Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Good, better, best - who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?


Sermon from Sept. 11, 2016
Texts: Matthew 18:1-5; 20:20-28

This sermon was preached as part of a series on early followers of Jesus.

Our texts today are about a Mama and her boys. Salome and her sons, James and John. Matthew refers to her as the mother of the sons of Zebedee, but since we have a chance to give her her name back, I think we should take advantage of it. She was a mother of two disciples, but also a follower of Jesus in her own right. As seems typical of all followers of Jesus, Salome and her sons had days when they could see the path clearly and days when they ended up distracted by something interesting in the ditch. I love that in both of our texts Jesus redirects, but doesn’t condemn or scold. I imagine him standing on the road and waiting patiently until his followers were ready to hear why the things in the ditch were really not the point of the journey.  

In Matthew 18 the disciples approach Jesus with a question. They come to him and ask “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Who’s the king of the castle? Who’s the fastest? Who do you like better? What exactly is the measure that determines greatness in this new world you’re creating? And Jesus responds by placing a child in their midst. He responds by redirecting their attention from the shiny appeal of greatness or status that they have been gawking at in the ditch to a small human being who represents the opposite of what they desire. And then he tells them that they must become like that child, that welcoming a child is as welcoming the son of God.  

I imagine the disciples standing next to Jesus, looking from the ditch to the road and back again. They are drawn to the appeal of success, importance, adoration, and confused by this instruction from one they so admire; to become like the child before them. The child who, in their 1st century world is valued for what they offer to the life of their family, but outside that circle, not important, not powerful, not desirable. Yet, they are to become like children. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Why?  

As many of you are likely aware, this year was an Olympic year. And the Olympics Games is the epitome of the emotional roller coaster, it’s the story of greatness personified in Penny Oleksiak, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Andre DeGrasse. This year’s games began with an impassioned speech from the president of the International Olympic Committee who said that at the games, “we are all equal.” But is that true? While the Olympic Games is about bringing countries and athletes together, isn’t the entire point to discover who is the best, who is the greatest? 

I love watching the Olympics, but I also find them confusing. Faster, higher, stronger. It’s thrilling to see the athletes come out to the track, the pool, the court, the gym with pride and grim determination. It’s thrilling to see them battle to the very last millisecond, to witness their incredible joy at achieving a personal best and it’s devastating to see them tumble from a podium finish. When all is said and done, we celebrate with the three who are left. The crowd is cheers, the athletes circle the track with their country’s flag filled with pride in the moment. They really are better, they really are the best…or at least 2nd or 3rd best.  

But we also see millionaires compete against athletes who can barely pay the rent, we see athletes who train in state of the art facilities compete against athletes who can see through holes in their roofs from bomb attacks. Protestors are held back by armed security in a country in the midst of historically significant recession, political unrest, and a major health crisis.  And weeks after the closing ceremonies, the Paralympic games begin with relatively little fanfare and serious funding issues. Luke-warm interest from sponsors and poor ticket sales, led to cuts in staffing, transportation, re-location of events…  

Who is the greatest? 

And then there are the anomalies, unique moments that seem heart-warmingly different. A North Korean and a South Korean take a selfie together, a New Zealand and an American runner help each other across the finish line, a Syrian refugee who once swam for three hours in open water to save a dinghy of 20 refugees from capsizing, swims the butterfly and freestyle events.  

Who is the greatest? 

As much as the games bring joy, anticipation, excitement, and even some healthy competition, they also stand in stark contrast to our text. In the anomalies they celebrate our oneness, but in their rankings, they celebrate our ability to better one another, whether through genetics, training, funding, support, infrastructure, or in more cases than we would wish, through performance enhancing drugs.  

The disciples ask Jesus “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and Jesus called a child into their midst.  

In Matthew 20, we find a rather interesting continuation to this discussion on greatness. Here we find Salome approaching Jesus with her sons in tow. Perhaps she knows that her boys were part of the group trying to finagle the secret from Jesus about how to get to the top, perhaps not. Regardless, she is here asking a favour of Jesus. And it’s a pretty significant favour. She says, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” That is one bold Mama willing to advocate for her babies. She wants to make sure they get their due, that they have their place, that they are safe, that she has done her job.  

In this scenario I again imagine Salome and her boys calling to Jesus from the ditch. Since the “become like a child” incident two chapters ago, Jesus has done a lot of instructing on the kingdom. He’s taught them about forgiveness, commitment, releasing possessions, the last being first, and even predicted his own death. And yet here these disciples are again distracted by the lure of fame, fortune, or perhaps, security. And so Jesus redirects their attention. He asks them if they are really able to drink the cup he will drink, perhaps they hear it as the cup of blessing, or perhaps they really do understand it to be the cup of judgement. Regardless, the requirement of them is the same. As the disciples argue angrily with the two brothers for attempting to get ahead, Jesus tells them, they must become like servants to one another. The Son of Man didn’t come to earth to be a King doted upon by cowering subjects, a ruler whose throne rests on the backs of the multitudes. Jesus came to be a servant to all. 

In both these stories, Jesus reveals the shiny lure of fame and status to be a distraction from that which is truly important, living a life of love and service in the kingdom, a place where one’s status is not determined by earthly measures of success. In the kingdom of God, the greatest is not the one with the most physical strength, academic degrees, money, or even the potential to earn it. The greatest is a child, the greatest is a servant.  

Jesus’ instruction to become like a child is often read through a contemporary and romanticized understanding of childhood. It’s all about sweetness and innocence, awe and wonder. Scholars concerned with the social location of Jesus pretty quickly reject that interpretation, reminding us that children were not little chubby cherubs, adored and spoiled by family and friends. They were important, certainly, but as vital contributors in families who needed each pair of hands in order to survive. They did not have status, not even in their cuteness. They did not have the power to determine their realities, particularly if they were girls. Scholars would say that Jesus is not telling us to become like children so we can emulate the 21st century child, but so we, like the disciples, can recognize that power and status at the expense of others is simply not a part of the kingdom of God, it is not what we are to seek.  

And I agree. But I also wonder if, by dismissing the impulse to search for characteristics for us to emulate, scholars also dismiss a powerful tool for us as disciples. I’m not sure about you, but I find it quite difficult if someone says don’t go over there, it’s wrong, but they don’t tell me where I should go. I end up stuck. Not seeking power and status is great. But what should I seek? Powerlessness? Telling people to live into powerlessness or live into a complete lack of status has proven quite destructive in our history. The instruction to become like a servant has often been read that way, manipulating women into remaining in abusive relationships, forcing slaves to remain with masters and silencing oppressed people groups. We do our communities and the biblical story a great disservice if we read into any text instruction from Jesus for oppression or violence to continue or for those oppressed to be happy with their lot.  

So I wonder if we might take a both/and approach and consider just a few characteristics that might have been embodied by the child or servant that Jesus was describing.  

As I prepared this sermon I wondered what characteristics we tend to notice in children and so I asked a number of people what words they would choose to describe a child. And by a significant margin, the top characteristic was curiousity. Openness, a receptive posture, a desire to discover. As one of my friends put it, children are hungry, and not just for food!  

And I thought yes, of course! When you do not have absolutely everything you want at your fingertips and the power to immediately change your circumstances, you are curious and searching for possibilities. James, John, and Salome left the security of knowing where resources would come from, the safety of knowing their place in their communities, and stepped onto the road with Jesus not knowing where it would lead. No wonder they so often ended up in the ditch, they were hungry, curious and searching! A wealthy merchant, then or now, who soars above the rest can simply swoop down and scoop up whatever they want. The world is their oyster, or their pantry, or their vault. Not so for the child, not so for Jesus’ disicples. Jesus invites all who wish to follow to walk into the kingdom with curiousity, with a true openness to discovering the activity, the provisions of God. And sure, we may also discover that a VCR doesn’t toast a grilled cheese sandwich, but we have learned!  In the kingdom of God those who are the greatest are not those who can soar above the crowds, it is those who walk the road, discovering that the small child they have embraced is Jesus.

 I cannot tell you how many times friends or mentors, listening to my frustrations, have invited me to curiousity. Irritation or anger rarely lead to reconciled relationships, only a lot of whining and complaining. And when I finally choose the posture of curiousity, I am inevitably led into humility. Jesus asks us to become as children, and as servants. This is not a forced servanthood; it is not about allowing others to crush us beneath their feet. It is a chosen posture. It is a posture in which I acknowledge that I do not hold the corner on truth, that I am human… and so are you.  

In Elkhart Indiana I met an ER doctor who attended a Mennonite Church. In one faith formation class we were discussing a recent violent incident that had happened in a nearby community. The level of fear was high and a temptation to self-protection, to us and them, to creating walls and embracing privilege was certainly present, regardless of how much we wished it wasn't. Fear does that. But this doctor, a very quiet young man, said that in his work, fear, dominance, and force never bring about the safety people think it will. Hearing him speak, I gleaned that he had learned to practice humility. When someone was agitated and presumed dangerous in the ER, he would walk out to the patient and kneel before them. He said it was remarkable how quickly humility on his part, could bring calm to the patient in a way that towering over them or voicing threats never could.  

I think one final characteristic for us to consider is trust. In order to wholeheartedly embrace a life of curious and humble discipleship, we will need to trust the one who calls us. Choosing curiousity on the road, rather than soaring success is a risk. Choosing a posture of humility, rather than a posture of surety is a risk. But as chick trusts in the care of their mother hen, we are invited to trust in God who is our caregiver. A caregiver who does not need us to succeed, to reach the top, to win. A caregiver who does not expect us to know everything or to be perfect. Rather than a life of striving for status and success, we are invited to a life of curiousity, humility and dependence, trusting in the one who created us, who calls us, and who empowers us to live into the kingdom of God. Amen.

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