Sermon for Trinity 16 Sunday 23 September 2012
Sermon preached by Fr. Julia
Mark 9.36 Jesus then took a little child, set him in front of them, and put his arms around him …
Jesus says that the first will be last; he says that the values of contemporary society are reversed when we follow Him. They didn’t listen to sermons then, and we’re not much better now. So Jesus gave his quarelling, uncomprehending disciples a living sermon instead. Jesus took a little child, set him in front of them and put his arms around him. You know the traditional explanation: we see Jesus in the child, in the less privileged, in the vulnerable, those rejected by society, those worse off than us and so on, so that we treat them better than we might have done, for that reason, because we’re serving God. Like so many worthy explanations, it turns the text into a morality tale. I’m sure it’s fine, but do you see how we always find ourselves on the winning side, the ones who know best, the ones doing good, the ones who know how matters should stand? We read, we sit here, we listen and so slowly become the worthy righteous ones who know the answers to life and how to behave. This is the way we master our subject. We like explanations. But then we discover we are neither worthy nor righteous, and there’s an internal conflict between what we are and what we think we are supposed to be. That’s our life sentence.
There’s another way to glory, but you’ll have to hang on to your seats. Christianity is about mystery, not mastery. Gospel words are words of fire, they consume us as they enlighten us, they clarify and purify, and, like flames, they are way beyond our control. Jesus’s words are spirit and they are life. His actions are living sermons, his words take flesh, a scene begins and we do not know where it will take us. Jesus takes a child, and puts his arms around the child, and we look at them, and what do we see? Stop thinking, start looking. What can we see? We see ourselves. The child is you. The child is you as God sees you. The child is you as you were, and as you can be again, whatever age you may be. Your childhood is not something you’ve left behind, it lives still. We have all the possibilities of the child, the potential for beatitude, a new life ahead of us. What Jesus was doing when he put the child in front of us, was doing what all good liturgy does, it makes explicit for us what is already there, the eternity of childhood, we can’t miss it; you are still held, you do not have to know it all, you are in the hands of a living God. Childhood is not childishness; childishness is just tiresome and is certainly not confined to children. Childhood is the love that springs up, the love that does not discriminate, a fearless love. Perfect love casts out fear. A young child has indiscriminate love for all things, and therefore no fear whatever. The child in Jesus’s arms is a living sermon about complete faith and utter dependence, we are that child, and what we might dismiss as sentimentality, Jesus’s arms around us, is a truthful image, and the child is also Jesus in the arms of His Father. Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.
He took a little child, and a child lives in the present. One of the great achievements of the Church in our lifetime, as I see it, has been the worldwide rediscovery of Christian meditation and contemplative prayer – not meditation about anything, but meditation when the mind goes into neutral, and we remain for twenty minutes with God alone. It’s a way of faith which doesn’t begin with me but with God. It requires a basic minimum of silence and physical stillness and concentration. Children take to this naturally. You would think they would be fidgeting and playing up. No, that’s you and me: we’re fidgeting because we’re always wondering what’s coming next, not what’s happening now, and our minds are playing up because our minds never stop playing up; we never stop anywhere, because we cannot. But children, without the sermons we’ve listened to, without wanting to get something out of it as we always hope we will, are open to the gift of eternal life, they just go for it, and so enter and enjoy a universal spiritual wisdom, the pearl of great price, which we, in our superiority, have denied ourselves.
He took a little child because for Jesus the child is a symbol of one who has entered the Kingdom of Heaven. A child has no mask. A child has a free connection to an inner world. The child in Jesus’s arms is a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven itself. To get there, we enter as children, no false façade, no secrets, newborn, closely connected to an inner world, using the natural gifts of childhood: imagination, spontaneity, and creativity. This is to be our new life, our eternal life. Sometimes the child symbolises the Kingdom itself, as in Isaiah [11.6]: The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together, with a little boy to lead them. When we look at the child in Jesus’s arms, we see our new self, our rescued self, a self which is new to us because it has only psychologically just been born, and to whom all things are new, freshly seen, as eternal and as beautiful, as when God first saw and still sees his Creation. However much knowledge and experience we might have, we will always be children in the face of divine love.
If we listen to this living sermon, if we see there, and here and now, our imperfection and poverty as well as that of others; if we can see in the image of Jesus holding the child an offer of divine love; if we are grasped and held and supported by that divine love, by what is universal in life; if we can see our potential for blessedness, then we discover that it is with us, his wayward children, that God wants to live, for as Jesus says: anyone who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. And if we are touched just a little by that scene, then we are on the way to understanding what Jesus was on about in his life and death. In the Gospel today he prophesied his Passion; it’s the second prophecy of three. But what is so often overlooked, is that these three prophecies of the Passion in St Mark’s Gospel are not only prophecies of a death. They are prophecies of resurrection. “…he will rise again.” Jesus lives, but his being is not limited to one location in space and time. So He lives with God. A child understands that. What is taken up by God into His kingdom is not limited by space and time. So those raised up by God have eternal life. Lift up your hearts. You are raised with Christ. The word that is used for resurrection in St Mark’s Gospel is not a difficult religious word needing a sermon to explain it, but a commonplace word in daily use, meaning lifting up, raising up, as ordinary and as joyful and as natural as when you or I lift up a child.