This sermon has two parts – a serious part, and a fun part. Both are about cherishing children. I’ll start with the serious part.
Children throughout most of recorded history have been seen as the property of their fathers, similar to women and slaves. It was the father in the ancient Roman world who determined whether a child would live or die. It is estimated that 20-40% of children were either killed or abandoned, with some of the latter surviving as slaves. A child was a nobody unless the father accepted him or her within the family. It was girls who were more often the victims of this rejection.
This is the context for the story of Jesus overriding the objections of his disciples and blessing children. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes the children in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them. These are the bodily actions of a father designating a new-born infant for life rather than death, for acceptance not rejection. Scholars think there was a debate going on in that early Christian community about whether to adopt abandoned children, with some leaders staunchly opposed. Mark aligns Jesus with adoption. Jesus, he says, was good news for children.
Children in the ancient world were generally viewed negatively. They were physically weak, and understood to lack moral competence and mental capability. The Christian notion of original sin as developed by Augustine underlined this negativity and provided the imperative to beat the child in order that it would grow up aright. Further, Augustine saw no distinction between a child and a slave. The discipline of slaves had always been more severe than for freeborn. The doctrine of original sin was bad news for children.
History generally has been bad news for children. In ancient times children in many cultures were victims of ritual sacrifice, mutilation practices, sold as slaves or prostitutes, and were sexually and physically abused. In the Middle Ages abandonment and infanticide were common. It was common too for children as young as seven to be sent away as apprentices or to a monastery. Severe corporal punishment was normative. The apprentice system continued into the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw changes in how society viewed children, abuse was still common. The Industrial Revolution was also bad news for children. They were made to work in mines, mills, and up chimneys for 14 hours per day – and of course punished if they didn’t work hard enough.
Slowly though changes came. The Enlightenment of the 18th century drew heavily on writers such as Locke and Rousseau. It was an age that challenged the orthodoxy of religion, seeing a child as morally neutral or pure rather than tainted. In response to the wider economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution there arose a philanthropic concern to save children in order that they could enjoy their childhood. The 20th century understanding of child development evolved in the context of falling infant mortality rates and mass schooling. With these changes also came an emphasis on children’s rights culminating in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989.
In recent decades science has discovered the impact of childhood experiences on brain development. Whether an adult is generous and loving is determined not only by their genes but also by how they have been treated as an infant and young child. When a baby is cuddled, treated kindly, played and laughed with, their brain produces certain hormones. On the other hand when young children live with fear, violence, and insecurity their brain produces excessive levels of different hormones such as cortisol. These hormones influence which pathways develop in their brain. It’s the brain’s ‘architecture’ that effects the adult’s ability to be kind and considerate or angry, sad and distressed.
Today with the story of the Good Samaritan I would invite you consider that the person in the ditch could have been a child – beaten and discarded by adults. The abusers may have even justified their violence in terms of it being ‘good’ for the victim, or that the victim ‘deserved it’. The challenge of the parable is to acknowledge that regardless of one’s beliefs or religion or culture or age or gender, the right thing to do is to help and not walk on by. And the right thing to do is to create a society that values, protects and nurtures children, and challenge the moral compass of those who object.
So, that’s the serious part of the sermon. The fun part is story by Bob Fulghum called “Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs”, which contains a serious message.
“Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs” was the game to play.
Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church hall and explained the game. It's a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.
Organizing a roomful of hyped-up primary school children into two teams, explaining the game, achieving consensus on group identity - all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it and were ready to go.
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out: "You have to decide now which you are - a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!"
While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?"
Where do the Mermaids stand?
A long pause. A very long pause. "Where do Mermaids stand?" says I.
"Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid."
"There are no such things as Mermaids."
"Oh, yes, I am one!”
She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category. Mermaid. And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the `Mermaids' - all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?
What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. "The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!" says I. [Yes, right here by the King's Fool, I thought to myself.]
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.”
There are a number of reasons I find this story appealing. I have two lovely daughters who would as children frequently attire themselves in the garb of mermaids, fairies, and princesses? I could just imagine one of them asking uncompromisingly: “Where do the mermaids stand?”
Then I find it appealing because there is a bit of ‘mermaid’ in me - namely a bit of not liking being boxed into the available categories. Actually there is quite a lot of ‘mermaid’ in me if I’m honest.
Then there is the reason that this story upholds a vision of church at its best: lots of activity and noise, lots of dressing up and having fun, and lots of latitude and creative thinking. This is a vision where giants and mermaids, big and small, can all be accommodated.
This vision values children. It values them when they fit the categories, and when they don’t. It values them when they do what we want, and when they don’t. It values them when they educate us, even when we don’t want that sort of education. It values them for being children, not being would-be adults. It values and respects their difference.
This is the sort of vision that the wisdom teacher Jesus was pointing to.