Matthew 18: 1-5
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
There was a young gentleman who had just ended his long term romantic relationship and he was struggling. It seemed to him that he might never date again and one day as he was thinking about this he realized that he was afraid of rejection, but, if he didn’t risk rejection then he was sure to fail. He spent a lot of time thinking about rejection, what did it really mean about him if others rejected him, was it personal or perhaps something else, why was he so afraid of rejection, all of this and then, he decided to get used to rejection and he had a plan. He would deliberately seek out one rejection every single day. The first one was easy, he walked up to a stranger in the parking lot and asked them to drive him across town, they said no. Imagine his sense of relief, a sort of “whew, I did it! And I’m done with that for today.” Over time it became easier and easier. In order to be done with his project for the day he needed a rejection so what this rejection came to mean to him changed. It was no longer a dismal reflection on his character or his being but rather an accomplishment, one he could chalk up to “well done!” and feel good about. It represented not his worth but his courage, his bravery and willingness.
Our scripture today asks us to become as little children. Not to seek power or privilege but to be simple and powerless. At the time Jesus pulled that child into the midst of the disciples there were few things considered as worthless as a child. So many died so young it really was easier to simply not get attached. Child sacrifice was so common that much of the Hebrew bible is dedicated to speaking against it. The prophets, speaking for God, state, “Never had I thought of such a thing!” and the gentiles around them were especially horrific for practicing this. A child, small, vulnerable, powerless, easily disposed of. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery only because killing him was distasteful to a couple of them. In a rarely told story Jephthah kills his daughter in thanksgiving to God for victory on the battlefield. He graciously allows her to spend a couple days with her best friends first.
This is what Jesus was holding up for the disciples to become. The one who is most vulnerable and often most tragic. Become this. Weak, vulnerable, trafficked, murdered, over looked, it’s a state that most of these men must have been eager to escape, to make it out of. And they are still eager to make it. This quest for achievement is never ending and Jesus asks us to halt, to stop. Do not attempt to become more powerful, stronger, victorious, stop trying to win and succeed, to be the one who comes out on top.
As in the story I opened this sermon with, become the one who seeks out rejection, who adopts failure and loss as a way of life. And there he goes again. Jesus, always turning our exepectations on their head. Just when we think we know the way he comes along and upsets our expectations. Imagine what the disciples were thinking:
“Just how do I become the best, the most important and beloved disciple. Because I am, really I am, the most pious and I always have Jesus back. I say the right things at the right time. I just, man I just really am the best! But what does he think, is there something I should be doing more of, or maybe less. I did look at that girl the other day. Dang. It’s so hard to meet all these expectations!” Imagine the anxiety of wanting to be the best disciple, the most perfect one. This is what our society tells us we have to do if we are to be worthy, if we are to be loved and the disciples had grown up with the same message.
How incongruous to be told, no, stop trying to be perfect, to be worthy, and be like a child. Make mistakes, fall down, be vulnerable, be at risk, it’s OK. Your Father loves you. I’m not sure the disciples got it, I’m not sure we do. I thought about making a grand mistake this week just to illustrate, you know, not having a sermon prepped or messing up communion but then I thought I’d better not!
The truth is, if we are to revitalize and renew our worship life here we need to be willing to make mistakes. I’m not sure we are there yet. We need to be willing to say, well, that didn’t work. And move on, knowing it is OK that we tried something different, something new. Yet we must also be gentle with ourselves because there is a certain rigidity and fragility to being human. There is a saying I learned in seminary, if you do something once it’s innovative and scary, if you do it three times then it’s “the way we’ve always done it.” Our security can so often arise from the comfort of what we know. We know how things are supposed to be done and this gives us security.
Freedom to be wrong is the freedom to innovate, to be creative, to try new things. Freedom to be wrong is the security we give children. I remember watching my daughter learn to walk. She had learned to cruise the furniture. You remember that? When a small child learns to pull themselves up on the couch and walks along sideways hanging on for dear life? She had done this but she was always on the look out for a soft landing. I placed pillows all over the floor and she would look for them and when she saw one near, she would release her grip on the couch and take a step toward it, only to fall, collapsing on the pillow. To become like a child is to be very, very bold. It is to try again and again knowing that failure is part of the bargain. Our Father who watches over us has thrown some pillows on the floor and we need only to trust it will be OK to fall. It is to know that if we say the wrong thing, pointing at cow and saying, doggy, doggy, that it’s OK. How much easier it would be for me to learn Spanish if I were willing to speak it more often, knowing that I will get it wrong, over and over, like a child, and that’s OK.
But I, like a lot of you, want to be right. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I don’t want to seem ignorant and so I hold back. This resistance becomes rigidity. It becomes brittleness. It is the way we say, “We’ve never done it that way before.” And innovation, creativity, newness is shamed, is backed into a corner. Would any of us speak that way to a child? Yet, we often speak that way to ourselves. How can we soften the rigidity of our hearts?
When I worked in counseling I used to have many of my clients do a visualization with me. You can do it now if you wish, simply close your eyes and imagine that young child is sitting with you, is seeing what you see, is feeling the same hopes and dreams that you do, and that this child is looking to you for guidance, for love, for nurturing. Imagine taking that child up onto your lap and giving it the love and care that this child needs and recognize that this child is you, is a part of you, is always with you and that some part of who you are is still this small child, looking to the adult you for love and acceptance.
So often we can think and speak harshly to ourselves. I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough, just not enough. These are words, voices, that we pick up along the way, that for some reason we internalize, we take into ourselves and we keep them alive. And feeling the impact of these shaming words and voices we can become rigid, defensive. As human beings we are generally masters of justification. Because being wrong feels so bad, so terrible, we learn to justify whatever we just did, whatever we just said. Well I didn’t mean it that way, well you have to understand I was scared, well, and we go on and on. We are good at it.
It is so much harder to say, Yes, I did that. It’s my fault. I was wrong. I’m sorry. It is so counter intuitive that being vulnerable and showing our weaknesses is strength, is resilience. When we admit that we are wrong we are pushed into the process of change and we don’t always know what that will look like. It brings unease and uncertainty with it. Often we remember times when we were really, truly wrong, with a hot flush of shame and yet these are places of transition.
Last week I read an article by a man who was recalling his father’s unending patience. His father was a roofer and over the summers this young man would work with him, and he made mistake after mistake, after mistake. Often this meant longer hours for the two of them as they tore the roofing off and replaced it, or had to explain to the customer why it wasn’t done yet. But one mistake he recalled especially vividly. It was a hot summer’s day and he and his father were working way up on a two story house. They had arrived at sun up before the heat of the day and had gotten most of their supplies up on the roof when this young man bumped the ladder. The ladder he was supposed to have secured, the ladder which was their only way onto and down from the roof, the ladder which he had not secured. And it fell. He remembers most the look on his father’s face and how his own heart dropped down out of his chest and into his stomach before the ladder even hit the ground. It was a mistake they never forgot. He could have gotten angry, defensive, claimed it wasn’t his fault, that he hadn’t been told to secure the ladder or any number of justifications, but instead they both waited together silently, till a passerby saw them, stuck on the roof. Because there had been no angry justification, because this young man let his heart soften and his father knew that watching that ladder fall had been enough punishment, there were no recriminations. “We laughted about that until my father died.” This young man recounts.
The beauty of being wrong. It takes us back to childhood, to the time when it was OK to make mistakes, in fact it was expected, and our faults were met with laughter and gentle corrections, not shame. It opens us up to try new things knowing we aren’t expected to be perfect and we don’t have to be