October 3, 2021
I’m going to return to a theme from Elizabeth Gelfeld’s sermon two weeks ago, which Dave Lloyd also used in his sermon last week. And I’ll say right at the start that my words this morning probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but I hope that the message is one we all need to be reminded of.
Elizabeth talked about children, and the qualities they have, and how Jesus picked up a child and said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Elizabeth began her sermon with a description of pre-schoolers that a friend of hers offered. I heard it as a pretty good description of me when my walk is taking me away from Jesus: “totally self-centered, unreasonable, uncooperative, and given to biting people who get in my way.” Yep, very familiar.
Jesus surely knew all about these unlovely but often necessary traits of children, and adults. But Elizabeth reminded us of what is also true about children: They are curious and questioning. They are full of creative energy. They have a basic trust in the goodness of life. They are able to change and adapt to even difficult circumstances with relative ease. And yes, this too can be a description of me when I’m spiritually grounded, walking the path, and, as we say in A.A., “working my program.”
I’m making this connection between what children are like, and what we are, or can be, like as adults, because once again our Gospel reading for this week finds Jesus talking about children, and taking them in his arms. It’s a familiar passage: The disciples try to keep the kids from bothering Jesus, but he is indignant, and says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Realm of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Realm of God as a little child will never enter it.” “And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
I’m going to come back to the Realm of God shortly, but for right now I just want us to notice that Jesus is telling us to imitate certain traits of children. I’m guessing he doesn’t mean the part about biting people who get in our way – though I don’t know, sometimes that might be actually helpful. Probably he’s thinking of those more life-affirming and creative traits that happy children have. I’ll bet the “curious and questioning” part was important to him too. After all, why were the kids gathering around Jesus in the first place? They must have been very curious about this stranger who had the whole countryside talking. While the adults probably shied back a bit, and were mostly reluctant to engage directly with Jesus, I picture the children kind of launching themselves at him and trying to get him to connect with them. And Jesus thought that was great!
As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Socrates as well as Jesus, and here is something that both men felt strongly about: It just drove them up the wall when people went around pretending to know things they didn’t really know, acting like experts to put up a good front, and generally creating the impression that they had solved all of life’s thorny problems. Socrates poked gentle and not-so-gentle fun at this sort of person – it got him killed. Jesus tended to call them names – some of the few places in the Gospels where you get the sense he was having trouble containing his anger. “Hypocrites” and “vipers” and “whitewashed tombs” were some of the names he called the Pharisees – and of course he too wound up executed. It’s a dangerous thing to say out loud, but Jesus insisted that we had to drop all that so-called wisdom and privilege and purity and be so radically open to a new way of life that you might as well call it “born again” — once more, the idea of becoming small again, and teachable.
How hard is that? For me, for most of us, very very hard. I don’t know about you, but I got rewarded starting at a young age for being top of the class, knowing lots of stuff, performing well for adults, knowing which social graces to use when, and generally acting like a miniature smug know-it-all adult. If that was all “being like a little child” meant, I’d have no interest in going back. But by the grace of God, I was also encouraged to play, to be creative, to feel safe in exploring new stuff. That’s a good feeling to remember. I have to bring it to mind constantly when I feel myself falling back into that rigid, uncurious, defended, look-at-me position.
Jesus must have valued the childlike, trusting, curious spirit very much. He speaks about it in the strongest terms. He’s not just recommending a good way to behave – he’s saying that without this Inner Child to guide me, I’ll never find my way into the Realm of God. It’s another typical “Jesus paradox”: We think of children as needing the guidance of adults (as of course they do at times), but Jesus is asking us to flip that around and imagine a situation of the utmost importance where we have to abandon our false adult selves and return to the guidance of the Inner Child. As a rabbi, Jesus would have pondered the passage from Isaiah in which a little child will lead us into the peaceable kingdom.
So what about the Realm of God? What is this wonderful place that we can enter if we heed the words of Jesus and become born again, become like children? There’s a lot to say about that; we could spend an entire School for Christian Growth course considering what Jesus had in his heart and mind. And guess what? We have such a course scheduled starting in 2 weeks! It’s called “The Realm of God: On Earth as It Is in Heaven?” and I have the privilege of teaching it. So I will save most of my thoughts for that course, and hope some of you will join me. For now, here is just one idea.
Cynthia Bourgeault, a Christian mystic who has written a number of good books about Jesus and prayer, believes that the Realm of God can be found right here, right now. She says: “It is possible to encounter heaven . . . while still in physical flesh, and to live in it – and from it – here and now. In fact, more than a few people think that’s exactly what Jesus meant by his term the kingdom of heaven: it’s this world seen through the eyes and heart of divine love. Or perhaps better, it’s the flood of transfiguring energy set loose in this world once the eyes of heaven have awakened.” For Bourgeault, the big question is: “Why not go for it here and now?” She goes on to say that this question “stumped Jesus.” If entering the Realm of God is “as simple as opening the eyes of the heart here and now, why wouldn’t people immediately open their eyes and give thanks? Why does the good news tend to receive a rain check?”
