THURSDAY AFTER TRINITY SUNDAY — 2020
Good day to you! And I hope you are staying safe and are well. I am Jim Jelinek, one of the clergy serving Trinity, Newport, with my colleague, The Rev. Alan Neale. This is another of our series of daily meditations during the time of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic. My text is the gospel passage from today’s lectionary for the Daily Offices, Matthew 18:1-9. Let us listen to it together:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like 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.
“If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” Here ends the reading.
As in many of the stories of Jesus teaching the disciples, this one begins with a question. And here I think “disciples” refers to any of the times a crowd gathered around Jesus to listen, learn and follow him, beginning with the original twelve but growing into many more, even 4,000 or 5,000 at one time. The question seems straightforward: in the hierarchy of heaven, who is the greatest next to God? Rather than just say, “There is no hierarchy in heaven,” Jesus calls the little child to come over, puts him in the midst of all of them and indicates that you do not have to be super smart, or to be fully grown, or to have accomplished a lot. What is most important is your attitude, your state of mind, and most of all where your heart is. And remember that wonderful saying in another one of these teachings: “where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” In other words, what you value most shapes who you are.
Jesus chooses a child because of the simplicity of a child: having especially a sense of wonder and imagination, like the ability to believe in Santa Claus—a good thing to believe for as long as one can. I remember when I was doing field education in seminary and one year I served in a big wealthy suburban parish north of NYC. Part of my job was to do the children’s chapel during the main service on Sunday. When the Easter season came, to my surprise and great delight, these four and five year olds took all the resurrection stories in stride. They nodded their heads with some understanding, because their sense of wonder allowed them to imagine God capable of doing what many of their parents thought impossible.
Jesus speaks especially about humility, a word with the same root as humanity, the Latin word for earth and soil, humus. To be humble, we might say, is to “be as common as dirt.” To be humble is not to be timid, but it is to recognize that our gifts are all from God. It is interesting that for the past few decades so many adults have been telling children that they are “special.” At first I think it was an antidote to the parenting that some of us received, telling us we were “bad.” Too many of us believed it, and came to think that we are less than we are, or “no good.”
Yet I now think that the inflation of the individual has gone overboard and has contributed to the overwhelming self-centeredness in our country in this era. PB Michael Curry calls it a “pandemic of self-centeredness,” and I think that is a very helpful insight.
Some of us in the parish have been reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Abp. Desmond Tutu, who speak very clearly about the culture of “I, me, mine,” to quote a brilliant song from the Beatles about 50 years ago. These two spiritual giants are about as down to earth in their self-image as one can be, and from their experience, they share the journey they have been on as public figures who are often put on a pedestal. It is their considered opinion, their reflection after years of meditation and prayer, that the more self-focused we human beings become, the more we isolate ourselves from others, and when we do, dialog breaks down, as in our current political climate. In addition, prejudice and fear grow, as evident in our current racial tensions. When we learn to see that we really are created equal, or, as we Episcopalians pray in the Collect for Mission on p. 100 of the BCP, “O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth,” when we learn that lesson about humility, then we can celebrate the gifts of others and have compassion for the pain of others. Only then can we find a common bond with the many and varied neighbors we have, the brothers and sisters God has given us.
Yet any time we think of ourselves as “special,” we unconsciously pump ourselves up and begin to look down on others and judge them as inferior to us.
There is yet another dimension to what Jesus is saying here when he talks about being a stumbling block, especially to children.
There are so many ways we can do that to a fresh heart and an open mind. The worst example is to abuse a child, either mentally or physically, or both, for that creates wounds that inflict fear, self-doubt, a terrible self-image—so much more. But there are, shall we say, “lesser ways” of being a stumbling block, that inflict real damage to a fragile soul, one that has as yet few defenses: we can diminish their self-confidence (the healthy kind) by constant criticism. We can curtail their sense of hope by surrounding them with a veil of pessimism and suspicion. We can take away or destroy their sense of wonder by our disdain for their beliefs, their hopes. Few children can survive the ridicule of the adults who surround them. And I think that is what Jesus meant about being a “stumbling block” to children. Let’s face it, when we do that to a child we are dashing their hopes, we are essentially casting aside their simple but wonderfully vital ways of living into the future, the uncertain future, with expectancy rather than fear.
No wonder Jesus says that it is better for anyone who does that to be dragged to the bottom of the ocean by a millstone, the heaviest stone he or we can imagine. What can be a more serious crime against humanity than to undermine, poison or destroy the dreams and hopes of a child? Murder is ultimate, and to murder the hope of an innocent is not only definitive, there is something in it that is even more cruel and depraved. Jesus’ described punishment is certainly preferable to an eternal burning in hell, which is what we hear in the psalms and in other writings in our spiritual tradition.
I wonder what the person who asked the question about who is the most favored in heaven really expected to hear. Certainly not what he or she got from Jesus. As usual, Jesus went to the essence of things: what is favorable to God? Simplicity, innocence and wonder. What can diminish that? Cruelty and scorn and belittling. And what of those who do such things, or even worse, take advantage of a child in any serious way? They will be fortunate if their worst punishment is only death at the bottom of the sea. After all, do think how much worse it could be.
Let me not leave you there. Let us go back to the vision Jesus shared with them, about going back into the innocence of our childhood, an innocence in which hope was a constant dimension for us, and a spontaneous outpouring of affection was normal in response to the good that we experienced. Jesus takes us back to the best and brightest days of our childhood and invites us to live there again. Jesus does not expect us to do this naively, but trusting in the God who has given us life, nurtures us in life, and always invites us into more. Amen.
Today I invite you to enter again into the most delightful moments of your childhood, for that is when your soul was always most alive. Be well, stay safe, and listen in again.