Compassionate Reign

Matthew 25:31-35

Today, as we gather on this final Sunday of the Church year, we find ourselves in kind of an “in-between” time. We’re in between Thanksgiving Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent. Between being grateful for all our blessings and anticipating, once again, the coming of the Christ into the world. And I can think of no better way to make this transition from gratitude to hope, from thankfulness to longing, from turkey to tinsel, than to consider the present Reign of Christ. And in that same light, I think it’s important, on this final Sunday of the Church year, to look at the very essence of this Reign.

Now, the text we have before is one that might cause us squirm in our seats. We might squirm because the reading we just heard is the second part of a larger whole.  But it’s important, as we consider the Reign of Christ today, to include the whole progression of Matthew’s thought here.  And that thought begins with Judgement. Matthew writes, “Now, when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.” And, of course, the judgement part comes when he indicates that those on his right will receive eternal bliss, while those on his left get eternally punished. Getting squirmy yet?

The topic of judgement makes us so uneasy because the meaning of judgement as a Biblical and theological concept has been misunderstood and misused across the years.  I mean, the word “judgment” itself conjures up images of hellfire and brimstone preachers, of self-righteous church ladies, or even worse, the fear of standing before a wrathful God, trembling in our boots, as we attempt to answer for every sin. But how did we get to this point? How did our concept of judgement get so far off track?

I don’t know, “perhaps it’s because religion and judgment have been so unhappily married for so long; in fact, Jesus has a lot to say about not judging one another, and not excluding some people because they’re sinners, or at least a certain ‘kind’ of sinner?”[i] Some of our uneasiness exists because the modern church found all kinds of ways to judge each other. It became the norm to judge other denominations, the LGBTQ community, and those who were differently abled, just to name a few. But in addition to Jesus’s words, Paul holds judging others up as one of the worst of our human sins. He says, “So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things. We know that God’s judgment agrees with the truth, and [God’s] judgment is against those who do these kinds of things. If you judge those who do these kinds of things while you do the same things yourself, think about this: Do you believe that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life?”[ii]

And there’s the crux of the matter.  Judgement, God’s judgment, according to Paul, is a very real thing.  But somehow, we missed the point.  Judgement is finally a “kindness” from God, a kindness that leads to transformation, a transformation of our hearts which leads us to change our lives.  And these virtues of kindness and generosity, of tolerance and patience, can be summed up by a single word: compassion.  But, you may ask, how can we lift compassion up as the most important virtue here? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life, shares our concern, for “the Bible,” as she says, “is not a book with the answers in the back.”[iii] In other words, it’s important for us to look at the deeper meaning of Scripture. It’s vital that we consider the full breadth and depth and width of the gospel message. A message of inclusion, equality, and love of God and neighbor. In that light, Matthew 25, challenges us to wrestle with the issues of our emerging post-modern context rather than judge the sin of others. But how do we “live-into” this challenge? Well, it’s important to remember that “In this teaching, …salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith.”[iv] Matthew consistently calls us to BE the church.  This is evident in the verses that follow this bit about the sheep and the goats. Jesus says that when we serve the least of his people, we serve him. And, with a nod to a contemporary understanding of this message, I would add, “when we love all of God’s people, we love God. When we defend and preserve God’s beautiful creation, we live out our covenant with God, and when we understand judgement as a tool of grace rather than a weapon of condemnation, we demonstrate our love of God.

