Just like children

Who is the greatest?  Don't look up - look down - and become a child.

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Just like children

February 18, 2015 – Matthew 18:1-5

 

            My first memories of Sunday School are at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, in Slater, Iowa.  And I don’t have many memories of that Sunday School – except I do remember a painting – probably common in Sunday Schools in those days – of Jesus surrounded by children.  But they are not just any children.  They are all clean and well-behaved.  They are probably also attentive and adoring, but mostly what I remember is clean and well-behaved, which is rare enough among children.

            Children are a mixed bag.  They can be sweet and innocent and adorable.  They can be willful and disobedient and quite a handful.  It is tempting to categorize children, but children resist categorization.  While I don’t believe Jesus ever changed diaper or had to get up in the middle of the night for a sick child or handle a two year-old in full tantrum mode, I do believe his attitude toward them did not reflect how they were categorized and treated at the time.

            Children were on the lowest rung of the ladder in those days.  They were considered the property of their fathers.  And because they couldn’t work, they were simply another mouth to feed – unless they were lucky enough to be an eldest son.

            Yet perhaps it was precisely because they were so dependent and disregarded that Jesus singled them out in a teaching moment with the disciples.

            The disciples are taking a surprisingly long time to realize who Jesus is and to understand what it means to follow him.

            The disciples don’t identify him as “Son of God” until chapter 14 in Matthew, the second time that he calms a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  Peter adds to this confession at Caesarea Philippi – You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

            But when Jesus tells them that this means he is going to Jerusalem to be rejected and be killed, Peter says, “Absolutely not!”  And when Jesus tells the disciples that they can expect the same fate as their Teacher, they remain silent.

            In chapter 18 – today’s reading – it becomes clear that offering themselves in suffering is not on their mind.  Greatness is!

            The disciples come to Jesus and ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  They are probably all secretly hoping he will point to them. 

            Instead, he takes a child and sets the child among them.  He says, “I’m telling you once and for all that, unless you become children, you’ll never even get a peak in the door of the kingdom, let alone gain entrance.  Whoever becomes humble – like this child – will be great in the kingdom of heaven.”

            Kathryn Schifferdecker used to be a pastor in this synod.  She is now a professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.  She says that, one day, she was driving home with her 11 year-old daughter, Esther, (a good name for the daughter of an Old Testament professor!)

            Her daughter asked, “Mom, will I ever be important?” 

            Her mom said, “Well, you’ll be important to your family.  You’ll be important to people you help.”  Even at that age, Kathryn said, we start thinking about being important.

            But I would also say that one of the reasons children begin to think about becoming important is because children don’t feel important.  Of course they’re important to us. As parents, I hope we are telling them that.

            It’s one thing for parents to say that to their children, though.  Parents are supposed to say that after all.  It is quite another thing for the world to say it.  Because in the world, it is the big people who are important.  It is adults who are important.  It’s adults who are big and strong.  It’s adults who make the money and who make the decisions.  That’s what children want, too, someday, rather than being dependent on others.

            But I think Jesus picks out a child as an example of greatness in the kingdom precisely because they are vulnerable and dependent.  They are not great in the kingdom of the world.  They are not even great in the eyes of the disciples.  But they are great in the kingdom of heaven.

            Now it’s not just the disciples who have a hard time grasping this.  We all do.  So, in Lent, we practice re-orientation.  We may practice letting go of something that we regularly do, if we think it is taking up too much time and attention or maybe just isn’t very good for us – like smoking or computer games.  We may practice taking on something, making time for something we don’t normally make time for – like Bible reading or prayer or gratitude.  We may add something during Lent or we may subtract something during Lent.  We don’t do it to try to win points with God, but we see if this practice actually does re-orient us – that, in this practice, whatever it is, we become more loving.

            I think that another thing that might get in the way of our re-orientation is if we have a question about something.  That is also something children do.  They ask questions.  Of course they ask, “How many more miles?” and “Why can’t I?”  But they also ask, “Why is the sky blue?” and “Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle?”

            Maybe you have a question.  Maybe it’s a question about God or about the Bible or about church or about Christian teaching.  It may be any kind of question, but perhaps it’s a question that, if you could ask it honestly, it might lead to a closer relationship with God and a greater willingness to follow Jesus.

            So, in the bulletin, I’ve included blank pieces of paper.  Feel free to write a question down.  You don’t need to include your name.  And you don’t even have to write a question.  But if you do, write it down and drop it in the offering plate, or hand it to me on the way out, or stick it in my box up by the church office.  And you can do it now or you can do it over the next few days.

            Somehow, someway, over the coming weeks, I’ll try to respond to these questions.  I’m not exactly sure how I’ll do it.  Maybe I’ll include it in a sermon.  Maybe I’ll write about it in the newsletter.  Maybe I’ll even post something on our Facebook page.  But somehow, I’ll try to respond.  I don’t promise to have an answer, but I would be glad to join you in the asking of your question.

            I know it’s hard to ask questions, especially in the church. We’re afraid we’ll ask a dumb question or we’ll ask a question that everybody else knows the answer to.  Or, worse, we’ll ask a sinful question and, like the disciples, we’ll get a lecture from Jesus!

            But if the disciples had a hard time comprehending the kingdom of heaven – the real work of God on earth – then we should not feel at all badly if we do, too.  And if they had the courage to ask a question – a question they really ask for all of us – then maybe we can ask a question as well.  It may also help someone else.

            And maybe – just maybe – our question will help us to see not only how much we need God, but how vulnerable we can be with God, because God is vulnerable with us.  God even sends his own Son to Jerusalem to die, that the power of his death and the glory of his love might be known to us and to all!