Minister's Sermon - 7th July 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenBible study for Church with Choices

Sunday 7th July 2019

Reading 1: Matthew 18.1-5

Reading 2: Matthew 19:13-15

Bible Study: The gift of childhood

Introduction

Today I’ve chosen two readings to reflect on. But because there won’t take very long, I want to interweave this with some reflections, from studies about children’s spirituality. In 1998, a book called “The spirit of the child,” was written by David Hay with Rebecca Nye. David and Rebecca worked together on a project that involved interviewing children about their spiritual experiences. The result was a book that has had a profound impact on work with children – especially those who have no contact with the church - in this country ever since. And Messy Church and Godly Play, wouldn’t be as they are, without their work! So, what I want to do, is to look at the passages from Matthew’s Gospel first. And then contrast what Jesus says with the way children are treated now. That’ll be the first half and there will be an opportunity for a short conversation after that. Then I want to look at some of the gifts of children. Before going on to look at what this might mean for us in the church.

But before I begin with that, listen to Ruth, aged 6, describing heaven. Even ‘though Ruth went to church every week with her parents, she found it boring, but didn’t have any trouble talking to Rebecca about heaven. She said it is “A mist of perfume, with gold walls, and a rainbow stretched over God’s throne… but a transparent mist, like a… I can’t explain it. Like a smell. A real cloud of smell, a lovely smell… like the smell you get when you wake up on a dull winter morning, and then when you go to sleep, and you wake up, the birds are chirping, and the last drops of snow are melting away, and the tree-tops shimmering in the breeze, and it’s a spring morning… I suppose it’s not a season at all, not really; because it’s just a day in delight, every day.” (1) You might have wondered why I used the phrase “I wonder,” so often, when I was telling the first story earlier. Wonder is part of the experience of the mystery of the sacred. We adults have a habit of trying to explain things. While a central characteristic of children’s spirituality is their ability to play with mystery, to explore it in words and creative forms, to wonder.

Matthew 18 and 19

Wondering was far from what the disciples were engaged in when they came to Jesus and asked “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They wanted to know how they ranked in relation to other people. So, they could understand, how much power they had. This story is also in Mark’s Gospel, but the way the writer of Matthew’s Gospel uses it, contains an implied criticism of the Jewish community. Because at the time this Gospel was written, the title “Rabbi” – which means literally “my great one” – was increasingly being used, among Jewish leaders. The disciples’ question suggests they’d assumed they were “in” the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ response was challenging, ‘though we won’t have been aware of just how radical this was in the first century, and would be in many non-Western communities today. For in the first-century children were seen as inferior. They had no status or rights. They were treated as property not people. And they were unlikely to be held up as a model for anything. So, when Jesus presents the disciples with a child, he challenges their assumptions. They aren’t already “in” the kingdom. To get “into” it, they must “change and become like children.” Following Jesus isn’t like signing up for a worthy cause or a club that we agree with. It’s about starting all over again and they must too. There are many different interpretations of what it means to “become like children,” but the beginning of understanding what this looks like, is in verse 4. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” To become like a little child is to humble oneself, giving up all pretension of self-importance, independence and self-reliance and turning to trust God. This story isn’t really an invitation to imitate the character traits or even the spirituality of children. But to accept a radically different understanding of status. And to abandon the quest for status and accept our equal places in the family of God. When we accept children, as they are, we humble ourselves, because a vulnerable, dependent child can do nothing to further our ambitions, so when we receive a child we show that we have no ulterior motive, no hidden agendas.” (2) Children can’t add to our status. They don’t give us power. They won’t make us financially rich. So, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name,” has been converted to the values of the kingdom, is no longer concerned with greatness, and “welcomes me.” Given what we know about Jesus’ humility in life and death, it’s no wonder that when people brought him children, he blessed them. Nor is it a surprise that he told the disciples to “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” The surprise is, that they haven’t understood what he was teaching them, when he showed them a child! ‘Though I think we should not be too hard on them, for churches have for far too long, treated children as if they should be seen but not heard. We know this is a Victorian idea that we’re far too enlightened to hold. But our practice suggests we still believe it. Both in the world and in the church. Let me show you what I mean.

The way children are treated now

Across the world and the UK today, children and young people continue to experience similar challenges - homelessness, poverty, hunger, neglect and abuse - that Fred and George experienced, 150 years ago. ‘Though today’s world also presents new difficulties for children to cope with. So, for far too many children, childhood hurts. But Thomas Stephenson’s compassion and determination continues to inspire. And when children and families who are struggling, are offered support, things can change. With our support, our prayers and our offerings, Action for Children works in this country to help children have a better start in life, a safe and loving home, and the opportunity to fulfil their potential. This isn’t the experience of every child in the world ‘though.