I read a story this past week that speaks to this idea of living into the compassionate Reign of Christ.  It was about a man who was involved in a local homeless ministry. He said, in an interview, that his motivation for helping the homeless started because of his brother’s story. You see, his brother suffered from a psychological illness, which sometimes lead him to paranoid delusions. The man also shared that he knew his brother, who lived in a faraway city, traveled from one homeless shelter to another. “When I serve a homeless man at the mission,” he said in the interview, “I imagine that one of them is my brother. And I ask myself, ‘when did I see you hungry, and give you food? When did I see a stranger, and welcome you?’”[v]

This parable is finally meant to stir our imaginations; our imaginations as compassionate human beings and as Christians.  The two are not mutually exclusive. Teilhard de Chardin affirms this when he says, “I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world.”[vi] But how do we do that? How do we, as people of faith, as compassionate human beings, become a part of this conversion?  How can we become a part of connecting the hope of Christianity with the hope of the world? I don’t know.  I think each of us must look at the places in our lives where we have ordained ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner.  And then advocate that throne in favor of a more compassionate, more just way of being.  And it’s when we do that, when we choose serving the least of God’s beloved over judging them, it’s then, that we find our salvation. My friends, I would like to leave you today with these words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama. He once said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”[vii]  “…without them, humanity cannot survive.”

May it be so. Amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews. Christ is Among Us. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[ii] See Romans 2:1-4 CEB

[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor. The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications) 1993

[iv] Katheryn Matthews quoting David Mosser. Christ is Among Us. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[v] The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter. Our Spiritual Bottom Line. (day1.org) 2005

[vi] Quote from Teilhard de Chardin found on (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[vii] Quote from The Dalai Lama XIV found on (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

That Word: Judgement

Newsletter devotional for Cable UCC and St. Paul UCC –  Delta, December 2017

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” Matthew 25:31-32 (NRSV)

This text is one that might cause us squirm in our seats. Judgement is something we don’t like to focus on in church today and perhaps with good reason.  The word “judgment” might conjure up images of hellfire and brimstone preachers, self-righteous church ladies, or standing before a wrathful God, trembling in fear as we attempt to answer for every sin. But how did we get to this point?

Katheryn Matthews reflects on this question when she writes, “perhaps it’s because religion and judgment have been so unhappily married for so long; in fact, doesn’t Jesus have a lot to say about our judging one another, our excluding some people because they are sinners, or at least a certain ‘kind’ of sinner?” The modern church found all kinds of way to judge each other. It became the norm to judge other denominations, the LGBTQ community, and those who were differently abled, just to name a few. So, with these false understandings of judgement in our past, how do we change and move forward? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life, shares our concern, for “the Bible,” as she says, “is not a book with the answers in the back.” In other words, it’s important for us to look at the deeper meaning of Scripture. It’s vital that we consider the full breadth and depth and width of the gospel message. A message of inclusion, equality, and love of God and neighbor. In that light, Matthew 25, challenges us to wrestle with the issues of our emerging post-modern context rather than judge the sin of others. But how do we “live-into” this challenge?

David Mosser sums up this thought well when he says, “In this teaching, …salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith.” Matthew consistently calls us to BE the church.  This is evident in the verses that follow this bit about the sheep and the goats. Jesus says that when we serve the least of his people, we serve him. And, with a nod to a contemporary understanding of this message, I would add, “when we love all of God’s people, we love God. When we defend and preserve God’s beautiful creation, we live out our covenant with God, and when we understand judgement as a tool of grace and not a weapon of condemnation, we demonstrate our love of God.

May the coming season of Advent lead us into the Light of Christ.

