Don Snyder shared this special sermon with us a couple weeks ago and it deserves another publishing.
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker, rector of St. Paul's Parish, Baden, Maryland.
Today’s gospel leaves many of us uncomfortable for one reason or another. It doesn’t come across as good news.First, we have what sounds for all the world like Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce. That’s enough to cause us to squirm if we have a divorce in our personal background or as part of our family history. It’s uncomfortable as well for others of us who realize that our intact marriage does not make us better people than those whose marriages have collapsed; we too could have experienced divorce.
Jesus sounds demanding as well when he confronts his disciples over their efforts at crowd control. He doesn’t want children to be kept from coming to him. However, the thought that runs through the mind of many a parent and grandparent is, “but should there not be some decorum?”
Jesus offers us children – in all their innocence, spontaneity, and even wildness – as a model for the kingdom he has come to proclaim. The entrance requirement for that kingdom is that we become like them: accepting, trusting, in the moment.
We who are adults may understand all too well what Jesus means about children and the kingdom, we may even admit that what he says rings true. But we look at our sad adult selves and realize that we are jaded, calculating, suspicious, and world-weary, hardly fit to pass through the portal; and this makes us sad and disappointed in ourselves, disappointed by life.
Today’s gospel deals with these discomforting matters, but the real center of what Jesus says here lies somewhere else. It is to be found where he speaks about “hardness of heart.”
Do you recall where that phrase appears? Jesus is explaining why the law of Moses recognizes divorce: “because of your hardness of heart.” The passage in question, found in the twenty-fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, doesn’t legislate divorce, but simply admits that it takes place. It then legislates about certain cases involving remarriage of the same couple after their divorce. Jesus says that hardness of heart required this legislation. Then he raises the discussion to a higher plane by citing the establishment of marriage when humanity was brand new.
Hardness of heart is the problem. The big one. Not just for people who divorce or come close to doing so. It’s a problem for all of us adults, whatever the state of our relationships. This hardness of heart can damage our most intimate relationships, and it gets played out in other areas of life as well. Hardness of heart is what distinguishes us from the young children whom Jesus offers us as models for his kingdom.
The heart in question here is not that beating organ in your chest, the subject of cardiology, nor the heart pictured on Valentine’s cards, the emblem of romantic feeling. What is meant is the heart in the biblical sense: the core of human existence, what makes us who we truly are.
The hardening of this heart is the great danger in life. A hard heart is a lost opportunity, for God most readily works in the world through hearts truly alive.
A heart that has become hard cannot be pure because it cannot pursue the purpose for which it exists. To the pure in heart Christ makes a tremendous promise: they shall see God. To miss the realization of this promise is to miss everything.
Yet all of us suffer from hardness of heart to one degree or another, and such hardening can happen without our awareness of it.
The core of our existence hardens when we run scared, when forces such as pride and fear and hatred reign inside us.
Our hearts harden when we accept glittery substitutes, sensational idols, or even prosaic security in place of the authentic and challenging life God constantly offers us.
Many forces in this world, including people and institutions, contribute to hearts becoming hard. The deadening of our core is often presented as something else: a toughening, a maturation. Sometimes it is even applauded. We take this internal deadness as a normal development rather than as a travesty.
Christianity claims that in response to this menace, God wants to replace stony hearts with hearts of flesh, hearts tender and alive.
One place where the exchange is meant to happen is in worship. This is what we are about here and now. Public worship is an important part of Christianity’s discipline for maintaining a heart that lives.
All this carries important implications for how congregations worship, for the messages communicated through liturgies, sermons, hymns, and sacred actions. Anything that passes for worship yet causes hearts to harden takes people in the wrong direction and must be rejected. But worship that fails to soften hearts and restore them to life is also seriously flawed. Attending church must not increase the deadness at people’s centers nor leave them unchanged. What all of us need is nothing less than a new heart.
The Christian tradition refers to many reasons why people attend church, indicating how public worship is in truth a complex activity. These reasons include praising and thanking God, hearing the Scriptures and the sermon, praying for the needs of all people, participating in the Holy Communion, and engaging in fellowship with believers. All these reasons are important.
Yet the case they make for public worship may not be convincing to people who have not experienced such worship on a regular basis or have not found it engaging. To them these reasons may seem unrelated to their concerns and those of the world.
However, tradition offers this further reason for attending church that may make more sense and possess greater urgency: through participation in public worship, our hearts can be kept from becoming and remaining hard.
This reason for public worship may make sense to some people who do not appreciate the other reasons.
These people recognize hardness of heart as a human problem.
They wonder where a remedy lies.
They believe, or want to believe, that our God can replace stony hearts with hearts able to love.
These people are standing on the doorstep of this temple.
They are eager to find a fellowship where week by week those who participate welcome God’s gift of a living heart.
They await an invitation to enter, so that together with us they may experience through worship how hardness of heart need never have the last word.
Let us pray.
God of astounding mercy, make the heart of each of us like that of a little child, that we may welcome your kingdom with joy. Give us hearts of flesh, able to love with a love like your own.
Through our worship continually transform us, that we may welcome others who desire your gift of a new heart.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, and in the power of your life-giving Spirit.
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A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
19th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 22, Year B. October 4, 2015. (Text: Mark 10:2-16)
The first part of today’s gospel is about marriage and divorce, and the second part is about children. In particular, it’s about childlikeness. I’m going to talk about the second part this morning.
At this point in his ministry, Jesus was passing through the villages, teaching. He seems to have been speaking to a market-place crowd this time. Some mothers came up with their children, wanting Jesus to lay his hands on them, pick them up and hold them, hug them. There was blessing in His touch! They knew it. No doubt some of these moms with babies also had toddlers in tow, little guys who were walking on their own, kids maybe two or three or four years old.
