There is nothing like a drought to make us think about water. This summer the state of California initiated water restrictions, requiring municipalities to bring consumption under control or face penalties. Those restrictions affected everyone, from local governments to private citizens. Throughout the summer, we watched as green spaces went brown, grassy lawns were converted to more drought-tolerant landscapes, commuters drove their cars dirty, and outdoor water use was curbed to the hours between dusk and dawn. In our homes, some of us learned to take shorter showers, make use of our “gray water,” and employ other conservation methods. It has been a big adjustment, making some of our children ask if these changes are temporary or are their new way of life.
Even with all this, however, I have come to believe that we Californians still take water for granted. We cut back, but still have plenty of what we need. A dirty car doesn’t kill us. A short shower gets the job done. And some, willing to pay the financial penalties, seem to be ignoring the environmental and governmental warnings. It makes me wonder what it will really take to make us all appreciate the precious and non-renewable resource of water.
For me, it took a recent trip to Puerto Rico, a formerly lush, tropical island that has been suffering from drought for the last four years. While the rainforest still appears green, on the south coast, the hills are as brown as the Central Valley of California. When I was in Puerto Rico in 2011, it rained every day. This time, the rain was rare. Many Puerto Ricans depend on the food they can grow for themselves. Without water, little grows.
Due to this severe shortage, the government of Puerto Rico has skipped right over self-imposed restrictions. In many places, they just shut the water off. In some regions, there is no running water for two days out of three. In others, it’s every other day – no faucets, no flush toilets, nothing. Only in public buildings or tourist sites, like hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers, can you count on running water. In private homes, you learn to save or go without.
While our youth group was in Puerto Rico, we learned to take showers every other day, wash dishes by boiling stored water, and flush toilets manually with buckets we had in reserve. It made life pretty basic for a few days. But then, we came home. Home, where cutting back looks like a luxury compared to doing without. I think of our PR friends often.
So water . . . it really is a big deal. Although we may sometimes grow weary of the warnings and wrestle with how to live within limitations, let us never grow complacent about the role water plays in our world. Water is essential for life. As such, water is a gift from God. Let us receive every drop with gratitude and use it wisely and well.
We pale in comparison. When we compare ourselves to others, someone always comes up short. Any child who has ever been compared to a sibling knows the truth of that. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “I know you’ll never be like your sister!” And it doesn’t stop with childhood. As adults we compare ourselves, or are compared to our classmates, our coworkers, our neighbors, our parents, our children’s friends’ parents, even our spouses. We measure ourselves by what we are or aren’t, in comparison to the person standing next to us. We are thinner, shorter, smarter, less educated, more affluent, less well off, more confident, more insecure, better at this, worse at that . . We are less or more. To whomever we compare ourselves or are being compared, one of us ends up with the short end of the stick.
Of course, we love to think that we are “more than”; but thinking we are “less than” leaves us wounded. If we hear that “less than” often enough, we actually become diminished. Our subconscious begins to believe what it hears. Social comparisons make for strange and destructive mathematics.
Gratefully, God does not see us in comparison. God sees us each individually, with unique gifts, abilities and yes, even shortcomings. God calls us each by name, to use our gifts to the best of our ability for God’s good purposes.
A graduation announcement arrived this week which featured a quote from Dr. Suess, the poet and the prophet. It read:
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
How might it free us to stop comparing ourselves to each other? How much more alive might we feel if we try to see ourselves through God’s eyes? How might we flourish if we encourage one another to be our best selves rather than jockeying for the “better” position?
The year was 2008. My daughter, Lauren, had just turned 10. And we were on the vacation of a lifetime – 3 weeks in England, as well as one long weekend in Paris, France.
After spending the morning visiting Sacre’ Couer, a gleaming basilica high on a hill overlooking Paris, we made lunch of a “French picnic” – bread, cheese and fruit, eaten on our laps in a city park.
We’d been finding our way around the city fairly well, thanks to Simon’s high school French, really good maps and guide books, as well as occasional help from kind Parisians. But that day, when lunch was over, we discovered we were a bit lost. We’d found the park by wandering; so backtracking proved a challenge. We knew if we could find a Metro station, we’d be okay – we could orient ourselves from there; but where on earth was the Metro?
Simon dug out the guide book. Then, he dug out the map. We located the cross streets and saw where the Metro should be; but when we walked in that direction, we couldn’t find it. So we re-consulted the map, reoriented ourselves and tried again. Still, no Metro.
