Many of us come to church, I know, for some time of quiet and reflection. But every now and then we have a surprise. From somewhere out in the congregation comes the squirming or cooing or screaming fury of a little child, and all of a sudden our contemplative mood has vanished, and it seems as if there is nothing going on in the church but the sounds of that unruly youngster. I know that standing in this very place I have experienced ferocious competition from children who have at least as much passion and maybe twice the lung capacity that I do!

When that happens I am often reminded of the story of a minister who was apparently something of a windbag. He was preaching one Sunday when a child in its mother’s arms began to cry. For awhile the preacher tried to do what we all do: just ignore the noise, act as if it’s not happening, and just preach louder. But the more he preached the louder the child cried. Finally, the embarrassed mother got up and began the long walk down the center aisle. When she was about two-thirds of the way out, the minister noticed her, stopped his sermon, and called out, “Madam! Madam! Don’t leave! Your child’s not bothering me!” “Oh no,” the embarrassed woman said, “but you apparently are bothering him!”

Most of the time we have the firm notion that there is serious adult business going on here in church. And we all need to concentrate and be quiet and serious about ourselves. But apparently Jesus had a different view. In our gospel today, Jesus makes a child the centerpiece of his teaching about what it means to be a disciple. There are already dark clouds on the horizon. Jesus has been saying that he was going to be betrayed and then killed. The disciples didn’t know what to make of that, so as they often did they drifted into arguing with each other, and as usual it was about who was more important, who was the better disciple, who should be promoted the “greatest” of them all.

So Jesus decided it was time for one more object lesson. He sat down with the disciples around him and tried again to get the basics in their heads: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Then in Matthew’s gospel he actually makes the child a model: “Unless you turn and become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Here is a single man, a bachelor with no children of his own, who says children have things to teach us we urgently need to learn. There is no report of his ever asking parents to please take their children out of the church. In fact, there was one time when the disciples started chasing children away and Jesus turned around and scolded them. “Let the children come,” he said, “for the kingdom belongs to these.”

But why a child? Why did Jesus make such a big deal out of holding up a small, scraggly youngster unable to take care of himself? One answer might be that he wanted the disciples to see a startling contrast to their drivenness and ambition. Here was an innocent child who is free of all the adult complications of ambition and manipulation that were driving the disciples. Jesus has been talking about suffering and death, while the disciples are arguing over who gets to be the head of the class and star of the show. So, as in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus pointed to this child and said: look at this child’s openness, trust, vulnerability, the child’s being present in every moment. That’s what trusting in God is meant to be like. You should be more like this child.

But in our lesson for today from Mark’s gospel, the issue isn’t the qualities of the child, it’s the attitude toward the child that matters.

What seems most important is not how admirable children were. It was the simple fact that children in Jesus’ time were widely seen to be second-class citizens. A child was a burden: unproductive, dependent, helpless. Childhood in those times was a time of terror. Thirty percent of children died in infancy, another 30% were dead by age 6, and 60% were gone by age 16. Children were often treated more as slaves than as honored parts of the family.

So when Jesus put that child in the center of the disciples, it wasn’t because it was cute and cuddly, but because the child would have been seen as unlovable and undesirable. “If anyone would be great,” Jesus was saying, “that person must care for the least.”

The little child is a sign, a marker of what the kingdom Jesus is talking about really is. Here we are, in one of the largest cathedrals in the world, immense and grand in every way. We stand in the heart of the capital of a nation that prides itself on its power and magnificence. People come to this city to move up higher, to achieve more, to be influential, to make their mark. But Jesus is different. He puts a child in the middle of our grand service today and says, “Look at this….” “whoever welcomes this child welcomes me….” Here is a kingdom where the least are the greatest, and a little child is the way to God.

So what would it mean, I wonder, actually to welcome this child? For one thing, it might mean that we need to examine how we are currently welcoming our children here and now. For largely middle-class Americans it might mean realizing that a child is, after all, a child, not a small-size, earnestly developing adult. In recent decades Americans seem to have showered on their children all sorts of opportunities and privileges and expected them to start excelling early in the many paths laid before them. Parents shuttle their children to music lessons, soccer practice, Kumon math, or chess club. They agonize over the psyches and achievements of the nursery school child in ways unimagined a few decades ago. They lose sleep over getting their youngsters into the right private school. Some of us have found ourselves writing letters of recommendation about the exceptional promise of a particularly fine five year old we know. And the pressures only intensify through high school and beyond.

