October 4, 2015, The Kingdom of Low Standards – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: 120211_001
Last week we had our Fall Work Day. If you were able to stay for lunch, after the cleaning and fixing-up was done, you know that we had a very special visitor for lunch. Three visitors, actually, because Noah Hargrave very kindly brought his parents along. It is hard to think of anything that brings joy into a room more than the arrival of a tiny person, and Noah is a particularly cute tiny person, especially when he is in a good mood, which he was. He was a little shy at first, but after he warmed up he was very generous with his hugs and just generally heart-meltingly adorable.
It’s hard to remember sermons from week to week, I know, even for me, and I write them. But just two weeks ago – and that would be just a few verses back in Mark’s gospel – we read that Jesus took a little child, a little child like Noah, and held him before the disciples for an intensive course on the priorities of the Kingdom of Heaven. They had been arguing, if you remember, about which of them was the greatest, and Jesus had called them together for a serious talk. He told them that if any of them wanted to be great, he had to be the last and the servant of everyone else. He told them that if they welcomed a little child, if they received a child as one of them, then they were welcoming God himself into their midst.
The child was a sign for the disciples, who really didn’t understand yet, that in the kingdom of Heaven the least and the smallest person was honored: that the one who would be greatest would be the last of all and the servant of all. And in time, the disciples would finally find out what that really meant, when their Teacher and Master, the one they followed and honored, knelt down and washed their dirty feet, when he gave himself quietly into the hands of the soldiers, when he suffered the pain and dishonor of the cross, when he died for them. But on that day they still really didn’t get it.
We know they didn’t get it, because later, in the passage we just read today, when they went out again to minister to the crowds, and when the mothers and fathers in the crowd held up their little children to be touched by Jesus, to receive his blessing, the disciples did their secret service duty thing and told them not to bother the Master; he had much more important things to attend to than grubby little children.
Jesus did things like giving sight to the blind and casting out demons and bringing the dead back to life; blessing little kids was way beneath his pay grade. They still didn’t get it – how completely opposite the kingdom they had been called into was, from the kingdom they had grown up in, and lived their lives in, and conducted their business in, and even worshiped their God in. They were entering uncharted waters. For those 12 men it must have been like coming to a strange new country where up is down and in is out and black is white and yes is no – utterly bewildering. We know that in the end Judas couldn’t accept Jesus’ way of being Messiah and Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom. But even for the 11 it was very hard.
So, when the parents brought their children to Jesus, those little people with dirty feet and wide, questioning eyes, and the disciples were face to face with those who were truly great in the Kingdom of heaven, the last and the least, they still didn’t recognize them. Here were the meek, the poor, the overlooked, the helpless, the first in the kingdom of Heaven. But all the disciples could see on that day was that those kids were a distraction from the ‘big stuff,’ the ‘real work’ of ministry. Have you ever gotten a phone call when you’re right in the middle of doing something ‘important’ for church or something? It might be from that tiresome person who doesn’t really have anything to say, who always keeps you on the phone for half an hour, just to have someone to talk to. And you really don’t have time for them, because you’re doing real work, important work?
But the little child that Jesus held in his arms that day was the symbol of the Kingdom,a kingdom that is unlike anything the disciples could yet understand, anything the world would have or could have created. The child was a symbol of weakness and humility, without pretension or power – especially so in the ancient world, where children were not pampered or protected or idealized in any way. They were simply small persons of the most vulnerable and helpless kind. If he was a child of plain working people like the disciples, he would have to begin working alongside his parents at a very young age. If he was handicapped in some way he would spend his childhood sitting in dust at the side of the road, begging for coins. Childhood was a very different thing in Jesus’ day than it is here and now. When we see paintings of Jesus blessing the little children it’s always very sweet and pretty and comfortable. It’s easy enough for us to believe that Jesus loves the little children. Look at Noah – who wouldn’t love a little person like that?
