"GREAT" - Matthew 18:1-5 from Sunday, February 5, 2017

Alex Evans on February 5, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 56:3-8; Matthew 18:1-5

“GREAT”

            The “Word of the Week” today is GREAT.

            Webster’s Dictionary defines GREAT like this: a) large in size, as in big; b) elaborate, as in ample and expansive; c) being beyond average, as in markedly superior in character or skill.                   

GREAT is a word that relates to size and excellence.

            GREAT seems to be a favorite word of our new President.

            GREAT also seems to be an innate aspiration for human beings. Who wants to settle for average when we can aspire to greatness? I think this applies often to our personal lives – we seek to be the best we can be. God calls us to be the best we can be.

            We would like GREAT to apply to our love lives, our family lives, our church life, our community life – why settle for good if love and family and church and community can be great? This applies to most companies and corporations. This applies to sports teams and colleges – who wants to be mediocre? Something about us keeps us – most of us - geared toward greatness. The championship is the goal. The Super Bowl is today. Keep the Dow Jones over 20,000. The desire to be great fuels aspirations all across our culture, and much of this is very positive, even beneficial.

            But GREAT can also be misleading and perplexing. In various places in the Scriptures, there are stories and warnings about what is great and what is not. Very often, the innate desire to be great leads people away from God, away from faithfulness. God called Abraham and Sarah and made a covenant with the people. God promised to be their God and they would be God’s people. He would establish them in the land of milk and honey. God would provide them a king, build them a temple, make them prosperous, and it intended to be all about faith and relationship, worship and serving God in the world. God blessed them to be a blessing – people, land, king, temple, prosperity.

But the innate desire to be great can lead AWAY from God and God’s work in the world. All through the story of God and God’s people in the Bible, God keeps showing up to help the people understand greatness. Greatness is NOT really about being a great nation – Israel -  but being great in worship and service of God. Greatness is really NOT about prosperity in the land – like we may think - but about a posture of compassion and a commitment to God’s purposes.

True and godly GREATNESS appears over and over in Scripture when people do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, as we heard so clearly last week. Greatness is about righteous deeds, care for the poor, help for the afflicted. Indeed, the main enemy of Christian faith and Christian community is a selfish desire to be prominent. The desire to be prominent so often leads us away from God.

            This is so well depicted as the disciples gathered around Jesus with their innate aspiration toward GREATNESS. Listen to Matthew 18:1-5:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jesus often used pictures, or parables, to convey his message. If the main enemy of Christian faith and Christian community is the selfish desire to be prominent, I am not sure Jesus could have found a better example than a child. In the New Testament world, children had zero status. Children were not revered or even adored, as they sometimes are today. Children were small and overlooked, had no authority or credibility. Children had to trust those who took care of them, were dependent on others. Children are children – not yet possessing of filled with the desire to be prominent. So in Jesus’ opinion a little child is the best definition of the great person.

Maybe you know the classic book by Robert Fulghum entitled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I have had this book on the shelf in my study for almost 30 years. The subtitle is “Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.” But the first essay is about wisdom and what is important. He says wisdom is not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand-pile at Sunday School. This is what he says he learned in kindergarten:

            “Share everything;

play fair;

don’t hit people;

put things back where you found them;

clean up your mess;

don’t take things that aren’t yours;

say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody;

wash your hands before you eat;

flush;

warm cookies and cold milk are good for you;

live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.

            Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”

And he goes on…

 

            Fulghum says “take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm.” Think what a better world it would be if we could live by these basic principles (see p. 6-7).

            It is easy and tempting to be pulled into conversations about what is great. Jesus places a child in the midst of the disciples and says, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

            Forget greatness, Jesus says. Ambition is dangerous. It leads away from the kingdom. We are to turn around – change how we do things - and become like children – who simply live, who trust, who share, who are open to wonder and learning, who can be shaped in the way of discipleship. We are to be humble. That is the way toward greatness.

Bible scholar, Dale Bruner, says about this passage: “we become childlike by giving ourselves in warm ways to what is given us in little people and little tasks.” It is so tempting to seek greener pastures, to give particular attention to impressive people who can help us advance. Great tasks and great people, significant work and significant people – those are the preoccupations of ambition. Ambition leads us away from God, from discipleship. We are called to humble tasks, to be engaged with disagreeable, difficult people, . . . the disliked, the ignored. Visit the prisoner, . . . care for the sick, . . . walk with the hurting,  . . . reach out to the refugee, . . . welcome the stranger. Whoever becomes humble, . . .  whoever welcomes the child, welcomes Christ. (see D. Bruner, Matthew, p. 636)

Mother Teresa often said, “we can do NO great things, just small things with great love. It is never how much you do but how much love you put into doing it.”

I wonder if you saw the news this week from Victoria, Texas. Last Saturday night, the Victoria Islamic Center burned down. The fire took place just hours after the President’s Executive Order to ban citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. Federal officials are still looking into the cause of the fire, which took four hours to get under control.

But the town’s Muslim population in Victoria, TX will not be without a place to worship. Robert Loeb, the president of Temple Bnai Israel, in Victoria said, "Everyone knows everybody, I know several members of the mosque, and we felt for them. When a calamity like this happens, we have to stand together.

One of the mosque's founders, Shahid Hashmi, said: "Jewish community members walked into my home and gave me a key to the synagogue."

The enemy of Christian faith and Christian community is the selfish desire to be prominent. “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.”

Share everything, . .  play fair, . . . hold hands,  . . . stick together,  . . . This is the way to discipleship, to the Kingdom.

I hope you have seen by now the wonderful movie, Hidden Figures. Most people are betting this movie receives Best Picture awards. The story is powerful. The movie is so excellent.

Hidden Figures is the true story about three African American women working in the early 1960’s for the Space Program at Langley, in Hampton, VA. This movie takes us back to a time that many people might perceive as great – John F. Kennedy was President. Recent wars were over. The economy was growing. The nation was excelling. The NASA program was in a race to get the first person into space, orbiting the earth.

But the movie reminds us of the truth in that time too; it was a long way from GREAT: racial segregation was the shameful way of our land. Women had roles in the home-place, not the workplace, especially African American women. The desire to be great put us in a race with the Russians in the space program; and the movie shows much of the foolishness of that pursuit.

But the movie is finally about the true story of some amazing women: their humility, fortitude, brilliance, and faithfulness. Though these women were disadvantaged, disregarded, de-graded, mistreated, oppressed, they were absolutely instrumental in the success of that program in getting John Glenn orbiting the earth in the Mercury capsule. It is a movie about GREATNESS revealed through the character and skills, the humility and devotion, the perseverance and fortitude of these women.

Great is not the race into space. Great is not the success of NASA in getting to the moon, which these women made happen too. Great is not looking back to another time that seems more perfect or more prosperous. GREAT is the humility and sacrifice that we see in wonderful people of character and grace, who carry on and succeed in the face of oppression, segregation, injustice, and other challenges.

Jesus says “turn and become like children; become humble like the child. . . .Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Friends, we are called to live by faith and follow Jesus. It is not about which political party we might be part of. We are called to be Christian. We are called to become humble, to do small things with great love, to reach out, hold hands, stick together and help each other. We are called to welcome others as the child would do, and in so doing we welcome Jesus.

May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to stand with you, to serve you in humble love, that is to abide with you forever. We commit to that way following Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, February 5, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.