Blessings, Pastor Phil

Extravagant Opportunities

Matthew 25:14-30

A grandfather said to his grandson, pick up a stone and take it to the marketplace.  If anyone asks you the price, don’t say anything.  Just hold up two fingers.  So, the boy did as he was instructed, and wouldn’t you know it, a woman came up to him and asked if his rock was for sale.  He shook his head ‘yes’ but said nothing. “How much is it?” she inquired. And still, he said nothing but help up two fingers. “two dollars!” she exclaimed, “I’ll take it! It’ll be perfect in my garden.” The boy ran home to his grandfather and told him what happened.  “Go and get another rock,” said the grandfather, “and take it to the jeweler and again, don’t say a word. If he asks, ‘how much,’ hold up two fingers.” So, the boy went to the jeweler and silently showed him the rock. “What a beautiful and precious stone,” he exclaimed, “I must have it in my shop, how much do you want for it?” The boy silently held up two fingers. “Two hundred dollars! I’ll take it!”  The ran home a told his grandfather what had happened.  “Go and get one final rock,” said the old man, “and this time take it to the museum. And do the same as before.”  So, the boy went to the museum and to his delight the curator was overjoyed by his rock. “This is a very rare stone,” the curator said, “I must have it in our collection.  How much do you want for it?” and again, the boy said nothing, but held up two fingers. “It’s a deal,” exclaimed the curator, “$200,000 dollars it is!” Now, the boy was beside himself and ran home to share the amazing news with his grandfather. “The money is great,” said the old man, “but do you understand the lesson here? The worth of something is determined by where it is placed.  The same stone was more valuable in the museum than it was in the marketplace. The same is true of your life. If you surround yourself with good people, behave in in constructive ways, and keep a positive attitude, chances are you will be, to others, and most importantly, to yourself, a more valuable person.”[i]

Now, like the story of the valuable stone, what we have before us today is a parable.  The Parable of the Talents.  Now, parable was a common teaching tool of the time and one that Jesus often used effectively. But we must be careful with parables.  They’re not actual, literal stories about real people.  No one paid $200,000 for a rock. Instead, parables are stories created by the teller to convey a deeper meaning.  The teller of the parable of the valuable stone wanted his grandson to choose his friends wisely. But here’s the thing, we finally don’t know what message the grandson may have heard. Parables, by nature, come with many layers and many facets of meaning. They’re stories that can be heard in different ways depending upon the setting or the worldview of the hearers. And the same can be said about the Parable of the Talents as it has been told and retold across the centuries.

Now, the most common way of interpreting this parable in our day is as an invitation; an invitation to stewardship.  It’s an invitation to be generous, especially in our giving to the church, by using our “talents.” And if we use them well, if we take seriously the great responsibility God has place upon us to use our time, talent, and treasure to the glory of God, then good things happen. Using our God given talents will bring amazing growth in us, as well as in the Reign of God. But if we bury them, leave them unexercised, we’ll end up out in the cold.[ii]

And this view makes sense. If we put this teaching into its historical context we find that a “talent” was an incredible fortune—the equivalent of ten to twenty years’ wages. So, the characters in this story weren’t dealing with a trivial amount of money, they were given a great responsibility. As a matter of fact, I read an interpretation this week that says this story should be called “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” Because in the author’s estimation this parable is finally about investing profits and gaining commissions! It’s about earning rewards.[iii]

But is this really the nature of God? Does the Parable of the Talents boil down dollars and cents for the treasury? As Jesus nears the end of his earthly life, would he really be urging his disciples to invest their money well? Probably not. So, logic dictates that there must be “something more”[iv] going on here; some deeper message for us to hear today? And that “something more” I would contend is grace. Specifically, prevenient grace.

So, what is prevenient grace and what in the world does it have to the parable of the talents? Well, let’s start with prevenient grace. Prevenient grace refers to the grace of God in a person’s life that precedes a human decision. In other words, it’s when God shows love to an individual without any consideration of the good or bad things she or he may have done. And furthermore, prevenient grace allows a person to engage their God-given freewill to choose the liberation offered by God in Jesus Christ. Simply put, the grace of God is demonstrated by God’s unconditional love for all people.  Prevenient grace is the vehicle that brings this unconditional love to us. All we need to do is accept it. And once we’ve accepted it, Jesus encourages us to share it.

It’s kind of like being invited to a birthday party.  Prevenient grace is like the invitation that comes in the mail.  It’s not the party itself, rather it’s the vehicle through which you are being offered the opportunity to join the party.  God’s grace would be the party itself. Now, you have the option to go to the party or decline.  Freewill allows you to be the one who makes the decision.

