Our text for this sermon was Matthew 18: 1-9 (with a reference to Acts 19:11-12 in the video)
The irony of the disciples worrying about who will be the greatest as we celebrate Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent is pretty thick, don’t you think? I mean, we’re all thinking about how we’ve come from dust and to dust we shall return when the disciples are going all Muhammed Ali and debating who is the greatest.
It seems a little ironic, or a lot ironic, but it is a pretty good setup for where Jesus goes next.
Speaking of irony, in my younger days when I was out of the church and very angry with it, this is one of the texts I used for bashing the way the church treated Bible interpretation. I’d grown up on the easy and overly simplistic interpretations of ‘the Bible says X’ or ‘the Bible says Y’ that usually favored believing what the pastor or the Church said was the thing to believe. The Bible is the literal word of God and perfectly inerrant and there are 40,000 protestant denominations worldwide available to explain their interpretation of it. So what I would tell people is that if it’s all literal and then let’s go take care of those offending hands, feet, and eyes right now. Better to lose offending hands, feet, and eyes than to take a 4,000 mile elevator ride to the fires of the molten iron at the center of the earth.
And now I’m a pastor. The irony is just too much.
It may not be literal but it is certainly true. In the years since my anger at the church has mostly cooled, I’ve learned some things about Bible reading and as all of you know, literal readings are problematic. But what about the truth of those readings, if they’re not literally precise?
What that comes down to is that we must set aside our preconceived notions, which are frequently culturally biased in ridiculous ways, and do the hard work of studying what was going on in the world of the one telling the story. We do this hard work so that we can understand what the storyteller, Jesus in this case, was trying to impart to his listeners. In other words, so that we can understand the truth of God’s word.
Here Jesus is contrasting the manly man notion of Roman power in the Jewish world with what it means to be a child. The one idea, manly man stuff, hasn’t changed a great deal. If you are the greatest then you are strong and powerful. By contrast, the idea of a child has changed a great deal. A child in Jesus’ day was cared for and loved but had much more of an economic status than today’s kids. Even as recently as my grandfather’s day, as the second youngest of 13 siblings and half siblings spanning birthdays beginning in 1869 through 1905, kids had an economic impact. For those who grew up in the agricultural world, lots of kids meant lots of free labor. Children in Jesus’ day weren’t ignored as just a free labor pool but they weren’t the center of anyone’s orbit, either. Comparing the greatest person being someone relatively minor in the grand scheme of things really set the stage for what being the greatest really meant.
A stage set for what it means to be the greatest when you are a follower of Christ. What it means is that we have no more real power than a child possesses and they’re usually much wiser in how they use what little power they have. Our riches and our position mean very little in the face of following Christ. What it means is that our position and power can very easily become a millstone, a big rock, around our neck dragging us down into the depth of the sea when it comes to using that position and power, most especially when we use it against other people for our own benefit.
What it means is that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It is indeed ironic, but also very on point, that no matter what it is that we do in this life to be all powerful and the greatest, we all end up as dust. So what do we do between now and then? Jesus would suggest not trying to be powerful, to start with. And also, being active about our faith.
Your sins are forgiven without requirement and without strings attached. Faith, on the other hand, is something that is practiced. Both are gifts but when a gift is left on the shelf it gathers dust and serves no purpose other than purposes something to look at and lift up as an article of pride. Neither of which accomplishes much and is certainly not what Jesus calls us to. Jesus asks us to exercise our faith. Jesus asks us to practice our faith. Jesus asks us to make our faith an active part of our life, not a passive statue sitting on the shelf.
Lent is a good time to reflect on and give some thought to our faith and our faith practices. With busy schedules and full calendars it is easy to let our faith sit around and collect dust. There are any number of pressures that come down on us and nothing changes or improves if we don’t do something about it.
What can we do exercise our faith? There’s lots of options but I would say this. When we exercise our faith, also called spiritual disciplines, it should meet two criteria. It should be an active act of doing. You can do Bible reading but you can do joy, for example. Nothing wrong with joy, it’s just something you are. Or aren’t. And a faith exercise should be something in the Bible. All the denying things, like giving up soda or Facebook, are fine and good and very likely good for us. And in a general sense there are certainly places in the Bible where we’re to deny ourselves. But the specific acts of denial aren’t usually so very biblical.
If you Google ‘spiritual disciplines’ you’ll get a lot of responses and like anything on the interwebs, some are better than others. For a short list I’d give some thought to 1) daily prayer. Set an alarm, get an app, do something to get into the habit of an intentional prayer time. 2) Bible reading and study. This is part of that hard work of reading and studying the Bible I mentioned earlier comes in. Lots of resources out there to read through the Bible in a year. Set an alarm, get an app, subscribe to daily email. 3) Devotional reading study. See Bible study/reading above but a little more directed. If you don’t have a Lenten devotional picked out already feel free to follow along with the synod provided ‘We Are Church Together’ that’s been mentioned in the eNews. Comes out on Facebook daily or you can get a hardcopy on the counter. 4) Worship. This is when we are the Body of Christ and between all the pieces of liturgy, our faith should be strengthened (you also get the spiritual discipline of confession included – it’s like twofers!) 5) Service. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to look into a place to serve if you’re not already. Maybe a side discipline is to look at the weekly ministry team article in the eNews and bulletin. 6) Generosity. Our giving can be sporadic at times and closely related to when we’re physically present in church. Give some thought to making giving an intentional act of exercising our faith each week. And now that you have a long list of things to think about when it comes to exercising your faith, give some thought to weekly 7) Sabbath. Tying back to the busy schedules and full calendars please give yourself time to rest and recover. Exhaustion will definitely get in the way of your faith and sin has a much easier time of manifesting itself when we’re tired.
Our faith practices matter and Lent is a good time to spend some time on them. You can take THAT as the literal truth.