So that's a millstone
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for February 25th: Psalm 51; Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 18:1-7. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
There is a local grocery store in Sunderland. A good part of the front-facing structure of this building is an old millstone. I have never had cause to see a millstone before this one. I admit to not expecting a millstone to be so very large. It is literally holding up a good portion of the building. Jesus makes reference to a millstone in today’s Gospel selection, and it is important for those of us with no exposure to a millstone to realize how gigantic such a thing actually is.
The disciples ask Jesus about greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus answers visually. He calls a child to their attention. (I enjoy the thought of the casual attendance of children as Jesus is preaching and teaching. This lets us know that families would come to gather around Jesus with all of their concomitant disruptions and excitement … and Jesus was just fine with it all.) Jesus does not hold up the child’s example as obedient or dependent, bothersome or weak. Rather, Jesus speaks of humility. In contrast to the disciples’ question about greatness, the child’s example is the humbleness of one judged inconsequential and irrelevant. The child is one often benignly ignored by such as the disciples. By extension, the child’s example represents all those whom society too often discounts and looks past.
Jesus then continues. For those worried about greatness, Jesus first points to the child as one who is often dismissed, but then Jesus adds that greatness involves welcoming the ones without status, the ones pushed aside or even despised by society. Jesus is basing Christian worth, greatness, on the acceptance and welcome of those judged basically worthless.
There was an inspiring article in the newspaper on February 19th about Rev. William Chalmers Whitcomb, the 1850 pastor of the First Congregational Church of Stoneham. (https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/02/16/opinion/stoneham-minister-who-broke-ranks-with-fellow-clergymen-decry-fugitive-slave-act/ ) The Fugitive Slave Act had just been signed into Federal law. Any escaped slave had to be returned to slavery, and anyone who assisted a slave to escape in any way could face six months in jail and a $1,000 fine in 1850-dollars. Many abolitionist politicians and many churches supported this law as a compromise to limit the spread of slavery.
Not 30-year-old Rev. Whitcomb. He went to the pulpit and decried this law because it treated the slave as something less than a person. The human who was enslaved became only property. Rev. Whitcomb could not countenance such a thing because of his Christian faith, and he preached against it from the pulpit. Rev. Whitcomb understood Jesus’ idea of greatness. Sadly, he stood out as exception not the rule.
Then as now Jesus’ message about greatness is hard to embrace for too many who still hold onto worldly status as the mark of greatness. This is why Jesus uses hyperbole so that no one may mistake his intent. Jesus knows that there will be stumbling blocks in the world, that people will continue to abuse and discount the humble, but says Jesus, “‘[I]t would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Once you see an actual millstone it is impossible to minimize the importance Jesus places on believers standing up for society’s outcasts.
I hope that Lent puts us into closer contact with the teachings and priorities of Jesus, the one hanged on the cross among criminals as an insurrectionist, as one by its very definition as opposed to the powerful elites of the world. May Lent help us to appreciate Jesus’ idea of greatness.
I would also like to invite you to worship with us tomorrow as we come together as church on the First Sunday of Lent. Tomorrow’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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