. “I’ve never heard tell of a small speck of dust that is able to yell. So you know what I think?... Why, I think that there must be someone on top of that small speck of dust! Some sort of a creature of very small size, too small to be seen by an elephant’s eyes...
“... some poor little person who’s shaking with fear that he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer! I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
And Horton, our hero, spends the entire story trying to save the speck of dust with small people on it as they are jostled and thrashed around by other animals, and lost in a sea of clover, and threatened by kangaroos and monkeys and being boiled in beezlenut oil. They feel alone and tiny and desperate and vulnerable, with only Horton to save them, and no one believes in them except for Horton.
We can imagine how the Whos in Whoville feel, because we have felt tiny, and we have felt abandoned and we have felt vulnerable, and we have felt alone.
I'm alone in the universe.
So alone in the universe.
My own planets and stars
No one notices anything.
Not one person is listening.
They don't have any way of knowing.
Nobody knows that
I have wings
Yes, I can fly
Around the moon
Beyond the sky
Well someday soon
You will hear my plea
One small voice in the universe
One true friend in the universe
Please believe in me ...
This song sounds to me like a prayer. A prayer from a child pleading for a friend in the universe; pleading for someone to listen.
Don’t we all have these pleading prayers sometimes?
In Seussical the Musical, this prayer is answered by Horton, who refuses to give up on the tiniest planet in the sky.
He calls to the mayor as he is beaten and bruised and taunted by the other animals: “Don’t give up! I believe in you all! A person’s a person, no matter how small!”
And you remember how that story goes…Horton believes so strongly in the Who’s, that he helps them to be heard. The smallest Who, JoJo, lets out a big loud YOPP! And Whoville is saved.
“And that Yopp... That one small extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean. And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean?... They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small. And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of ALL!”
Imagine what children can do when someone is brave enough and faithful enough to believe in them—that one small voice in the universe. Imagine what you and I could do if we just knew that someone believed in us—that one true friend in the universe.
Imagine what we could all do together if we truly believed that GOD loved us and believed in us like that.
Let the children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.
Our children will save the whole world. We just have to tell them about a God who believes in them, who says, “let the children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.”
When I first came to First Church during my candidating week, you talked to me about the importance of ministry to our children and youth. Fewer and fewer children are coming to church, you told me. We need to expand our reach, you told me. Grow with young families. I’m sure you looked at me and my young family and started salivating a little. “Maybe she’ll attract more families,” you thought, “so that the church doesn’t die with me. At the very least she’ll add three children to our program.” You want to pass this church down through the generations, because you know this place matters; can change the world. You know that the kingdom doesn’t belong to us, but to our children. You’ve noticed, like I have, that we have fewer and fewer children. And you know, like I do, that we need to give children a place where someone believes in them—a God who will not let them fall—a lavish welcome from Jesus. Let the children come. Do not stop them.
And so we began to invite them to this table, where they belong, and they have communion with us. And we invited them to come to more worship services, and we expanded their programming, and we created beautiful new classes like Spirit Play and Building Bridges so they could wonder and learn and know God’s love. So they could hear the stories of how they are not alone, and begin to believe them.
And now we will give them a minister, a person who is dedicated to their spiritual health and well being, and the well-being of our families. Who will respond to their cries of “I’m alone in the universe” with “we believe in you. God believes in you. The kingdom belongs to you.” A minister who will be able to care for our families, and dream with them.
We are gambling a lot on our children, because they matter that much.
And now I need your help. I need you to help me to get the children here, and welcome them when they are here. Smile when coffee hour gets more chaotic and loud. Rejoice when prayer is interrupted with baby’s cries. That’s the church alive with God. “Let the children come to me,” Jesus says, “and do not stop them. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
And I need to invite the children and parents to be patient with us, too. I wrote the children of our church a sermonic letter last spring, that said this: “Our church is maybe simpler than the other things in your life: it has imperfect people, and untrained volunteers, and some pretty old classrooms, and state of the art nothing. But it possesses everything. It holds you, beautiful children of God, and it holds these other beloved people who are your people, and it welcomes all. It brings a random assortment of interesting and different and tough and ragtag folks together so that we might learn to love one another better. It has a table of just bread and juice where everyone is fed. It defines success with words like “forgiveness” and “love” and “welcome,” instead of with words like “A+ or “homerun” or “perfect”. Church takes patience and hard work, and it’s boring sometimes. Just like life. But it contains a group of people inside of it who seek to make themselves and the world better with kindness, and stillness and strength—the kind of strength that requires softness and open-heartedness, not the hard body you get from lifting weights at the gym strength. And this kind of open-hearted, soft strength isn’t always valued in very many places anymore, but it’s the most important kind of strength there is. And it matters. It matters so much.”
I promise that at our church, we will continue to preach: “a person’s a person no matter how small.” Because that’s what gathering in the spirit of Jesus means. Remembering that this is as true as true can be together.
One of the most moving parts of Seussical, so beautifully performed by our cast here in the Sterling Community Theater is at the end when the Whos are in danger they are trying to make noise enough for the other animals in the jungle of Nool to hear them and they yell over and over again:
“We are here! We are here! We are here!”
On this world communion Sunday, may we remember to hear the voices of children crying “we are here!” all over the world, from the forgotten corners of the empire. May we be a church that hears, that sees our children, and notices their pleas; remembers that they are here, and that the kingdom belongs to such as these. May we be a church that believes in them; that gives them roots and wings; that gives to them a God and a people who won’t let them be alone in the universe. Because a person’s a person no matter how small.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.