My family had the opportunity to visit my alma mater and home congregation during my seminary years. Here is the sermon I preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Kirksville, MO
Our scripture readings this morning give us some pretty clear examples of good guys and bad guys. Cain is clearly a bad guy. He kills his brother Abel. Abel seems to be a pretty good guy, he makes a sacrifice pleasing to the Lord and then becomes the first martyr. In our gospel lesson we have the Pharisee who is so high on himself that he is practically praying to himself, and we have the tax collector whose simple humility Jesus praises.
We like to think of the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. Batman is a good guy, Joker is a bad guy. It’s a good thing when children can learn the basic distinction between good and evil and celebrate those who are good. Sometimes, however, lines get blurred.
I grew up in Illinois and as a Cubs fan. Obviously the Cardinals are the bad guys and the Cubs the good guys. But when I attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, people there were pretty certain and passionate about the fact that the Cardinals were the good guys and the Cubs the bad guys. And what’s more: I have met some nice people who are Cardinal fans. Including Pastor Lukefahr.
Perhaps there is something more than the division between good guys and bad guys. In fact the scripture teaches that nobody is good except God alone. It doesn’t matter who you choose from Adam and Eve, through Cain and Abel, St. Peter, St. Paul, John, Mary and any of us here today- all of us are bad guys with respect to our state of sin before the righteousness of God. We are all in one manner or another bad guys in need of God’s mercy.
It is only to the extent that we trust in God’s mercy to us that we are in a manner of speaking good as compared to those who do not seek God’s mercy. The tax collector who beat his breast and declared himself to be a sinner was praised by Jesus. Compared to the very conceited and self involved Pharisee, he comes off as a saint. But the tax collector is accurate about himself, he is first and foremost a sinner. He is in desperate need of God’s mercy.
As the gospel lesson continues we have an even more vivid example of what appears to be those who are genuinely good. Children and even infants are brought to Jesus. Surely they must be good. We love to spend time with our children, and we find joy and delight in watching them navigate their way through those early years of life. Yet as our baptism liturgy makes clear, we would all be lost and separated from God if not for the mercy of Jesus applied in the washing away of sins of holy baptism.
Once we get past seeing our faith as about being on the right side of the good and bad split we allow space in our lives to fully receive and embrace God’s mercy. The essence of welcoming and inviting God’s mercy in our lives is that we are willing to take a step to the side and forego our expectation that we are capable of holding everything together in our life by being good enough.
Our desire for God’s mercy needs to be much greater than our desire to find our own way in life through being good. It’s not easy, but living in God’s kingdom is to confess that there are no good guys and bad guys, but instead those who seek God’s mercy, and those who do not.
We are completely dependent on God’s mercy, yet we live in a society that teaches us from a young age what it means to be responsible and earn our keep. We are told to not get too comfortable depending on our parents or others. “You can’t just live off mom and dad your whole life” Growing in responsibility means learning to be more independent. I might feel like I’m one of the good guys out there if I can make a good living and give to others instead of relying on others for help.
Society gives us the impression that our worth and view of self is largely determined by how much money we can make. Our sense of worth in this way is about a perceived sense of being an asset to society instead of a burden. Whether we are generous with our money or wise in how we spend is rarely considered. Instead we think of worth coming from how valued a career we serve in- the more money we are compensated the more we feel our work is valuable.
To be clear, this is not how God sees our value. And it should not be how we see ourselves or other members of the body of Christ. Our worth is in our identity as God’s children. Our worth is as immeasurable as the love Jesus showed to us on the cross.
Listen again to the words of Jesus in our gospel lesson “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Children are dependent on their parents for everything they have in life. We too, in our relationship with God, depend wholly on Jesus for what we have in life. And we are called to hear His Word with faith like a child.
As an adult, I have a hard time remembering how I saw the world as a child. It’s hard to unlearn the way I see life now. For all of us adults here, we have the challenge that it is often difficult to see the world as a child does. It’s hard not to view the world through the lens of adult responsibility.
We often have too many disappointments in our memory that cloud our view of the hope presented in God’s Word. We have seen too many evidences of our fallen world on the evening news or even in our own lives.
We all experience this weariness of living in a fallen world. This seems to be more pronounced in recent months with news of violence in our nation and terrorism internationally. Lately we share a collective weariness as a nation at how our election process has reflected such a departure from civility of a previous generation.
Jesus in contrast does not grow weary. Jesus does not become distracted by responsibilities and the failures of the world we live in today. Jesus instead speaks about our receiving the kingdom of God like a child because he himself trusts God the Father with the unwavering faith and hope of a child. Jesus has faith that our Heavenly Father will care for us in our needs.
The children that were brought to Jesus were brought for the purpose that Jesus should touch them, that is show his perfect love through the hands on specific gesture of a touch. This was a communication of God’s love in the simplest way. As any parent knows, nothing says love more simply than a baby held securely in the arms of mom or dad.
As a congregation, when we hear God’s Word we can all hear these words as if they are a very embrace from God our Father. We should hear his word like a child in that we believe it with confidence, without doubt or mistrust.
We also as a congregation face collective challenges to living with faith like children: We carry with us memories of what has and has not worked well in the past for the congregation. As a group we can often carry fears about pursuing the calling God’s Word gives to us as the body of Christ in this time and this place. We may have fears that if we speak the truth of God’s Word to our community we will be ridiculed and scorned for such words.
Or in other instances we may carry a fear of hope. Sometimes we don’t want to hope for too much, because then the disappointment will be too great. Better off not hoping too much out of what the gospel should mean for our congregation or our community and sticking with what is already proven and known. If childlike faith sees opportunities to help those most in need in our community, adult pragmatism calculates the financial cost or numerous challenges that make such a dream too costly.
To have childlike faith as a congregation is to eagerly expect that God’s Word will work in our lives and in our congregation’s witness to our community. It is to expect and believe that God’s Word does not return without result. Childlike faith celebrates the power of our baptism and our regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper to strengthen and equip us for whatever challenge our fallen world throws at us from day to day, and week to week.
One of the big attractions of being an adult from the perspective as a child is that “I can do it myself, I can have the home, job and family and do it my way. These are gifts of adulthood blessed by God. But they are not the goal of life themselves. (after all life doesn’t get progressively better when you have more and more wealth and material possessions.)
The goal of life is not our independence, but instead our childlike dependence on God through each and every stage of life. We best meet the challenges of pursuing education and career plans through child like faith. We best pursue the vocations of building up a home, raising children, and sending children off through childlike faith. With childlike faith we approach a process of downsizing a home, or giving back to the community, or spending time with grandchildren.
We depend on God’s mercy all the way through. May God grant this to us through the boundless mercy of our savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.