As we were doing this, Lauren kept trying to get our attention, telling us the Metro was back there, or over there, always in the opposite direction from where we were walking. “But,” we thought, “What does she know?” She is just a kid! So, we studied the map some more. And wandered around some more.
Finally, Lauren, totally frustrated with us, took off running and planted herself In the middle of the park. She stood, arms wide open as if to say, “Look HERE!” So we did. And right above her head was a large sign, which read – of course – “METRO”.
While we had our heads in our maps, she was looking up and looking around. While we were following our guide books, she was led by her senses. After that, we never questioned her sense of direction again. Not that we turned over the navigating to her alone; but we learned to seek her opinions and to listen to her observations, to understand that she saw the world differently than we did, and that was a good thing.
How much we miss when fail to see the world through the eyes of a child.
Most small children don’t know a stranger. I have had children wave to me, smile at me and talk to me in the grocery store, in parking lots, even across traffic. The other day, a little guy leaned out the window of his parent’s SUV to start a conversation. And I had a baby make goofy, happy faces at me while sitting in the Social Security office. Children, for the most part, treat everyone like a friend. It’s why we, as parents, instill a little “stranger danger” into them to keep them safe. Otherwise, they’d just love on every body. Sure, that natural sense of trust can be undone by the things we say and do; but kids start out pretty cool with everyone. (Stevens)
They don’t even come with the prejudices and judgments that become ingrained in us by adulthood. The littlest of kids don’t see physical attributes except as a way to categorize their world. They make no judgment based on race or gender or age until they start picking up clues from the world around them. Though, that does happen pretty easily and quickly. (Winkler)
Children, for the most part, are really positive. They believe the impossible because they don’t know it’s impossible. And they are incredibly curious. They ask “Why” – a lot – and are not satisfied until they get an answer. They examine the world –through sight and sound and taste and touch and find a million wonders! Children are dreamers, idealists, and visionaries. They are the keepers of our best hope for the future.
I don’t say that in terms of “the children are our future”; but rather that our children aren’t caught up in the way things have always been, They don’t grieve the way it used to be. Children only know what they experience right now and what they can imagine. And they can imagine amazing things!
Children provide us with a view of the world that is wide and wonderful, adventurous and hopeful. People are people and love is everywhere!
Now, that’s what I had in mind when I first read the passage from Matthew where Jesus says, “‘unless you . . . become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course,” I thought, “We must become loving and welcoming and joyful! “ But then I learned a little bit more about children in the time of Jesus.
In the ancient Near East, the world Jesus inhabited, children had no status, no position and little security. They were considered no better than property until they reached puberty and few of them did. The infant mortality rate was 30%. Another 30% died before the age of 6. 60% never saw their sweet sixteen. And of those who did survive, 70% lost one or both parents by the time they reached their teens. An orphan, in that time, was considered the most vulnerable person of all. (Social Commentary, p. 336)
The children brought to Jesus were probably not the healthy ones, brought for blessing and adoration. I know that’s the way all the paintings and illustrations depict it; but the children brought to Jesus were probably the sickly ones, brought for healing.
So, what did it mean for Jesus to lift up such a child and say, “Become like this”? Children were the least of these.
Consider the words “kingdom of heaven”. In the gospel of Matthew, this phrase was interchangeable with “kingdom of God”, which, for Matthew, was shorthand for the meaning of life, the story of the world, the reason for being. The kingdom of God meant God’s holy will or reign or purpose. (New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 291)
And what do we know about the “kingdom of God”? Jesus defined it by telling stories, using parables. Over and over again, he said “the kingdom of God is like . . .” and filled in the blank. The kingdom of God is like a seed sown on fertile ground (Matthew13:24-30), a mustard seed that grows to provide rest and shelter (13:31), like yeast that makes bread rise (13:33), like a treasure hidden in a field (13:44), like fine pearls (13:45), like a fishing net that gathers a full catch (13:47), like a king who shows mercy (13:52), like a landowner who pays his workers equally (20:1-16), like the host of a great banquet who welcomes everyone to the table (22:1-10).
The kingdom of God is a wide welcome, a great fullness, a rare find; it is justice, shelter, a haven, a hope, a small thing that grows into something great. And the greatest in this kingdom? They are the least of these, the servant, the slave, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the cast out, the forsaken, the lost. These are the greatest of God’s concern. These are the ones whose angels have a special audience with God. These are the lost sheep for whom the 99 are made to wait. These are the little ones lifted up by Jesus as examples for all to see.
