Proverbs 31:10-31

Mark 9:30-37

Did this Proverbs reading make anyone else uncomfortable? That’s a lot of work for any woman – no wonder she’s hard to find! As our Bible Study group pointed out, it’s a good thing this woman has help. Unlike most of us, she has servants to direct (but all the HR issues that go along with that), and she needs them. She has to cook, make clothes, even earn money. There’s so much to manage. There’s so much that goes into raising a family.

So let’s think of this when Jesus talks about welcoming children. The last time I heard, kids are a lot of work. “Jesus loves me,” as we just sang, but “I’m a handful.” We like to think about children’s innocence and joy. It’s important to imagine this, because the research shows that kids don’t actually make us happy. A Harvard psychologist has actually done this research, and he’s found that people start out happy, and then they have kids. There are plenty of reasons for this, and for our insistence that we love and enjoy our kids, but they don’t give us what we typically call “happiness.”

I read a column this week in the Diagonal Progress, from the issue following Labor Day (which is a big deal in Diagonal). The high school principal writes the column, and he told the story of his weekend:

How many people can say they spent Labor Day with their hand down the toilet? Hopefully not many, although I did get the opportunity. There is a lesson to be learned from all this. Do not leave a cell phone where a small child can get to it. Let me state right now this is a true story. Apparently this miniature human being found a cell phone and, unbeknownst to her, came into the bathroom. Upon the flush, the small person tested her mighty arm with a throw from the door. Chances are I could not hit that small a target, but she sure did. . . . My arm is fine, the phone is not. Lesson learned, your aim is much better when you don’t really know what you are shooting at.

Kids do these things without trying, and yet we make, adopt, and love them. No wonder people keep telling me, with a sense of foreboding, that life will change when our child arrives! I keep counting on the idea that the research shows we can be happy again after having kids – when they grow up and leave home.

Most of us have good reasons not to be so negative. We tell stories that redeem our kids and the time and worry we’ve invested in them, but that’s part of the study’s point. We know intuitively that setting kids at the center of our lives, as families, a church, or the world, matters more than we can say. That’s part of Jesus’ point here: we know both sides of the story. We understand that kids are important far beyond the fact that they’ll choose your nursing home. At the same time, we know that they are unreliable, needy, and not good at much, and they will probably make decisions you don’t like. So why not save the money you’d spend on feeding, clothing, and educating a child, and just hire yourself a good assistant in your old age? Most of you know why you didn’t do that. Setting children at the center of your life is to give your life away to someone you can’t control or predict. It’s basically a selfless act.

The disciples knew both sides of the story. Some, perhaps many, were householders with families, and they all had been kids at some point. They most likely knew the value of children. They also knew that children had no status. Their culture was more explicit than ours that kids matter in terms of being future adults, and no more. Welcoming a child is giving support to someone who can’t give support back to you. It’s an act of investing beyond yourself. Jesus talks all the time about loving your enemies, sharing with the hungry, giving to the poor. He talks about giving because the people you give to can’t give back. This isn’t how the world normally works. It goes against reason, just like parenting is an unreasonable lifestyle choice.

Unreasonable as it is, Jesus makes it an amazing answer to the argument on the road. The disciples see the end of Jesus’ ministry coming, some of them were just at the transfiguration, and they’re trying to sort themselves out. It’s human to do this. If Jesus dies, as he just said he would, he’ll need a successor. The leader of this new movement should be the greatest follower, right? So Jesus tells us how greatness works. He’s not looking for the most charismatic, the best connected, or the most powerful person to lead his people. He wants to hand on the ministry to those who will continue it, who will reach out to the powerless without asking for anything in return. He uses a child to demonstrate this, but we could add other marginalized people to the list. Like women in much of history, or the homeless, elderly, or disabled.

The Church is at its best when it reaches out to the vulnerable and voiceless, when it watches out for those who have nothing to give back. There’s more to it, of course. We always learn that giving to someone else gives us something back. Our gifts never go away. But that only works when we don’t count on it. If we go looking for a return on our investment, we’re seeking to serve the powerful. Jesus got fantastic leaders for the church, but only by giving the power to people who could be counted on to screw things up.

We start Confirmation classes today, and after several months we will welcome a new set of leaders into the church. During the class, we’ll invite them to explore and claim their faith in their own words. These kids (on the way to becoming adults) will use words we don’t, words that we may not even recognize, let alone see as true. But we have promised to support them in their search, to affirm what they learn, and to welcome them as we are welcome in this church.

Confirmation is a funny process: we teach the kids what we knew, and then we give them permission (and sometimes a kick in the pants) to learn for themselves. Then, we hope that they will eventually leave home, knowing that they’ll probably leave the area and take their amazing gifts away from us. Or we reach out to the college community, offer hospitality to people during this transition time in their lives, and then celebrate as they leave for somewhere new. Or we welcome each other as fellow travelers on this long, strange journey, knowing that we’re all on a road elsewhere.

Everything we give to each other goes away as if forever, even though the blessings will come back to us, but Jesus leads us into last place like this. Jesus leads us to give ourselves away, to offer the best of our lives for the good of the world, because letting go is its own blessing. Jesus invites us to become first – to lead the church he “left” in the world – by going where the church should go. Our confirmands will also become leaders in the church, not because of their status, wealth, or age, but through their willingness to offer themselves in love. Confirmands, you’ll learn much about faith, about the church, the Bible, and yourselves, but you’ll learn most of all to welcome people in Christ’s name.