A Childish Response

Homeless Jesus, Timothy Schmalz, 2000.

In the last few weeks, we’ve delved deep into Matthew to learn about what it has to say to us as we live through the Coronavirus pandemic. We examined briefly the history of this gospel and learned that it is especially apt to inform a Christian response to this pandemic because it, too, was written for a community in uncertainty and crisis. We looked at the call to moral action that is found in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. After that, we saw the ways Jesus created a community that acted so differently than the powerful in their own context in his feeding of the multitudes. Now, it seems only right to ask: Jesus has taught us, Jesus has modeled righteousness for us – how are we supposed to live in response to these teachings?

Matthew’s community was also concerned with this question, and it recounts Jesus’s teaching about how we ought to live with others in its eighteenth chapter, through the first thirty-five verses. This fourth teaching of Jesus’s in Matthew is often called the “community discourse” because Jesus’s injunctions about living out his teachings all come in a communal context. This in itself is a teaching for many of us.

Living as a Christian is often portrayed in two different ways. The first is as an individual affair, one that requires only the personal belief of an individual. On the other hand, being a Christian is often portrayed as merely someone who can recite the Small Catechism and comes to every church potluck – someone who is steeped in the cultural traditions of the church. Both of these aspects of discipleship – a personal spirituality and belonging to a community of believers – are important. However, these two things alone do not paint a full picture of Matthew’s vision for living as Jesus has taught. The Fortress New Testament Commentary puts it this way:

This chapter’s insistence on the central place of “church as community” in following Jesus challenges some contemporary understands of discipleship. Some frame discipleship in terms of individual salvation and emphasize “my personal walk with the Lord” to such an extent that, in actuality, there is no place for or accountability to any community…This chapter’s vision also challenges ecclesial understandings that see the “true” church constituted by particular rituals, or structures of ministry, order and authority, or doctrinal tests, or propositions on social issues.

Fortress Press New Testament Commentary

So, if not the things so many modern American Christians would expect, how do Jesus’s teachings in Matthew urge us to act? Warren Carter, a biblical scholar, provides an outline of how this chapter outlines a vision of Christian living:

This alternative community lives as marginal children (18:1-5). Members do not cause each other to stumble (18:6-9). They take care of each other (18:10-14). They exercise communal reproof and restoration (18:15-20). They forgive repeatedly (18:21-22), never forgetting that God’s forgiveness requires them to extend forgiveness to each other (18:23-25). With these practices, they sustain one another in the demanding way of the cross.[2]

Warren Carter

Being a follower of Jesus, in this fourth sermon of Jesus’s, means sustaining each other for the hard journey ahead. It is a community which finds itself, like children, with no power and no status, and which cares for one another, like an extended chosen family. Though the eighteenth chapter concerns itself the relational needs of others, we must explore these verses in the context of the entire gospel; and, throughout Matthew, everywhere Jesus went, he was concerned with the physical needs of the people he encountered.

A Parish Soup Kitchen, George Elgar Hicks, 1851

In Jesus’s community discourse, we are called to be in community with others – to care for their needs, both physical (as we learn throughout the gospel) and social, by being with others, even when it’s hard. And, as I noted a few weeks ago, the writer of Matthew was writing for a community which was well versed in crisis, and so these claims on our moral responsibility don’t end when the going gets tough; rather, our moral responsibility to our neighbors is heightened at times of hardship. So, the question is, then: how do we meet the physical and social needs of one another in an age of pandemic and social distancing?

The need is certainly there. As we hit record rates of unemployment; as nearly one hundred thousand people in the US have died alone; as we enter the eighth, ninth, and tenth week of being alone in our homes; as breadlines wrap around city blocks and down highways – our neighbors, and we ourselves, are experiencing need on a level which is hard to take in.

I don’t pretend there is an easy way to respond faithfully in this moment. Rather, I write because I too am wondering how to respond faithfully as a Christian in a moment such as this. The pandemic is hard for so many reasons, and for me, one of those reasons is the powerlessness I feel in this moment. I feel powerless in the face of such enormous job loss, and powerless to help those who are dying, and powerless to address an epidemic of loneliness, and powerless to the need of those who hunger in this moment.

My powerlessness reminds me of my dependence. In reality, it is always true that I am (individually) powerless in the face of the forces of poverty, death, and loneliness, but the pandemic, reminds us collectively about our fragility. At the same time, it reminds us of our dependence: dependence on each other, and dependence on God.

Perhaps this is why Jesus asked us to be like children. Children, in both ancient Palestine and today, have no illusion of power over their worlds, and their dependence on those around them is obvious. Unlike adults, children have no illusions about whether they are masters of their own world: they are not, and we know it, and they know it. Of course, it’s true that adults are not masters of our world, either. The only difference is we insist on believing we are, anyway, and when something like a global pandemic reminds us of our powerlessness and dependence, it is deeply unmooring.