They have no importance by the world’s standards. They have no ambition but to live another day. Yet they are of God’s greatest concern. And for any who would take part in God’s good purpose, they are our concern as well.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Jesus was not lifting up children for their sense of wonder and natural curiosity. He was not pointing out children who took family holidays to Paris or waved at strangers from the windows of their parents’ SUV. He pointed to the children who were the most vulnerable members of his society and said, “Be like these. Welcome these. Learn from these.” Learn that you are no more important than they are. Learn that you are all God’s children. Learn that they need you and you need them to discover God’s true purpose for your lives.
Our world, our time, our society has plenty of children who look a lot like the children of Jesus’ day. Sick, broken, forgotten, vulnerable, in need. Their natural wonder and curiosity have been beaten out of them by illness, poverty, abuse, homelessness, war, and oppression. Our world has a lot of grown-ups like this too.
These little ones, these least of these, are still our teachers. They can show us the way not just to the local Metro station, but to the very heart of God. Because God loves them, God calls us to love them as well. To care for them. To welcome them. To work to change the world for them. To work to change the world with them.
But will we look up? Will we see what they are showing us? Or will we keep our eyes focused on what we think we know, the way we feel so sure of?
The children are waiting. The little ones of God stand with their arms wide open, as if to say, “Look HERE!” The kingdom of God is at hand! May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and courage to follow their lead. Amen.
Malina, Bruce, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Augsburg, 2002
New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995
Stevens, Maggie, “How do Young Children Develop Trust and Distrust?”, on the web at http://earlyed.newamerica.net/blogposts/2011/do_young_children_have_senses_of_trust_and_distrust-60529
Winkler, Erin N., Ph.D “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race”, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2009
I was delighted when I realized I would be preaching today. Today – when we celebrate not one, but two great American holidays – the Super Bowl, of course, which I know is a religious experience for many of you, but also Groundhog Day. Yes, Groundhog Day.
Now, if you’ve spent every winter of your life here in Southern California, where the climate is always temperate, you probably care little about the groundhog. But if, like me, you have lived some portion of your life amid sub-zero temperatures, you know why this day is important, especially this year, with polar vortexes and southern ice storms. On this day, a lowly woodchuck or “groundhog” served as a prognosticator of weather patterns, while people all over the east coast, the Midwest and the great white north hoped and prayed for an early spring.
Of course, if you checked to the news before you came to church, you know that “Punxsutawney Phi” ha predicted – sadly – 6 more weeks of winter.
I know it all seems rather silly – entrusting the weather forecast to a rodent, especially when the odds of being right are no better than 50/50, about as good as tossing a coin. However, when people, shoulder-deep in snow, need a little hope, who cares if it’s silly. Human beings have a long history of finding reassurance in what other people deem to be “foolish”.
For many of us, when we hear the words “Groundhog Day”, we may not actually think of a furry beast in rural Pennsylvania. We may think of the 1993 film of the same name, which starred Bill Murray. Talk about silly and hopeful.
In this film, we meet Phil Connors, a TV weatherman from Pittsburgh who has been sent on assignment to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the annual Groundhog Festival. Phil, when we first meet him, is not a nice man. He is ego-centric, arrogant and rude. He feels the assignment is beneath him. The people of Punxsutawney are too “small town”. He just wants to get in, do the job, and get out – as fast as he possibly can.
Except he can’t. He finds himself trapped in an endless loop of time, reliving February 2nd, Groundhog Day, over and over again. At first, he can’t believe it. Then he tries to fight it. Eventually, he realizes that life in an endless loop means he never has to suffer consequences for his actions – at least not for long. So, he immerses himself in a totally hedonistic lifestyle. But even that grows old; and Phil becomes depressed. That’s when he tries to escape his circumstances – by ending his life in every way imaginable, except – because this is a movie – he always wakes up alive and well the next morning. Or should I say the very same morning.
No matter how one February 2nd ends, there is always another. In time, Phil begins to think he’s immortal, a god. He’s not capable of dying and after countless days in Punxsutawney, he knows everything about everyone. He can predict every event before it happens. In one of my favorite lines from the movie, Phil decides that the reason God is omniscient is that “God is simply so old that he knows everything”!