Author Marilynne Robinson expands upon this thought when she says, “Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave–that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous.”[v]

I like that.  I like it because she’s saying that there must be a divine courage that precedes bravery so that we can find the nerve to begin to use our God given “talents.”  And she concludes that it’s this bravery allows us to be generous. Interesting.  This deeper understanding, this “something more,” doesn’t discount the traditional interpretation of this parable, rather it enhances it! It allows us to view stewardship from a bolder and broader perspective.  Yes, stewardship is about using our “talents” to give back to God; including our financial resources.  But stewardship is also about having the courage to respond to God’s prevenient grace by accepting God’s love, internalizing it, and then sharing it.

So, how do we do that? How do we act upon this grace that’s been given to us? How do we share the “precious things that have been put into our hands?” Well, that’s something we all must figure out for ourselves, because each one of us are uniquely created by God with individual gifts and graces and blessings.

We do, however, have an example to consider: Jesus.  “Jesus spent his life and ministry proclaiming the present Reign of God, feeding the hungry, healing and sick and the mentally ill, offering forgiveness, and welcoming ALL people, from all stations in life, from all religious backgrounds and nations, with a variety of skin tones and languages and lifestyles to “come and follow him.” Jesus professed a message of justice and equality and peace, and for that message he was executed.”[vi]

My friends, this pouring out of love from the cross took place because Christ wants us to know about and accept the unconditional love of God and share it. And just in case we’ve missed or underestimated the power of that message, the resurrection of Jesus serves a reminder that life is stronger than death and that love is more powerful than hate.

So, as you leave here today and go about your life, my hope and prayer is that you will take very seriously this parable of grace, and reach out beyond yourself, using the talents, the blessings, the extravagant opportunities given to you to touch the life of someone in need. That’s finally the invitation of prevenient grace and the core of Christ’s message of love. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

[i]   This parable comes for native Alaskan wisdom, I am reciting it from memory.

[ii]   Kathern Matthews. Investing What is Offered (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017

[iii]  Alan Brehm Merit Badges (www.thewakingdreamerblogspot.com) 2011

[iv]  Ibid. Matthews.

[v]  Marilynne Robinson Gilead (www.ucc,org/samuel) 2017

[vi] David Lose, …in the Meantime, (www.daviclose.net) 2014

3 Great Loves: Love of Creation

Psalm 104:1, 5-24

We live in a beautiful world. John Calvin once insisted that the earth is the “theater of God’s glory.”  That’s a tough statement to dispute. Living here in the Northwoods, we don’t have to go too far to be immersed in the theater of God’s glory. But I began to wonder what other places people held close to their hearts.  So, like any good post-modern person, I turned to social media. I posted, and tweeted, a simple question: “where’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?” Here are some of the responses: Ireland, Montana, Idaho Switzerland, New Zealand, Cable Wisconsin, two said Hawaii, there was a Colorado, one person said anywhere my whole family can be present and another said wherever I am in the moment.

Now, I’m putting the same question to all of you.  What the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?  Take a moment to think about it.  Okay, now I want you to close your eyes and visualize that place.  Take your mind back to a day when you were there. Try to recall the feeling of being there, the people surrounding you or the silence of being alone.  Try to remember the smells, the sounds, the temperature, your movement, were you standing still or walking or hiking? Maybe you were engaged in some other activity.  One last thing before you open your eyes, try to recreate the sense of awe or reverence you felt in the moment. All right, open your eyes.

Congratulations! You just had an experience of God. My friends, sometimes we think of an experience of God as something unusual, something outside the norm.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, God is in the extraordinary, the miraculous, the exceptional moments, but God also shows up in the ordinary moments in life.  The challenge is to realize and acknowledge God’s presence in those everyday moments. The sixty-cent theological term for this concept is revelation.  The word revelation simple means “an unveiling.”  So, God’s revelation in our lives is an “unveiling” of God’s presence.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, understood and expounded upon this idea. He understood God’s revelation, God’s unveiling, as taking place in four ways.  Four general categories if you will.  He said that God comes to us through Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.