In this modern age, when children – though unfortunately not all children – are protected and cared for, it is easy to misunderstand the meaning of the child in Jesus’ arms. It is easy for us to sentimentalize the meaning right out of the story. It wasn’t cuteness or innocence that made the child a symbol of the kingdom of Heaven; it was her frailty, her helplessness, her unimportance, her dependence. It seems to me that if Jesus came into our society today, instead of holding a little child in front of his disciples, he might well choose to bring forward an elderly homeless man instead of a child, someone weak and helpless, ragged and bad-smelling, discarded by the world as useless and of little value. Because that would come much closer to the real meaning of the little child in Jesus’ arms than the sweet picture we usually think of when we read this story. We love the pretty image of all those cute little children smiling up at Jesus’ kindly face.. But the true image of the child was of weakness and helplessness, having no real status or honor in the world – because that was the real secret of who is great in the kingdom of Heaven, the secret that the disciples still weren’t able to understand.
Jesus had told the disciples that they were to welcome each little child in his name, and that to welcome one such small, helpless person was to open their arms to God himself. But now, as he took the children in his arms and gave them his blessing he took his teaching one step further. “The kingdom of God belongs to people like this child: insignificant people, useless people, weak and helpless people.” And then he added, “I’m telling you the truth, if you don’t receive the kingdom of God like one of these little children, you won’t get in at all.”
And that is one of the mysteries of the kingdom, because we can’t become like little children by our own efforts. Have you ever tried really hard to be humble? It doesn’t work very well, does it? The more you try the less you are. We can’t work ourselves into a meek frenzy or practice being rejected and vulnerable. The only way to become like little children is to come to Jesus Christ and discover that that is exactly who we are already.
But here’s the problem: even if we don’t usually realize it, what we all really want is to earn our way into the kingdom of God by being good enough. We have been brought up to be good and useful people. We hold so tight to the notion that we are basically good people who basically do good things and live basically good lives. And by the standards of the world that is basically true. We are a church full of nice people. We love our friends and family and we help our neighbors and we are kind to our pets and we donate our money to good causes.
The 12 disciples were basically good men, too. Next week we’ll read that Peter said to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything to follow you.” And it was true; the 11 disciples who remained faithful to Jesus gave the rest of their lives to serving Jesus and his church. The life of Jesus and the lives of his apostles are the highest possible standards for us to follow. But what they didn’t understand at first, and what we have a hard time understanding, is this: the standards for getting into the kingdom of God are not high; they are low. They are so low that only the humble, only the meek, the poor in spirit, the helpless and the despised and the vulnerable are low enough to enter.
Do you remember, when Jesus first met the disciples he sent them out fishing and they caught a miraculous lot of fish – so many that the nets began to break and they had to call other fishing boats to come and help them haul them all in. And when Peter saw what happened he began to recognize who Jesus was, just a little bit, and he cried out, “Go away from me; I’m a sinful man!”
It wasn’t that Peter was a specially bad person; he was a good man by any earthly standards. But when we see Jesus for who he is, when anyone comes face to face with who he really is, then they begin to see themselves as they truly are. We become aware of our sinfulness, just like Peter. Suddenly we realize that all our greatness and goodness is pretty much just a house of cards, that we are helpless. We are needy. We are weak. In the arms of Jesus, we find that we are just little children, nothing more. And the good news is that his kingdom belongs to such as us, weak and needy as we are, and to all who find their true selves in him, no matter how the world might honor them or dishonor them.
Have you ever looked at one of those paintings of Jesus and the little children and really thought of yourself as one of the children – that you are the little girl leaning on Jesus’ knee, or you are the baby snuggled in his arms, or you are the little boy with Jesus’ hand of blessing resting on his head. We don’t think of ourselves as cute or innocent or pure or young – because we know we aren’t really any of those things, most of us. But the deep truth is that we are those children: weak and helpless and imperfect as we know ourselves to be. And regardless of what the world might have to say about us, good or bad; regardless of what we might have to say about ourselves, good or bad; the only thing that matters is that we are God’s beloved children, and heirs of his kingdom. And we are safe in the arms of his Son.