A sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 & 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 by Nathan Nettleton
The Australian artist, Ken Done, once said that his aim as an artist was to recover the ability to paint the way he did when he was five years old. Now lots of people who didn’t like his art replied cynically that he was well on the way, but whether you liked his art or not, I think Ken Done was on to something. I suspect that Jesus might have nodded and smiled affirmingly at his comment, because Jesus himself said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3).
Now, these words of Jesus’ were not in our readings for tonight, but I want to take them as a way of exploring issues from a couple of the readings we did have. You see, when I’ve finished preaching, we are going to gather around our children to pray for God’s blessings on them as they return to school for the new year. And it strikes me that reflecting on children and how they learn and what we learn from them might be a very enlightening way to think about both the Beatitudes from Jesus’ great sermon and the Apostle Paul’s words about God valuing the things which seems foolish, powerless, weak and little in the eyes of the world.
I’ve been reflecting quite a lot in the last few years on the way children learn and grow and what it tells us about ourselves as former children. I’ve noticed that lots of the things that often frustrate us about children are the things that we have forgotten we had to learn and so we can’t understand why they don’t just get it. For example: body awareness. We grown-ups tend to think that you just know where your various body parts are and what they are doing. But you don’t. We had to learn that. When a young child is focussed on doing something with their hands, they’ve often got no awareness at all that their feet are waving in the air and sweeping things off the coffee table. This week I am watching a child learn to travel on public transport with a school back-pack on, and I am reminded again that we weren’t born knowing that if you spin around in a crowd with a back-pack on, you can wipe out little old ladies standing behind you. You have to learn these things. We all did. We’ve just forgotten.
The Apostle Paul said, that when it comes to judging spiritual things, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” We ourselves are mostly of the gentile line, and the mindset of the ancient Greek world continues to be a major influence on the religious culture in which we live, and as Paul says, Greeks desire wisdom. In other words, we tend to be impressed by spiritual and religious claims that seem wise and learned and logically sound and philosophically impressive. But, says Paul, God has not chosen to pander to that desire. The gospel of Christ crucified does not impress anyone as an example of great wisdom and learning. It seems weak and foolish, but it is the wisdom and power of God.
Churches sometimes debate the way children are included in worship, and one of the common complaints about many of the approaches to including them is that it “dumbs-down” the worship in order to bring it to their level. Now, I’ve been known to make that criticism myself, and I don’t think it is a charge that could fairly be levelled at the approach we’ve taken, but … I do think the Apostle might be cautioning us about the attitude beneath such a charge whether we were levelling it against our own worship practices or those we encounter anywhere else. What is it that the fear of “dumbing-down” is really afraid of? Are we perhaps really afraid of the weakness and foolishness of the gospel? I’m reminded of Frederick Buechner’s comment on worship, that whether it is “a Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, (or) a Holy Roller Happening — unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.”
Perhaps it is the exuberant, occasionally chaotic, and often on-the-outer-edge-of-decorum engagement of children in our worship that most clearly reveals to us how God yearns for all of us to engage in the offering of our thanks and praise. Our congregational covenant commits us to attending to the voice of God in the insights of the stranger, the outcast, the broken, and the little ones. I think both the Apostle and Jesus would want to remind us that if we are not prepared to expect and seek the voice of God in what the little ones have to say, we are probably not really seeking to attend to the voice of God at all.
The Beatitudes from Jesus’ great sermon on the mount don’t talk directly about children, although it is not insignificant that being known as the “children of God” is one of the rewards described. But they do seem to have a fair bit in common with Ken Done’s desire to paint again like a five-year-old and with the Apostle’s teaching about the apparent weakness and foolishness of the gospel.
The ones who Jesus declares to be blessed, to have got it made, are not the ones who have already got it all together and achieved success and status in the world. It is those who know their own poverty and cluelessness, those who know sadness and grief, those who do not think they are the centre of the universe, but know their relative insignificance in the scheme of things.
We can all learn a lot from the children on these things, although not always because children are ahead of adults on them. In some cases, growing in the beatitudes is becoming more like we were when we were children. But in other cases, children are not good example either, but they still teach us a lot about growing and learning and being open to being changed. There are beatitudes that we grow out of, and like Ken Done we need to set our hearts on growing back into them. For example, blessed are those who mourn. Young children rarely feel any need to stifle their grief or sadness. The first sense of loss and they burst into tears and wail. Many of us were told so often and so forcefully that we shouldn’t cry that we grew out of that beatitude so thoroughly that we are now incapable of truly feeling the depth of grief even when it is the most appropriate and most healthy thing to be feeling.
But there are other beatitudes that children hardly model at all, or only inconsistently. Blessed are the meek. There is often a meekness about children. Often it is forced on them. They are disregarded and treated as insignificant so often that they can hardly consider themselves to be the biggest, most influential people in the world. And yet, there is the complete opposite of meekness in them much of the time too, not because they are sinful so much as because, like what I said about body awareness, meekness is not something you just get. The reason our youngest children are quite incapable of restraining their loud expressions of displeasure when they miss out on the coloured pencil they wanted is because at their present developmental stage, they are incapable of noticing that they are not the centre of the universe and that other people’s needs may rightly be given precedence over their own at any given moment. A newborn can barely see beyond the length of their arm. Their awareness of the world is literally only this big. There is a long journey of learning from that to “blessed are the meek” and being able to choose to deny my own desires in order to make space for others to shine and achieve their goals.
But when we watch that journey of learning taking place in the children among us, the voice of God is calling us to attend and respond. God is calling us to remember that this is a journey that we are still undertaking. The Beatitudes are one of the passages of scripture most often reduced to sentimental greeting card verse and completely ignored as a manifesto for living, and this is precisely because we are so reluctant to grow into these attitudes. We hunger for the supposed fruits of adulthood: strength, power, achievement, status. But Jesus is calling us to take a lesson from our children in being open to learning and growth and change.
Eugene Peterson has written a wonderful book for the parents of teenagers called “Like Dew Your Youth” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). It is not a book of hints and tips on getting teenagers to grow up right. Rather it is a book about growing up yourself, and allowing the experience of parenting a restlessly growing teen to teach you about your self and your own need to grow more fully into the image of God. Peterson’s main point is that most adults wrongly think they’ve done with growing and learning, but God sends them children and teenagers to show them what growing is all about and to challenge them to engage in the journey again. It is a book I am very thankful for as I enter that stage of my life, but the attitude it encourages is not for parents alone. It is for all of us. If we want to progress in the schools of human maturity and discipleship, and if we want to continue to grow and mature into the people God created us to be and called us to be, then we would do well to watch, listen and learn from those among us for whom schooling and learning and growing are unavoidable realities.
Blessed are those who know that they have lots to learn! And blessed are those who have the humility and courage to be schooled in the ways of growing, even by the least and the littlest!