What a great question. My mind immediately goes to the times that I did not feel safe in church meetings as a kid, like the times I’d be sitting with my friends and one of us would start laughing about something, and then none of us could stop laughing. (Did you ever notice how it’s harder to stop laughing when you’re supposed to be quiet?) That would happen, and sure enough, one of the church elders would come back and give us a threatening stare, and I’d feel so terrible.
On a deeper note, it wasn’t very welcoming to my little psyche that there were never any women up front in church unless they were speaking as a foreign missionary or asked to publicly confess a (sexual) sin. And I never learned about the many women leaders of the early church mentioned in Paul’s letters or throughout medieval church history until I got to Circle of Hope. In spite of Jesus’s obvious love and trust for women as co-laborers in the gospel, misogyny had worked its way back into church culture.
When I got to Circle of Hope, my now-friend Tracey was up front preaching from the book of Isaiah, vulnerably and bravely connecting her own personal grief around an issue the prophet was connecting with the bride that was Israel, and suddenly my whole body was kind of welcomed into the experience with God in a new way. I felt seen in a way I didn’t consciously process at that time. But I was able to relax into an openness to hear from God because I felt God’s acceptance for people like me (women) AND Tracey was giving us all permission to be vulnerable and honest with our grief, not having to be shiny happy people who have to have it all together. I was able to let my guard down and let God see my sadness, too, and that began a journey of real conversion and transformation for me.
I’d love for everyone to find that kind of “safe place” in the church. To be seen and known and accepted by God on the way to transformation.
Safety is kind of a loaded word that may not be ever fully achievable in this world, because after all, the world is not safe and here’s Jesus is inviting us to pick up our crosses! But I know that this questioner is asking about a space of welcome and acceptance that is crucial for most of us to even get in the door and experience the love of God that keeps inviting us deeper.
Jesus gives us a good recipe for a safe place in Matthew 18. We typically look at a tiny piece of this chapter when we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation in Circle of Hope, but I want to look at the entire chapter with you because it leans toward the transformation of the whole self and the whole world that Jesus is after.
Jesus reveals here that he wants the church to be a safe place for “little ones” in faith, and he does this by calling an actual child among them and saying we need to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. He shows how the safe place is created when give up our ideas about making ourselves great, and respond instead to God’s love and care and guidance for us.
Our ideas about greatness are probably highly influenced by individualism, capitalism, whiteness, fear, greed, self-reliance. We are trained to think that we must acquire wealth, status, knowledge, esteem and affirmation from others, or at least some fame on Instagram. Our ideas about greatness might be religious too! We might think we have to be good and righteous in order to receive God’s favor.
Jesus is saying the opposite by telling us to be like children: children regularly make messes and they need help. They are dependent on the goodwill of others for survival and relationship. God would like to relate to us like that – as we really are. No illusions of our grandeur. We need help, too! And Jesus is ready to offer that guidance and provision and love.
Why do you think the children were so drawn to Jesus? I think it’s because they were seen and known and delighted in as the “imperfect” and needy little ones they were. They were fully accepted that way and they knew it. They recognized the Holy in that acceptance and delight, and were in a position to receive from God what God was doing and what God is about. No pressure to direct and perform and manage and manipulate and achieve, to prop themselves up any further. They were already elevated by God!
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus says that he is like these little ones! And we know that he is, in relationship with the Father! Always listening and receiving and looking to his “higher power” (even though we’re talking about the same power) for his affirmation and guidance.
Jesus is calling us into a relationship with God that creates a safe place for others. If our ego needs are filled by God, we are less likely to hurt other little ones. If we’re waiting for God to elevate us instead of propping ourselves up, we’re less likely to step on others. If we know that we don’t have all the answers, we are more likely to create spaces of learning and curiosity, where others can have all their questions too. (That’s why we’re agreeing with our questions this season.) If we don’t have to be perfect because God loves and forgives us, then others can find God’s acceptance too. Remember, the people that Jesus challenged the most were not the Roman political oppressors, they were the religious leaders who though they were so self-righteous and had all the answers! They were so full of themselves and their striving for goodness and esteem and busy religious lives of important purposes that they didn’t need or have room for the active work and presence of God.