Bourgeault suggests that accepting one’s citizenship in the Realm of God requires “a high level of spiritual attunement” — and here I have to wonder a little. I’m sure she’s right that many people do enter the kingdom through this “high road,” as it were, after perfecting their skills in meditation and contemplative prayer. But many more come stumbling into the Realm of God on their hands and knees, completely clueless about what they’re in for. They’re like children, willing to come closer, willing to be taught, and able to accept a reality that their adult selves might reject. I think this condition is what Jesus had in mind when he said we had to enter the Realm like little children. And I know it’s possible because it happened to me. I’ve had some very powerful, life-changing encounters with the Divine – I truly believe my eyes and heart were opened in just the way Cynthia Bourgeault describes – but my spiritual attunement was not responsible. In fact, I’m tempted to say it was the opposite – my spirit was in such bad shape, such a state of confusion and conflict, that I was able to somehow let go of all the things I thought I knew. The modern jargon is, I became teachable, but it’s just as accurate to say that I became like a child again. My adult wisdom, especially the products of my intellect, had gotten me exactly nowhere.
I think this also connects with another “Realm of God” saying of Jesus’. He says, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Does he mean material riches, monetary riches? Sure, but I think he also means the riches of education, talent, privilege, opportunities – what the sociologists call “cultural capital.” Out of such bright shiny objects, we construct a lovely cheap costume for ourselves, and parade around hoping everyone else admires it. We all do it; it’s human nature, and if there really is such a thing as original sin, it must be this default position of trying to live in our ego, trying to convince the whole world, including ourselves, that we can add up treasures for ourselves and thus guarantee our entrance to the Realm of God. And to this Jesus replies: Unh-unh. No, actually. Every step you take in that direction takes you farther from Abba God. My heavenly parent loves children, and the childlike in heart and vision, not self-satisfied adults with lots of cultural bling to throw around.
Hoo boy. It’s so hard to remember this.
Okay. I’m going to conclude this sermon with something about recommitment, since that is our season, and I want to build a bridge to yet another possible sense of the Realm of God. So far we’ve been conceiving of Jesus’ Realm as a spiritual one, something we bring forth from inside ourselves. I deeply believe this is true. But I also know that there are better and worse physical places for this to happen. And let me say at once that this is different for everybody. People like Bourgeault and other mystics probably relish their time alone, and are able to step into the Realm of God in solitude. That has never been fruitful for me. I need a community. My faith did not come alive for me, I did not, as Bourgeault puts it, “open my eyes and give thanks,” until I found other people to help me. This occurred first in Alcoholics Anonymous, and then at Seekers.
Is it going too far to say that a good church is a Realm of God in miniature? I guess we shouldn’t get too hung up on this. Seekers is a community of human beings, and we bring all of our shortcomings and anxieties to church every Sunday, and every other day of the week. But suppose we stop thinking of the Realm of God as only some sort of perfect end point, rather like the traditional Christian Heaven. Suppose instead it’s also a way of trying to be in this world, with God’s help. In that case, Seekers is surely a little village in that vast Realm. Because we are more than the sum of our parts. The story about the children coming to Jesus is, when you think about, a story about creating community. Jesus invites us – commands us, really – to become as little children, but then what? We’re supposed to let him take us in his arms, lay hands on us, and bless us. Us, together. We and Jesus are joined together in love.
In some unexplainable way, I feel that happens to me at Seekers Church. So recommitting each year is never hard for me. The hard part is staying curious and questioning – and not just trying to look good. Seekers embodies an interesting contradiction: We really and sincerely value the teachings of Jesus about humility and servanthood, and we really do encourage each other to walk that talk. And at the same time, we provide a place for smart, educated, literate, talented, ethical people to get lots of strokes for displaying those qualities – even as I am doing now, preaching this sermon, which after all is meant to offer some kind of wisdom or guidance. Now there’s a paradox worthy of Jesus.
So even a wonderful community like Seekers can play to my strengths and flatter me – or rather I flatter myself imagining how my words of wisdom might be landing. But fortunately, the really wonderful thing about Seekers is that it plays to my weaknesses too. We remind each other that God loves the least of us, at our most vain and helpless. Preaching a good sermon will not help me enter the Realm of God. But hanging in when things get tough, when community seems like too hard work – staying open and curious – standing ready to learn and to serve – one day at time I might actually get born again. Amen.