I sat on the beach today with my toes in the sand
And watched the waves.
One after another
Still there even after I turned away.
And felt the warmth of the sun on my face
Somehow finding me where I was sitting
From a million miles away.
And stared at the horizon
Knowing what I saw stretched infinitely beyond what I was able to see.
Why is it, I wondered
Did I find it easier to focus on my toes
Than tumble into the wonder of the incomprehensible surrounding me.
I believe in magic.
Not the abra cadabra kind.
But the Wow kind.
The kind of magic which takes your breath away.
Or which reminds you of love so real you know you couldn’t live without it.
Or the awe which settles like a deep stillness over your soul.
I believe in magic.
A million stars filling the night sky.
The delightful laughter of a child.
The unexpected touch of a hand.
The lush green of the woods.
I believe in magic.
Where I live school started yesterday.
At least the public schools.
Which means this Sunday is the first Sunday since the end of June when families and households will be back in a more “normal” schedule. Normal at least to the extent that that the schedule we keep for 10 months each year is to be considered “normal.”
In preparation for this Sunday and beyond…
Floors have been cleaned.
Classrooms are being readied.
A picnic has been planned.
At least my calendar…
Is, once again, becoming full.
Overall, I am glad for the programs and the classes and the opportunities to come together, but too easily and too often we mistake means for ends. We spend so much time and energy planning and preparing and getting ready that worship and classes and programs become an end in themselves. We measure our performance or other’s commitment by their attendance or participation. When, in reality, our gatherings, whether for worship or learning or service to others, should be an invitation more than an expectation. An opportunity for grace to brush up against our lives more than one more obligation.
I love the word grace, but I am sometimes not 100% sure I know what it means.
Maybe all that and more.
What I am sure of is this.
Too often our churches have been more about expectations and obligations; about shoulds and oughts than they have been about grace.
I don’t know about you.
I sometimes barely know about me.
But what I do know is this.
I don’t need one more should or ought or weighty obligation.
I do need a place for grace.
David Letterman’s sarcasm has made them famous,
But Top 10 lists have always captured our attention.
10 best colleges.
100 best high schools.
25 richest people.
10 most influential women.
5 most powerful men.
Let’s be honest, some part of our lives are measured by or measured against being…
The most beautiful or the most handsome.
The most powerful.
The most important.
Maybe it has always been that way.
Which brings me to this…
As you consider your own life and the pressures you face and the comparisons we make, consider also the Gospel and this brief story from the life of Jesus as told by the author of Matthew’s Gospel.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18: 1-5)
Biblical scholar, Douglas Hare, Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Seminary, reframes these verses this way. Jesus speaking to those who would be his followers.
“In a world left to its own devices people are continually trying to lord it over one another.
The rich over the poor.
The intelligent over the simple.
Adults over children.
Men over women.
Whites over blacks.
But not so with you.” (Interpretation: Matthew – p. 205)
These verses leave ample room for scholarly discussion about just what Jesus meant by becoming like a child.
Totally dependent on another?
Humble as opposed to arrogant?
All of which may be true.
And, while we don’t know for sure what Jesus meant, we do know this about the place of children in the culture in which he lived. They did not occupy the same social status then as they do for us today. Children, then, were expendable. Literally. If they were the wrong gender or were or became disabled or were no longer useful or you could no longer feed them, they could be turned out onto the streets to survive or not to survive on their own. A reality that continues to be true in too many parts of the world even today. And while we deeply value our children, back then, they were viewed primarily as an economic asset. The more children you had the more work that could get done and the more food you could grow or money you could make and the more certainty you had that some of them would survive long enough to care for you when you were older.
In the face of that reality, Jesus says:
Unless you become like one of them…
Unless you become like one of those children…
You will not enter or see or experience the Kingdom of God.
If we take the Bible seriously…
And a child like that is placed in our midst,
What do we think Jesus would be saying to us?
And where does that reality run up against the reality of your life and mine?
Or the priorities of the culture in which we live?
But, I don’t want to leave us with just that, because I think there is more here for us to consider. As you know I believe the Bible is a living document. Not just about then, but also about now. Not just about them, but also about you and me. That being the case, what if it were your child or your grandchild or one of the children who run up and down the aisle of the church or who sometimes squirm in their seats when they are sitting next to you or who smile at you when you add your dollar to the basket they hold.
And Jesus turns to you and says…
Become like one of them…
You and we will never know or see or understand or experience the Kingdom of God.
