by Rev. Dr. Joe Kutter
Let me start with an old family story. My Dad was a preacher with a very special talent. He had an incredible capacity for relating to children and young people. For years he organized and led church camps which over the decades influenced the lives of thousands of people. Even today, on my Facebook page, from time to time, I’ll hear from some person, now senior in years, who will remember something about my Dad.
Now the story. A missionary was preaching in my Dad’s church one Sunday morning when she looked to the back of the room and saw one young person pass a note to another. There were probably about 200 people in church that morning and probably 40 of them were in high school or younger. The missionary saw the furtive note exchange and she stopped her presentation and wagged her finger and scolded the sinners and told them that they needed to learn how to behave in church.
The Missionary was scheduled to speak that night. When the service was over and most of the folk had left the building, my brother heard our Dad say to the Missionary, tonight, you need to leave my kids alone. Most churches would die to have 20 percent of their church made up of young people and if you embarrass them again, you will never speak in this church again!”
As one who grew up in my Father’s house, I’ll testify that he never shied away from discipline and correction. But his discipline was always in the context of a fierce love and loyalty for his kids. He would take care of the children and young people in his care. Make no mistake, every one of those 40 kids were his.
In Matthew chapter 18 and again in chapter 19, we have a story about Jesus and the children. In both stories, some folk want to kept he children away and in both stories Jesus says, the children are a clue to the Kingdom of Heaven. Bring them to me. Bring the children, bring the young people to me. Do not get in their way. Do not make it harder than it already is. Instead, open the door, clear the path, invite them in and make them welcome. They belong to me.
Once again, Jesus is running against the current. From the perspective of 21st Century America, it’s hard to think of a time and place where children are discounted and devalued as a matter of course. Today, they become the center of our personal universe, important beyond measure, the rulers of the home. But not in Jesus’ day. In his day, they were, how shall we say, just a little less than fully human, more akin to women and slaves than real male human beings. Though it doesn’t have quiet the same punch, when Jesus said, “Bring the children to me, it was a bit like talking to the Samaritan woman or telling the story of the Good Samaritan or healing woman with the flow of blood. Jesus was taking an undervalued human being and saying, “Bring that child of God to me. He or she is one of mine.”
Now I want to cross the boundaries of the centuries and cultures and ask the question, “What does it mean to bring our children to Jesus today?” And I want to do so in the language of my evangelical upbringing.
The title of this meditation is “Save the Children.” Within our Christian history and culture, what might that mean? Of course, bringing the children to Jesus and saving the children are nearly the same thing, but the question remains, what might that mean?
Now I am going to risk boring you with a word study. I know that this could be a bit tedious so I am going to ask you to work as hard at listening and I am going to work at being understood.
What is salvation and what does it mean for our children? Good question, I am glad you asked.
In the places where I grew up, the dominant understanding went something like this — at least these were my early impressions. Salvation was essentially a “Get out of jail” card. Or to be more explicit, it was a “Get out of hell” card. Because all sinners are destined to go to hell, or so the story is told, and because I was and am a sinner, I am literally on my way to hell. But, the good news is that Jesus lived and died and was resurrected. He was the Son of God whose death paid the price for my sin and if I accepted him as my Lord and Savior, then I would be freed from the destiny of hell and welcomed into heaven.
Salvation was my personal ticket to heaven, my “Get out of Hell” card.
Now, I have good news and bad. The good news is that it is true that Jesus is the key to salvation and he is the one who will lead us to heaven. Jesus and the salvation he brings is our pathway into the presence of God for eternity.
The bad news is that this is only a part of the story and when we think that it is the whole story, we distort our understanding of the salvation that God wants for us. In fact, we may miss the main part.
So, what is it, what is the salvation that God yearns for us to experience?
Perhaps the earliest meaning for the word, salvation is “Rescue”. To be saved is to be rescued from danger or oppression or tyranny or anything that poses a threat to your well being as a child of God.
The Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. They were slaves who were over-worked, underpaid, and subject to the whims of their slave masters. In fact, their infant boys were being killed as a way of keeping the population Israelite population under control. (I hope that you remember the story because you are getting the short version.) God sent Moses who confronted the tyrant Pharaoh and then, under the power of God, he led the Israelites our of Egypt and slavery towards the Promised Land. Using Moses as God’s agent, God saved the people of Israel. That is the key story in the Old Testament. It is the paradigm story for salvation. God rescues God’s people from the oppressors that would deny us the opportunity to become the full grown “Image of God” human beings that God intended in our creation.
It is this part of the salvation story that Matt focused on last week when he talked about the forces that attack and diminish the children of America and indeed, the children of the world. We have a world full of children who need to be rescued, who need to be saved from hunger and poverty and human trafficking and preventable illness and lives without education and God fully intends that we would be a part of that salvation.
But, that is not the whole story. It is an important part of the story, a key to the whole story but there is more come.
Now, look out, here comes the word study. For this I am absolutely dependent on my memory of Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox. (I say this for the preachers and theologians in the room.)
If the primary story of salvation, particularly in the Hebrew Bible, is the Exodus, the primary concept is that of “Shalom” Both Tillich and Cox believe that Shalom is the Hebrew word that most closely approximates Greek words for salvation, “Sodzo or Soteria” is Shalom.
So what is shalom? Most of us have heard that the word means “Peace” and we have heard correctly. But it is more than the absence of violence. Shalom is the presence of harmony. Shalom is the wholeness and wellness that happens when all of the parts work together as they should.
When the Apostle Paul wrote about the “Body of Christ” in which each part served the whole and the whole served every part and each fulfilling its function, they body, the whole body was made whole, he is drawing from the tradition and image of shalom. The body is whole and each part of the body is whole because the parts live in interdependence with one another.
This sense of harmony, this sense of dynamic peace, this sense of salvation is both for the individual and for the community. Both are captured in the notion of shalom.
So what do we want for our children? As individuals, we want them to be whole, to be well, to have a powerful sense of internal harmony.
And we want them to live within communities that are havens of dynamic peace and security. We want them to be safe. We want them to have the opportunity to grow into the full blown “Image of God” human beings that God intended in their birth. We want them to be a place where the community works together so that the individuals can thrive. That is a part of the meaning of salvation.
And there is more. We understand that wholeness, wellness, harmony and peace, we understand that salvation is the gift of God that is given to us from God. So, what do we want for our children? We want them to have the opportunity to experience and recognize the grace of God when that grace comes their way. Spiritual wholeness is a gift that comes through a relationship with the Spirit of God and we want for our children to have that opportunity.
And how is that opportunity provided? Through the home and through the church. Parents provides homes within which the Spirit of God is honored and the churches provide and extended community that worships and teaches the character of God.
Now here is the hard part. In a crude way, it is a bit like the old proverb that says that you can lead the horse to water but you cannot force it to drink. While providing an environment within which every child can experience the grace and good ness of God, we are required to acknowledge that in the end, each person must make a personal decision to accept and acknowledge that grace of not. That is the hard part.
As loving parents, our impulse is to get them into the baptistry as soon as possible to guarantee their salvation but, unfortunately, it never works. Each of us, at different times and places,makes a personal choice as to whether or not to accept God’s grace for ourselves, to acknowledge that wholeness and wellness and harmony are gifts of the Holy One and not the results of our own efforts.
Shalom is the Hebrew word. Though they are not perfect equivalents, the Greek word is “Sodzo” which became the Latin word “Salvus.” Salvus provides the Latin root from which we take the word salve, the healing ointment.
Do you all know about salve. My mother kept Watkins salve in business. Whenever we experienced some kind of wound, for the sake of healing, Mom would slather Watkins Salve all over. . . . everything.
Salvus, speaks to the sense of healing and wholeness to which Shalom points us. To be saved is to be made whole, to be made internally harmonious.
And then, in my humble opinion, the translators messed up. The Latin word “salvus” became the English word “Salvation” and over time the core meaning was lost. Instead of realizing the Jesus’ salvation creates human beings and communities of wholeness, Salvation became a way to escape life in this world in anticipation of our time in heaven.
So, what do I want for our children? What do I want for my grandchildren? Salvation! I want them to be made whole through a growing relationship with the Holy One, the One who is revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. I want them to know about Jesus and I want them to know Jesus because I believe that Jesus, more than any other person, is eager to take them straight to the heart of God.
Now, I am not forgetting the beginning of our meditation. I also want every child to be free from abuse, every child free from hunger, every child with the ability to access necessary health care, every child with full opportunities for education, every child free from tyranny and oppression, every child free to become the “Image of God human being” that God intended in his or her birth.
At the same time, I know, at the center of my soul, that every child, needs to know his or her creator and redeemer and sustainer. Every child deserves to know the source of his or her salvation.
Let it be so.