October 7, 2018
+ Now, for any of you who think of my as this kind of High Church Anglo-Catholic guy, you might be surprised to hear me say this:
But, I have, for many, many years been very attracted to and inspired by the Quakers, or the Society of Friends.
I know that’s probably a bit shocking to you. You would not think a denomination that is completely and totally non-sacramental and non-liturgical would hold any appeal to someone like me, who loves liturgy and the sacraments! But sometimes even I need an escape from the trappings of high church Anglo-Catholicism.
Even more than that, I love the simplicity of Quakerism. I love the silence and contemplative aspects. I love their pacifism. I love the fact that, historically, they were on the forefront of so much social change in society. I love how they strive for a truly experiential and relational connection with God—with the Light within, as they call it. And I love how the Quakers embody in their faith and in their lives a very simple, child-like faith.
It’s this last point that is especially appealing to me. And I also personally find it difficult.
To me, cultivating such a relationship with God without the structure of liturgy and the sacraments seems particularly daunting.
But there are days when I want that.
I want that simplicity.
I want that silence.
I want that child-like relationship with God.
And it is this child-like relationship with God that Jesus is commending to is in our Gospel reading for today. Out Gospel reading for today is wonderful. Well, except for that little exchange about divorce at the beginning of it.
After this debate, which really is all about following the letter of the law, rather than actually being divorce and remarriage, people start bringing children to Jesus. He says,
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
So, what does Jesus mean when he talks about the Kingdom of heaven and children? Well, he is talking quite bluntly, I believe. He is making it clear that we need to simplify. We need to simplify our faith. We need to clear away all the muck, all the distractions, all those negative things we have accumulated over the years regarding our relationship with God.
Now, to be fair, the Church and Religion in general have piled many of this negative things on us. And that is unfortunate. Too often, as believers, we tend to complicate our faith life and our theology.
We in the Episcopal Church get caught up in things like Dogma and Canon laws and rules and Rubrics and following the letter of the law.
In the Roman Catholic Church, we find these strange “cults” of Mary and the saints that really do not promote a deeper faith, but rather only a shallow, somewhat plastic kind of faith.
In the Protestant church churches, we find that the Bible itself is held up in such a way that it eclipses the fact that we are called to live out what we learn scripturally and not just impress one another with our scriptural prowess and knowledge.
All the churches get so caught up in doing what we are told is the “right thing,” that we lose sight of this pure and holy relationship with God. We forget why we are doing the right thing.
For Jesus, he saw what happened when people got too caught up in doing the right thing. He tended to blame two groups of people for this. The scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were very caught up in doing the right thing, in following the letter of the Law. A few weeks ago in one of my sermons I talked about these two groups of people—the scribes and the Pharisees.
They have received a very harsh judgement in the long arc of history. But we need to remind ourselves that, at their core, these were not bad people. They were actually well-intended people, trying in their own way to live out the Law, as they were taught.
It was the job of the scribes to write down and copy the scriptures, a daunting job in those pre-printing press days. As a result of copying scripture again and again, they of course came to see themselves as experts of the scriptures. And they were.
The Pharisees saw their job as interpreting the Law and the scriptures for people. They tried to make sure that the letter of the law was followed and that all those complicated rules we find in the Levitical law were followed to a T. They did this because they thought it was what was supposed to be done. In the course of their trying to do the right thing, they ended up losing sight of the heart of the Law and Scriptures and only concentrated on the letter of the Law and scriptures. But in doing so, they lost sight of God, which is easy to do when you’re so caught up on the dots and dashes of the words, and not on what those words actually mean. They lost sight of the meaning behind the Law. Hence, the debate about divorce today.
Jesus is telling them—and us—that we need to simplify. We need to refocus. We need to become like children in our faith-life.
Now that isn’t demeaning. It isn’t sweet and sentimental. Becoming children means taking a good, honest look at what we believe.
As followers of Jesus, it does not have to be complicated. We just need to remind ourselves that, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will show us God.
Following Jesus means knowing that God is a loving, accepting and always-present Parent. God is our “Abba.” Our job as followers is to connect with this loving Parent, with “Abba,” to worship and pray to God. Our job is to be an imitator, like Jesus, of this loving, all-accepting God in our relationship with others. When we do that—when we become imitators of our loving God, when we love as God loves us—the Kingdom of God becomes present in a very real and profound way.
But the fact is, the Kingdom of God is not for people who complicate it. The Kingdom is one of those things that is very elusive. If we quantify it and examine it too closely, it just sort of wiggles away from us. If we try to define what the Kingdom is, or try to explain it in any kind of detail, it loses meaning. It disappears and become mirage-like.
But if we simply do what we are called to do as followers of Jesus—if we simply follow Jesus, imitate our God and love one another—the Kingdom becomes real. It becomes a reality in our very midst. And whatever separations we imagine between ourselves and God and one another, simply disappear.
This is what I love about being a follower of Jesus. I love the fact that despite all the dogmas and structures and rules the Church might bring us, following Jesus is simply that—following Jesus. It is keeping your eyes on the one we’re following. It means doing what he did and trying to live life like he lived life. It means worshipping like him a God of amazing and unlimited love.
Yes, that sounds very simple. But it can also be very difficult, especially when we still get caught up in all the rules and complications of organized religion and the letter of the law of the Bible. And we do get caught up in those things.
Because following Jesus can be so basic, we find ourselves often frustrated. We want order. We want rules. We want systematic ways of understanding God and religion. Simplicity sometimes scares us. Becoming childlike means depending on God instead of ourselves. Becoming childlike means shedding our independence sometimes, and we don’t like doing that. Sometimes complication means busywork. And sometimes it simply is easier to get caught up in busywork, then to actually go out there and follow Jesus and be imitators of God and love others. Sometimes it is easier to sit and debate the fine points of religion, then it is to go out and actually live out our faith in our lives, and to worship God as our Abba.
But, as Jesus shows us, when we do such things, when we become cantankerous grown-ups, that’s when the system starts breaking down. We when get nitpicky and bitter, we have lost sight of what it means to be like Jesus. That’s when we get distracted. That’s when we get led astray from following Jesus. That is when we “grow up” and become cranky, bitter grown-ups rather than loving, wonder-filled children.
It is good to be wonder-filled children. It is good to look around us at the world and see a place in which God still breaks through to us. It is good to see that God lives and works through others.
So, let us be wonder-filled children. Let us truly be awed and amazed at what it means to follow Jesus. Let God be a source of joy in our lives. And let us love each other simply, as children love. Let us love in that wonderfully child-like way, in which our hearts simply fill up to the brim with love. Let us burn with that love in a young and vibrant way.
Being a Christian—following Jesus—means staying young and child-like always. Following Jesus is our fountain of youth, so to speak. So let us become children for the sake of the Kingdom. And when we do, that Kingdom will flower in us like eternal youth.