Denise and I have a friend who is a church member in the Catholic Church. She is a faithful member. She teaches CCD and hardly ever misses worship. Her brother, on the other, is not so faithful. About the only time that he does go to church is when he comes home to mom’s house for a visit. Well, our friend recently found out that her brother has gotten an opportunity to go and see the Pope during his visit this weekend, and she wasn’t too happy about that. I believe her words were, “He never goes to church.” In other words, if there is anyone who deserves to go and see the Pope, it is her.
I thought about our friend as I was studying our Scripture passage for this week, because I suspect that on their way to Capernaum the disciples were having quite a heated discussion regarding who deserves what in the Kingdom of God. You can almost hear James and John saying, “If there is anyone who deserves a bigger piece of the Kingdom it’s us. After all, Jesus invited us to go up on the mountain when he was transfigured.”
“Oh yeah,” replies Andrew. “I’m the one who found the boy with the fives loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus fed 5000 people because of me.”
“I got you all beat,” says Peter. “I walked on water.”
“Oh please, not that again. You walked like two steps and then you sank like a rock.”
It was a heated discussion. So much so, that it got Jesus attention, which was the last thing the disciples wanted. When Jesus asked them what they were talking about, they didn’t want to tell him. They realized, in an instant, that in their quest to be #1 in the Kingdom of God, they had missed something along the way.
“If you want to be first,” Jesus said, “then you need to be the very last.” And on top of that, “You need to be the servant of all.” Talk about bursting their bubbles. In one sentence, Jesus lays right on the line. There is no room in God’s Kingdom for those who think that they are the greatest.
Now, this is the part of the sermon where I am supposed to challenge all of us to be more humble, not to think too much of ourselves. I am supposed to encourage us to check our motives, to make sure that we are not trying to serve God for the wrong reasons, like earning more favor with God, or getting a bigger mansion when we go to heaven. But, I am not going to do that. Because to do that, would be to miss the most powerful part of this story.
To bring his message home, Jesus takes a little child. Puts his arms around him and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” In that one gesture, Jesus turns everything upside down and invites us to look at the Kingdom of God, and our place in the Kingdom of God through a whole different set of lenses. Stick with me and I think that you will see it too.
One of the saddest aspects of human culture is that we are incessantly comparing ourselves with other people. We do this when we compare our material possessions. We do this when we compare our bodies and looks. We do this when we compare our moral stance on particular issues. We do this in one of two ways. Either we look down on others and say, “I am better than they are.” Or, we look up to others and say, “I am not as good as they are.” Then we define our worth, or lack of worth, based on those comparisons. The result is that we either think of ourselves as more worthy than we should, or we do not think of ourselves as worthy enough. And, this doesn’t just happen outside the church. It happens inside the church just as much. So that, on the one hand, you have those who think that they are God’s gift to the church, and on the other hand are those who cannot even recognize their own worth to God because they are too busy thinking “I am not as good as they are. I am not doing as much as they are.” But here is the thing, and I think this is what Jesus was demonstrating when he took that child into his arms. Jesus was showing us that God is not in the comparison business. If a seemingly insignificant act as welcoming a child is all it takes to welcome God. Then, you can be sure that God is not in the comparison business.
I once had a conversation with a Sunday School class about sin. Most of the class was convinced that God compares our sins and deems some sins to be worse than others, which in turn means that God deems some sinners to be worse than others. So, I pointed them to the teaching in the Book of James where he writes that if we break one part of the law then we have broken the whole law. Meaning that, it doesn’t matter whether you have committed a “big” sin or a “little” sin, you are still a sinner in the eyes of God and there is no comparison. Each sinner, big or small, is still in need of 100% of God’s grace.
Well, just as God does not compare us to each other in terms of sin, so also God does not compare us to each other in terms of good works. Let’s say that you have two people in the church who decide to do something nice for someone else. The first person gathers the resources to feed 100 homeless people. We think, “That’s big.” The second person can only make a pot of soup for a friend who is sick. We think, “That’s kinda small.” In the eyes of God, which one has done more? Neither. In the eyes of God, which one is more worthy? Neither. Both, through their act of kindness have welcomed God. Both, through their act of kindness have put a smile on God’s face.
So, why is it important to understand that God does not compare us to each other in terms of our good works? Because sometimes, when I am talking to people, they tell me, “I can’t do as much for God as I used to. I am not as strong as I used to be. I do not have the resources that I used to have.” Or, people will say to me, “I am not doing enough for God.” They have compared themselves to others and decided that what they are doing is not enough. And, all the while, these people do not recognize how much God loves them, how much God takes delight in what they do, how much they welcome God through the simple acts of kindness that they are able to do. These people do not recognize just how worthy they are in the eyes of God.
Some people think that because I am a pastor, that because I have engaged in full time ministry that somehow I am a little higher up on the ladder, that I have a little more status or connection with God. Some will say to me, “Pastor you pray because God will hear your prayer before God will hear my prayer.” But, I keep telling people it doesn’t work that way with God. I don’t get special treatment from God just because I am a pastor. Sometimes I wish I did. Sometimes I get a little perturbed at God that I don’t get special treatment. On more than one occasion I have been heard saying to my children, “I deserve more jewels on my crown.” But, it doesn’t work that way with God.
I learned something this summer as Hunter and I went to visit colleges. I always assumed that in the selection process, colleges played the comparison game with students and the school districts from which they come. After all, every year, magazines like US News and World Reports, The Princeton Review, and Forbes Magazine all put out their ratings of the top 100 schools and school districts, and if you don’t come from one of those top schools then your chances of getting in are slim. But, at every school we went to, we heard the same message from the admissions counselors. We look at your child in the context of his or her school. We want to see what your child did with what she had to work with. If he made the most of what he had offered to him, then he will be a strong candidate. I remember thinking that is how it should be.
That is how it is with God. God is not up in heaven ranking us according to our works. Nor is God up in heaven thinking, “That person is doing more therefore that person is worth more to me.” Instead, God sees every little act of kindness done in Jesus’ name and God smiles.