Street Wisdom: Childish Behavior

The First United Presbyterian Church
“Street Wisdom: Childish Behavior”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 23, 2018

 22 and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck.
 23 Then you will walk on your way securely and your foot will not stumble.
 24 If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
 25 Do not be afraid of sudden panic, or of the storm that strikes the wicked;
 26 for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.
 27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.
 28 Do not say to your neighbor, "Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it"-- when you have it with you.
 29 Do not plan harm against your neighbor who lives trustingly beside you.
 30 Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, when no harm has been done to you.
 31 Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways;
 32 for the perverse are an abomination to the LORD, but the upright are in his confidence.
 33 The LORD's curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous.
 34 Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor.
 35 The wise will inherit honor, but stubborn fools, disgrace.

Mark 9:30-37
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;
 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again."
 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?"
 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,
 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

Toddlers and teenagers share much in common. When I began working in youth ministry, my son was a year old. So I very quickly came to realize the many similarities between teenagers and toddlers. Both groups are at a developmental stage where they are pushing boundaries, exploring new horizons. Both groups are experiencing physical changes that are difficult to adjust to. Both groups can be the source of unpleasant odors and frustrate their parents endlessly.

But it wasn’t until I started working more with adults that I began to realize that, in many ways, toddlers and teenagers really never grow up. The childish behaviors we’ve come to expect in toddlers and teenagers often persist well into adulthood. A colleague in ministry once said to me, “I don’t know how you can work with teenagers! They would drive me nuts!” I responded, “I don’t know how you can work with adults! When teenagers act like teenagers, it’s tolerable. When adults act like teenagers, they drive me nuts!”

I don’t think childish behavior in adults is limited to church communities. I’m sure you all have witnessed the grown-up who throws a tantrum, the adult who refuses to share nicely, the supposedly mature person with an immature attitude problem. This behavior is rampant in our culture.

But it seems that this is not a new phenomenon or a product of modern societal values. Much as folks might like to blame slacker standards or overindulgent parenting for our tolerance of childish behavior in adults, this problem has been around for a while. Like two and a half millennia at least.

The Wisdom of Proverbs addresses many of these childish behaviors that persist today.

Do not be afraid of sudden panic, or of the storm that strikes the wicked, says Proverbs. Children operate out of irrational fear, cowering at the sound of thunder and hiding behind their parents’ legs from strangers. Teenagers flip out over every minor challenge and feel like the sky is falling with each slight failure. If we listened to Wisdom, perhaps adults would stop freaking out about everything we read in our daily news feed. Perhaps we could stop operating in a mode of fear when the media blasts us with every horrific event that happens anywhere in the world. Perhaps.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it, says Proverbs. We teach toddlers to share and teenagers to be generous. If only we could teach adults to use our power for good, to share our more-than-enough so that everyone can have enough.

Do not say to your neighbor, "Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it"-- when you have it with you, says Proverbs. Most parents remember the first time they caught their children in a lie. I remember finding this extremely troubling, until I learned that toddlers are at a developmental stage where they believe they can speak truth into existence. There isn’t a moral prohibition associated with lying. If they say they don’t have something, then it’s true, all physical evidence to the contrary. Teenagers, on the other hand, understand the ethical implications of lying, but they are exploring the boundaries of those implications. What kinds of lies can they get away with? To whom and about what can and should they tell a lie?

With adults today – I can’t even. The number of clear and blatant lies that are instantly dissolved by speaking a different truth into existence is mind-blowing. It’s absolute toddler behavior. And the folks who push the boundaries of lying to its breaking point is unbelievable. Not to mention the accusations of fake news and other attempts to discredit any version of the truth that doesn’t match up with our own. I could go on. This could be a whole sermon on its own, but I might end up throwing a tantrum myself, and we have other childish behaviors yet to explore.

