A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 15, September 21, 2003, dedicated to the loving memory of my friend, mentor and colleague and a former Intentional Interim Senior Minister of First Church, The Rev. Dr. E. William "Bill" Mathews, for Hank, Ellie, and Tony on their collective birthdays and always to the glory of God!
Jeremiah 11:18-20, Mark 9:30-37
On Sunday, September 14th, Christ's church and this world lost a dear and gentle soul. He was a man possessed by prophecy, passionate about justice, and dedicated to the liberation of all people. His name was Bill Mathews. Bill died of a massive heart attack last Sunday afternoon. He was my friend. And, for a time, I was his pastor. He was my mentor - especially in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And he was a former Intentional Interim as Senior Minister of First Church ten years ago. But, most of all, Bill was a blessed child of God. For those who knew him and for those who trust my words about him, let us remember the goodness of this man as we worship today. Let us hold his family in our prayers as they hold a service of memory and hope this afternoon at 3:00pm a service led by his widow, the Rev. Carol Shelton in Maine.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Jesus had a thing about children. While others tended to ignore anyone shorter than their kneecaps, Jesus knelt down, sat down, lay down to see what was going on down there. He had an uncommon sensitivity to the ones who played in the mud. He saw their eyes when dogs scared them. He saw them lost and alone and found a way to stop everything to be with them. While most adults patted them on the head, Jesus looked in their eyes. While most adults saw children as the fillers of space and problems to be solved until they grew big enough to hold a job, Jesus saw children as the main event, as the solution to the problems adults were creating. Jesus loved the children - just as they were. He took them in his arms, while others were busy keeping them at arms' length. He held the babies and knew how to pass them back to their mothers while gently holding their heads in the palm of his carpenter's hands. He even loved the two year olds, so it seems! He never stopped a sermon or a teaching or miracle to tell the parents to take their kids to the nursery. Could it be, Ron, that his sermons engaged even the two year olds? We modern day preachers could learn a great lesson in this truth. In fact, when his disciples scolded the children for bugging him, Jesus stopped everything, scolded the disciples for their scolding, and called all the children to his side.
But, Jesus was no fool. He must have been aware that children, like the rest of us, are capable of being noisy, disruptive, insensitive, self-centered, and cruel. Although he loved the children, "he did not hold them up as moral examples when he took them in his arms and blessed them. He didn't say we should imitate them. He just said that when we welcome them in his name, we welcome him, and that when we welcome him, we welcome God." (Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 133).
In Mark 9:30-37, the disciples were worried about how they appeared to others and argued among themselves about the nature of true greatness. Jesus brought them to their hometown of Capernaum, sat them down, probably Peter's childhood home, and taught them about true greatness. He said, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." When they blankly looked back, he took a child, probably one of their own children, and placed the child among them, taking that little one in his arms - teaching about welcoming such a child, thus welcoming God. Welcoming such a child . . .
Most of you don't know this about me, but for the past 20 years, almost every Friday, from September to June, I have volunteered at an elementary school. It has kept me grounded and helps me remember who I am. I started in Philadelphia, continued in New Haven, then on to Cleveland where I worked for four years with kindergarteners, then to the Columbus Public Schools for four years before Luke went to school, and now for the past 12 years I have volunteered in Bluffsview Elementary School in the Worthington School District. If you wanted to find me on the morning of my day off for the past 20 years, you will find me working with children. Sometimes I have worked with my own children, but most often I have worked with someone else's children. (Just for the record, I am notoriously bad at doing bulletin boards and my laminating skills are leave a lot to be desired).
Mostly, I have worked with children who struggle in school and in life. One child never smiled. Another never spoke in school (and I never was able to get him to speak - only to smile). Last year, for the first time, I was assigned to a child-genius. His name was Oliver. His classroom teacher wanted him to have a chance to follow his bliss - which was WWII fighter planes. I expanded his horizons and taught him about the whole war - including the fact that over 50 million people died in the war. I also introduced Oliver to Holocaust literature. By June, I probably knew more about the battles of WWII than my father, and I would guess more than most men and women of the Greatest Generation who lived through the war. We read close to 60 books. Through it all, Oliver was my teacher. He knew it. And we both laughed about it. In the end, he put together a multimedia PowerPoint presentation which, for some reason, had all the words in Greek. The fourth graders were in awe! Not only did he know about WWII, but he spoke Greek (Which actually wasn't true)! Oliver moved and I don't see him anymore. But, in our time together, I learned a lot from a genius in a child's body. Most importantly, no matter how smart you are, you're still a kid!
On Friday, I started my 28th year in elementary school (counting my own time as a student). I am tutoring fourth graders who struggle to read and worse - they don't believe they can read. My job is help them conqueror both their disbelief in themselves and to bridge their ability gap. In addition, I am working with a young man who is one of the most depressed children I have ever met. His eyes are sunken like a Holocaust victim. On Friday, those eyes looked into my soul. I promised him I would return. When I hugged him goodbye, all I felt were the bones in his back. He's a writer and I promised to read his creative writing. Although there is nothing funny about his life situation, he loves to writes funny stories, he said. He escapes to a world of hope through these stories. As writers, he and I agreed to write for one another. He is in my heart as I pen these words.
If you allow them to touch your heart, children have an amazing way of changing you. They can transform you. They can put your life in perspective. They can point you to the heart of God. They can tell you things about yourself that you might not believe - both beautiful and ugly. And, by welcoming children, you do, in fact, welcome Christ. And by welcoming Christ, you do, in fact, touch the heart of God.
Many of us spend our whole lives trying to figure out how to be more Christlike in our actions and behaviors. Like Thomas A'Kempis, we seek to be imitators of Christ. But, I believe, more and more and with my whole heart, that we would be wiser if we took our cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and sought, instead, to become "this-worldly" Christians. As most of you know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was imprisoned and eventually executed by Hitler and the Third Reich. While in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote volumes of letters, poems, and papers. In his letter of July 21, 1944, he wrote to friend and colleague Eberhard Bethge, astounding and provocative words - words which on the edge of his execution reassessed his life's work (all 39 years) - words which point us toward living faith over and against a path of sought out holiness.
He writes: Dear Eberhard,
... During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man - in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. I think Luther lived a this-worldly life in this sense.
I remember a conversation I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply, what we wanted to do with our lives. He said, he would like to become a saint (and I think it's quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn't realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today, I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.
I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world, that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man, or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in this world - watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia, and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God's suffering through a life of this kind? (D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc. New York, NY, 1976, pp. 369-370).
How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God's suffering through a life of this kind? Your challenge and my challenge is to be more real. Instead of seeking after true greatness, that is - seeking to be the greatest disciple, or seeking the best seat at the table in the kingdom of God, our challenge is to be fully human, this-worldly, if you will. I believe that all our attempts to be holier, to be more righteous, to be more saintly, will in time, fall short, especially if we have not embraced our humanity and the suffering of God.
I believe our spiritual transformation will come about as we are fully alive, fully aware, and fully in tune with the suffering of God in this world. Being in touch with the suffering of God will lead us to faith and lead us to the heart of God. Such a life is characterized by discipline and the constant realization of death and resurrection.
More simply, as Jesus would say, if you want to enter the kingdom, there is a way. Go find someone to put your arms around. Wrap your arms around a child of God - we come in all ages, shapes and sizes. By embracing them you have held God in this world. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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