Thursday, 27 September 2018

Whoever welcomes one such child

17th Sunday after Trinity     Year B (Proper 20) 

 Eucharist – 23.ix.2018 -  St. John the Evangelist, Castleside
 (Jeremiah 11.18-20; James 3.13 - 4.3.7-8a; Mark 9.30-37)

I’m glad to say that we have people from St. John’s Church who are involved in Messy Church at St. Cuthbert’s. Work we do with children always impresses people. Last week’s session was brilliant with 31 children registered and all the adults they brought with them as well as lots of leaders. It was loud, fun and exhausting.

People like to know especially what we’re doing with and for children. Today’s Gospel reading shows that Jesus had a way with children that must have been quite impressive. “Let the children come to me,” he says elsewhere to people who think religion has to be dreary and for adults only. Actually we have the opposite problem these days - so many adults think that religion is something children should learn about; but they don’t think it should have much bearing on their own lives.

Jesus makes us think again about our perspectives. “Unless you become like a child you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.” And in today’s Gospel reading he sets a child in front of his disciples - who are really themselves being rather childish, arguing “who’s best? which one of us is the greatest?” - and he tells them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me...”

But I wonder if there’s a danger in this? “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me...” Is that true about any child? What if the child is a little brat who knows just how to wind you up? What if it’s your child - adept at getting on your nerves? What if it’s someone else’s child? - and you wish they’d been taught the basics of good behaviour?

The fact is that sometimes children – even our own dear children – can be pretty horrible, and we know that we were as well when we were children. And don’t we have to remember that when Jesus says, “Whenever you welcome one such child....”?

Jesus knew what childhood was about - and no doubt how awful some aspects of it could be. In the so-called New Testament Apocrypha there’s an interesting book called the Gospel of Thomas – it starts with this rather troubling perspective on the childhood of Jesus:

4. He was again passing through the village; and a boy ran up
against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to
him: Thou shalt not go back the way thou camest. And immediately he fell
down dead. And some who saw what had taken place, said: Whence was
this child begotten, that every word of his is certainly accomplished? And
the parents of the dead boy went away to Joseph, and blamed him, saying:
Since thou hast such a child, it is impossible for thee to live with us in the
village; or else teach him to bless, and not to curse: for he is killing our

5. And Joseph called the child apart, and admonished Him, saying: Why
doest thou such things, and these people suffer, and hate us, and persecute
us? And Jesus said: I know that these words of thine are not thine own;
nevertheless for thy sake I will be silent; but they shall bear their
punishment. And straightway those that accused Him were struck blind.
And those who saw it were much afraid and in great perplexity, and said
about Him: Every word which he spoke, whether good or bad, was an act,
and became a wonder. And when they saw that Jesus had done such a
thing, Joseph rose and took hold of His ear, and pulled it hard. And the
child was very angry, and said to him: It is enough for thee to seek, and
not to find; and most certainly thou hast not done wisely. Knowest thou
not that I am thine? Do not trouble me.

It would be interesting to know more about the childhood of Jesus, but I’m afraid we won’t learn it from apocryphal Thomas. There’s just too much in it of how we would like to deal with other people... how we know that we’re right and they’re wrong, and we’ll show them. And that is not the way of Jesus Christ as we know it from the Books which did (unlike the so-called Gospel of Thomas) get included in the New Testament.

Though perhaps the disciples were rather too slow in realising that... In today’s Gospel reading Jesus has to tell them off when they argue about which of them is the greatest. Who’s the best? - who’s the strongest? - who’s most right when everyone else is wrong? People still go on this way to this day. Just look out in the coming weeks of party political conferences. Who’s got the muscle? Who’s got the newspapers and public opinion on their side - and how do you keep them there? Will there be plots against Theresa May and a leadership challenge? Who will be trying to do down Jeremy Corbyn? But there are things more important than having power you can throw about.

It says something about human nature that people try to do other people down as a means of promoting themselves. Look at the disciples’ failure to grasp the mission of Jesus, “Who’s the greatest?” Don’t we have to recognise our failures in this respect? Clergy in particular need to search their hearts. Every 18 months we have to undergo a so-called Ministerial Development Review. What am I good at? What are my shortcomings? What do I want out of my life and ministry? I was undergoing one of these processes a few years ago, and I got the feedback that I’d simply gone about things the wrong way. I’d stayed too long in the parishes I’d tried to serve, I hadn’t tried for the right jobs, and basically I hadn’t made the right connections. Another senior priest, now departed this diocese, said that a failing in most of his parish clergy was lack of ambition to get out of the North-East and experience something different. He might be right (every other priest in the room had served their entire ministry in the Diocese of Durham) - but it didn’t answer a still more basic problem that clergy from other parts of the country are notably reluctant to come and serve here. It’s too cold, too far away (from what?) - it’s not the place to be if you want to get on… But where does God call us?

 ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,’ says Jesus to the disciples. And “I am among you as one who serves.” Can we hear that and take it to heart?

Back to children… Jesus says we should become like little children if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. But not here. Instead he tells us we must be ready to welcome them. We must be ready to serve those who might be the most vulnerable. We must be there for those who are least likely to be taken into account - even when there are few rewards in doing so.

How should we do it? I think we can learn from today’s New Testament Reading - from the Letter of James:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish…  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy… And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

It’s not difficult to fall into the same trap as the disciples, to let vanity, pride and selfishness get the better of us. “Whoever welcomes one such child...” - that’s the way Jesus tells us to start being his disciple. That means welcoming the unruly child as well. The child who argues all the time, as much as the one with the angelic expression. The child who might be a bully as much as the most frail and vulnerable in the class. And it means recognising ourselves to be God’s children, ready to reach out to one another, ready to receive his care.

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