Judith Gundry-Volf, another biblical scholar, comments on what Jesus does by blessing children in his ministry. When Jesus blesses children, such as in this community discourse, he places “the young before the old, the disabled before the able, and the poor before the rich,” replacing a “conventional hierarchy” of wealth, power, and age with a hierarchy of need and vulnerability: “In his kingdom the most dependent have the highest priority.”[4]

The verses about Jesus blessing children, which occur in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are more complex than they appear at first glance. Jesus, as a rabbi, is building on the teachings of Judaism, such as Jacob blessing his sons in Genesis.[5] And, when we put Jesus’s comments about blessing and uplifting children in conversation with verses about Jesus telling women and men that they must abandon their families to follow him, the conversation becomes quite complex indeed.

Complexities noted, I still find these verses comforting at this time. The pandemic has instilled in me, like it has so many others, a deeper sense of my own vulnerability to death, disease, and hunger. And on a day to day level, it has disrupted my sense of continuity and stability. I’ll admit (and hope I’m not alone in this) that it has also led to behaviors that we adults associate with the worst behaviors of children (though, of course, we adults are not exempt from grumpiness or short-sightedness). In these last eight weeks, I feel I have become childlike (and, honestly, childish) in ways I would not readily associate with a life of discipleship.

But, reading the community discourse, I have hope that there is room for these emotions in a Christian response to the Coronavirus. Fear, anxiety, and anger about my powerlessness in the face of crisis are not contrary to discipleship. Rather, this kind of emotional honesty is part of sustaining one’s self for the demanding way of the cross, just as being honest about my dependence on others and on God is part of this way.

Christian moral action does not end with being honest about our emotions and dependence, though. As we have seen throughout Matthew’s gospel, and in chapter eighteen itself, it is also about caring for and acting on the needs of most vulnerable in our society. It is about feeding the hungry poor as an act of defiance to the grotesque feasts of the powerful, working for their good, and being in community with each other as we do it – even if it requires forgiving each other seventy-seven times. In Matthew, there is comfort to be found for those of us who are wearied by the changes and chances of this world. But it doesn’t end in mere comfort, and instead pushes us to be witnesses to the Kingdom of God in our words and actions. And that, too, is a comfort: that no matter how weary we may feel, God can – and is – working through us and with us to bring about God’s vision of justice, mercy, and peace for all the earth as it has been revealed in Jesus. And thanks be to God for that miracle.

[1] Fortress Commentary on the Bible: New Testament, 157.

[2] Carter, 361.

[3] Hicks, George Elgar, The Parish Soup Kitchen, 1851. [accessed May 12, 2020]. Original Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Elgar_Hicks_-_The_Parish_Soup_Kitchen.jpg

[4] Bonnie Miller-MeLemore, “Jesus Loves the Little Children? An Exercise in the Use of Scripture,” in Journal of Childhood and Religion vol 1, issue 7 (October 2010), 15.

[5] Ibid, 14.

9/9/19: I Believe in Miracles

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Raphael, 1515

Listen to my sermon here, or read the transcript below.

I have a funny relationship to reports on the climate crisis. On one hand, I so desperately want the crisis to be covered by media sources – and I want it covered honestly, with transparency and frankness. I want to read the IPCC reports as they come out. I want to know the full extent of the crisis we’re in, because I want to be a knowing witness to what is unfolding, and perhaps even an agent in its change.

And yet, when reports on the climate crisis do come out, it is often so upsetting that my first instinct is to look away. I get a funny feeling in my stomach, and my hands sweat, and I can only sigh deeply at headlines that announce what kind of world we’re heading towards. Usually, I bookmark the story, and I spend a few days dreading it before I finally find the courage to read what bad news that report contains.

It’s been this way for a while, but I had no words for what I was experiencing. Eco-grief is a term I’ve recently become acquainted with, and learning it was relief – like a drink of water in a dry land. Eco-grief refers to a broad range of emotions experienced in response to the loss of ecosystems and species, and to environmental destruction. Like other forms of grief, it includes emotions like sadness, despair, frustration, anger, confusion, loss, and hopelessness – among others.

It was a relief to just have these emotions named, and to realize that I was not alone in my feelings of grief. Naming it and seeing that I was not alone became my foundation for acting for a different kind of future.

These are the thoughts I carried with me as I wrote this sermon; my convictions about the need for action for the Earth, my sense of grief in the climate crisis, and my knowledge that many others carry this grief, but still feel alone. And I believe that this is a place where people are sorely in need of hearing the Gospel.

I preached this sermon at my seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, as part of our observance of the Season of Creation, a liturgical movement which seeks to pray for and act to protect creation. You can access the audio to the sermon here, or read it below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about eco-grief or the sermon in the comments, and if the sermon touches you in anyway, I’d be delighted it you shared it.

Continue reading “9/9/19: I Believe in Miracles”