(PP1) This is a picture of Valeria Martinez, the two-year old Salvadoran child, found drowned in the shallows of the Rio Grande, with her father, Oscar Alberto Martinez, by her side. He was trying to escape poverty. To provide a future for his daughter. And it’s as haunting as the photo from 2015 of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian child whose image – lying on a beach in Greece moved European leaders to re-examine their policies towards migrants. (3) Today we’re thinking about the gift of childhood. But in thinking about it, we can’t ignore the way that in a world where some a few individuals have more wealth than the poorest nations, for some people childhood is not a gift. It’s a time of terror. And that will be the experience of some of you here. Perhaps not in as dramatic a way as this. But in ways that have scarred you. And that you will have had to struggle to integrate. So, before we continue, I want to remind us of some of the situations in which children are growing up.

(PP2) This is a drawing by an unaccompanied 10-year-old child who was recently held in migrant detention centres on the Mexican border with the US. He’s been released now. And the picture was given to a news-paper by a social worker. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about the long-term trauma faced by immigrant children separated from their parents under the border policies. One said, “the fact that the drawings are so realistic… gives us a view into what these children have experienced. When a child draws this, it’s telling us that child felt like he or she was in jail.” (4)

(PP3) Erin Delaney is 36, but what happened to her as a child, has haunted her ever since. Earlier this year, she revealed a secret she’d kept from almost everyone, on Facebook. As a child she suffered physical and emotional abuse and severe neglect. She suffered a fractured skull, and the hitting and kicking, depended on her parent’s drug use and moods. The emotional abuse included both parents telling her at different times that the other was dead, or that they weren’t her real parents. “It was,” she said, “a challenging journey through life. I never felt safe and I never felt grounded. You grow up hating yourself and thinking you caused it and you deserve it.” (5)

(PP4) A survey by the charity Adoption UK, revealed this week, that schools are failing to meet the needs of adopted children because of growing funding constraints. Adopted children often struggle to cope in schools. 30% are bullied because they’re adopted. They’re 20 times more likely to be excluded. And 39% of 16-25-year-olds have had mental health referrals. Beyond school, they’re twice as likely not to be in education, employment or training than other young people. (6)

(PP5) Last week, Ben, Brooke, Advi and Charlie – all aged 10, travelled from their primary school in Glasgow’s East End to the United nations, in Geneva. They went to meet Philip Alston - the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights - who visited their school last November. Their school serves one of the poorest parts of Britain, and when he visited, the children told him about hunger and the shame of poverty, about not being able to afford trainers, TV or food and about foodbanks. They were in his mind when he wrote his report in which he said the UK is facing “a national poverty crisis.” He said, “14 million people living in poverty, more than 1.5 million destitute, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, one in three children across the country living in poverty.” The government dispute his findings, but with increasing numbers of families, with parents in work as well as out of it, using foodbanks, it’s hard not to believe him and to wonder about the impact the all this is having on their physical, emotional and spiritual growth. (7)

The fact that in the 21st century, some people do not have enough to live on, is not inevitable. I see it – and I realise not everyone will share my view - as a consequence of the behaviour Jesus was challenging when he placed a child in the disciple’s midst. It is the result of people refusing humility. Of treating some people – including children - as if they were inferior. Refusing some people status and rights. And then treating them as resources in a global economic system designed to enrich the most powerful at the expense of everyone else. I don’t want to blame it for every ill. ‘Though I believe its value system, does contribute to the violence, that’s accepted as normal by some. In this system, children have become collateral damage, and governments leave charities and churches to fill the gaps that they choose not to fill. And churches and charities like Action for Children are filling to gaps. This is good news and needs to be celebrated. But we also need to be reminded – and we need to remind other - that this is not what the kingdom of God looks like. That it is not good enough for societies that like to call themselves civilised.

Two questions to reflect on.

• What gifts might children offer us if we were to listen to their views of the world as it is?

• How might these help us to understand the challenge of Jesus’ prophetic action when he placed a child in the disciple’s midst?

