Synopsis: There are no undocumented immigrants or second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Everyone in welcome and we’re all valued for who we are. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep serves as a parable of life in community and especially of caring for the most needy and vulnerable among us. A kingdom inspired church, therefore, refuses to discriminate between rich and poor, professionals and laborers, brown, black and white, straight and gay, or male and female. We all belong.
The theme of our worship service is centered on the parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Matthew. We’re more familiar with Luke’s version of this parable, where is serves to justify Jesus’ friendship with tax collectors and sinners. Here in Matthew it serves as a parable of life in community and especially of caring for the most needy and vulnerable among us.
When I was searching for a photo to depict this, I found this one of the sign “City Greens Community Garden.” I find myself wondering if the name on this sign is descriptive or more aspirational. Does it describe the garden as it is or does it name what the gardeners hope it will become? My involvement in community gardens tells me there’s always some distance between these two things.
The same is true of churches, including our church. We carefully chose the name “Daniels Run Peace Church” indicating that we’re part of the Daniels Run community and that we’re a church rooted in the gospel of peace and our Mennonite peace tradition. These things are true of us, yet we’re always stretching ourselves to grow into them. The same is true of our church motto “Living Love, Growing Justice, and Welcoming Everyone.”
This was evidently also true for Matthew’s church. Chapter 18 especially speaks to these matters. Today, we will look at the first section of the chapter on “care for little ones” that frames the parable of the lost sheep. The second section on “care for sinners” concludes with the parable of the unmerciful servant. I will speak on this second section in my next sermon.
The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” We can recognize this as a synopsis of the disciples arguing among themselves about who’s the greatest as recorded in Luke. All the gospels have some version of this. In Mark Jesus responds, “I assure you that whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it” (10: 15).
Matthew alters this by inserting a phrase on turning one’s life around. Jesus calls a child to sit among them and then proclaims, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven” (18: 3). He them elaborates, “Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (18: 4-5). We’re all familiar with the version of this in John’s Gospel when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom” (3: 3).
This raises some provocative questions. First, what is this kingdom or realm of God? We know that the realm of God has drawn near in the life and witness of Jesus. It contains God’s aspirations for us and our world. We also know that like Godself, this realm is not something we can possess or lay claim to. While the faithful church is part of this realm, it does not exclusively contain it. It springs up in all kinds of unexpected places.
Next, what does it mean to be born anew and to enter God’s kingdom like a child? It may mean to become as teachable as a child or to emulate a child in our radical dependency on God. Another meaning is to humble ourselves and take on the status of a child. Biblical scholar Douglas Hare says that humility was not a virtue but a vice in the pagan world:
To them it smacked of a servility appropriate to slaves, women, and children, but indecent among free men. Christians turned this view on it’s head by treating humility as the [opposite] not of . . . self-confidence but of haughtiness and arrogance. Precisely because Christian churches were countercultural, bringing men and women, slave and free, rich and poor into the same “club” this attitude was essential to the church’s existence.[i]
Would we say that humility is a much respected virtue in American society? From a young age, we’re taught to assert ourselves. That’s not necessarily bad, but it can be problematic. At the end of political debates, candidates are generally asked why they’re better than their opponent. I fantasize about a candidate talking about her or his strengths but then adding that in some respects his or her opponent has valuable qualities that are also needed.
Here’s the question: at what point does self-confidence become self-serving arrogance? At what point does it inhibit our capacity to learn and grow in self-understanding. Even more crucially, at what point does it devalue and demean others? It’s about more than calling people names and tweeting nasty stuff about them.
Here’s the question: can our churches be the counter-cultural opposite of such self-serving arrogance? Do we welcome little ones? Remember, Jesus tells us that when we welcome little ones, we’re welcoming him. We’re not quite sure if Jesus is referring to an actual child or to an adult who had turned and become like a child. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I like what Douglas Hare says:
Children have value not because they are potential adults but because they are already persons whom Jesus champions. To “receive” them is to receive him. Conversely, to reject or mistreat them is to treat him with distain.[ii]
Our penchant is to accept people with conditions. They become our personal project as people to improve rather than to love for who they are. Over our years of marriage, Ruth and I have learned that this doesn’t work. Sure, we all have room to grow but none of us wants to be someone else’s pet improvement project.
Prejudices and hierarchies tend to creep into churches. To overcome that, we will want to insist that all believers be treated as equals. All are welcome and all are to be treated with dignity and respect. Paul told the Galatians that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, slave or free, and male or female (3:28).
Likewise, churches in our culture, must refuse to discriminate between rich or poor (those who can make huge contributions to the church budget and those who can’t), professional or laborer, brown, black, or white, straight or gay, and male or female. Such discrimination creates a stumbling block.
This is why many of these little ones refuse to darken the door of a church. People soon sniff out if they’re really welcome and treated with respect. They disappear or refuse to show up in the first place. Jesus is emphatic! For those of us who create this scandal of exclusion, it would be better if a great millstone where hung around our neck and we were drowned in the bottom of the sea.
As we have seen, Matthew frames the parable of the lost sheep in terms of his concern for “little ones,” those who are most vulnerable. We have become so familiar with this parable that it no longer shocks us. What foolish shepherd would leave his entire flock in harm’s way on the mountain to go search for one lost sheep? What shepherd would even notice that the sheep in missing?
What pastor would do something like that? Would I abandon my responsibilities to our whole congregation to set off in search of the member who disappeared because she or he was scandalized for one of the reasons mentioned? And if I did something like that, would you keep me as your pastor?
And why would a shepherd rejoice so much over one found sheep rather than over all those more dependable members of the flock? Jesus was a master storyteller. He’s making an emphatic point about God’s loving concern for each one of us—no matter how insignificant or marginal I or others think I may be.
Churches, especially large worship centered churches, have the ability to make us feel like nobody. We get lost in the crowd and there’s little opportunity to build meaningful relationships or find ways to contribute other than filling the pews and giving our money. Even talking about life together has little meaning unless we’re part of the elite inner circle.
As you know, I’m partial to smaller churches like ours. Sure it will be great when we double our present size but growing beyond that will significantly change our life together. Building caring, nurturing relationships is one of our strengths. After we reach 80 members we’ll need to figure out different ways to do that. We might even decide to divide and start another church.
My vision for the future is that we will build on our relational strength as a smaller church and be the kind of fellowship that welcomes everyone. There are no undocumented immigrants or second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. We all belong and we’re all valued for who we are.
[i] Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 210.