A few weeks ago I opened my e-mail and there was a question from one of you: What does the word “righteous” mean? you asked. Even after all these years, even though I know better, when I hear the word “righteous” I can’t help thinking “self-righteous.” But “righteous” as it’s used in the Bible means “right relationship.” So to be righteous means to be in right relationship with others.
The word is used in today’s second reading, where James writes: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield…And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. In other words, being in right relationship means being at peace with one another.
And we know how hard that is! It’s not easy wherever humans are gathered, as we see both in today’s second reading and gospel. Again, listen to James: Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?…You want something and do not have it…you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. How many times is the truth of this reading played out every day in homes, in churches, in government, and among nations?
We find the same point being made by Mark: The disciples came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. Busted!
But then he sat down, called them to him and said, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And then he did a strange thing. A young child was standing outside their little circle; he reaches out, picks up the little one and puts her in the middle of the circle. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. What do you think he meant by that?
It’s hard for us to picture in our own time how strange this would’ve been. In Jesus’ day, children weren’t worth much. They were valued as necessary to continue the family line but that’s about it. In our own day, of course, entire industries are dedicated to the care, education, and entertainment of children. It doesn’t necessarily mean that our attitudes are so much better than those of Jesus’ day; it just means there are a lot of people who see lots of ways to make a lot of money. Notice that Mark uses the word “it.” Jesus took a child and put “it” among them; and taking “it” in his arms… “It” is a word we use for plants, animals, rocks, anything that is not human.
And yet, in the middle of a grown-up argument among those closest to Jesus, he says, Here’s the key to being in right relationship. Even better, here is the key to breaking free of your conflicts and disputes. If you want to be righteous, find a way to welcome the nobodies—those who have no power, those who can do you no favors. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. James puts it a different way: Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. And where is God to be found? Especially among the nobodies.
On another occasion Jesus said the same thing: As you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.
It’s a huge thing for a nobody suddenly to be treated as a somebody. To provide welcome and hospitality, to offer generosity and a spirit of abundance for anyone outside the circle gets at what James describes as a “harvest of righteousness.”
Both James and Jesus are talking about more than doing good deeds. The gospel of Jesus Christ always is about freedom; what Jesus teaches is a way to break free of the chains that keep us weighed down. Are there conflicts in your life you can’t let go of? Are you still angry about some struggle or dispute that happened years or decades ago? Is there some relationship that even today feels not so much like a “right relationship” but more like a wrestling match?”
None of us can change anyone. We can make peace with them. But if that’s not possible, Jesus says, Find those who are least in society and become their servant. Find the mentally ill, the sick, the immigrant; find someone who others think of as disgusting or unacceptable. Pour yourself into giving them hope and dignity. Elect compassionate leaders, advocate for laws that favor not the greatest but the least and you will be righteous. You will be in right relationship. And just maybe, we might find ourselves released from the conflicts and disputes that used to consume us. Or, as James puts it, you will draw near to God.
But Jesus keeps it simple. Before we can change the world we practice here at home; we look for easy opportunities right under our noses. That’s what he did. He took the nearest and easiest example as a place to begin. As he sat there with his friends, he reached outside his inner circle, took a child and said, Maybe take a break from your conflicts and welcome this child. Can you do that much?
It continues to be a joy for me to see children in worship. I know that’s true for you, too. But it’s not because they’re cute, or even because they’re our future. These little ones, who have little power, no money and not much understanding of the world are, according to Jesus, a key to freedom, a key to breaking out of the grown-up issues and pressures and conflicts that consume us. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
There’s a wonderful piece of this story that’s our story, that I shared last week. The youngest among us bear the name of some of our oldest. The names “Lillian” and “Eleanor” have a long history in this congregation. It’s as if Jesus himself has set little ones in the middle of our circle and offered the same invitation to freedom he offered his disciples: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
Take a look at the back of your bulletin. This is our congregation’s affirmation of welcome that we voted to embrace almost two years ago: Lakeridge Lutheran is a spiritual community that celebrates the gifts of God that empower us to engage in the struggles of life, to care for each other, and to serve Christ where we work and live. Lakeridge Lutheran is a Reconciling-in-Christ congregation. We welcome the participation of people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, educational backgrounds, and economic conditions—all who want to join in community to honor God and be of service to people.
There may be individuals you still can’t welcome. There may even be entire groups or categories. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that we can start simply. Welcome a child. Make gracious space for children. Anybody can do that! If we start that simply–if we can get that much right—we may have something the world hungers for, what it craves. With God’s help and by God’s grace we could be on our way to showing our neighborhoods, and and the world what it means in all relationships to be righteous. AMEN