Who was annoyed by this? Not the dads. Their wives were coming up to Jesus with their own little daughters and sons. These daddies probably thought: “The Teacher is going to bless my child! How cool is that?” No, it was Jesus’ disciples who turned grumpy. Those guys could be bossy. Remember the 5,000 hungry people? The disciples said, “Send them away!” Remember the poor Canaanite woman who trailed after Jesus seeking help for her daughter? “Send her away!” Now it’s mothers bringing their little ones up to Jesus.“You women, get these children out of here! They’re disturbing the teaching. Jesus is talking to the men here about important things. Go away.”
But Jesus contradicted them. Flatly contradicted them. He said: “Let these little children come to me. Don’t stop them. Don’t push them away. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. And unless you become like a little child yourself, you’re never going into the kingdom of God.” Which, of course, raises a question: What did Jesus have in mind when he said that “unless we become like little children” we can’t enter his kingdom? What exactly are little children like?
What are the qualities we all once possessed as little children that we should try to re-discover if we want to be fit for God’s kingdom? And, mind you, the kingdom of God is not “pie-in-the- sky-by-and-by.” It’s about a life that’s open to us, through the love of Christ right now.
Probably 100% of us here know something about children. After all most of us have children. Many of us have grandchildren. And all of us were once children ourselves. (Is there anybody here who was never a little child?)
The first thing we can observe in little children is that they are spontaneous. They live in the moment. They aren’t on any kind of schedule.
Our 12 grandchildren are getting older. Now even the youngest ones are in first grade and the oldest is out of college, working. But Grandma and I remember when they were really little. I remember a time when Sammy—who is now in third grade—was about 18 months old and came to visit us.Sam had just discovered the joy of mud puddles.When we took a walk down the street to a playground, he had to stop and stomp in every puddle. Then he had to bend down and pat the puddle. If there was mud in it, all the better. He knew just where he could wipe it off! He had a great time.
To enter the kingdom of God right now, you and I have to rediscover our capacity for spontaneity and joy. (I wonder what’s the senior citizen’s equivalent of stomping in puddles?)
Another thing about small children is that they have no doubt about their own importance. It didn’t matter what Poppy or Grandma Joan were doing, if a three year old wanted attention. We could be sitting in our favorite chairs watching baseball on TV, but if a little grandchild crawled up with a book and said, “Read to me,” do you think we’d have said “No way, I might miss a pitch.” Of course not! If a grandchild wanted to read a book or have a cuddle, that little person was more important than anything else. (Even the World Series!)
To enter the kingdom of God, we have to accept that we’re important to our heavenly Father. We’re God’s kids. He loves us unconditionally. It’s amazing how many people our age have trouble realizing how much God loves them. We can crawl up and “sit in the Father’s lap” any time we want (even if we’re over seventy). I recommend it to you. Just use your imagination.
Another thing about little children is that they don’t have any trouble believing that God might do something special with them, or for them, or through them. God might even speak directly to them. (Kids can often hear God lots better than we do.)
The famous preacher Tony Campolo tells a great story about a friend of his who dashed upstairs to his five year-old daughter’s room one night during a terrible thunderstorm. The lightning was flashing and the thunder was crashing. The man was sure his little girl would be terrified. When he got to her room, he found her spread-eagled against a tall window in her bedroom, looking out at the lightning. He said, “Honey, what’s wrong? Are you o.k.?” Without looking back at him—with her little face still pressed against the window—she said: “I think God is trying to take my picture.” --Little children know they’re important to God. Do we “old people” know that, too?
Another thing about little children that is that they have absolute confidence in the future. When I was in seminary a long time ago I worked in the slums of New York City. If you asked poor, inner-city eight year-olds forty-five years ago or you asked similar kids today what they were going to be when they grow up they’d tell you: I’m gonna be a doctor. I’m gonna be a ballerina. …Or a pro basketball player. …Or an explorer. …Or a rock star. …Anything!
Little children believe in their own unlimited possibilities. They can do anything, be anything. They believe in the future. It’s full of hope. The kingdom of God belongs to those who become like little children, little children who know that, with God, all things are possible. All things. All things. All things.
That brings me to the last quality I think Jesus was thinking about when he said we had to become like little children to enter the kingdom of God . . .And that is recognition that we are always dependent.
Little children are dependent. We know they’re dependent on us. And they know it too—even if they wish it were not so. They know that as little children they can’t do very much all alone. Teenagers are different, of course. Teenagers are certain that wisdom arrives with puberty. (The boys are, anyway.) But little kids—like the ones Jesus was talking about—know pretty well what they can do right now and what they can’t do.
Unless you and I become like them, we’re not going to enter the kingdom of God. And that’s because we can’t inherit the kingdom, or buy it, or earn our way into it. It is not a meritocracy. But if we become as little children are, we can climb up into our heavenly Father’s lap and ask Him if we can come into his kingdom—right now, today, this minute--and be welcomed in immediately!
God’s kingdom is beyond our attainment, but—paradoxically—it is within our grasp . . . if we are willing to ask in faith and receive it from our Father’s hand.
For all things, all things, all things are possible with God!
St. Francis Sunday is a very special celebration at Christ Church because we get to bring our four-legged companions to church and share God's blessing for them. For the 2015 St. Francis Sunday, Father Bruce and Joan McNab joined us. The weather was a little colder and grayer than on St. Francis Sundays past when Father Bruce has performed the blessing for our furry friends but our hearts were warm with affection for all. Please click here to enjoy the slideshow of the blessings and our congregation.