Children’s spirituality

In a moment, I want to say something about the work David Hay and Rebecca Nye did, on Children’s spirituality. But before I do that, listen to what 10-year-old Tim, says about God. Tim doesn’t go to church. “I sometimes think about if there is a God and there is… everybody, well… most people believe in one God and um… there’s um… different people believe in different gods. Which God’s real? Um… I can’t figure that out. And I sometimes think about the universe, about it… um… going on forever. I just don’t know.” At this point Rebecca asked him what does that feel like. “Well,” he said, “when I’m thinking about the universe, that gets me quite annoyed sometimes because I can never think about um… get the right answer or get even get near it and um… then, well… things… you just wonder.” (8) Tim is a child who thinks deeply. Who wonders. And wrestles with questions about the meaning of things and the meaning other people make of things. I’m not sure whether you would understand this as spirituality. So, I thought it’d be helpful to offer a definition of the word, “spirituality.” A definition I find helpful is from the Latin-American theologian Jon Sobrino. He defines spirituality “as profound motivation.” Kathy Galloways explains that says “by this, he means those instincts, intuitions, longings, beliefs and desires… that move us, inspire us… and shape, inform and full our decisions and actions.” (9) For some people their spirituality is rooted in a belief in God or particular religious practice. For other it is not. But all of us have a spirituality. And it changes as we grow. ‘Though whether that change is always for the better is a moot point.

David Ward and Rebecca Nye identified 5 characteristics of children’s spirituality. The first is that it is evident in the very ordinary, everyday aspects of children’s lives. They talk, day-dream, paint and draw the things they wonder about, the mysteries, the questions, the things they see other people doing. Ruth’s vision of heaven is a good example. The second characteristic, is the depth they go to, as they do this. This surprised and challenged the researchers. Maybe because adults have such low expectations of children! But Tim’s conversation with Rebecca is a good example. The third thing about children’s spirituality, is that it’s what the researchers called “integrated and erratic.” In other words, it isn’t separated out, from ordinary conversation. It’s part of the every-day things children talk about. How different that is from adults in the Western World! ‘Though not so different from people in other parts of the world. The fourth characteristic of children’s spirituality is that it is endangered. Children love the opportunity to talk about their spiritual lives, but the way they are treated means that they don’t consider them as being very important to others, even those who belonged to a faith community. John’s story – I’ll tell you it in a moment – reveals that. The dismissive attitudes of adults – or because many adults treat children as spiritually empty and passive vessels to be filled up by adults - results in children seeing spirituality as something they’d grow out of. The final characteristic of children’s spirituality is that it is verbal and non-verbal, and even ‘though it’s tempting to value to verbal over the non-verbal as we do with adults too, both are important.

John, who was 6, talked about his religious experience to Rebecca. He and his family, just went to church at Christmas and Easter, but he had had some profound spiritual experiences. “I worked about it,” he said, “and I received… one day… I was with my mum and I begged her …um …for me to go um… to some church. And we did it and … I prayed… and after that raying… I knew that good was on my side. And I heard him in my mind say this: ‘I am with you. Every step you go. The Lord is with you. May sins be forgiven.” Later on, he spoke about his encounter with the Holy Spirit, “in the night… I saw this bishop kind of alien. I said, ‘Who are you? And he said, ‘I am the Holy Spirit.’ I did think he was the Holy Spirit.” John was surprised, so he went and talked to his mum, she rejected his version of events because she said the Holy Spirit is a ball of fire. Rebecca said, “He seemed to accept is mother’s authority, ‘though he added, ‘But I often felt the Holy Spirit in me.’” (10) The way children engage with spiritual things, needs to shape the way churches relate to them, in the same way they’re shaping the way values and spirituality are explored in schools. Because what we do church is increasingly out of step with what we’re learning about children. And the church needs to adapt not only to include children in, but to learn that their spirituality, is ours too! Rebecca Nye says we need to make space to listen to children, to enable our imaginations to be engaged, through play and creative activities. To recognise that working with children is more about the process than achieving particular outcomes. And undergirding all of this is seeking relationships and making a space where it is safe to surrender something. So children feel at home with questions and offering their own ideas.

A model for the church?