Oddly, these god-like qualities start to have an effect on Phil. Learning about the lives of others, he begins to experience compassion. Working alongside his colleagues day after day, he grows to appreciate their skills. Having explored the emptiness of his own hedonism, he begins to seek more meaningful pursuits. Witnessing the impact of tragedy, he looks for ways to step in before tragedy can strike. And when he falls in love, he discovers that he actually has a heart and wants to share it. Phil remains far from perfect, but he starts to become a better person.
The film never tells us just how many times Phil lives through February 2nd; though one slightly obsessed film blogger has calculated the number at 12,403. That’s just short of 34 years! (Gallagher) Phil becomes a better person, but it takes him a really long time.
We all know people who seem stuck in an endless loop of mistakes and regret. It is painful to watch. It is even more painful to be one of those people. But the truth is, while this film is sort of silly, it tells real truth. Change, transformation, redemption can be a slow process. Sometimes it is two steps forward, one step back. Other times we only get one foot in front of us before we lose ground. In the journey to our fullest potential, we usually make our way in fits and starts.
As children, growing up may seem inevitable. But maturity, as they say, is optional. Becoming mature – spiritually and emotionally, is a journey of many, many miles, just as Phil’s journey took many, many, many days.
It is why I take great comfort in the text from 1 Corinthians that Katie read this morning. It describes the process of transformation as “being saved”. “Being saved” is a journey toward our better selves, toward our god-like selves or the image in which God created us. “Being saved” is following in the way of Jesus, taking our cues and lessons from the way he lived and loved. “Being saved” is getting it wrong sometimes but always trying again, leaning on grace and mercy and being willing to put our hands and hearts again to the ways of compassion, kindness, gentleness and self-control.
As comforted as I am by that, I also struggle with it – because I want to be right all the time. What’s more, I want to get it right. I hate it when I don’t. I feel ashamed, embarrassed, even foolish. I know better, yet I make bad decisions, or act on impulse or fear or self-interest or just short-sightedness. Cause I’m working out my salvation just like everyone else.
Fortunately, foolishness is God’s specialty. Consider again the words of 1 Corinthians: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. “
The foolishness of the cross. The cross – an ancient instrument of humiliation and death, reserved as punishment for those who made the biggest mistakes. The cross – became a symbol of extravagant love and endless grace. How absurd. How foolish. How wrong it seems. And yet, how full of hope. If God can transform something as grotesque as the cross, what might God yet do with me? If God can bring new life out death, is any of us too far gone to be saved? To be restored? To be changed for the better?
Of course, that change will probably take some time, a lifetime even. But the good news is that God is patient, longsuffering, steadfast and everlasting.
Psalm 15, the scripture read earlier in the service, describes who may enter God’s Temple. But what it doesn’t say is that God doesn’t wait for us there. God meets us right here. God walks with us on this journey. And God has all the time in the world. WE may grow impatient. But God does not.
The ending of the film “Groundhog Day”, finds Phil finally waking to a new day, to February 3rd. He is a changed man, still not perfect; but definitely a changed man. But of all the ways he’s changed the last was the most significant – it is what started time ticking again. For Phil had learned to live in the moment, to cherish life in all its imperfections, and to embrace love.
That’s something all of us could learn. Because being saved is a process. We are not going to get it right all the time. We have the way of Jesus as a map to follow; but we are still going to veer off the path. Veering off into ugly, foolish, embarrassing or silly places. A lot of the time, we are going to feel like we’re getting nowhere, or worse, going backward, or in circles. It is at these times, we have to trust that the One who created us is with us every step of the way.
There is wonderful modern parable written by Martin Bell, published in the book, “The Way of the Wolf”. It’s called “Rag Tag Army”. In closing, I want to read you a portion of it. As I do, please understand it was written in the 1960’s, when what passed for progressive was writing modern day parables, not inclusive language for God.
From “Rag Tag Army”:
If God were more sensible, he’d take [this] little army and shape them up. Whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in the field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring [one of us] back. But that’s God for you. . . His steps are deliberate and [purposeful]. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he is going. And he means to take every last one of us with him . . . That’s why it’s taking so long.
And the march goes on . . .
Bell, Martin, The Way of the Wolf. New York: Random House, 1968, pp 89-91
Gallagher, Simon, “Obsessed With Film”: http://whatculture.com/film/just-how-many-days-does-bill-murray-really-spend-stuck-reliving-groundhog-day.php
Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis, Director. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1