Pentecost 15B, 2003
CHILDREN, AND THE REDISCOVERY OF A NATION’S SOUL
Those of you who read the Notices thoroughly each week
will have picked up the one in the Church Council report which said
the Council is wanting to explore new ways
of responding to the ministry needs of children and young teens.
And having just heard our gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark,
about Jesus setting a child down in front of the disciples, and saying:
“Anyone who welcomes one of these little children
in my name, welcomes me...”
I guess that decision could seem very appropriate, timely, and acceptable.
And for us older ones, having also heard that story,
we can probably go way, way back in memory...
and remember the picture in the children’s Bible
we once received for good attendance,
or the one hanging in the Sunday School room
next to the framed Cradle Roll.
(I went to a small neighbourhood SS!)
So this story, at least on the surface, seems to provide us
with just the right opening we need
to talk about ministry with, and welcoming of, children.
Children... like the little five year old sitting next to his mum during the prayers?
The one who, in the space of three minutes, while you are trying to pray...
swings his feet,
drops a copy of the liturgy,
picks it up,
looks under the chairs while on the floor,
tries to dislodge a piece of gum stuck to the underside of the seat,
uses the pages of the liturgy as a fan,
waves to the Smiths who are smiling at him,
resumes his seat,
holds his legs out stiffly,
crosses and uncrosses his legs several times,
glances at the ceiling,
studies the height,
the play of the sun through the windows,
lies down on the floor to get a better view of the ceiling,
kicks his brother in the process,
dodges his brother's retaliating kick,
moves over and stands again to make room for his mum
who is now changing places... (Adapted. Ed Searcy/University Hill UC Web site).
Welcoming those kind of children?
Well, that may be one way to start a sermon around this story.
But I’m sure that is not what this story by Mark is about.
Indeed I think it is much closer to this one...
A story of a letter discovered in an ancient garbage dump
near Cairo, dated 18 June in the year 1 BC.
A letter from a worker writing to his pregnant wife back home,
telling her not to worry about his return, and sending her his love:
“Hilarion to... Alis. Many greetings... and to (our son) Apollonarion. Know that we are even yet in Alexandria. Do not worry if they all come back (except me) and I remain in Alexandria. I urge and entreat you, be concerned about the child (Apollonarion) and if I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you. If by chance you bear a son, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl cast it out.
“You have said to Aphrodosias, ‘Do not forget me’. How can I forget you? Therefore I urge you not to worry” (Crossan 1994: /63).
Here is a world light years away from our Sunday School child.
(But not so far away from parts of our global world.)
A world where a child is a nobody unless its father accepts it.
A world where it is commonplace and legal for children
to be 'exposed' in the gutter or rubbish dump, to die,
or to be taken by someone who wishes to rear a slave.
A world where the Greek word for a primary school-aged child
can also mean 'slave' or 'servant'.
Children in general were not the ‘last’ on the social ladder
in the society of Jesus’ time, unless they were slaves.
So, following Mark’s story, and Kathleen Corley’s comment on this story,
it is quiet reasonable to suggest:
“...that Jesus’ hearers are told to identify themselves with the enslaved or those in position of servitude. In fact, the reign of God belongs especially to them... Surely the statement that young slaves were of God’s kingdom would have been met with surprise or even shock by his hearers, especially the free, even if they were poor. Any who had been forced to sell children into servitude, however, would have appreciated Jesus’ subversive speech” (Corley 2002: 149).
Then Jesus took a young child,
one who had been taken into slavery,
set this child in front of everyone so they could see,
put his arms around her, and said:
Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me...
What a radical way to ignore or push the social boundaries of his society!
What a way to ‘get up the nose’ of those who exercised power
to value themselves over others!
So if we do our usual bit of ‘theological thinking’ at this point,
we would probably conclude that a 21st century interpretation of Jesus' saying:
• in acts of caring for vulnerable human beings
we come face to face with the divine;
• if anyone is wishing to be great, then such caring is a sign
of true greatness and power.
Last Sunday night Meg Richardson
was leading ‘Worship in the Round’ here at St James.
She invited those present to consider the general theme of refugees
and a particular recent speech by The Hon (Justice) Marcus Einfeld.
Let me share Justice Einfeld’s opening comments:
“It is often said that a society’s moral strength is measured by how humanely it deals with the most vulnerable individuals living within its domain. Yet here in Australia over the last half dozen years, a lack of moral fortitude, compassion and understanding of divergent cultures and peoples has given rise to a quite frenzied almost hysterical reaction to our asylum seekers...”
Justice Einfeld, a former Federal and Supreme Court judge,
is regarded as one of Australia’s leading experts
and foremost activists for human rights,
both within Australia and internationally.
And then during preparation of this sermon
I was reminded of the recent Family Court ruling
to release five children from detention,
following exhaustive attempts by our Federal government
to remove the family to Pakistan.
These children had spent years in detention.
The Minister responsible is now appealing the decision to the High Court.
Not only is his action appalling, but so too is the fact that
currently there are still around a further 100 children in detention in Australia!
What of their mental and physical health?
Then Jesus took a young child, one who had been disowned, dumped,
even accused of being ‘an illegal’ and a ‘queue jumper’,
the lowest of the low,
set this child in front of everyone so they could see,
claimed this child by putting his arms around her, and said:
Anyone who welcomes one of these children
in my name, welcomes me...
and knows the Holy One is in our midst.
Could it be that both Justice Einfeld and Mark’s Jesus
are really saying we need to rediscover our nation’s soul?
PS: Since this sermon was preached in 2003 the then Justice Einfeld has been convicted of making a false statement under oath and for attempting to pervert the course of justice – all over a traffic infringement notice. He was sentenced to three years in prison. His commission as a Queen’s Counsel has also been revoked.
There has also been a change of government and the policy of placing refugee children in detention has been changed.
Crossan, J. D. 1994. Jesus: A revolutionary biography. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Corley, K. E. 2002. Women and the historical Jesus. Feminist myths of Christian origins. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.