The following was preached at a burial of a child who died of brain cancer. “N.” stands for his name. I post this with the prayer that it might be helpful to others, and with the request that the reader pray with supplication and thanksgiving for this child and his family.
The stories of his birth are beautiful and strange. The manger, the animals around, the stars, the angels, the shepherds, and sometime later the wise men. It was a peaceful, holy night. It was small, although all the hopes and fears of centuries were focused there: the little vulnerable child.
When he got older, his father probably told him about his dreams. There was one, after the wise men left, a dream in which his father got the warning: go away, go down to Egypt, because Herod wants to kill the child. His father took him and his mother, and they did escape, but some little boys in the area, innocent boys, met their death at that time. His father, later on, told him about these things. Life is brutal, sometimes. The beauty and peace of his birth came at a price.
Long after he had grown out of his own childhood, he kept a special feeling for children. The gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—have many hints of this, the way Jesus was always attentive to children, present to children. We find again and again that people brought children to him so that he could touch them. The disciples—we might think of them as trying to be Jesus’ “handlers”—they turned the children away. But Jesus felt strongly about this. He was indignant. He rebuked the disciples. Let the children come to me; do not hinder them. Jesus always wanted the children to come. There are stories of sick children that he visited. There was one, at least, that he raised back to life.
This is not—we must understand this—not sentimentality. He himself is going to die, die for those children, those adults, the men, the women, the slaves, the free people. He knows the hard things. And it is precisely not sentimentality in the midst of the hard things to see children, really to see them, to see that they are people, just like all people. Children aren’t future people, they aren’t people whose value or importance is in their future. They are people who, like all people, have their value and importance in the now.
One of the ways the world is messed up is that we rank and measure ourselves against each other. Even the disciples of Jesus did this, the people closest to him. On one occasion, they were walking down a road and arguing which of them was the greatest. Jesus, we are told, did not hear their conversation—they seem to have taken care to be out of ear-shot—but he knew what they were talking about, because Jesus knows everything. And he said to them, What were you talking about on the road? And they said nothing.
Jesus then sat down. They are all standing, he sits. To sit, in the ancient world, is to take the place of authority. Teachers sat. Sitting in their midst, he calls a child to come to him. Note, please, that a child was there! There are always children about Jesus. He calls this child and he puts his arm around him. Picture it: Jesus sitting, the child standing by him. They are, as it were, the same. And Jesus makes that point. To understand what he is saying, he says, we have to become like a child—not childish, not sentimental, but humble, open. The “visual” of the scene: the child and Jesus are on the same level, and precisely there, in Jesus’ humility, is his authority and power—his authority in the midst of this world, this hard and cruel and brutal world. Jesus’ authority is all tied up with his humility.
N.’s story is an unusual story: the hardness of cancer, the pain of treatments, the care that he required over many years. These are real things. But I have heard from you something that actually does not surprise me: a sense that a light was shining even in the midst of these difficult things. The light was sometimes in you, as you loved and cared for him, in others who were involved in his life, but also the light could sometimes be seen in N. himself. As you who have loved him share your memories, you will see, you will remember, that it was hard (we should never deny it was hard) but: it was not only hard.
So here is my unsentimental thing to say today. We all weep at death, and we should. We all wish N. had never had cancer, or that, having it, we wish it could have been cured. And so, of course, we wish his life had been longer, that he had died, say, at 70 rather than at 7. But when Jesus looks at N., he does not see tragedy. He does not see a short life that should have been longer. He sees N. himself, a person, a complete person just as he is.
He’s there in the midst of the disciples. Jesus is sitting, N. is standing beside him. They are the same height. Jesus has an arm around him. And you know, to be in Jesus’ arms is the most wonderful thing in the world.
Out & About. Sunday, February 16, I am to preach at the traditional services at Church of the Incarnation at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m. And later that same day, at 6 p.m., the Good Books & Good Talk seminar will take up Sophocles’ play about justice and loyalty, Antigone. If you read it (in any translation—or in Greek!) you’re welcome to join the conversation. (We end at 7:30 p.m.) Incarnation is at 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas.
The Divine Alphabet series will resume next week with the letter D.