The Prayer of the Children

The Prayer of the Children

Imagine with me.
Imagine that you are looking at preschools for your child,
visiting a few places to see which might be a good fit.
These days, it seems as if every school has
a motto, a slogan…some sort of a vision statement.
Some attempt to set itself apart.
And often, these slogans are visible right as you enter the front door,
emblazoned on a wall.

So imagine now that you’re entering the front door of a particular school.
You step into the foyer
and encounter these words in colorful script:
“Nurturing the followers of tomorrow.”
“Nurturing the followers of tomorrow.”

What would you do?
Well, you’d probably turn around and leave, I would guess…
…after you stood dumbfounded for a moment
in front of this most confusing of statements.
No one, in their right mind, in these United States,
would choose to send their children to a school
that promised to turn them into followers.

Because we, as a culture, are bent on creating leaders.
We believe in the power of the individual
to chart his or her own course, to forge his or her own destiny.
We want our children to avoid becoming followers, at all costs.

And even though we know
that it’s impossible for every human being to be a leader,
we still like to imagine that each and every child
could (and should) eventually discover his or her leadership potential.

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Well, if the idea of our children becoming followers
strikes terror in our hearts…
…how then do we, as adults, relate to these potent words?

Leader

Follower

Where are you on the leader-follower spectrum?
Are you a publicly recognized leader?
Are you someone hustling to become a leader?
Do you lead quietly, making your impact behind-the-scenes?
Or do you avoid leadership at any and all costs?

I think it’s fair to say that no matter what your relationship
to the word “leadership” might be,
whether positive or negative,
very few of us tend to conceive of ourselves as or call ourselves followers.

Indeed, to many of us, the idea of being a “follower”
can feel quite distasteful.
To admit to being more of a follower than a leader
feels embarrassing…even when it’s true.

Indeed, being a follower feels nearly synonymous with
being disempowered,
being disenfranchised,
being easily dismissed.

You only end up being a follower,
according to this way of thinking,
if you’re not powerful enough
or persuasive enough
or persistent enough
to lead.

Yet still,
still…
…we find ourselves in quite an awkward position.
We are people who resist the idea of following,
yet most of us also consented, at some point in our lives, to being followers.
We consented to being followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
We consented to having our lives turned upside down
by Jesus’ unorthodox leadership.

Or maybe we haven’t quite consented yet.
For most of us, parents and godparents
made Christian promises on our behalf
when we were baptized as babies.

Some of us were later confirmed as teenagers,
given the opportunity to ratify the promises
previously made on our behalf.
But teenagers aren’t necessarily free to do entirely as they please.
So maybe you, like many, just followed the crowd and got confirmed,
even though you still had many doubts, questions, quarrels.
Even though you weren’t quite sure
about this whole business of following Jesus.

Perhaps, then, many of us who are sitting here today
are still a bit on the fence
about what it means to follow Jesus,
and about whether we really want to do it.
We appreciate the beauty of church services,
we enjoy the fellowship of church gatherings,
and we’re happy to volunteer for something now-and-then…
…but signing up to truly follow Jesus is something
on a different order of magnitude.

We want to be in charge of our own lives.
We don’t want to let someone else lead.

–––––––––––-

In our Gospel text today,
we witness 3 brief interactions between Jesus
and some would-be followers.
Our text comes from chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel,
which is near the middle of the story.

Jesus is heading to Jerusalem,
and while the core disciples have already been recruited,
other people are starting to show interest in the Jesus Movement.
But it seems as if many would-be followers didn’t quite understand
the seriousness and urgency of Jesus’ mission.

You see, from the very beginning of Luke,
Jesus and his mission have been controversial.

In Chapter 4, immediately after beginning his public ministry,
Jesus experiences his first rejection.
Folks from his hometown, Nazareth,
get so mad that they try to throw him off a cliff!

The precipitating action, you ask?
Jesus had stood up in the synagogue
and read aloud these verses from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This is Jesus’ mission statement.
Jesus came among us to accomplish something,
and this is precisely it.
Indeed, from the very beginning,
Jesus’ primary focus is the outsider.
Jesus’ focus is drawing the circle
of God’s care and compassion ever wider;
stretching the boundaries further than they’d ever been stretched before;
including more people than had ever before been included;
helping the world to see just how big God’s family is supposed to be.

