Sunday, September 21, 2008

Do No Harm

Do No Harm

copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder
September 21, 2008
Matthew 18:6-14

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.

I recently read that back in some of the bad old days of professional baseball’s Minnesota Twins — one of those forgettable seasons when they were losing lots of games — the team was in the middle of long losing streak on the road, and the manager, Tom Kelly, announced, “Before the game tomorrow there will be two buses leaving the hotel for the field. The 2:00 bus will be for those of you who need a little extra practice. The empty bus will be leaving at 5:00.”

Last week we looked with Pastor Linda at the verses prior to this week’s lesson, in which Jesus called a child and placed the child in the midst of the disciples, reminding them that greatness in the kingdom of God is measured by our care for the weak and powerless ones in our midst. Remembering this takes a lot of practice, looking to the almost invisibly weak ones in our midst is not something that comes without effort.

So today, we move into Jesus’ teaching, knowing that the words “little ones” refer to more than children. The symbol of the helpless child in our midst is meant to open our eyes to the presence of any “little people” in our company, the ones the world tends to overlook in its haste to be impressed by those who find themselves impressive. Jesus presents some of his most vivid teaching in regard to this commitment to the least, last, and lost among us.

Have you ever felt out of place in some situation? Invited to the company party as a new employee, you found yourself standing off to one side, nursing a drink, no one talking to you, too afraid of rejection to initiate a conversation. Does that sound familiar? Coming to a strange church for the first time, you venture to the coffee fellowship time only to discover that it appears everyone but you knows someone there and you feel like a fifth wheel, so you slip quietly out a side door?

It’s not just coffee-chatter social situations that give us that out-of-place feeling. On any given Sunday in this sanctuary I would dare say there are people present who feel out of place and who have been fighting against a strong impulse to stay home or leave. It is so easy to think everyone else has it all together in their lives when we see each other all scrubbed clean, wearing our good clothes, sporting happy-looking smiles. We forget there are people among us who are facing the possibility of unemployment, whose marriages are hanging by a thread, whose children have just presented them with the worst news of their lives, who have a loved one facing death, who can’t remember how to pray. We forget the church is not about greatness but about humble service to the least, last, and lost among us, which at one time or another will likely be any one of us.

Our worship should always carry that element. Our culture encourages the alternative idea that the purpose of worship has to do with what I get out of it. I hear that phrase a lot, a lot more than I like anyway. “I didn’t get anything out of the sermon,” or “I didn’t get anything out of the hymns we sang this morning,” or “I didn’t get anything out the prayers today.” Here’s a news flash I have mentioned before, we weren’t praying to you. Where do we get this idea that the worship of the church of God is about what we “get out of it” as individuals? You won’t find that phrase, “what I get out of it,” much less the sentiment it expresses, anywhere in scripture. Yet to hear some folks talk, you’d think it had replaced John 3:16 as the most well-known verse of the Bible.

What we put into it, now that is a whole other matter. That would be a fun exercise to try. “You know pastor, as I listened to your sermon, what I put into it was this thought...” or “as I sang that hymn, what I put into it was the biggest sound I could make,” or “during the prayer, what I put into it was a special prayer for my aunt Edna...” Never mind what we are getting out of worship today, what are we putting into it? Worship in some consumer-oriented churches, churches that have been advised by focus groups and success-driven church management people about what people want, are all about “what I get out of it.” But the worship of the Church of God is different than the worship of the church of Rob. The worship of this church is for the whole people gathered here. The individual’s thing is not the only thing, or even the main thing. That sounds almost like heresy in an era of personal computers and single serving frozen dinners, but the fact is that worship is not essentially about entertaining and instructing individuals. It is not mostly about getting what I want or think I need. The hard news is that it is not just for me. It’s not about what I believe, it’s about what we, the community of Christ, believe together.