So, how can we make church, a place where when children are welcomed, they are treated as if we were welcoming Jesus? For this is the implication of his words to the disciples. And his insistence that they should not stop the children coming to him. I want to reflect on that for a moment, by reflecting on “the child” that Jesus placed among them, “the child” he sat on his knee, as a model for church. There are several different models for the church. The image of the body of Christ from Paul’s letters is probably the most familiar. But there’s also a pilgrim people, the church as hospitable space, as the new creation or a spirit-filled community. These are all biblical models, ’though I suspect they’re more familiar than the idea of a child, being the model of church. The implications of Jesus’ words and his action, are profound, not just for the church - but also for the world that we hope the life of the church will shape. In the late 90s, the British churches shared in a consultative group on ministry among children. The idea of the child as model for church comes from one of their reports. They say that the readings we heard earlier, “remind us that the values of the gospel are in direct contrast with the values of the world. [And] the particular gift of children is to provide the living example which gives meaning to this model… The Church as a child is dependent on God, receiving grace and blessings as a gift and living in trust. It follows God in faith, not counting the cost… Viewed as a young child it tries to be like its parent and to do what the parent does; viewed as an older child it feels safe to explore rebellion and questions. Like the child at play it is imaginative, inquisitive and spontaneous. It experiments, reshaping and reconfiguring the world, delighting in what it finds. It is prepared to look from new angles, to use things for new purposes, to turn the world upside down. It has no choice but to be powerless, to refuse the world’s weapons, whether psychological, economic or military. It imposes its will on no one and does not resist force with force but with the weapons of the Spirit: truth, love and peace. The church as a child is adventurous and active, learning through what it does. It is not always limited by caution. It enjoys and celebrated life for its own sake rather than with some end or purpose in mind. A church like this would live by the values of the kingdom. It would risk its property… on ventures of the Spirit. It would count its pennies without any real anxiety for its long-term finances. It would be considered exasperating and irresponsible by some and refreshing by others. It might often be in trouble with someone but it would consider it important to be right with God. It would be light of heart and tenacious of purpose, a community of rejoicing and… resistance. It would be generous to people beyond its own immediate circle. It would accept people … in an unconscious way… People would want to belong to it because of its ethos rather than its organisation.” (11)

Conclusion

The church based on a child as a model would be a transformed church. A challenging one. Both for those within and without. One that could change our lives, the life of the world, and the lives of those who haven’t yet seen any reason for following Jesus. This is the transformation Jesus’ actions and words about children invites us to seek. Listen to one last story. Louise is 10. “She described a treasured moment in her development… as a ‘magic’ kind of change in her, a mysterious transformation that could not be accounted for in ordinary terms…” She said, “When I was being rude to my mum and stuff I … I felt like I was a new person… coming out of something like… like… I don’t know what’s wrong with me, though, but I’m a new person from a flower or something. And like I’ve just grown like a flower or a tree or something. Because I’m going, ‘I’m a new person and I’m not going to be rude to my mum.’ Makes you feel really, really good actually.” (12)

What, I wonder, would it look like if all God’s people were as open to being transformed and changed into a new person, as Louise? And what would the church look like as we receive the gifts of childhood? We wouldn’t need to seek greatness, because we’d know ourselves welcomed, as children-of-God. We wouldn’t need to grasp wealth to ourselves, because we’d know that we can depend on God, and each other. We wouldn’t have to be afraid of humility, we wouldn’t have to fear being exposed, we wouldn’t have to worry about taking risks, because playfulness, imagination, and creativity would be as usual among us as logical thinking. God, and our experience of spiritual things, would be part of our every-day conversations. We’d make space for listening to those wrestling with their profound and deep experiences. And we’d be able to do all this because our relationships with each other will be rooted in love, in humility, and in respect for each other. For surely this is the kingdom of God?!

As we’re waiting for the other groups to return, you might like to think about these questions.

• What do you like about this model church?

• What would you find challenging?

(1) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p95

(2) AdpatedThe New Interpreters Bible 1995, p374

(3) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/26/us-mexico-border-migrant-father-toddler-photo-haunt-change-us

(4) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/03/migrant-children-drawings-horrific-conditions-cages

(5) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/01/you-grow-up-hating-yourself-why-child-abuse-survivors-keep-and-break-their-silence

(6) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/02/adopted-children-let-down-by-cash-starved-schools-research-finds

(7) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/28/glasgow-students-visit-un-to-spread-word-on-uk-child-poverty-report-human-rights

(8) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p97

(9) Kathy Galloway “Struggles to love” 1994, 2

(10) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p102

(11) The Consultative Group on Ministry among children “Unfinished business” p60—61

(12) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p126-7

Sue Keegan von Allmen

5th July 2019

References

(1) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p95

(2) AdpatedThe New Interpreters Bible 1995, p374

(3) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/26/us-mexico-border-migrant-father-toddler-photo-haunt-change-us

(4) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/03/migrant-children-drawings-horrific-conditions-cages

(5) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/01/you-grow-up-hating-yourself-why-child-abuse-survivors-keep-and-break-their-silence

(6) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/02/adopted-children-let-down-by-cash-starved-schools-research-finds

(7) Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/28/glasgow-students-visit-un-to-spread-word-on-uk-child-poverty-report-human-rights

(8) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p97

(9) Kathy Galloway “Struggles to love” 1994, 2

(10) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p102

(11) The Consultative Group on Ministry among children “Unfinished business” p60—61

(12) David Nye with Rebecca Hay “The spirit of the child” 1998, p126-7