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The Greatest

October 3, 2011

“The Greatest” Matthew 18:1-5 World Communion Sunday/Blessing of the Animals © 10/2/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Even if we’ve never tried to get in touch with our inner child, we’ve probably heard of the concept. It’s an idea from pop and analytical psychology that has to do with memories and experiences of childhood. Other names are the Divine Child, the Child Within, the Wonder Child or simply the Child (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/inner_child).

Our inner child is our playful self or the part of us that still is filled with wonder. One therapist says it “refers to that part of each of us which is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled” (http://www.brockman-counseling.com/child.htm). She says that when we don’t nurture or acknowledge the inner child, we become co-dependent and live as victims. Someone else has written that the inner child is the “emotional and sensitive you whom you have channeled, controlled and silenced and who is still living within you…[the] creative, imaginative and artistic you who has been molded, structured and organized; who still resides in you and is needing to be set free…[the] hurt, pained, neglected, frustrated, abused and ignored you whom you have masked, hidden from view and denied the existence of. This child is always just below the surface, causing you to be anxious, worried and fearful of mistreatment” (www.livestrong.com/article/14692-inner-child/). So this inner child needs healing.

It’s tempting to hear Jesus’ call to become like a child as an invitation to get in touch with our inner kid, ordering a Happy Meal then finding a slide or a tire swing or playing with frogs while eating gummy bears and slurping Sunny D. And indeed I think we can identify any number of characteristics of children that stressed, burdened, and structured adults and even teens can emulate. We could even call them “gospel values.” Think about the energy of children or their canine counterparts, puppies. How often have some of us said “Don’t you wish you could just bottle that?” And then take it as a supplement no doubt. There’s the spirit of exploration, what youth worker Mike Yaconelli has called “dangerous wonder,” that goes about learning through taste, touch, and smell with abandon and sometimes has to be held back. You know the sort, that wants to eat dirt and worms or touch a hot stove or play with a chainsaw, like our next-door neighbor’s daughter as a four year-old. And we can’t forget imagination and curiosity, the constant questions of “why.” And or course there is the concreteness of children, the way they take everything literally, a kind of connectedness with simplicity and the heart that those of us who live abstractly out of our heads could stand to imitate.

But as worthwhile and helpful as getting in touch with our inner child may be, that’s not our Lord’s concern here. He’s not talking about mental health but about social structures, about power and hierarchy and behavior toward others.

The key is the word “humble.” “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek word means also “poor, lowly, of humble circumstances.” Jesus is echoing his sayings in the Sermon on the Mount and what we will hear later in the parables of the vineyard and of the Great Judgment. He’s calling on his disciples to practice values that turn the way of the world upside down. The last are first; the first, last.

It would have been hard for anyone in the first century to miss the radical demand and invitation of Jesus here. The society of first century Palestine was highly stratified, with a few very wealthy people at the top, exercising power and enjoying tremendous luxury and the rest of the population enduring crushing poverty, living in fear, and struggling for every meal. Children were at the bottom of that social structure. Families had a great many of them because infant mortality was so high. One third died before they were weaned. Compare that to the current US mortality rate of 4.3 per thousand live births (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20099732-10391704.html ). If they grew up, the typical child faced a hard life and was valued for his or her labor on the farm or in the shop or the home and later as someone who could provide grandchildren, care for elderly parents, and carry on the family name.

The greatest in the kingdom of God is the one who chooses for himself or herself such a lowly estate, who becomes like a child in the sense not of wonder or play or imagination, but in being vulnerable, in not asserting himself or herself, in refusing to do things the way the world expects. We all know what that means: grab what you can for yourself, claim to serve but really only be interested in your own agenda, be the aggressor, climb over everybody else on the way to the top. The greatest in the kingdom is not the one who fills mega-churches with worshippers or has the hottest new book or hit Christian song, not the one with the most charisma or best ideas for church growth or creative mission. It’s not the pastor making six figures in the country club church or the ruling elder who has to sign off on every decision. We don’t climb the ecclesiastical ladder, as one presbytery exec once suggested was the case nor do deacons serving the poor start out on that board then move up to become ruling elders.* That’s the church being a human institution, not the body of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve and give his life.

No, the greatest in the kingdom is the one who refuses privilege and control and power. Someone who does not lord it over those who depend on him or her for employment, protection, sustenance or affection. It’s the one who doesn’t flaunt his or her talents, skills or intelligence in a bid to gain recognition or praise but rather uses them to benefit others. The greatest is the elected official who makes it her mission to ensure justice is done and the least in society are cared for with basic needs, given opportunity for education and work. The church leader who insists on spending more money on mission for neighbors than redecorating the sanctuary for members. The corporate CEO whose main concern is not another bonus for himself or how to cut corners to make more profit, but instead the welfare and safety of the working people on the line, the rig or the office. The greatest is anyone who shuns status and its trappings, even when he or she has the resources to afford whatever it is society labels as the marks of privilege. It is any ordinary person of faith who does extraordinary things by making a choice to be humble, to make a difference for justice and compassion in his or her circle of influence.

Jesus told us we would be judged in the end by how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters, the vulnerable, the voiceless, the hurting, the left-out. Being a Christian is not so much about believing doctrines or observing rituals as it is practicing welcome and hospitality, living a life of simplicity and humility. Indeed, given the way the word “Christian” has been twisted in our day into something ugly and intolerant and hateful, we may do better to abandon the term completely and simply say we follow Jesus.

What is the practical outworking of such discipleship in the larger community, in the public square? The late senator Hubert Humphrey once said: "…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped” (11/1/77). The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that "The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Gandhi broadened the scope of our hospitality by saying: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man." Or as Jesus said, when you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me. And, remember: we have seen that “child” not only means young ones, but also anyone of low estate.

This Table we come to this morning is God’s place of welcome for his children. It’s where all differences are leveled, and we each realize how vulnerable and needy and dependent we are on the grace of our Creator. It’s the place where we are humbled and changed and challenged and called. It’s the place of hope, where we pray that one day all the children of the world will know the embrace of Jesus.

(*This was the view of the relationship between the diaconate and the session held by some of the elders and members at First Presbyterian Church in Owensboro, KY. Deacons were rather like junior partners in a firm, who got “promoted” to the session after a time. I was pastor of the church from 1996-2002, and unfortunately was never able to change this totally erroneous concept.)

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

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