Pictured - stained glass window at St. Stephen's Church in Ridgefield.
Greatness and Humility -- September 19, 2021
The Rev. Debra Slade,
St. Francis Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut
There’s a lovely stained glass window right above the altar in the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Church in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It has Jesus in the middle, two children (who look like girls) on either side of him, and several other women surrounding him. It could very well be that some of the other adults might be men, but for me the picture always was Jesus with the girls and the women. I moved to Ridgefield when Emma, our 26-year-old was one, and Laura, our 29-year-old was four. From that first Sunday onward, every Sunday was spent in the pews of St. Stephen’s until I left to be a seminarian, first at Christ Church, Redding, and then here at St. Francis in 2008. St. Stephen’s sanctuary has traditional pews that face the altar and the large stain glass window of Jesus. This meant years of Sundays staring at the window, etching into my brain the picture of Jesus with the women -- Jesus with the children. As I raised my two girls, and brought them to church with me, (Peter found God, he said, riding on his John Deer tractor in nature on Sunday morning), I was always drawn to the window, and felt so much comfort staring up at it. Like the women and children in the stained-glass window, I too, brought myself and burdens to the arms of a loving God, to that Jesus.
And every time I hear today’s Gospel reading about Jesus taking the little child into his arms, my mind drifts back to years I sat in the pew looking a Jesus with the children and the women. As I started to work as a chaplain, and then as a pediatric chaplain, I kept that image in my mind, along with the words of Jesus from Mark – “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In Matthew 18:1-5, the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus called a child to be among them and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” In Luke 9:48, his words are similar: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” In all three, we hear Jesus telling his disciples something very important – he is telling them about what it means to be great. and not just great, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven! And the answer was important for them, and it is important for us, and the answer has to do with humility, and children.
In Mark’s version, we find the disciples going through Galilee and ending up in a home in Capernaum. Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about along their journey. They stay silent in embarrassment because they had been arguing about who was the greatest between them. Now, in terms of refreshing bible passages, this has got to be one of my favorites. We find twelve men who are probably dealing with many aspects of their new life of ministry, having given up everything, their families, their previous careers, the comfort of their homes, the dangers of this new faith, (Jesus has just told them he was going to be betrayed and killed), and how do they spend their time together – arguing, and engaged in competition with each other about who is the greatest? Now, that could never happen when a bunch of men get together, or heaven forbid, a bunch of religious people get together? Could it???
Of course, it could happen, and it does all the time whenever we humans are in relationship. It happened from the very beginning of our bible narratives with Cain and Abel, and from the beginning of whenever tribes started squabbling from within and then battling with other tribes over territory. And it goes on and on, and on and on, doesn’t it? But what makes this refreshing, in some ways, is that the passage makes it sound as though they were doing it out in the open which is not that usual for most of us, perhaps, unless you are our former President… Most of us will engage in our thinking we are the greatest or wanting to be the greatest, in much more subtle ways of acting, saying, or doing. Parents might do it when they tell everyone about their children’s accomplishments, and others might do it when they send out that holiday letter describing their lavish vacations, home purchases, and other personal accomplishments. Facebook and Instagram are other places where that kind of bragging can happen as well. Elections are another time when people compete in a race which one way or another is about who is the greatest, and about who is the most popular as well. Remember being a teenager and feeling your worth equals your pecking order in the popularity wheel. How many of you have had to show up in some new group as an adult where roles or tasks needed to be assigned, and your emotions threw you right back to your youth where you worried about whether people liked you, what you might do to demonstrate your best side, and hoped to be seen as a winner not a loser. Jesus knows that is part of what makes us human, and loves us anyway, but he also shows us a way that will allow us to get off the ego and ambition train in order to focus on what is really important – embracing humility, and showing kindness, gentleness, and love. The young child becomes the model for us as it is through the innocent eyes of a child that we have the most chance to see ourselves and each other in a new light that reframes the world’s definition of worthy. The kingdom of heaven on earth is where the least person (in the world’s eyes) is the greatest, and where the meek will inherit the earth.
And how can we change, as Jesus directs us in the Matthew reading when he says “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Please note the word change here, and its connection to the process of repentance, which is first an acknowledgement of the sins we have done. Through this sincere acknowledgment comes a change of heart, a turning away from those things that are not of God, and a turning toward those things that are God. The Greek word for this is metanoia. And in this same vein, is the Hebrew word, teshuvah, the important theme of the Jewish High Holidays, that concluded this past Thursday on Yom Kippur. A recent article in Jewish Boston This Week explains: “Typically, teshuvah is translated from the Hebrew as “repentance” but it literally means “return,” as if turning back to something you’ve strayed or looked away from.”1 According to its author, Jewish thinkers have written extensively on what this turning back or returning meant, from turning back to God, to turning back to a state of moral purity, to the Jewish people returning to Israel. Importantly, we have a connection here in what Jesus speaks of when he asks his disciples and us to recognize that true greatness is not defined by the values of the human world, a world that values among other things, ambition, ego, success, power, and material possessions. True greatness means changing through embracing humility and becoming like a young child. And turning towards humility does not mean self-deprecation. Theologian Henri Nouwen understood this distinction well. He said: “When we say, “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me,” we choose the road toward darkness. Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God’s eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection, we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God’s beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth.”2
Humility means liberating yourself from the chains of ambition and striving, and allows you to stop looking at the world as a race where being ahead of someone is the only way to survive and to be the greatest. C.S. Lewis said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.” This change of perspective will give you peace, the peace of knowing you are forever loved and forgiven, that you are always and forever good enough, and that you are beloved, beloved as a child of God, now and forever. Amen.