“The Kid’s Table”

Matthew 7:13-14; Micah 6:8; Matthew 18:1-5

Rev. Phillip Blackburn

September 23, 2018

There is something in Fort Smith that truly vexes me.  Every time I see it I feel afraid, then confused, then angry, and I see it all the time. If it were up to me, this particular thing would be banned from the streets of our community, or at the very least changed on a substantive level.  I do not like it.  So what is it?  It is the tamale truck that is parked all over town.  You know it’s actually a little trailer pulled by a pickup, I think, but whatever, I hate it.  And why do I hate it?  Well, because of the way they have chosen to try to get my attention.  They use flashing lights, which are bad enough, but to make matters worse the lights are red and blue, identical to police sirens.  So every single time I see that truck, every time, my first instinct is oh my, there’s a cop up there and something has gone wrong.  Now, that only lasts about a second these days because I quickly realize that everything is perfectly fine and somebody is actually hawking tamales, but I still do not like it.  However, I must concede that the flashing lights serve their purpose, because I have yet to drive past that tamale truck and fail to notice it sitting there in some random parking lot, chock full of tamales.

Now, I bring this up because I want to point something out to you in this passage.  There are flashing red and blue lights right here in Matthew 18 if we have eyes to see them.  Jesus uses these lights the same way the tamale people do, to get our attention.  Now, what are they?  They are the words, “truly I tell you.”  This little phrase is very important in the New Testament and it is certainly important in Matthew.  It is a flashing red and blue light screaming at you, the reader or hearer, to slow down and buy some tamales.  Well, not exactly but to focus particular attention on the words to follow.  Matthew uses this phrase 24 times in his Gospel, for example:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist

Or

Truly I tell you there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

So how is it used here?  Simple, “truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Oh.  This seems important.  So what does Jesus mean here?  When I think of children the first word that comes to my mind is immaturity, in which case I personally am feeling very good about this highlighted passage.  Yet I do not think that is what Jesus is shooting for.  I don’t believe he wants us to sit around making paper airplanes and jokes about bodily functions.  Bummer.  So what does he want?  If we read just a verse further we can see.  He wants us to become humble.  Ah, humility.  And it’s not like this is a one-off in Scripture, it is the well-known conclusion to Micah’s charge that we have been considering this month.  Micah says seek justice, love kindness AND walk humbly with your God.  Humility is not a throw away Christian value.  It is important.  It was emphasized by the prophets and it is emphasized again here by Jesus.

So what do they mean by it?  What does it mean for Christians to be humble?  Humility was not a virtue in Jesus’ day, in fact it was seen as a sign of weakness.  Slaves were humble.  Poor people were humble.  Sick people were humble.  The rich, the leaders, the powerful, the people that everyone in society was striving to be, they were not humble.  They were proud.  So we know this was not Jesus currying favor with the people of his day.  Nobody strove for humility, it was basically forced upon you.  So what does it mean?  Luther thought it meant being a careful listener.  Obviously, he never had children. Others thought it meant being a glad receiver. Perhaps it did, but that seems a bit narrow to me.  I think it is more likely that the proper interpretation here is that being humble like a child means forsaking status.  It means we do not care how high we are able to climb the social ladder, rather we care about cleaving to Christ no matter the social cost.  I think being humble like a child means letting go of the desire to be seen as important by the world.

It reminds me of the kids’ table.  You know the kids’ table.  The entire family gathers together for a holiday meal, or a group of friends gather for dinner. The adults sit at one table and, if they are smart, they put all the kids at another table, likely as far from the adult table as possible.  I can remember as a kid the times I was relegated to the kids’ table.  Can you?  I bet most of you can.  At first, I thought this was a great thing.  No worries about table manners. No boring conversations.  But then, as I got older, I caught on to the game and I wanted out.  I didn’t want to sit with a bunch of little kids anymore, I wanted to be seen for what I was, at least in my own mind, an adult.  I wanted to escape the kids table.

But this passage calls us to reconsider that table a little bit.  I read a story recently about a kids table and it made me rethink things to some degree.  Clara Luper found herself in downtown OKC with 13 kids.  13!!  They weren’t all her kids of course but she was leading the gang.  They walked into a restaurant and sat down.  They were dressed nicely and the ordered 13 cokes.  Well, we can imagine can’t we how this went.  That many kids?  People got up and moved around, others watched them.  The waitress looked at them warily and was unsure if she wanted to take their order.   13 kids in a small place, that can really change the feel, there was no room to cram the kids’ table.  The manager came out and he decided that maybe it was best if that many kids didn’t get their cokes.  And things deteriorated from there.  They deteriorated not because there were too many kids though, and not because they wanted cokes.  They deteriorated because Clara Luper and the thirteen kids were black, and they had plopped themselves down at the counter at Katz’s drug store on August 19, 1958, in segregated Oklahoma.  This kids’ table was dangerous.  And before I go on, I want to say this.  Before Clara Luper and the kids showed up at Katz’s, Clara had written to and met with city leaders for more than a year asking them to desegregate.  And this is what struck me, Clara appealed directly to their shared Christian values, this being Oklahoma we know the great city fathers were in church every Sunday, and this failed.  And so finally the children grew inpatient, as kids do, and they went and sat at the lunch counter at Katz’s and they, finally desegregated it.  And they worked their way, slowly, through all of downtown Oklahoma City.

So here’s the thing.  What does it mean to humble ourselves like a child?  It may be best understood by what it is not.  Humbling ourselves like a child means we cannot, we can never, set ourselves above anybody else in the eyes of God, or to be frank, our society. It means we never seek a status which would place ourselves or anybody else beneath us.  Now, we think to ourselves, this is not a problem.   Segregation is over.  And this is true, but we should also remember we are human beings just like all the human beings who have come before us and our default setting is to seek a feeling of superiority.  If we can’t institutionalize that feeling we will hold it in our minds and in our hearts and it will manifest itself in a thousand small ways.  A stray thought here, a justification of racism or sexism or political tribalism there, a Facebook post over here.  And Jesus Christ, our savior, is telling us to stop it.  To stop.  We are not to seek our own superiority.  We are not inherently better than anybody else.  The great city fathers of Oklahoma City were no greater in the eyes of God than Clara Luper and those kids and it’s sad to me that their faith was so weak as to blind them to that truth.  Jesus even highlighted it for us, truly I tell you, if you do not change and become like a child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  How could we possibly believe we will arrive at the Kingdom of Heaven, united with Christ, reconciled to God, in perfect harmony, and find any kids’ table there?  Amen.