Big Enough to Care for the Small (Psalm 113; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 10:28-31; Mark 10:13-16)
Today we enter a long period in the church calendar that will stretch until the First Sunday in Advent at almost the end of the Calendar year. We call it Ordinary Time, which zeroes in on stories of Jesus’ life and work. After the season of Easter in which we emphasized the Risen Christ, and the new life he brings, and after we celebrated the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, with the new life the Spirit brings to God’s people, the Church, on this day, takes a moment at the beginning of this long period to reflect on how it sees God in the light of both Easter and Pentecost. The traditional name for today is Trinity Sunday, and sometimes we use the time to try to explain the mystery of God that surrounds that august doctrine. You can sigh with relief for that’s not what I want to do today. Now, I have to say that this is not because I am not a Trinitarian. I am. The constitution and bylaws of this congregation assume the doctrine and 98% of Christians affirm it in some sense. It’s just that we can get to thinking that there’s only one way to think about God, and that’s the way we’ve thought about God for centuries. But that isn’t true to the Bible that uses hundreds of pictures to talk about God, and none of them get it all or get it all right.
One of the most interesting sentences in the Bible introduces the Epistle to the Hebrews. It reads: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” This ought to belie any attempt to limit our vocabulary for talking about God. There are lots of ways to do it. Hebrews 1 continues: “But in these latter days God has spoken to us by a Son.” It is only a tiny exaggeration to say that the rest of the 13, sometimes very dense, chapters of Hebrews go on say why this way of speaking is incredibly important, and, according to the author, superior to all others. It becomes obvious that this “Son” through whom God has spoken was named Jesus, which is one way of making the claim that for Christians the way to know what God is like is to look at and know Jesus.
We might say that one of the many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors are words such as those of Psalm 113:
The LORD is high above all nations, God’s glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD, our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth.\\
And we can parallel this high praise of God’s power in dozens and hundreds of places in the Bible. No matter how great we think we are, or our heroes are, or our nation is, God looks far down upon all these. God is far greater than all. Nothing is too big for God. Now, we can become almost intoxicated with God’s greatness, as if it were the greatness of our favourite football player, or politician, or however we picture bigness and power. And, we begin to read other things in the Bible which have been taken to suggest that, if we just subscribe to belief in this God that the same power will accrue to us. That great blessing in terms of wealth and influence will be ours. And we have even, sometimes, been encouraged to think this in church. Well, if you got into this “belief in God thing” in order to become rich, famous, and powerful, and to throw your weight and influence around here and hereafter, you might as well get out of it now. Power in God-terms always has another side if we’ll listen to it and look for it. God’s power has within it the quiet whisper of caring for the small, the poor, the underling, the abused, the outcast, the immigrant, the stranger. In Psalm 113 we find these words about the small, poor, abused, outcast, etc. “God raises the poor from the dust, and lifts up the needy from the ash heap.” The Psalmist even uses an ancient cultural image of a particular kind of outcast (we, hopefully, have stopped using this one in our time, though I can think of sometimes we might): “God gives the childless woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Women who were not mothers, nor able to be, were left without social support in the Bible’s world, and left to fend for themselves. But not by God. God is big enough to care for the small. When we, as Christians, trot out our big talk of God and yet do not care for the small as we can, well, the words of 1 Corinthians 13 (“a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”) come to mind as a perfect description of our emptiness; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The two little Gospel Lessons today simply speak of Jesus telling us how God cares. The Lesson from Matthew 10 is a well-known saying of Jesus that is included in a section of the Gospel that describes how members of Jesus’ community ought to understand themselves and pursue mission in the world. It is a kind of wisdom-saying that argues from the lesser than the greater. If two sparrows are sold for a tiny bit of money and, yet God’s eye is on them for their good, how much more will people, (any people) who are much more valuable than that (even as to the price of a slave) be valued and tended by God? “God’s Eye is on the Sparrow, and I know God watches (not only) me but all those who have, perhaps, been made to feel less valuable than sparrow” in this world that values big power that cares only for the big.
