Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seeking - Hard Questions for a Deeper Faith: Is This the Fast I Choose?

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “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. 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.

“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. How terrible it is for the world because of the things that cause people to trip and fall into sin! Such things have to happen, but how terrible it is for the person who causes those things to happen! If your hand or your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to be thrown into the eternal fire with two hands or two feet. If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into a burning hell with two eyes. --Matthew 18:1-9 (CEB) 

When my son, Michael, was little, we often had our best conversations before and after I went to work, as I would drive him back and forth to preschool. At one point - about the time he was 3 years old - he began to ask questions. A lot of questions. Endless questions. (Perhaps you have had or are currently having that same experience. Or perhaps you are the one asking those questions.) 

Why is the sun in the sky? He might ask. Because, God placed it there to give us warmth and light during the day. Where does it go when it’s cloudy? It doesn’t go anywhere. The clouds are just covering it up. Where do clouds come from? You get the idea. Questions. A lot of questions. Endless questions.

Today, we begin the season of Lent. We are leaning this year into a theme, entitled Seeking: Hard Questions for a Deeper Faith. I will be asking you a lot of questions. They may, as with my son, feel endless. Yet, asking questions is important. More on that in a little bit. 

So, of course, our text tonight opens with a question. Not a question asked by a child, but by adults. By Jesus’ disciples. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? I’m not sure there was any ill intent underneath this question. Unlike in the other gospels, there are no disciples that seem to be jostling for power. It is a question asked out of a very cultural framework. An expected way of being that has been learned as part of becoming an adult. That having different status in the world or in a community or among the disciples is just the way it is. 

Notice that, instead of answering them right away, Jesus first calls a little child over to sit among them.

For you and I, while this may see a little unusual, for the disciples it was likely a little scandalous. In the ancient world, righteousness was typically centered on an adult, male worldview. Children were not considered part of the social, religious, or economic world. They were considered insignificant. Especially vulnerable to disease. And hunger. And marginalization. They were seen as being incapable of rational thought. Often viewed with suspicion and seen as being prone to violence and unpredictable outbursts. (Think toddler tantrums.) This behavior strongly contrasted with the preferred norm of an orderly adult. Because of this had no status in this world. None. 

So, for Jesus to call forward a child to use as an illustration for this teaching moment - well, the disciples must have been a little upset by this, especially after asking what, for them in their culture, seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. Because, if one has been inculturated to believe that status is everything (sound familiar?), it might feel a little insulting to be given a show and tell moment that uses a child to teach it. 

Jesus tells them they must be more childlike. Not to be children, but childlike. 

What is it about children that Jesus wants the disciples to see? Is it that naivete - the way in which they look at the world through eyes of wonder? Or perhaps it's, as with my son and his questions, a sense of curiosity about how the world works? Or maybe it’s because of the way children seem to be so teachable, so open to new things and new ways and new people? Or perhaps it’s all of the above?

These verses are part of the fourth of five discourses of Jesus in Matthew - what is known as the community discourse for its instruction on communal living. This discourse was likely written to instruct the early churches on how to build community and to deal with conflicts within the community and between one another.  The childlike nature that Matthew is trying to teach his community through Jesus’ response to the disciples question is that of curiosity. And wonder. And openness. It is a way of life Jesus is inviting them into - a way that is counter-cultural, opposite to what we learn as adults. That is not at all concerned about status, but about ensuring that everyone in the community is lifted up, particularly those who are naive in the faith. Those viewed as insignificant. Those who are the most vulnerable in our faith communities. 

It’s a direct contrast to those whom God, through the prophet, calls out in our first text. These are the ones Isaiah is so frustrated with because their priorities are so skewed. People who appear to be deeply religious. Who appear to seek God. Who appear to delight God. Who appear to draw near to God. Their actions, however, are completely disconnected from what they say they believe. In keeping the fast, they think they are seeking God’s ways. But, Isaiah calls out their hypocrisy - as Jesus does with the disciples in a somewhat gentler way. 

The reason that God has not heard their cries or noticed them in their fasting, Isaiah tells them, is because it is entirely self-serving. They observe the fasting rituals, while at the same time they are guilty of oppressing their workers and living in discord with their neighbors. But worse, they neglect those with real need in their communities - the hungry, the homeless, and those without adequate clothing. As theologian Sally McFague so famously said, “If God is absent from this world, it is because we are.” 

Their fast is not God’s fast.

The fast God desires in Isaiah is the same way of living Christ calls the disciples - and us - to in Matthew. To fast from isolationism and stigmatizing and and lean into a way of curiosity and reaching out. To fast from identifying people with status and, rather, focusing on hospitality and welcome. To fast from cynicism and doubt and, instead, marveling with wonder at the ways of God, who seeks to build, to restore, to feed, to cloth, to care, and to repair individuals and communities. A God who seeks to mend the world.

Friends, on this night, as we have put on the metaphorical sackcloth of repentance and have received the ashes that remind us of our own mortality, may we be reminded that there is resurrection after death. And may we live into it with a new way of fasting this season - the fast that we are called to this Lent: to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street. What a beautiful image of healing and restoration for ourselves, our faith communities, our world! 

And so, here is the first of many questions. Of a lot of questions to come.

Which fast will you choose?

Preached Wednesday, February 22, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Ash Wednesday
Readings: Matthew 18:1-9, Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 146:7c-10

No comments:

Post a Comment