Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sermon: A Place for the Little People

Matthew 18:1-14
A Place for the Little People
James Sledge                                                                                       February 5, 2017

It’s not clear that anyone actually ever said it at the Academy Awards, but the phrase is closely associated with the Oscars. “I’d like to thank all the little people who helped me win this award.” I searched the internet and found times when it was parodied. Paul Williams, on sharing a win for best song with Barbra Streisand said, "I was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people."
Paul Williams’ self-deprecating humor aside, most of us do not want to be one of the little people. Somebody has to be the third string guard on the football team, the janitor on the movie set, or the mail room clerk at the company headquarters, but most people don’t aspire to such positions. We want to be the starter, the star, the big wig.
In the world Jesus lived in, children would have been numbered among the little people, and not just in stature. Unlike in our world, first-century children did not enjoy much in the way of status or rights. Childhood was short and hard. Until they could begin to take on adult roles, usually early in puberty, children were not regarded as full persons. No one tried to get in touch with their inner child, nor did they point to children as examples to be followed. All of which makes Jesus’ words more radical than we may realize.
Like many of us, the disciples don’t aspire to be one of the little people, and they ask Jesus what makes someone a star in God’s coming new day. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Perhaps they expect it will be the one who can do miracles or who has the strongest faith or who understand the scriptures inside and out. But Jesus places a child, one of the unimportant, little people, in their midst and says, “Unless you change and become like this, you can’t be part of the kingdom at all.”
Ever since he first called the disciples, Jesus has been teaching them about how different the kingdom is from the world, how the first will be last, how those who mourn and are persecuted are considered blessed. Still, I suspect they were stunned by Jesus’ words.

But Jesus isn’t done. Not only must they become like a child, like one of the little people, but welcoming a child, one of the unimportant, little people, is the same as welcoming Jesus himself. Then Jesus uses this as a starting place to begin explaining (we heard only part of that today) what it means to be a community that embodies the kingdom, what it means to be the church.
Here Jesus makes a subtle shift. He begins to speak of  “little ones” rather than children. These little people are not literally little. Their littleness is of some other sort. Perhaps they are people just beginning to learn of Jesus. Perhaps they are new members who don’t fully understand what it means to follow him. Perhaps they are poor members who struggle to participate in the life of the community because of their poverty.
Whoever they are, whatever their circumstances, they are people who could easily be looked down on. In fact, Jesus’ warning that precedes the parable of the lost sheep is probably better translated, “Take care that you do not look down on these little ones…” for these are the ones God has special care for.
In Luke’s gospel, the parable of the lost sheep is addressed to opponents of Jesus who are upset because he hangs out with sinners and riff raff. But in Matthew, the same parable is addressed to the community of faith as a reminder that we are meant to be a community with special concern for the little people, for those we are inclined to dismiss as unimportant.
Every year at Christmas, and again at Easter, people inevitable make comments about those “C and E Christians” who make it hard to find a parking place but then are gone for the rest of the year. I’ve been known to grumble about those who bring a child for baptism and then disappear. But surely these are the very people Jesus calls “little ones.” Surely they are the ones God keeps careful watch over.
We’ve just come out of an election where the winning slogan was “Make America Great Again.” And if you saw the church junk mail that comes across my desk, you would know that there are countless books and courses and conferences that will help “Make Church Great Again.” But regardless of what one might want to make great, a crucial issue regards just what it is that defines greatness.
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’ answer does not sound very much like the typical political answer nor the answer in a lot of that church junk mail that I get. When Jesus speaks of greatness he points to those with no status, to weakness and humility, to self-denial, to the least of these, to the meek, to outsiders and refugees, to those who mourn, and those who long for righteousness. Jesus says that greatness is especially concerned for and focused on the little people, the despised, the lost, and forgotten.
As those of you participating in the Renew Groups gather for meals and discussions, I hope you’ll keep Jesus’ definition of greatness in mind. And if you’re not in a Renew Group, I hope you’ll keep it in mind as well. Because while Jesus may call us to different, particular mission activities and ministries, above all, he calls us to be a place where no matter who you are, not matter whether or not the world thinks much of you, in this community you will encounter God’s great love for you.
Especially if the world doesn’t think you are great, if you are struggling, if you are feeling lost; here, if nowhere else, you should experience the love of God in Christ that longs for you, that seeks you, that would give anything for you.
Thanks be to God for that love, and for our call to share it with the world.

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