The second little passage is also familiar, but we often read it more narrowly than it would have been heard in the ancient world. It’s about how Jesus cared for, took in his arms and blessed “the little children,” in spite of the fact that the leaders of the disciples, sent them away because they weren’t important enough. You know the old translation, “suffer the little children to come unto me.” Quit being judgmental of them, Jesus said, with an edge. Let them alone and let them (in the sense not only of “allow them,” but “help them”) come to me.
A minute ago I said that we sometimes read this passage too literally, too narrowly. In the ancient Mediterranean world, “little children,” was a term used to describe other than children (age-wise), but also included those who were small in means and power and influence. Again, it’s that thing about God’s preference for the poor, outcast, needy, and lowly, because their attitude is not one that thinks they know it all and ought to be accepted because of how good they are. Rather these are those who haven’t a leg to stand on. Jesus says, let them, help them, come to me. And more to that, we all need to come to Jesus (which means accept him as teacher, Lord) with that same attitude. That’s imitating how God lifts the needy from the ash heap. Accept the unaccepted. God is big enough, powerful enough, to be, in the words of our anthem, “Lord of the small.”
Last, our Epistle Lesson comes from Paul’s letter to a small group of people in a little Greek congregation in a small town in Macedonia (northern Greece). This congregation was having problems of some kind in their wider community. In the opening part of the chapter Paul made some assumptions that are, unfortunately, translated, with the word “If…” as if there were doubt. The construction assumes that it is true that God through Christ in the power of the Spirit is the great encourager and comforter, is one who has great compassion, sympathy and love. Those who claim to trust this God ought to be like that too, being unified, caring, other-centred, and concerned about what matters to others. Paul then cites a hymn that it’s probable the Philippians would have already known, to say that Jesus’ disciples live in acceptance of others because God does that, and our greatest desire and goal should be to imitate God in this world.
This hymn is a well-known passage of which I’ve spoken many times. It is a charter of what Christian congregations ought to be like, and why. In a nutshell It says that Jesus, who could claim divine honour by right (and in an honour-centred society that was just about everything important) did not regard that honour as something to be exploited, used, negotiated about, but rather did the opposite. He humbled himself as completely as possible, even dying a criminal’s death. And, God exalted him. We sometimes misunderstand this passage to be saying that it was after he became as humble as could be that God exalted him. We might even say it was because he humbled himself that God exalted him. There may be some truth in both these ideas, but if I understand the radical nature of this passage correctly, the actual words say that it is in the very act of Jesus’ “emptying himself” (the actual words of the text) that the exaltation took place. Jesus was never more like God than when he was big enough to care for the small. That’s what God is like. Big, yes, we can say that, but that’s less important than God’s own humility in order to serve others. It’s just astonishing!
One of my favourite lines in the Bible is not very famous. In fact, I do not think many people even know it’s in the Bible. It’s from Isaiah 45:15: “Truly, you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.” When we first hear it, we may think it puzzling that God should be called both the Hidden God the Saviour. We think it means, perhaps, that God goes out of the way to be obscure and not obvious, not able to be found. Again, there’s some truth in the view that we do not and cannot understand everything about who God is and what God is doing in the world. But that’s not what’s primary in this text. What the prophet is saying to us is that God often hides the grandest of the divine work, the divine work of saving, in the hum-drum of the world, in normal stuff of smallness, weakness, and humility. It’s much what Paul suggested in Philippians 2: we find God, and God’s greatest work, hidden in the suffering of a servant for the poor and the small. Jesus challenges us to imitate him in such a mission. We cannot do all the things he does, but we can, at the least, stand in solidarity with the suffering of the poor and the small.
Here we are back to what Psalm 113 said about God centuries before Jesus, and, indeed, forming one of his models for ministry. God is so great that nothing is too great, but equally, no one too small. If we cannot see God at work, look in the ordinary things, the little things, the weak things, in the humble things. Within these things and within their little work in the world, and even, sometimes, within the work of the great who don’t think they’re doing anything for God, we find the work of God. In the work of James Russell Lowell’s poem, “God is standing in the shadow, keeping watch beside his own.”
In the words of the first stanza of that anthem the choir sang this morning, now re-heard in light of the scriptures:
Praise to the Lord of the Small Broken Things,
Who Sees the Poor Sparrow That cannot take wing.
Who loves the lame child and the wretch in the street
Who comforts their sorrows and watches their feet.
May it also be said that we are like Jesus in these things, too.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.