I think Wesley was on to something here; something that’s maybe been lost as we’ve moved into the twenty-first century.  Too often, the revelation of God has been limited to only a forth of Wesley’s quadrilateral; namely, Scripture. But as we investigate Scripture, and specifically for this evening Psalm 104, I think the other three modes of revelation will become apparent.

First Scripture. Psalm 104 is a hymn to God the creator. But even more than that, it’s what we call a “creation narrative.”  There are several creation narratives in the Bible.  The most familiar of course are the two creation narratives found in Genesis 1 and 2. Most scholars, however, contend Psalm 104 is the oldest account of creation in the Bible.

Which leads us directly into tradition, the second of the four ways God is unveiled in the world.  Tradition is an interesting animal. It’s the proverbial “two-edged sword.”  Tradition can sometimes bog us down.  We, especially as a church, can get stuck in the mode of “we’ve always done it that way.”  And, of course, that’s something we want to avoid. But, there is a place and a good reason for tradition. I’m willing to bet that you have time-honored and treasured traditions in your family; especially around the holidays, right? The Harvest Home Dinner is a tradition and a good one.  But even beyond that, tradition can be a good thing because it helps us remember.  It causes us to remember not only the good times and our triumphs, but also our defeats, our missteps, our mistakes.  Tradition helps us to remember, both as individuals and as a community, our experiences of God.

And that’s the third of Wesley’s concepts, experience; experiencing the unveiling of God in our midst. Remember the thought experiment we did earlier?  Remember the feeling of awe and reverence that your beautiful piece of creation brought? That feeling of being in the presence of God?  Friends, nature inspires reverence. For myself anyway, if I’m struggling or down, a walk in the woods clears thing right up.  It takes me to a place of realizing that my problems are small in comparison to the vastness of the universe.

Which brings us finally to reason. Realizing our place, that the world doesn’t finally rotate around me and my desires or u troubles, that, I would contend, is the beginning of reason. Joan Stott, in The Timeless Psalms says that, “Psalm 104 is a song about the timelessness of creation and its Creating God, as it moves beyond this ‘me first’ concept and ‘my’ importance in the great scheme of things; to rejoice in the wonder and glory of God’s creation and taking an ageless approach to the life of the universe.”[i]

I was moved by that final part of that statement.  “…taking an ageless approach to the life of the universe.” My friends, this is where we find ourselves today.  We have a responsibility in caring for the natural world. God is calling on us, challenging us and future generations to “take an ageless approach” as we think about the environment.

As we finish up here, I would like you to once again close your eyes and go back to that most beautiful place.  Once again hear the sounds, take in the smells, the feeling of being in the presence of God in that sacred space. Are you there yet?  Okay, this is why environmentalism is so important.  This place that you’re in, this sacred space where God is present for you, this is why we must work so hard to preserve not only your sacred place, but all sacred spaces. And protecting your place, protecting the environment, the plants and animals and oceans, preserving the water and the forests and the air, this is a theological issue.  Caring for, have a responsibility for the natural world, is finally a matter of respecting God.  It’s a matter of being grateful to God.  All right, open your eyes.

One final thought for this evening. As we gather this here to celebrate God’s presence, the season of Thanksgiving, and to continue the tradition of Harvest Home, this idea of gratitude moves to the forefront of our thoughts.  Tonight, or tomorrow, of on Thanksgiving Day itself, I invite you thank God for all the blessings that have come into your life, pray for the wisdom and the courage to live into the challenges, and I would also invite you to be grateful for this beautiful, wonder-filled earth that God has created, and especially for your sacred space, where ever that space may be.

And finally, I would invite you to put that prayer into action. I can’t tell you exactly how or where or what that action might look like, but I can tell you that the Spirit will place opportunities to make a difference, a positive difference, in protecting God’s creation. My prayer for all of you is that those opportunities will become apparent and that you will be moved to act upon them.

