Day 180: Matthew 21:16

Indeed I do. Haven’t you ever read this scripture? ‘You have trained children and babies to offer perfect praise.’

Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey, thereby indicating that his mission is to establish peace on earth (See Day 178).  He then goes to the temple, chases out the vendors, and heals the handicapped. (See Day 179).  How do the religious leaders respond to all of this?

The chief priests and the teachers of the Law became angry when they saw the wonderful things he was doing and the children shouting in the Temple, “Praise to David’s Son!”  So they asked Jesus, “Do you hear what they are saying?”  “Indeed I do,” answered Jesus. “Haven’t you ever read this scripture? ‘You have trained children and babies to offer perfect praise.’”  Jesus left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. (Matthew 21:15-17).

Seems about right.  The religious leaders get angry about this troublemaker coming into the Temple and creating chaos.  They get angry about the healings.  They get angry about the children.  They get angry about all the wonderful things he was doing.  Don’t you hate it when people in churches get angry about wonderful things?  Like healings or miracles or messy ministries or visitations of God or enthusiastic children? 

People in churches have such a love/hate relationship with children.  They love to have children around as long as they act like cute little adults.  Mini-Me’s.  If they really act like real little kids then there’s always someone who gets offended.  I always think adults in churches should be more sensitive to the needs of the kids when everyone is together in a worship setting.  Kids can’t help being fidgety, any more than some of the elders can help making disruptive digestive noises during prayer times.  I figure that if the kids had their way we would spend our entire worship time running around the sanctuary singing, dancing, and shouting praises to God.  At my age that would be as difficult for me as it is for them to be still and silent for an hour.  Personally I am happy whenever there are kids in the church, and I think it’s counter-productive to make it unpleasant for them.

Interesting fact:  I read that the Amish have a great way of keeping the kids quiet during their church services.  The moms sit with them in the last row of chairs in the back of the room and feed them continually through the whole service.  When they get old enough to make it through a service without eating they get to move to a row closer to the front, which entitles them to more privileges at home.  Sort of a positive incentive program instead of yelling at them.

I can’t look at this scripture without thinking about the Angelic Voices.  When we started getting African American kids at our church in Chicago, they didn’t understand why we weren’t singing real “church music” (they meant Black Gospel music). Together we were able to make it happen by starting our own children’s Gospel choir.  I selected the music from the radio, created my own tracks, and directed the group. They did the singing and dancing and choreography.

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Those kids were totally committed to that choir.  They sang at church every Sunday and never willingly missed a practice.  It was their fun time.  They sang with passion and sincerity and great enthusiasm. They internalized the lyrics and they lived the music.  They sang their little hearts out, and they were a blessing to the church.  Actually, they transformed the church completely as people joined the church because those kids lifted their spirits and spoke to their hearts.

The Angelic Voices didn’t sing little kid songs.  They sang hard core urban Gospel music usually sung by adults.  They were songs about life and death and our daily struggles.  They were songs about humanity’s deepest longings and the goodness of God.  They were songs of perfect praise. 

Every year in the springtime we had a special Angelic Voices Gospel concert and we always attracted a large crowd.  Eventually we started receiving invitations to sing at United Methodist district and conference events.  At one event the bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference washed their feet.  Here was a special letter of thanks from the District Superintendent of the Chicago Northwestern District of the United Methodist Church:

Please convey my heartfelt thanks to the Angelic Voices for their outstanding performance at the District heritage event last Sunday.  We could understand every word they sang.  The message was communicated by the words of the song and also by their beautiful spirit. It is truly an example of ministry that can happen outside the walls of the church.  Their presence provides hope to other clergy that are searching for ways to reach the children and youth of their neighborhoods.  It can be done! Thank you so much for your ministry and for sharing your choir with the District. (Deborah L. Fisher).

The original group sang together for a long time – about 8 years or so.  It was amazing how they eventually started getting invitations to neighborhood and city events, including an engagement at Daley Center Plaza. Even though it was religious there was something about their music transcended that religion and spoke to the human spirit. Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Aurelia Pucinski heard the ImageAngelic Voices at a neighborhood event and wrote the following letter to Chicago’s Mayor Daley:

I had occasion to hear the Angelic Voices of Granville Methodist Church, a multi-racial children’s choir, sing lively and very moving songs about love, violence, hope, and children at a Memorial Service last Sunday. I recommend them with great pleasure, if your Special Events Office needs to schedule such a group.  There were wonderful.

We also had an adult Gospel choir that was much more musically proficient than the Angelic Voices, but they never received the same kind of response.  There was something about those kids singing that really touched people’s hearts in a way that the adults just can’t do.  There was something about it that was holy. They were wonderful and we all loved and appreciated them so very much.

I remember one time when we were invited to an event in a large church in Evanston.  The crowd was pretty sedate as we sang our rousing music, but suddenly there was a rumbling sound and then the whole place exploded into praise.  All those stiff people suddenly started dancing and whooping it up.  It was great.  People often responded that way.  Sometimes they were enlivened, other times they were moved to tears. 

And it wasn’t the music.  It was just something about the kids, the way they sang, and the way that God was moving through them.  There was something about it that was inexplicable, just like Jesus describes in this scripture. Something perfect.

Back to the scripture. The chief priests and teachers of the Law were angry about all of the commotion that Jesus was causing.  I’m sure that they were pretty livid about Jesus making such a spectacle of himself in the Temple with the moneychangers.  It’s really pretty remarkable that they didn’t have him arrested.  I suppose they were reluctant to do that because he immediately started healing people.  They were probably afraid that if they arrested him the people might start a riot.

Apparently the religious authorities were already irritated and in no mood to deal with children, especially those who were shouting that Jesus was David’s son.  Of course the children were referring to King David, the greatest leader in the history of the Jews.  The children were rejoicing that a new leader, Jesus, had come to Jerusalem to save them from their enemies and usher in the time of peace and prosperity that everyone was waiting for.  The New Age.  The Messianic Age.

The grumpy chief priests and teachers of the Law didn’t want to listen to this.  They didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of David, and the children’s cries and antics were probably getting on their last nerves.  So they did what I’ve observed that people in today’s churches often do.  They didn’t talk to the children – they ignored them.  Instead, they addressed the person that they thought was responsible for the children, in this case Jesus.  They ask Jesus if he hears what the children are saying, as though he was responsible for them and their actions.  They are probably asking about the reference to David.  Jesus doesn’t care about that.  All he hears is the praise of the children and the affirmation of God, so he responds to his detractors with a paraphrase of Psalm 8:1-2:

O Lord, our Lord, your greatness is seen in all the world!  Your praise reaches up to the heavens; it is sung by children and babies.  You are safe and secure from all your enemies; you stop anyone who opposes you.

He saw the children’s praise as a powerful sign of God’s affirmation, God’s protection, and it was perfect praise indeed.  The praise of those children must have been just what he needed to encourage him to do what needed to be done in these final days of his life.  It’s what we all apparently need – to hear the voices of children offering perfect praise and to know that it is somehow a powerful sign that God is with us.

What does this scripture say to you?

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