Do not plan harm against your neighbor who lives trustingly beside you, says Proverbs. We teach toddlers not to hurt other children to get what they want. We observe the constant drama of teenage betrayals. And then there are adults who end up in lawsuits over property lines and sound ordinances. Remember, too, that Proverbs is not just a book about individual, personal behavior. Its Wisdom is meant to shape a society. Our individual wisdom or foolishness impacts how our city, state, and nation behave, how our corporations and institutions behave. When those corporate entities, run by adults who vote and adults who are elected, adults who are employed and adults who volunteer, when they act like toddlers and teenagers, planning harm against our neighbors, that’s a sign that we could all use more of Wisdom’s influence.

Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, when no harm has been done to you, says Proverbs. The tattle-taling of toddlers and the gossiping of teenagers is to be expected. If only those behaviors ceased in adulthood. Enough said.

Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways, says Proverbs. A good portion of the toddler years is spent teaching them not to hit, bite, and throw things at other people. Toddlers can’t yet empathize in a way that allows them to intuitively understand or care about how their actions affect others. Parents worry endlessly about teenagers “falling in with the wrong crowd,” joining up with gangs or others who engage in risky or violent behaviors. But adults? We won’t take even the most minor, reasonable measures to de-escalate the violence in our society and our world. Our answer to violence is more violence.

Our passage from Proverbs today begins with the address, “my child.” But the Wisdom of Proverbs is not addressed exclusively to children. Wisdom calls to everyone and offers teachings about marriage and finances and child-rearing. This is Wisdom for adults who are acting like children.

Adults like the disciples of Jesus. Adults who, like a teenager in science class, are afraid to ask a question when they are totally confused. Adults who, like whining toddlers, argue about who gets to sit next to Jesus on the bus ride to heaven. The disciples of Jesus are called out and schooled for their childish behavior.

But the disciples of Jesus haven’t grown up all that much in two thousand years. We still shrink from asking questions and squabble for prominence. We are still a bunch of adults acting like children.

Which is why we’re still reading Proverbs today. The Wisdom of Proverbs was not developed for the righteous and the wise. It was not produced as a how-to guide for the upright to follow.

The Israelite community from which Proverbs emerged was a community in exile. They were captives in Babylon, struggling to hold on to a distinct identity in the midst of a foreign and hostile environment. This Wisdom, this way of life advised in Proverbs, was essential to establishing and maintaining a communal life that could survive the exile. Proverbs was not shaping individuals. It was shaping a society, a people.

The same was true for the disciples of Jesus. Through Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, even his pronouncement that "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again," the disciples were being shaped into a community that could be the body of Christ on earth after his death, resurrection, and ascension.

What is remarkable, then, is that Jesus’ response to the childish behavior of his disciples is to put an actual child in their midst. He insists that they welcome this child, that in welcoming a child, they welcome him, and not just him, but the one who sent him. To welcome a child is to welcome God.

We often think about this passage in the idyllic sense. Children are innocent and open. Children are vulnerable and pure. But children also throw tantrums and whine and hit and all sorts of other behaviors we’ve just reviewed. Why on earth would Jesus encourage us to welcome that?

Perhaps Jesus was referring to the child’s status in the first century. Children were not viewed as the precious special snowflakes they are today. Children were property. They were a drain on a family and on society until they were old enough to do something useful with their lives, like work or get married. So perhaps Jesus was saying that we should welcome the most lowly, useless people in our society.

And another day, that might be the sermon on this passage.

But today, I wonder if Jesus, reflecting on the childish behavior of his disciples, was trying to shape the community of his followers by encouraging them to bear with one another. He knew they would never really grown up. But he knew they needed to grow together. They didn’t need to tolerate childish behavior, but they needed to welcome one another, even when they were acting childish.

We have so many children here in our midst. Children of all ages. Toddlers and teenagers, yes. But also folks in their 20’s and in their 90’s, and every age in between, who at least occasionally exhibit childish behaviors. And the way to address this is not to ignore each other or exclude one another.

By being welcomed into this community, we can be shaped into wise and humble followers of Jesus Christ. We can become a community that is distinct from the surrounding culture. We can resist absorbing the values of achievement, appearance, and accumulation, of violence and lying and fear. In welcoming one another, we can welcome God in Jesus Christ and be shaped into Christ’s body on earth.

And so all the children of God are welcomed here. To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.


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