On Wednesday I picked up a tired and happy kid from camp. They had a wonderful time, swimming, boating, singing, campfiring, bible studying and running around wild with credit at the canteen and nobody to tell them to brush their teeth. The parents gathered with their dirt-smudged kids in camp t-shirts at the closing worship, and after some goofy camp songs, which the kids sang with gusto, the camp director stood up front to wrap up the week, and he said, “Hey Kids! Camp has been great, hasn’t it? When you leave here, remember this, camp is a mountaintop experience, but what matters is what happens when you get home. You go home and be good. Make good choices. Be a good kid those other 51 weeks of the year. And then come back to us next year. OK?”
And I felt sick to my stomach.
Because kids at camp experience God. In the gentle lapping of the water at sunset when the stillness and motion enter your soul and you feel the deep quiet inside where God sometimes speaks. In the satisfaction of singing at the top of your lungs, and the encouragement and space to ask hard questions and to pray with people who aren’t your parents, and the silly jokes that start to develop with others as friendships blossom, and the creativity of a hut filled with craft supplies and another hour of free time stretching out in front of you, and the unrestrained joy of running and kicking a ball to someone else with nowhere else to be but here, and the freedom and safety and encouragement to simply be a kid. They experience God. It’s not hard to declare a blessing and send them home in that awareness. But it is hard for us. It’s almost impossible.
We’re nothing if not good at resisting grace and trying to find a way to earn what is a gift.
So instead of lifting up the gift and sending them home in gratitude, we’ll put a heavy burden on kids, lock a yoke on their necks. Be good. Make good choices. Make God and your parents proud. I don’t blame the director too much - he was trying to say something helpful, perhaps even something parents expect him to say. And thankfully, hopefully, with the fatigue and excitement of reuniting with families, not many were paying attention anyway. But this is what we do. We take the gift of God’s love and acceptance and turn it into a commodity to be traded and bartered and held over one another and withheld from ourselves. We begin young, figuring out how the system works and how to work it to our advantage. So much so what when wisdom personified, grace made flesh, love incarnate walks among us and invites us into life, we point out what he’s doing wrong and refuse to listen.
Jesus says as much. To what will I compare this generation? He asks. You are like kids who’ve stopped doing what you love for the joy of it, and now you play baseball with one eye over your shoulder to see whether your parents are pleased or disappointed, and you decide whether the picture you’ve drawn is a good one not by how it made you feel to watch it appear in all its color and brilliance on the paper, but by the response the grown ups give you when you hold it out in anxiety before them.
In fact, you’re even more jaded than that. You are like the kids who get frustrated that you can’t get other people to react like you want them to- and you’re so caught up with manipulating a response from others with your music and your tears that you’ve forgotten what it was like to laugh in abandon, and lose yourself spinning to a melody, and to weep openly with honest sadness; you’ve forgotten what it was like to simply be children. You don’t remember how to receive, and you’re too afraid to be real.
Here’s what I’ve experienced from you, Jesus says, You wont listen to what God is bringing to you, no matter how the message comes. God can’t get through to you. Who would you listen to? Not John who came before me – you said he was too harsh and strange, and out there with the locusts and honey thing going on, he just didn’t eat enough.
Not me, I eat too much; I turn water to wine and hang out with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. You can find a solid reason to reject any messenger or message from God. Who would you listen to, I wonder? If God could be just exactly what you want, condoning the things you condone and rejecting those you reject, relatable and not too inflammatory, then you’d listen? You’d listen to the sound of your own voice coming back at you and call it God?
Then he goes on to call out all the places he has been, where, as he says a few verses earlier, ...the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. These places where Jesus has stood among them, offering hope and healing, offering real power in the chance to be made new, and they have not accepted him. Included in this list is his home town of Capernaum - he pulls no punches, and it’s clear from this rant that he is not concerned with what people think of him, or with playing the game they want him to play.
Then comes the crux of it. Exasperated he raises his face to the heavens and starts one of those mid- argument prayers. I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…
So what is it that infants get that the brilliant and learned can’t seem to grasp? What is it about children, that Jesus says we must become like them to enter the kingdom of heaven?
It’s not cognitive knowledge, and it isn’t self-awareness, or grown up self-consciousness. Power and might are the last thing infants possess, and it’s certainly not the ability to make great choices all the time and never let people down. Infants have no resumes and no capital to spend, they can’t take the entrance exam or schmooze the meet and greet or complete the assignment on time or impress a soul with their vast ability or significant deeds.
To be an infant is to be helpless and simply you. Infants are known and loved, cared for and belong simply because they are. And they are children of their parents, their identity is from the ones who gave them life.
They belong not because of what they do or how they do it, not because they play the game so well or because they’re qualified for the position or because they neither preach with brimstone in the dessert nor indulge in lavish meals with sinners and outcasts.
Infants cry when they’re sad and laugh when they’re happy and it wouldn’t occur to them to imagine you feel anything for them other than unconditional delight and devotion.
My needs will be met.
I can rest when I am tired.
I can eat when I am hungry.
I can trust.
I can sleep without fear.
I am held.
Woe to you, places I have been.
If you had seen what I was really offering you would have repented. If you had really listened to my invitation, you would received this connection to God that sustains you and makes you whole.
You would have repented of your oppression of the weak and your self-serving, money-grabbing, approval-seeking game-playing, and all the other things you do to justify yourselves in others eyes and your own. You would have been set free. You would have become like a child. Instead you choose shackles, a heavy burden, and your own destruction.
Come to me you who are weary and weighed down by many things- I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. In the love between the Father and the Son, the love between a mother and her infant, you can set down your striving, and be honest about yourself and your need, and you will find rest for your souls.
Are we able to receive the gift that Jesus is giving? Are we willing to be seen for who we are – even in our weakness and our sin, and let God’s grace enter in? It means letting go the tools of power over others, and also the ways we dismiss God and the ways God’s message comes to us so we don’t have to hear what God has to say. It means stepping out of the game of self-justification and admitting we are weary; it means welcoming the rest that Jesus brings.
When all is said and done, what I wish had been said to those tired, happy kids after all the silly camp songs is this, “Hey Kids! Camp has been great, hasn’t it? When you leave here, no matter what happens, remember this – you are children of God. You belong to God, who knows you and chooses you, and sees you at your best and at your worst, and loves you no matter what. You’ve gotten a taste of that this week, a reminder. Don’t forget that other 51 weeks of the year, and come back next year and we will help you remember it again.”