I offer these words in the name of the Risen and Living Hope of all humanity and creation; Jesus Christ. Amen.

[i] Joan Stott. The Timeless Psalms (www.thetimelesspsalms.net) 2017

3 Great Loves: Love of Children

“Jesus Loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Matthew 19:13-22

It’s a classic, you’ve probably all heard it, but since it’s All Saints Sunday, it has to be done. There were once two brothers.  And they were the worst, most miserable, most miserly people in town. They were rich but not generous, they were mean, and they never had a kind word for anyone. Now, one of the brothers died. So, the remaining brother went to the pastor to plan the funeral. “I don’t really care about your service,” he said, “except, I want you to say that my brother was a saint. If you say my brother was a saint, I’ll give the church $100,000 dollars!” Well, the pastor was in a real bind here.  He didn’t want to lie but the church sure could use the money.  And what’s worse, rumor of the offer spread, so, on the day of the funeral, the entire population of the town crowded into the sanctuary to see what the pastor would say.  “This man was awful,” the pastor began, “he was mean-spirited, he cussed and drank, why he would cheat an old woman out of her last penny.” You could have heard a pin drop in that church as the pastor continued, “but, but,” he said, “compared to his brother this man was a saint!”

Today is All Saints Sunday. A day to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us and especially those whom we loved.  You know, one of the great things about a church community, a church family, is that we are comprised of more than just those who are sitting in the pews today; we are surrounded by the “saints,” by all the faithful disciples who sat in these pews for so many years.  And on All Saints Sunday, we are invited to listen for the echoes of hymns and prayers and sermons lifted to God across the arc of time and understand that these echoes are a part of our very being. And in this service, we are invited to add to those prayers, and songs, and words, as we create an echo for generations to come.

And in that spirit, and as we consider the second of the 3 Great Loves today: Love of Children, may we hold onto that past, the living history of our congregation; may we live in the present, attempting to be as Christ-like and compassionate and caring as we can in this moment; but all the while, imaging and securing a future that’s faithful to Jesus’ mission and ministry in our congregation, our community, and across the globe.

Now, bearing this in mind, let’s look our Gospel lesson for today. First of all, I love this text. And for so many reasons. It begins with a time-honored and classic image of ordained ministry; Jesus welcoming the children. Incomplete? Yes, but the image of Jesus blessing the least of God’s family finally rests at the heart of what it means to be a pastor. But this image goes beyond the pastorate.  It affirms our belief in family; biological family, blended and extended family, and our church family. And what’s more, Jesus welcoming the children is a blueprint for the church in our task of offering a wide welcome and propagating an inclusive environment. And finally, I love this passage because reminds us of the innocence of childhood and invites us to reclaim some of that innocence as we go about being the church in the world today.

And I don’t stand alone in my love for this passage. Oliva Hinnant reminds us that “these three verses have been the subject of many paintings since this story was first told in the gospels.  One painter has Jesus sitting on a rock with the children gathered around. Another has Jesus on the steps of a great temple with the mothers and their children, but no disciples. And yet another has both.”[i] I’ve see more contemporary images showing Jesus holding hands with children of all races and nationalities from all around the world.

The image of Jesus blessing the children, however, surpasses that which is immortalized in oil; consider music.  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” or my favorite, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”[ii]  An aside here. “What you may not know about this hymn is that the words were originally part of a novel, written as a poem offered to comfort a dying child.”[iii] That adds another dimension to this classic children’s song, doesn’t it?

But whatever the case, it’s safe to say that this narrative is one that warms our hearts and enlivens our spirits as these comforting words of inclusion invite even me to sit with Jesus and to be embraced by God with the unabated joy of a child.

