Series "Here to There" Lent week 2 of 5 Preached March 8, 2020, at the 9:30 am Worship
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown
Its Lent, the season of 40-plus days from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter. In Lent, Christians are called to be honest about where we are, to make changes and commit to the journey toward where God is calling us to be.
The last Sunday before Lent, two Sundays ago, was Transfiguration Sunday, from Matthew 17, where Jesus and a few disciples have a mountaintop experience. The final Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, Matthew 21, has Jesus entering Jerusalem for the last time.
Caitlan and I realized from Matthew 17 to 21, Jesus was on a Lenten journey himself. So we are calling this Lenten sermon series “Here to There” and preaching Matthew 17 to 21. How did Jesus get from Mount to Palms, and what can we learn from him as we go through our own Lenten journey from here, where we are, to there, where God is calling us?
Last week, we learned the first part of moving from here to there is to treat all people equally, there is no toll on anyone for full and equal access in God’s beloved community, and children are the greatest, those who do community with one another with child-like excitement, passion, curiosity, forgiveness, and love.
Today, we continue our journey and go a bit deeper into Matthew 18. Let’s pray, and listen for the Word of the Lord…
Scripture Matthew 18:1-14
18 At that time the disciples (gathered around) Jesus and asked, “Who (then) is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you all change and become like children, you will never experience the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes lowly like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the ones by whom the stumbling blocks come!
8 “If your (own) hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and (the whole of you) be thrown into the constant fires, 9 and if your (own) eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the fires of [Gehenna].
10 “Take care that you do not look down on one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. (11, See, the Son of Man came to save the lost.)
12 (So,) what do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does (the shepherd) not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is NOT the will of our (my/your) Father in heaven that (even) one of these little ones should be lost.
This too is the word of the Lord…
A man came to me one time and told me he had never joined our church. I said, “Okay. It feels like you want to tell me more.” He said, he had been baptized as a child. He grew up around church, then went off to college and left church behind. Later he was married, and they had children. Then, they started looking for a church.
Before they had moved to our community, he and his family found a congregation that felt good, meaning they enjoyed the music, the children’s programs were good, and they were making friends there, so they decided to join. Because he had been baptized as a child, that church required him to be rebaptized. They said his first baptism didn’t count. He was too young, and he wasn’t fully immersed, and it was done in a denomination that doesn’t read scripture right, meaning they ordain women. His family joined that other church, but he never did.
When they moved to the community where I was serving, and found that church, his family again joined, but he did not. At our church, of course, his original baptism was honored, no matter how old he was or how much water was used. But, that one previous experience with one church had put him off from joining. That one experience with one denomination, one congregation, one pastor, was a stumbling block put in front of him as he kept going in his life.
Jesus knew this kind of religion in his own day. He had seen it at temple and synagogue, with the Pharisees and Sadducees inviting, teaching, and threatening the people to do religion just right. He could also see it infecting the minds and hearts of his disciples. That’s why he brought over a child as the greatest example, and told them all, you all must become children if you ever wish to be in, to experience the beloved community of God.
Much like in the Gospel of John where he tells a man, “you must be born again,” the thing Jesus tells us we MUST do is impossible. We cannot do it. We’ve already been born. Every day we are only growing older, not younger.
And that is the point. For us to enter, experience the kingdom of heaven, the community of God, the only thing we must do is that which is impossible.
Some strands of Christianity attempt to tell us it isn’t impossible… just believe this, say this, pray this, be baptized as an adult, full immersion. But that’s not what Jesus said, did, or meant when he said become a child. He didn’t use a prayer, or teaching, or tub in his example. He used a child, and he told them, told us we must become children to experience the kingdom of God.
Now, before anyone gets too befuddled or rattled by Jesus, let me see if I can help a bit.
Jesus knows we can’t do, believe our own way into the community of God. That’s why he came. He will take care of that part for us. He also knows, our problem has long been trying to solve the puzzle, and believe and do the right things that will make sure we get ourselves and maybe our families in.
