Monday, 28 November 2011 00:00

"A Little Child Shall Lead Them", November 27, 2011

“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”
Isaiah 11:1-9
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 27, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Hear again the words that open Isaiah’s prophecy and set the stage for the Messiah of our imaginations.

“The cow and the bear shall feed side by side and their young shall lie down together.  The lion will become a vegetarian.  The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the sheep.  Children young and old will have a place to call home.  No one shall hurt or destroy and just like the waters cover the sea, the whole earth will know about God's plan for all of creation.” (11:6-9)

“God shall judge between peoples and they shall beat their swords in to plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.”(2:4)

From the 9th Chapter, “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bare a son and shall call his name Immanuel…For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.  You will have peace.  Free—as a gift.  I am offering you peace and continuation of your kingdom if you just get down off of your high horse”—Isaiah says to the King.

What might a child say today?

Make my streets safe?

Make sure that I can trust people?

Give me enough to eat, a warm place to lay my head, comfort when I’m scared and people around me that love me.

All of which is a design for peace on the earth.

Today’s Scripture talks about transforming enemies into friends.  Old power allegiances will fall away and a child, instead of a seasoned adult, will lead the people.  How do we embrace that kind of thinking?  How do we move it from a trite Christmas Pageant poem about wolves lying down with lambs to a stark reality and hopeful message of reordering of how we get along with each other?


Most people hear the Messiah and think this scripture is about the Messiah.  Sure, it is in part.  But the Messiah prophecy about the little child leading them is a piece of the radical reordering of society.  It’s about how the way we have assumed things will go are no longer valid.  It’s not only that a child shall lead them, but enemies will become friends.  Predators and prey will frolic together and no longer fight.  And adults will not be in charge any more.  Young people will make the rules.

So perhaps the question on this first Sunday in Advent is not so much do you have your Christmas shopping and decorating under control, but are you preparing yourself to help God usher in a new ordering of the world?  Are we ready or willing to let go of some of the control we have?  Are we really ready to let little children or young adults occupy our churches and our town squares in a way that will challenge our assumptions and even threaten our place in power?

This summer, Minnesota will host the Young People’s Convention of Sacred Harp Singers.  The weekend before the Baptist Peace Fellowship’s Peace Camp, young singers from all over the country will gather for a Sacred Harp singing that will be organized and run by people under 30.  Already this group of local singers are doing things differently.  Recently they held an all-nighter singing—gathering at someone’s home and singing all night long.  Older folks wouldn’t think of doing something like that.  But they are utilizing the energy and creativity of their generation.  The challenge for us older folks who are used to running singing conventions, is to get out of the young people’s way and accept that things will be different.

When I was attending the early days of Soulforce, Civil Rights veteran Rodney Powell addressed the assembly of people being trained in Nonviolence.  He was one of the original lunch counter protesters in the early 1960’s and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  He said if you want to sustain a movement, then you need to train young people in nonviolence and then get out of their way, because they will lead the movement in a different direction with different tactics.  There is now an Equality Ride which is organized by young people.  Young people wanted to overturn don’t ask don’t tell but met with resistance from older Soulforce peaceniks because of their aversion to the war-machine.  The young people had a finger on the pulse and it was the right thing to do.

Young soldiers will even do things differently,  “Silent Night” is a popular and romanticized story.  Books have been written about it, songs and even an opera.  It is a story that happened in different degrees in the US Civil War, the Boer War, the Crimeon War, World War I and World War II.  On Christmas Eve, the story goes, people started singing Christmas Carols across the trenches, in their own languages and then together in chorus and harmony.  They ventured out into the no-man’s land and met the enemy face to face. They shared chocolate, cigarettes and photographs.  They sang and played soccer.  The consorted with the enemy and saw them as human beings. And the young soldiers, it is said, were changed because they allowed themselves to engage the enemy without guns and bayonets.  War depends upon the dehumanization of the enemy.  It’s harder to shoot someone you’ve had a conversation with, or whose families you know through pictures.  It’s hard to shoot someone when you think of their children growing up fatherless.

A little child shall lead them, says the scripture from Isaiah.

A little child shall lead us.

Think about the children in your life.  Does their presence make you stop and reconsider your commitments and priorities?  Do we stop and want to see the world with wonder and awe?  Do we long to have a do-over of our lives and get it right for the next child?  Each child gives us this moment of self-reflection.  And it makes us wonder what we want our world to be like.  Maybe if we took our cues from them, we would find a way to make things fair for everyone, a blessing, a Christmas peace.

It think this is a part of what Isaiah had in mind.
My good friends Tom and Patti Burkett wrote a song for the dedication of their daughter Sarah.  The chorus fits today’s scripture.

“these two little arms may lift a falling heart
These two bright eyes may see the answers clear
This tiny voice may someday speak the words that make the storm clouds part
And through your life the Lord will love you and we will hold you in our hearts.”