“[But] what does not appear in the sweet and gentle interpretations of this passage is a depiction of how Jesus’ welcome of the children was a radical action in his first century Greco-Roman world.”[iv] Remember the disciples tried to shoo the children away. Children weren’t cherished in the same way they are today.  Culturally speaking, children were literally to be “seen and not heard.” But of course, we see Jesus breaking the norms, crossing societal boundries, and once again demonstrating religion and its rules were created for benefit humanity and not the other way around. He was very clear that we don’t live to serve the law, but rather we are to interpret it in the most gracious, most compassionate, most loving way possible.

So, if that’s the case, then how are we to look at and then act upon this text? “[Well,] various scholars and bible teachers may interpret this differently, but I believe Jesus was referring to the necessity of unlearning all those broken ways of thinking that drain the life and faith from us.”[v] In other words, how should we become more “child-like” in our ways of thinking? I don’t know. Think about racism, or terrorism, or sexism, or nationalism, or any of the other “isms” that fill the headlines and plague our society today. We aren’t born with these “isms,” they’re not intrinsic to our being nor are they a natural state.  These “isms” are learned behaviors.  And what is learned can be unlearned.  That was the brilliance of Christ’s teachings.  He offered those around him, and through the presence of the Spirit, he offers us a different way of relating to others; especially those on the margins.

One of my seminary professors summed it up this way. “Welcoming children,” he said, “is a theological matter in this text: it’s a particular and necessary expression of the call to love our little neighbors as we love our big selves.”[vi]  “…to love our little neighbors as we love our big selves.” I like that.  I like it because it becomes a metaphor for loving our neighbors; all our neighbors. I mean, consider all the ways we, as a people and as a nation, consider ourselves “big.” We’re geographically big ‘from sea to shining sea,’ …right? And in comparison, with most of the rest of world, we have big stuff; big houses, along with big bank accounts, big cars, big food, big dogs …well some dogs are small, but you get the picture.  But big isn’t always bad. Unlike the miserly brothers in my opening story, we have big hearts and a huge desire to use our resources for the betterment of those less fortunate then ourselves.

Which leads us into the conclusion of our text.  When approached by a righteous man who wanted to know the secret of eternal life, Jesus offers these words, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” (CEB)

Now, this is kind of a tough passage for those who want to view Christianity as practice in morality and that’s it.  Those who want to separate faith from works.  If you want to be “complete” then put your righteousness and your faith into action, and bonus, you’ll have “treasure in heaven.”

But Jesus is not only teaching about an active faith here, he’s living it!  We see this over and over again in the gospels. Jesus teaches his followers, including us, a lesson, and then in the next moment, proceeds to demonstrate that teaching by acting upon it himself. Examples. He tells us to live abundantly and then he feeds 5000 people; he tells us be instruments of healing and then he in turn heals the lame, the blind and the mentally ill; he tells us to be servants of all and then he washes the feet of his disciples; he tells us to “fear not,” and then he fearlessly goes to the cross; and finally, he tells us to choose life and practice love, and then, through his Resurrection, Jesus becomes the Risen and Living embodiment of God’s love.

And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter.  Christ is challenging us to become living embodiments of God’s love as well. And for me, that’s finally the definition of “saint.” Will we be perfect saints? Fully-formed embodiments? Or course not.  But if we take seriously the invitation of this text to be both welcoming and generous, inclusive and compassionate, to unlearn our lesser ways and gain a more innocent, more child-like approach to God and humanity, then, we will continue to add to the echoes of our forbearers; echoes that will ring true for generation upon generation. May it be so. Amen.

[i] Olive Elaine Hinnant. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. II. Cynthia A. Johnson & E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) pg. 110

[ii] Susan Bogert Warner & Anna Bartlett Warner, Say and Seal. (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1860)

[iii] Ibid. Hinnant. 112.

[iv]Ibid. 114.

[v] Benjamin L. Corey.  Unafraid (Harper One: An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2017) pg. 18-19

[vi] Gary Neal Hanson. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. II. Cynthia A. Johnson & E. Elizabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) pg. 112