Jesus calls us grownups to be dependent again, looking to God for all that we need and trusting that we’ll be provided for because we are intimately seen and loved. This is a lifelong journey of downward mobility – very countercultural – and it will feel like death to our self-sufficiency because it is! But Jesus offers his protection for us little ones – those who believe in him – and calls us to protect other little ones.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
Wow. I won’t get into a conversation here about what Jesus might mean by “hell” but suffice it to say that Jesus is very committed to a place of safety for those who believe in him. He knows we are little and it’s easy to stumble, but we are responsible for each other in our vulnerability. That means we don’t bowl over the new person in the cell meeting with our great Bible knowledge or any easy answers. It means we’re open to inviting the poorest person on our block to the meeting, and we don’t count out our atheist friend who’s only the tiniest little bit curious. It means we don’t give up on the one who struggles with addiction like so many in our neighborhoods right now, and we don’t cancel our neighbors with different views and lifestyles. Instead we stay open to transformation – theirs and ours. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been a Christian for 40 years and have a lot of experience and know a lot of things; we are relating to the little ones in faith by recognizing that we ourselves are little ones, too! We don’t have all the answers either yet, thank God. We are looking to God for more, beginning again each day, surrendering to the great mystery that is Creator and redeemer God. We are confounded by this God’s sense of justice, who leaves the 99 beloved sheep to go look for the one who is lost! Could we be that one sometimes?
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
This tells me that Jesus is serious about our transformation. All of us. Even us when we’re wandering way far off from our transformation. We are his beloved little ones, and he’s not willing that any of us should perish in our rebellion or arrogance or blindness, so he’s looking to find where we are, and call us back into community, the “safe” place of transformation with God.
Speaking of transformation, we have been longing for our siblings of color to experience more safety in Circle of Hope. We are listening for the stumbling blocks to that safety this year. It requires white people, in particular, to become like little children with Jesus, letting go of answers and tradition and unearned privilege that we’re trained to hide behind. Jesus, the little one, can transform us by drawing us into new ways of loving interdependence with God and each other.
Jesus isn’t just waiting for this to happen. He knows that the world draws us toward power differentials and hierarchy and isolation and cancellation, so he offers a way to do the opposite. He is not just waiting until we all get better and drawing up the boundaries until we do, he is working for our transformation and asking us to partner with him in that work. We can learn from him in this work! (Matthew 11:29) He teaches us about the hope of transformation and inclusion through mercy and forgiveness and direct relating:
“If your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Whom Jesus still called, BTW)
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
From the heart! Yikes! Jesus isn’t letting us get away with performative mercy and forgiveness! He is calling for our total transformation. And I believe the only way to consider this possibility is to become a little one with Jesus. To ask for help. To let go of our entitlements and receive from God. Only then can we hope to forgive those who don’t say sorry or understand their offense or choose to reject us and take advantage of us. Only then can we hope to be little enough not to step on others with our successes or unearned privilege. Only as little ones can we wait for God to elevate us instead of needing to prop ourselves up.
This is a journey of downward mobility that Jesus is recommending. It begins in the heart, and it’s very counter-intuitive, because everything about the American way teaches us to acquire status and wealth and prestige and self-sufficiency and personal accomplishment. The way of community – of the kingdom of God – takes us in another direction. And it will take a lifetime of commitment to Jesus to keep moving in this direction, placing our identity and worth and security more in God and community than anything else. That shift from self-sufficiency might even feel like death as we get older, but it is the best kind, opening us up to saving our lives by losing them, as Jesus says. Only the power of the risen Christ can enable us to become like little children with God, trusting the Spirit to meet our needs and guide us. And that dependence is probably our only hope of creating a church space that is safe for anyone. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
Let’s be gentle and loving with ourselves in this transformational process of becoming like little children with God, just you would with a little child! Let’s keep asking for help, above and beyond us, and we will be met by Jesus himself.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:10