So Jesus tells us, stop. The thing that gets you in, you cannot do. He doesn’t want us to focus as much on our getting ourselves in. He wants us to focus more on including others, how we treat and live beside others. He’s trying to tell us, we spend too much time on trying to get ourselves in to the kingdom of heaven, or trying to stay there, arrogantly assuming we are already in.
To experience the kingdom of heaven is not something we can do for ourselves, but it is something we CAN do for others. Instead of putting so much attention on being or getting ourselves IN, or telling other people how to get themselves IN with us, he flips the perspective and calls us to pay more attention to ways we or the world make sure others are included or the ways we put stumbling blocks in front of others.
People put stumbling blocks in front of other people. Should someone say, you have to be rebaptized, that’s a stumbling block. Should someone say, “Grow up,” well, that just might be a stumbling block. Why is it we train our children to grow up, become adults, make more money, and do whatever it takes to take care of yourself and your own family, when Jesus tells us the opposite, the grown-ups need to become more like children to experience the kingdom of God.
We adults sometimes teach our children how to be (or at least appear to be) independent, stoic, self-sufficient. What if those lessons are stumbling blocks? What if, instead, younger and older alike came together in community of dependence on one another, sharing each others’ knowledge, wisdom, and things, being honest with each other about our thoughts and fears, working through our beliefs and doubts together? If people SHUN those kind of actions in others, they are putting stumbling blocks in front of them, and Jesus’ warns us not to be people who put stumbling blocks in front of others.
Sometimes, Life or “the world” causes us to stumble. That will apparently happen to most of us, or at least, many of us. Life happens. Hard things come. Struggles arise. Its isn’t always fair. It’s just life. But the way Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, here and now, those trials of life do not have to isolate us from the kingdom of heaven. We can experience those things, and at the same time experience the kingdom of heaven, the loving support and community of heaven as we suffer through them.
But woe to the world for those who use worldly circumstances as a cause to make someone stumble. A day is coming when hunger and poverty, sickness and death are no more. But Jesus recognizes, woe to the ones who enable those painful circumstances of life in this world to hurt as much as they do. Sure, illness comes. But woe to those who prevent the sick from getting care. Sure, hard times come, but woe to the ones who refuse to install safety nets under the most vulnerable. If we are more like children, those suffering some of the side effects of life in this world would feel the community of heaven as we care for them, and love them through their struggles.
His most graphic warnings are for when we cause ourselves to stumble. Is there something in you or me that repeatedly gets in our own way of experiencing and sharing the community of God like children? Do we forget to play? Do we forget to share? Do we forget to get excited, to laugh, to cry? Any part inside us that tries to convince us to grow up, to have and keep MORE than someone else, to protect ourselves… those parts of us are dangerous to us, because they are not in sync with God’s way of doing relationships and community. As long as we listen to those whispers inside ourselves, it will be hard to fully experience the kingdom of heaven. We need to let those voices and impulse go so they do not take the whole of us down.
Jesus uses the metaphor of eternal fires and fires of Gehenna. Outside the big city was the constantly burning fires of the trash dump. That was the place where stuff nobody wanted was constantly being burned back to nothingness. It was outside the city. It was walled off from the community. Jesus invites us to toss away any part of us that resists God’s great community of sharing, caring, and inclusion, for it would be better for us to lose a little part of us, then to let that little part block us from fully experiencing the radical kinship of the community of God.
My theology professor Dr. Shirlie Guthrie, said it this way in his book “Chrstian Doctrine,”
“Hell is sometimes described in terms of fire but sometimes as darkness. How can it be both fire and darkness at the same time? The problem is solved as soon as soon as we stop thinking of these as literal descriptions of hell and consider them as images that say the same thing in different ways. For the people of Jesus’ time, fire was a symbol of the destruction of everything displeasing to the holy God. Darkness was the opposite of the light, which was a symbol of salvation. The images were not intended to describe the physical characteristics of hell but what it means to be cut off from God.”
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown