Sunday, September 20th, 2015 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Jeremiah 11:18-20, Mark 9:30-37
Hymns: “Blessed Assurance”, “10,000 Reasons”, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”, “Jesus Loves Me”, “Take My Life and Let It Be”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “God of This City”
Like a Child
Friday was a very special day. On that day, a birthday was celebrated. Many birthdays have gone before that birthday, and many will come after, but Friday was the 162nd time the birthday came and went.
Yes, Gower Christian Church – a congregation that is older than the town that gives it its current namesake – is almost eligible for its third AARP membership. Three more years, at 165.
We’re not the youngest Disciples congregation out there, not by a long shot. In fact, we’re one of the oldest. But we’re not the oldest. Not in the country, not even in northwest Missouri.
And sure, we can argue about how we’re one of the healthiest congregations – if not the healthiest – that was started around here in the mid-19th century. We can talk about the notoriety the original church building had of housing, at different times, Union troops, Confederate troops, and the James-Younger Gang. We can talk about how this church has survived everything thrown at it, including the original building on this property burning to the ground eighty years ago.
Indeed, this church has endured much and has come out stronger each time. The fact that the average lifespan of a Disciples congregation is 70 years means that we’ve more than doubled that. When I talk to other Disciples pastors from north of Barry Road all the way up to St. Joseph, they lavish on us great praise for our interaction with and service to the community in which we exist.
And now I’m going to stop pumping up the church’s ego before we all simultaneously fall into the deadly sin of pride. You see, while we are a church that has truly done well in its living out of the Great Commission, that does not necessarily mean that we are great.
It does not necessarily mean that we are even good, for only God is truly good.
Discussing our own greatness and arguing about it with other churches and other people completely misses the point of everything Jesus was trying to get at in his ministry. Jesus truly did not give a rip about how great a person was. Consider all the great people he ran into during the course of his ministry. The scribes and the Pharisees were considered the greatest of the Jewish people, but Jesus had no time for them, because they got to where they were by stomping on the backs of their own people. The rich young ruler of the next chapter of Mark was informed in no uncertain terms that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, he had to give up his greatness and help the downtrodden.
Part of the problem with greatness is that along with assuming it, a person therefore also must assume that he or she is more deserving of something. When you put that alongside the salvation that is offered by God’s grace through Jesus, then you begin to assume that some of us are more deserving of God’s grace than others.
But one of the things that’s been made clear to us is that not only are none more deserving than one another, but realistically, none are deserving. Paul’s letter to the Romans says, in the third chapter, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Nobody is deserving of the grace we have been offered, but all too often, many Christians seem to think that they belong on a pedestal, elevated above others. When you keep track of statistics like how many members you gained in a particular quarter, how many baptisms you performed in a year, how many people were brought to Christ in a given service, you start elevating yourself. Even worse is when pastors begin to take credit for bringing people to Christ – and they do – as if they somehow had something to do with it.
Let me be very clear about something. If somebody comes to Christ after hearing one of my sermons, you can be guaranteed that the words that I came up with had little to nothing to do with it. It was the message of God’s love and grace, coupled with the movement of the Spirit, that led that person to the Lord.
But I digress.
We are not to consider ourselves great, Jesus tells us, but rather, the one who is first shall be last in the kingdom of heaven, and the last first. So while a Christian might be the holiest and greatest believer on the planet, when all accounts are settled, he or she won’t find themselves elevated at all above the worst of sinners. Some would say that is because in the eyes of God, we are all deserving of the fires of hell, but I think it’s more accurate to say that none are elevated above another because each human being is made in the image of God. God crafted us all to reflect the divine image, and so how could any of us possibly be better than another made in that way?
And for that reason, Jesus uses a most unexpected example to demonstrate who we should look to for greatness.
In first century Israel, children were not looked upon with the degree of respect and dignity that we give to them now. Yes, they were certainly loved and valued by their families, but if ever there was a time and place where children were to be seen and not heard, it was in the time of Christ. Today, of course, we look at children as people to whom we should give respect and dignity in equal measure with older people. Just to give you an example, it is our instinct to bend or squat down to talk to young children. We believe that putting ourselves on their level will make for a better connection. However, it turns out that you actually shouldn’t do that. There have been child psychology studies that have demonstrated that when an adult does that, it makes the child feel as though the adult has condescended to speak to them, and does not hold them in the same regard as they would hold another adult. There is an implicit lack of respect from the adult to the child, and that tempers the child’s opinion of the adult. As such, when you speak to children from a standing position, it’s a way of creating a two-way street of equal respect between you and them (although, if they want a hug, bend down for that. Always bend down for hugs, because hugs are good).
That’s not something Jesus, as a rabbi, would have been expected to do. Though chances were good that children attended gatherings where rabbis taught, the likelihood that the rabbi would take any notice of or speak to a child was very small. As a result, it was rather shocking that Jesus would take a child from among the gathering and hold that child among the disciples as an example of greatness. “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me,” he told them.
And consider how a child is indeed great. Think about how, during children’s sermon, Henry Schwarz will regularly spout off answers that are more theologically sound than some of the hooey you hear come out of the mouths of ministers in some pulpits (most of them televised ones). Children’s minds process things in a way that an adult’s mind cannot – more innocent, yes, but also more able to readily grasp the abstract. Children can look at other children and just see other people – they’re not better than them, they’re not worse than them. They’re all equal, made in the image of God.
It’s not until they reach a certain age and their ability to see all the shades of gray between the black and the white disappears that they become judgmental and competitive. Children are great in large part because they don’t realize just how great they are.
Yes, this church has been around for 162 years now, but its investment in children is what will see it to 200 years. Between the classes that Angie, Beth, and Kristin teach during Sunday School, the children’s sermon and Worship & Wonder sessions every week during worship, and the Church Mice and JYF programs on Wednesdays, this church has dedicated itself to embracing those who are indeed the greatest among the followers of God. “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me,” Jesus said, and so, we have welcomed these children in Jesus’ name.
But there’s a little bit more to it than that. “Whoever welcomes me isn’t welcoming me, but the one who sent me,” Jesus tells them. The one who welcomes a child welcomes Jesus and thus welcomes the God who sent Jesus to dwell among us and teach us the ways of life.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re a pretty great church. We stand as a beacon of the hope of Christ’s message, and we open our doors – and our table – to any who would claim that hope. Let us remember, though, that it is not we who have made ourselves great, it is Christ…
And he does it through the kids.