I know for a fact that there is a child’s spirit which exists in each and every one of you. Oh sure, it may be too scared to show its face.  It may have taken years to cover its sense of joy, its sense of wonder, its sense of idealism, its sense of trust.  But I know its there.  It is the part of you that yearns to be free.  It’s that part of you that wants to laugh and dance and be amazed by each and every new color, each and every aspect of creation.  That part of you that is still fascinated by that which makes us tick.  We need to find ways to trust that child and it will lead us in new and unexpected ways.  The scripture says that a little child shall lead us.  But where?

I’m looking forward to experiencing Tyler Wottrich’s recital this afternoon.  As is the case of all people who many of us have watched grow up, it’s hard sometimes to see us as adults.  I know when I go back to visit my home church, I still get this incredulous look from some people, “you’re a minister, really?”  They remember the rambunctious awkward child and see that each time they look at me.  Tyler, people will look at you and see the child, but I also hope they will see the way that they have helped nurture you into the man you are today.
A little child shall lead us and help us see the promised world for which God longs and for which we wait this Advent season.

As I think of how a child shall lead us, I look back on my own life. I want to share with you a letter I wrote a little over 15 years ago.  Kim was halfway through a 29-hour labor.  She finally got an epidural and fell asleep.  I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck and helplessly out of control of the situation, like most expectant fathers.  So, while she slept I wrote the following words with which I will close this sermon.  And I’ve tried to live by these words ever since, sometimes successfully.

Dear Daughter:

I’m sitting across from your sleeping mother anxiously awaiting your arrival. Your mom and I can’t wait to see you.

I want you to know how brave your mother is.  She has taken every step toward your arrival with the grace that comes natural to her.  I hope you inherit a lot of her.  She is one special woman.  I know you will be a special woman as well.  I pray that I can be half the parent that your mother will be.  And I know that’s a tall order for me to live up to.

Anyway, you didn’t arrive when we expected you to.  The doctors and all their charts told us you would arrive on the 8th of August.  Here it is on the 19th and you are still not here, at least you are not here as we would like you to be – out here in our world – a world filled with chaos, crime, intolerance, disease and more beauty and love than you can imagine. I pray that your mom and I will be able to expose you to some of that beauty.  I pray that we will be able to give you the kind of unconditional love which you deserve.  I pray that we will shield you from terror, disease, indifference and hardship.  I also know that’s not always possible.  One day, many days, you will flex your muscles, exert your independence from us and cast us aside.  It’s okay, you will need to do that.  I pray that when that time comes, you will know that we still love you and support your journey wherever it may take you.  

But listen to me ramble.  You’ll find that out about me.  I’ll start one thought and end on another, often without finishing the first one.  I hope you don’t pick that up from me.

Anyhow, I was talking about your mother.  Do you know what she did the day we went to the hospital to greet you for the first time?  She started out by going to church, The Dolores Street Baptist Church of San Francisco.  You will be dedicated there in a few months – dedicated to God and to the nurturance of a wonderfully caring church family.  They can’t wait to see you either.

On the day before you were born, your mom and I went out after church for lunch with Rick Mixon and Christie Cannon.  We then went to St. Gregory’s Church in Potrero Hill to sing some shaped-note music.  You will be hearing a lot of shaped-note singing in the next few years.  Music is a very important part of our lives.  It just seemed right to sing one last time while you were in utero. Your mom was too out of breath to sing.

That happens sometimes when a woman is carrying a child into the tenth month of pregnancy.  But she went anyway, indulging me in my desire to sing.  Before we left, telling the gathered singers that we were off to the hospital to have you, they insisted that you and your mom stand in the center of the singing square so they could serenade you into this world.  I lifted my voice, fought back tears and watched as your mom patted you through her stomach as the two of you danced to the raucous singing.  It was a truly memorable event for us.  I wonder what your unconscious reaction to music will be in your life.

When we got to the hospital and checked into our room, I set out to put some music into the experience.  Your mom and I selected special music for all parts of the labor and delivery of you, our first child.

Your mom went through a great deal of pain.  She’s an incredibly strong woman and I admire her greatly.  She’s resting now, waiting for the final push which will bring you into our waiting arms.  I want you to know that life will have pain in it.  I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.  But I also believe that we are better, more whole people who have learned to face the pain and have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.  The big picture.  God’s vision for our lives.  You are worth all of the pain in the world.  You are also deserving of all of the love and support we can muster.

I have loved you, and I will continue to love you very, very much. I promise to try to be the best parent I can possibly be.  Please be patient with me when I mess things up.  Know that I will always be there for you.  In your corner, trying to brighten your days, even as you brighten mine.  Sleep peacefully now, my child.  For soon, something wonderful is going to happen.

All my love,

A little child shall lead them, says Isaiah.  May we nurture all children for to such belongs the commonwealth of God.