All of this is done, of course, with good intentions, and the high pressure often results in well-educated, highly motivated young men and women. But sometimes the question lingers: What happened to the child? Where is the time for childlike wonder and exploration? I remember someone saying somewhere along the way that one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is the assurance that all of his or her hopes and dreams are not resting on that youngster—that she is free to discover what she needs to be as God has created her.

Robert Coles, the famous child psychiatrist at Harvard, wrote some years ago of another challenge in welcoming the child: the fact that our children are seeing less and less of their two-career parents. Daily family life for many in America, he says, consists of a few hurried minutes in the morning getting out the door and a few more exhausted minutes at the end of a long day. Children, he says, need time with the parents. Birth rates, you know, have plummeted. In Europe the population is shrinking as people decide it isn’t worth the trouble to have needy, time-consuming children in their lives.

Welcoming children who live in disadvantaged families presents an even more stark challenge. By every measure, the portion of the American budget spent on the elderly has skyrocketed in the past 25 years, while the portion spent on our children and their well-being has plummeted. One child in six in the U.S. lives in poverty where often a single parent is working two jobs, leaving the child in a roach-infested apartment. Six million children are left at home alone after school, when they are most likely to get in trouble. One in five has no health insurance. We have permitted violence and drugs to run rampant through the lives of many of our young people. Public school systems are in crisis in virtually every urban center in our country. Many communities are refusing to vote the necessary funds for their schools.

As Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund put it, “Never have we exposed children so early and so relentlessly to cultural messages glamorizing sex, possessions, and alcohol…. Never have we experienced such a numbing and reckless reliance on violence to solve problems, feel powerful, and to be entertained. Children are being raised in destructive environments and are being marketed to brilliantly by tobacco companies, gun manufacturers, and purveyors of violent entertainment. By one estimate, for example, the Columbine High School killers had seen on television and in movies in their lifetime some 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders.”

But the problem isn’t just a crisis of public will. Indications are that in the actual decisions American adults of all economic classes are making, the well-being of children matters less than it once did. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who has written extensively on the effects of divorce on children, says that American attitudes underwent a profound shift in the 1970s. After that, no longer was the well-being of the children the main issue to be faced when people considered divorce. Instead the key measure was what was best for the adults. Divorce became much easier, and in general Americans became less committed to lifelong marriage and parenthood as central goals.

We Americans have a great deal to learn about welcoming the child. We may be ambivalent about welcoming children, but Jesus was not. By putting a child at the center of the circle gathered around him he was saying that there is something about children—how we treat them, and how we learn from them—that we ignore at our peril.

“Welcoming the child,” I believe, means one more crucial thing. It means honoring and welcoming the child in each one of us, that piece of us made for wonder, delight, and vulnerability. Part of that is reclaiming our capacity for wonder—slowing down and taking the foot off of the gas pedal.

Another part is nurturing our own healthy dependence on a power and purpose larger than our own. When children cry in the night, or scream when they fall and scrape their knee, they do it in the trust that a love is holding them who will help them through what they are experiencing. Adults need to know the same thing. To be spiritually mature is to have developed a capacity for childlike trust in the God who holds and sustains us.

Of course, most of us aren’t interested in being a child again. We like control, efficiency, achieving our goals. We like to ignore the fact that we began our lives as dependent children and that we will all come to be small children again in the end. Along the way the crisis will hit, the illness, or the bad economy. And we will discover again our need and dependence, and the need all around us.

There are some brief moments in our service today that can help remind us of the child in our midst and the child in us. One is when we come to communion. We walk down the aisle, cup our hand, and hold them out to receive the bread, and there we are needy, dependent, childlike, ready to receive the Love we most need. We need to be fed. And the secret truth is that the child within us—and the need of the children in our midst—never goes away.

“Whoever receives a child receives me, and whoever receives me receives the One who sent me.”