Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 17 Sunday 23 September 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
TRINITY 17, 2018 HIGH MASS & BAPTISM
Readings: Wisdom 1.16-2.1, 12-22; James 3.13-4.3, 78a; Mark 9.30-37
“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
When we arranged this baptism for today, I had not looked at the gospel for the day. So it is either coincidence or providence that we should hear of Jesus placing a child in the midst of his disciples as an object lesson – but, as Archbishop William Temple said, “Coincidences happen to people who pray.”
A friend posted a picture on Facebook recently. It showed a line of Eastern Orthodox bishops arrayed in all their liturgical finery. At their feet played a little child.
The photo was accompanied by a quotation from Archbishop Anthony Bloom. In response to someone who had complained that the noise of children disrupted their worship, he said:
“If children disturb your prayer, start praying and they won’t.”
On another occasion, the disciples – who are beginning to get ideas above their station – try to stop people who are bring children to Jesus for a blessing. Jesus reproves them, saying, “Let the little children to come to me and do not prevent them.” Then he takes them in his arms and blesses them.
In today’s passage the disciples also find themselves reproved: this time for their squabbling over status. Jesus has just been teaching them privately; telling them for the second time, of the passion and death and resurrection which lie before him. Mark tells us that, “they did not understand and were afraid to ask him;” something made abundantly clear by the unseemly behaviour which follows.
What they were unable to grasp as yet, and will not until after his resurrection, is that the Messiahship, the lordship, Jesus comes to exercise is not as it is understood by them or their contemporaries: as worldly authority and power writ large – a super-king or emperor who would fulfil their this-worldly political longings for independence and national greatness.
So the disciples think of their own roles in similar terms of status and power, because this is the norm in the world as they knew it. They are confused because what Jesus says seems at offs with the accepted social and religious roles of the day. They want to know where they fit into it all.
To show them Jesus takes a child as a living illustration, of his radical re-definition of his role – and so of theirs in turn as future leaders of the Church.
We tend to think of children as having their own distinct identities within the family or community. A period of infancy is followed by a childhood without any responsibility leading to carefree youth and rebellious adolescence before adulthood is reached.
But history tells another story. Children have usually been valued as extensions of the family, ensuring the continuation of the family line, more especially in the case of a son, as economic assets.
As with some cultures still, children in 1st century Palestine had no economic or social status. Though loved and cherished by their extended families, they had no special treatment. They became a viable part of the household when they could begin working. Children were at the very bottom of the pecking order. They had no voice. Not for them the toys, fashions and accessories designed for children today. We are increasingly aware that childhood and youth can be anything but carefree with alarming levels of anxiety, bullying and self-harm, often exacerbated by so-called “social media.”
In using a little child to illustrate his point about his disciples’ service to the community, Jesus was choosing a level of society which had no voice, no influence, no material wealth, no power; the littlest people in all respects.
Elsewhere Jesus refers to his disciples as “little ones” and “my children.” He is not being patronizing but showing them how, in choosing them, God has already chosen the humblest as the ones whom God will lift up to greater thins, beyond their imagining. But even while being exalted by their new learning experiences and miracle-working, they must not only remain the “children” whose simplicity is pleasing to God, but they must continue to serve the humblest and most powerless among themselves and in the wider world, best represented by children. This is Jesus’ model for the new Church: being and serving the humblest.
But being childlike is not the same as being “childish.” If the supposedly grown-up are called to be childlike, it is also true that we are perfectly capable of being childish; of throwing our toys out of the pram; of having a tantrum, sticking our bottom lip out in a sulk when we do not get our own way. This is the kind of behaviour which James addresses in the epistle as he speaks of wisdom.
Today, to describe someone as wise is to suggest maturity of insight, a high degree of discernment and careful judgement. Although wisdom is not associated with mere intelligence alone, it is thought of in intellectual terms, as something that happens largely in our heads.
James understands wisdom differently. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” How do we perceive wisdom? The answer he gives is surprising precisely for its non-intellectual character. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” If we would detect wisdom, then, what we must examine is not first of all what a person thinks or says or writes, but how a person lives.
James speaks of the symptoms of wisdom – both godly wisdom and another kind – “earthly, unspiritual, devilish”. The wise person is the enemy of the world and the unwise is the enemy of God (4.4).
His appeal for wisdom has much in common with what we call “integrity” – the unity of thought and action. Action provides a symptom of the inner wisdom of a person; thus, the presence of envy, ambition, lying, boastfulness, reveals a perverted wisdom, which comes from the devil. This is the kind of behaviour seen in those who plot against the righteous man in the Book of Wisdom; they plot to destroy him because he shows up their own lack of integrity. The Church would come to see this passage as foreshadowing Christ and his martyrs down the ages.
Real wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” How is this true wisdom acquired? How is friendship with God achieved? James answers with a series of imperatives, beginning with the most significant: “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” Submission is defined both as resisting the devil so that he will withdraw and drawing near to God as that God will draw near to believers. Nearness to God inevitably means distance from God’s enemy, he devil.
Submission is a word of which we have become suspicious – and rightly so – because it has been used to justify all sorts of abuse and cruelty, both individual and communal – from domestic violence to discrimination against women and minorities, to slavery and genocide.
For James and for the Baptism service, submission to God and Christ is not about hierarchy and power but the possibility of trust. Human beings submit themselves to God as the one power in all the cosmos that can be trusted unequivocally. Trust in God drives away the devil; the power of evil. Trust in God draws God near. God may be relied upon to provide wisdom and friendship, because God is inherently trustworthy.
If we ever have doubts about the relevance of the Gospel, the current crisis over abuse of children, of women and other vulnerable people by those in positions of authority and power in the Church and all sorts of other institutions, including families, should dispel them.
Authority and power in the Church and in other human institutions, when seen in the light of Christ’s teaching and in his life and death, are for service, and especially for the service of those who are most needy and vulnerable. When power and authority become self-serving; when they are used to defend the position of those who hold them, even when their behaviour starkly contradicts that integrity which is true wisdom, then something has gone tragically wrong.
In the Church that defensive abuse of power is called “clericalism” but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the clergy have a monopoly on this.
The part of Jesus’ message that we instinctively defend ourselves against is the belief that it is in his weakness and vulnerability that Jesus shows us the nature of God. In his healings, in his teaching with authority, in his resurrection, we agree – there we see God’s power. But in the form of a helpless child? Surely not! But the life story of Jesus from Christmas to the cross tells us that this is exactly the route God chooses for our salvation.
So if we are called to be followers of Christ we, like the disciples, need to start trying to follow this path too.
But if this is frightening and hard, it is also liberating and easy. We do not need to earn our place any more. We do not need to struggle to be the best, to be important, to be the greatest. We do not have to be the centre of everything, frantically trying to prove that we are interesting. In the world of God’s strange mercy, the moment we let go of this desperate obsession with ourselves, we are where we should be – beloved, chosen and free. No effort of ours can do it, but it does not need to. God has done all that needs to be done through the life and death of his Son. The Father welcomes us, helpless children, as he welcomes this child today, as though we were that other child, the Son. Baptism is the great sacrament of the unmerited grace of God. All we need to do is practice doing the same for others.