If that is true, then we will see the utter, complete necessity of turning toward the least, last, and lost among us. It is such an absolutely necessary attitude in the fellowship of the church that Jesus resorted to the strongest sort of hyperbole in order to make his point. “Does your hand cause you to stumble? Cut it off! How about your eye? Pluck it out!” This language travels down the difficult road of hyperbole and metaphor, with severed body parts littering the imaginary landscape. Some of you may know that when students are going through trials for ordination to become pastors in our denomination, there comes a time when they must stand before the gathered Presbytery and answer any question the presbyters — elders and pastors — see fit to ask. It can be a terrifying occasion. One age old question, sometimes asked, comes right from our reading. One bright day a young candidate for ministry was asked it, “Would you be willing to suffer great personal injury for the glory of God?” After having suffered other pompous, self-satisfied questions of a few members of Presbytery assembled there, he replied smartly, “Sir, I would be willing for this whole Presbytery to suffer some great injury if it would glorify God!”

When Jesus says it would be better for some terrible thing to happen — that an arm or an eye should be lost — than to miss the opportunity to follow Jesus, the emphasis is meant to be on the incomparable joy of being in the community of Christ and not on the amputation. To know Jesus is wonderful, so wonderful that if a person knew how wonderful, he or she would sacrifice extravagantly in order to know him. When one of our friends says, “I wouldn’t miss my son’s graduation for anything,” we don’t usually follow up their claim saying, “Really, would you give up your house? Your family? Your career?” We know they are speaking hyperbolically. The point is not that our friend will arrive at the graduation ceremony destitute and in rags, without eyes or hands. The point is that they think it would simply be one of life’s not-to-be-missed moments. In the same way, there is nothing on earth of more value than being part of the kingdom, and opening that doorway for others. It is something not to be missed, worth whatever we may have to sacrifice to obtain it.

The thing to know in regard to the weak ones in our midst is that there is nothing in the kingdom scale of items of importance that stands ahead of taking care of the ones who are little in faith, little in ability, little in knowledge, little in experience. Nothing the church fellowship can think to do is more important than welcome and encouragement for those who have little or nothing to offer in return, nothing surpasses the importance of opening the door, of making way for those whom the world scorns as of little or no significance. Jesus really couldn’t be more clear about this. But he went on to try. He shared the wonderful little parable of the lost sheep that was part of our reading. He introduced the parable by declaring, “I tell you that [the angels of these little ones] always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Whatever he may have meant by that comment about angels, it at least seems clear “that it is precisely the little, and not the big, who have an abiding relationship with God.”1

When Clarence Jordan produced his Southern vernacular Cotton Patch translation of Matthew almost 40 years ago now, he rendered Jesus’ little parable this way:

[Jesus said] “How do you see it? If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them strays off, won’t he leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go look after the stray? And when he finds it, I’m sure that he’s more proud of it than of the ninety-nine that didn’t stray. That’s exactly the way it is with your spiritual Father. He doesn’t want a single one of those little people to be abandoned.”2

Every now and then we need to re-ask ourselves Jesus’ question from the Shepherding 101 class exam: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” Would a good, fiscally responsible shepherd leave 99 healthy but vulnerable sheep to manage on their own for a while as he went looking for one that was lost? We have to answer no, don’t we? Who would be crazy enough to hire a shepherd that answered yes?

This serves to remind us that kingdom economics concerning people are not like the economics of the world, the economics we are accustomed to. The very least Jesus expects of us is that we not provide stumbling blocks that drive the odd sheep into the wilderness. It is the odd sheep, the one who seems not to fit, the person who seems most like a nobody in a room full of presumptive somebodies, that person is the very favorite in God’s eyes. And woe to those who do not do all they can to see these things the way God sees them.

copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 The Parables of Grace, by Robert Farrar Capon, Eerdmans, (Grand Rapids: 1988), p. 36.
2 The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, by Clarence Jordan, Follett Publishing Co., (Chicago: 1970), p. 61.