You see, Jesus didn’t have much time for all the categories
that are so important to us:

rich or poor
citizen or foreigner
clean or unclean
proper or improper
worthy or unworthy

Which makes it easy to see why people
tended to get upset with Jesus.

Jesus simply didn’t spend enough time
with god-fearing synagogue folk.
He was always hanging out
in unexpected places with unexpected people –
telling them that God was very close at hand,
telling them that they were worthy of healing and love,
telling them that they were never alone and need not be afraid.

And just as Jesus often made synagogue-folk uncomfortable back then,
he can still make some of us church-folk uncomfortable today.

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For the past year or so,
ever since we began allowing children to be separated from their parents
at our border,
I have a strong suspicion that Jesus would have been easy to find
among the migrant families seeking entry to the United States.

We know, of course, that Jesus had a soft spot for kids.
We love the images of Jesus welcoming children
in the scriptures.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
So, of course, Jesus would be working day and night
to welcome God’s beloved, beleaguered children…
…children arriving dehydrated, hungry, weak, sick, and exhausted.
Children who somehow survived their long and dangerous journeys
from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador.

I have no doubt
that Jesus would be there when they arrived
with cool water to drink,
with food for empty tummies,
with bandages and salves for wounds,
with basins, soap, and towels for bathing,
with fresh, clean clothes,
with soothing songs and comforting words,
with a gentle hand to wipe inevitable tears.

Jesus would be there,
attending to the needs of the children…
…God’s children.
God’s frightened, wounded, trampled, traumatized children.

And as Jesus ministered to the children,
as Jesus always does,
he would begin telling them stories – good stories.
Stories about how much God loves them.
Stories about how a better world is possible.
Stories about how God is making all things new.
Stories about Good Shepherds, Good Samaritans,
and Good Banquets with enough for all.
And the children would grow stronger and more courageous
as they heard more and more of Jesus’ stories.

So…whenever Jesus sat down for story time,
a hush would descend and the children, attentive and excited,
would hang on Jesus’ every word.

Eventually…inevitably…one brave child would speak up:
“Jesus, are these stories really true?”

As the child’s question hung in the air,
the other children would gather closer in,
waiting expectantly to hear how Jesus would answer.

Softly, Jesus would ask in reply:
“Well, what do you think?”

The children would think about it for a bit,
talking amongst themselves intently and passionately,
engaged in the important business of discerning the truth.

Then another little voice would pipe up and say:
“I think the stories could be true
if we helped you make them true.”

Smiling broadly, Jesus would leap joyfully to his feet, saying:
“Yes, yes! Come and follow me!”

And of course, the children would follow.
Immediately, and with little hesitation.
They would most certainly follow the one who had loved them back to life.
And how could they not?
His stories were so good.
Their imaginations had been set on fire
by the world that Jesus’ stories described.

They wanted it.
They wanted it so badly.
With every fiber of their being.

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When I was a child,
I sang in a boychoir.
There was one song that we sang at every concert.
The requests for it never ended
because it made all the adults cry.
It allowed them to feel something
in the midst of a world gone mad.

The composer, Kurt Bestor,
wrote the piece,
“Prayer of the Children,”
from his anger about the horrendous civil war and ethnic cleansing
taking place in the former Yugoslavia,
where he had lived in the 1970s.

Can you hear the prayer of the children?
On bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry
Turning heavenward toward the light

Crying Jesus, help me
To see the morning light-of one more day
But if I should die before I wake,
I pray my soul to take

Can you feel the hearts of the children?
Aching for home, for something of their very own
Reaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,
But hope for a better day a better day

Can you hear the prayer of the children?
It’s being sung this very day behind fences
topped by razor wire.

I pray
that their prayers
would cut us to the core.

To the still small voice inside of us
that is willing to say:

Yes, Lord.

Yes, I will follow.

Amen.

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The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the associate rector at St. Peter’s Church.

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