And since I have the floor here are three characteristics of children which, if we could recapture in our own lives, might help turn us, again, in the direction of God’s Kingdom come.
The first characteristic is wonder.
It is that ability not just to notice what is around us, but to see and to marvel at what is around us. Do you remember going for a walk with a young child who wants to stop and explore everything she sees?
Who skips rather than walks just because he can.
Who laughs as dandelion seeds blow away in the wind.
Who puts a stone in her pocket because it she thinks it is pretty.
Who points out to you the cloud in the sky that looks like a puppy.
Maybe you and I need to see each other and to see the world something like that.
To cultivate a way of seeing that stops us in our tracks and takes our breath away.
But, too often, we are too busy with the tasks at hand.
Too preoccupied by that which we think is important.
Too distracted by a hundred different demands to notice.
Unless you become like a child…
A second characteristic is the ability to imagine.
Children can turn a box into a castle.
A pot into a crown.
They grab hold of a baseball bat and become a home run hitter.
Or, kick a soccer ball and score the winning goal.
They are firefighters.
And mountain climbers.
And the world’s fastest runner.
And, invisible when they want and need to be.
This is not just pretend, is it?
Knowing one thing to be true, but acting in a different way?
In that moment when their imagination is most real and most active and most alive, they are that other – astronaut, mountain climber, home run hitter. We are glad for that moment when they can be anything they want.
But we are much more realistic than that.
And more practical than that.
And see things as they really are.
But, what if we need to be more like them.
That is, if we want to see or to know and to help bring about that which God imagines and intends. Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, but not as some day, but as right here and right now and among us. Is all of that just pie in the sky speculation or something more? Something that if we could recapture the imagination of children we might be able to begin to see clearly enough that we could then pull something of what we see into the moment we have and the circumstances we face right here and right now?
As People of Faith…
Maybe we are called to more like GE…
Able to imagine a better world and then build it.
(The new tagline for GE’s commercial is We imagine a better world and then build it. That tagline was used as our Call to Worship.)
Unless you become like a child…
And finally this…
Do you remember that stage when children ask, “Why?”
Why is the sky blue?
Why do I have to keep my shoes on?
Why is pixie dust only pretend?
Why do lights go out in a storm?
Why is his skin a different color than my skin?
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Maybe we need to become a bit more like a four year old only with a bit more savvy in our questions.
Why are so many so hungry?
Why don’t some have a place to live?
Why does there continue to be so much violence?
Why are we so afraid of those who look different or who worship in a different way or have a different way of talking about that which we know and name as God? There are no easy answers, but we dare not give up on the questions.
And there they were…
The best friends of Jesus…
In the middle of their very adult, very intense, and very serious conversation;
When Jesus interrupts.
And places a child in their midst and says, “Unless you become like one of these…”
Five years ago I had open heart surgery.
I had developed a blood infection that went undiagnosed for a number of months until, eventually, it damaged one of my heart values. It was a long, complicated process both before and after the surgery. Not too long ago I asked my wife if she still thought about that time and the days and weeks we spent in the hospital.
“Every day,” she said.
Seldom a day goes by when I don’t notice the lumps on my chest bone where they cut through it to get to my heart. Or a day when there is not some sort of sensation which causes the muscles in my chest to hurt for a bit.
I am grateful to be alive.
I almost wasn’t.
I am grateful for the skills of doctors and nurses who had the training and skill to do what they did.
15 years ago…
20 years ago…
I am not sure they would have.
I don’t think of miracles as some magical force that somehow changes the laws of nature or undoes the consequences or results of the choices we make. I think miracles have something to do with how we look at and understand our lives. What if miracles have to do with awe and wonder and paying attention? What if miracles have something to do with the realization that there is something more; that Life is something more?
We have a choice about how we will live.
I don’t pay attention to it as much as I would like.
But I pay attention more now than I did five years ago.
Sometimes we make praying and prayers too complicated, don’t we, O God.
Thinking we have to be in the right place or say the right words in order to pray. But it is not like that, is it?
Remind us again, O God…
That each time our heart reaches out to another is a prayer.
Every thank you felt and said is a prayer.
Each time we listen carefully and caringly to another is a prayer.
Every time we gaze at another with love overflowing is a prayer.
Each time we reach out our hands to help another, it is a prayer.
Every time our heart breaks for another it is a prayer.
Each time we are stopped in our tracks by beauty is a prayer.
Every time we look closely at a flower;
Or gaze into the depths of space, is a prayer.
The lesson for us is to turn those moments into a lifetime.