I received a page to go to the ER. It was one month into my summer chaplaincy at Children’s Hospital, and my pager had hardly ever buzzed. I was the first summer chaplain assigned to the ER and we were still learning what that meant. The page said ER 3. Not a trauma room, but not a patient room either.
What I found were four gurneys and four awake young people. Their family had been in a horrendous car accident. The oldest, he might have been 15, he had a broken arm, the next oldest, a girl she had a large cut on her head. The next boy had a bunch of cuts and abrasions, and the youngest a boy about 3, he had no outward scars, at all. The oldest children clearly understood the terribleness of what had happened. Three of them, they sat in their beds, silent with pain and grief.
All I could offer was a hand to hold, yet I couldn’t do much of that. You see, the youngest boy, the one who was outwardly unscathed, his reaction to the trauma was not still and silent. He told me how his Batman underwear, and the hospital gown he had turned around and into a cape, these he assured me, gave him the power to fly. There he was up on his precious feet, standing on the gurney, trying to take flight, trying to leap right off that hospital bed.
This is one of the most famous passages regarding children, and it’s not actually about children. It is a teaching metaphor. What are the signs? First, Jesus sits to speak; the classic posture of the ancient teacher. Secondly, in the time and place of Jesus’ ministry, children were creatures barely mentionable in polite company, considered to be like fleas on rats. The third sign is the argument that leads into Jesus’ instruction. The disciples are arguing about who will be first and who will be last. Who gets which seat in the car, who does Mom love most? There it is, right there in the text: that awkward maddening pause.
Jesus’ teaching is comedic and moral genius. A harsh critique with such shocking imagery that they had to pay attention. It repeats in no uncertain terms that the disciples are focused on childish things and not the reign of God. Wherein the absolute lowliest and unwelcome neighbor is to be welcomed as holy guest. The amazing thing is this starts as metaphor, but the Christian tradition, we have jumped into the image, made it real. We leapt into the metaphor and the world has been changed by it. I am sure you saw those terrible photos of a dead refugee children on a beach, a few of hundreds of victims of the refugee crisis in Eurasia. That photo hit us in the middle of all that precious love for childhood and children; that emotional soft spot that Jesus’ life and witness, (and the creative reinterpretation of this teaching) created.
The welcomed children of this text are not children, they are instead the whole congregation of Christ’s disciples. Who are at all times like children, imperfect and naughty and playful and darling and sometimes completely at the mercy of forces much more powerful than we. The church, maybe we are a kind of children’s hospital. We exist because we are fractured and misled and yet still full of life and seeking healing. Hospitals exist and churches exist because the Disciples of Christ heard the call to heal the sick and tend to the needy, to welcome, welcome, welcome.
Like that youngest boy, with his Batman underwear and hospital gown cape, even when we may be surrounded by grief, Christ has given you a base layer of strength and a cape of courage. And we will meet whatever madness this broken world offers next. Jesus is calling us childish, but he is calling us his children. He is taking us in his wide open arms, holding fast to us, offering a most healing embrace.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church'
Walla Walla, Washington