|Minister's Sermon - 8th December 2019|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Sermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church |
Sunday 8th December 2019 10.30am
Reading 1: Isaiah 11.1-10
Reading 2: Matthew 3:1-11
If you were listening for the verse in our readings that says, “and a little child shall lead them,” and think you missed it. You didn’t. It wasn’t there. Bibles translate words from the original Hebrew differently, and we heard, “little children will take care of” rather than “lead.” But “lead,” is a more accurate translation than “take care of,” and it’s where I want to begin. Our first reading is a vision of a world where no one experiences injustice. The whole of creation lives in peace, as wild and domesticated animals, live and feed together. And children won’t just feed them, they’ll lead them, because children will be at the heart of this new world. For many people, maybe for some of you here, this sounds impossible. Yet I wonder what our ancestors – who thought children should be seen and not heard – would think of what’s going on around the world in our time.
The name Malala – Malala Yousafzai – is known to millions. She was born in Pakistan in the Swat Valley into a family of teachers. Under the Taliban, schooling for girls was threatened, and in 2009, aged 11, she started to write a blog about her life. It went viral. Three years later, while she was on a bus, she and two other girls were shot by a Taliban gunman in retaliation. The assassination attempt has not deterred her. And she has continued to campaign for children’s education around the world.
Greta Thunberg is another well-known teenager. At 16, she’s “one of the most recognised faces on the planet. She is fearless, earnest, passionate about the planet and determined.” She’s not alone. She has the advantage of having been “born in a wealthy country, and in a culture where children are encouraged to speak up,” but many other young people have been campaigning for years. (1) Ridhima Pandey was 9 when she filed a lawsuit in 2017 against the Indian government for failing to take action against climate change. Kaluki Pail Mutuku, is a young Kenyan, and he’s been a member of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change since 2015. The challenges his family faced from the effects of climate change inspired him to join. “Growing up,” he said, “I witnessed mothers walks kilometres to fetch water.” (1) Last year, Nina Gualinga, won the World Wild Life Fund’s youth conservation award. She’s been an activist since she was 8, advocating for stronger protection of the Ecuadorian Amazon, for its wildlife and the people who depend on it. Litia Baleilevuka, is 21, and she’s from Fiji. In 2016, she was caught up in Cyclone Winston, a category 5 cyclone that ravaged Fiji, killed many and left thousands homeless. It made her realise that climate change is about more than rising sea level around the Pacific Islands. It also intensifies extreme weather events. Her message is simple. We must stop using fossil fuels now, because the emissions they produce, are hitting the poorest and low-lying countries the hardest.
Few of us will forget the massacre of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida in last February, or the teenagers who became activities for gun control. They were led by Emma González. (2) She spoke against gun violence, challenged the lack of action by politicians, and then helped to organize the March for Our Lives. At the march, she led a six minute silence for the victims of the massacre, the length of the shooting spree. She continues to campaign for gun control.
I think that these children are both leading us and playing the role of John the Baptist for our time. Like him, they’re calling people to notice what’s happening around us. To see the things that are destroying the world. And getting in the way of us all living with justice and in peace. If you were listening carefully, you might be surprised that that’s what I think he said, because this is what was read. “John the Baptist came to the desert… and starting preaching. ‘Turn away from your sins… because the Kingdom of heaven is near!’” Isn’t this a personal matter? Well, I don’t think, that all it’s about. The kingdom of heaven that John was preaching about, included the vision of a world in which there is peace and justice, that we heard from the Prophet Isaiah. The people who came out to see John in the wilderness, still hoped for it, even ‘though it seemed impossible, since their country was occupied by the Roman Empire. But John’s message was a hopeful one. The kingdom is near because Jesus is coming. Not as a child in his time. But as the Messiah, who would change their fortunes, and establish a new age of peace and justice. People flocked to him because he was offering them hope in the midst of their despair. Yet his message hardly sounds hopeful. “Turn away from your sins,” he says, or “repent.” Because that reminds us of people who stand on street corners, shouting that the end of the world is nigh, many of us are cautious about it. We think we’re about to be condemned, or made to feel small, for the things we’ve done or said. But this isn’t actually what he was saying.
The Greek word for repentance is an invitation. An invitation to turn around and face the other direction. Thomas Keating says that “Repent means - change the direction in which you’re looking for happiness.” (3) I find that helpful. Because it says that repentance isn’t simply about what we believe, it’s also about how we live, and about who or what we trust. Let me explain. The Taliban, have chosen to trust a reading of the Koran, that limits girls to child-bearing. Many Moslems disagree. So, repentance for the Taliban – among other things - is an invitation to learn that they could all be happier educating girls rather than excluding them. For members of the National Rifle Association in the US, repentance is an invitation to give up their trust in guns as a way of guaranteeing security, as well as some of some their rights, to create a safer environment for everyone. And in relation to climate change, it’s an invitation to us all, to reduce our use of fossil fuels so that our grandchildren can enjoy living on this planet. Repentance is an invitation to look again at the things we think make us happy. The things we believe. The things we possess. The people or things we trust. The choices we make when we shop, when we vote, about the people we value and those we don’t. To leave behind, turn away from those, that that get in the way of us loving God and our neighbours as ourselves. Because that’s the ultimate criteria for everything we do and are. And I think that’s how the young people I’ve talked are leading us today.
Unlike John, ‘though, the young people are not inviting us to be baptized. In fact, we can do all of this without being baptized, so what’s so special about baptism? Matthew tells us, that John baptized those who recognized that the way they were living was causing harm to themselves, and to their neighbours. And that their baptism, was a sign, that they had committed themselves to live differently. So, he refused to baptise the Pharisees and Sadducees who also came to the wilderness, because he was not convinced that they would change.
You might be wondering by now, what any of this, has to do with William. He’s a child. He hasn’t anything to repent for. For him happiness is food, security, and his parents’ love. And you’d be right. For children, baptism is an affirmation of God’s love and the moment they’re included into the community of God’s people. ‘Though this isn’t what everyone thinks. I was having a conversation with someone recently, and he told me that the most fundamental thing about human beings, is that we have sin running through our veins. So, baptism is needed, to make us clean. This is the traditional view of what baptism is for. So, children were bought to be baptised, to cleanse them from the sin that’s passed down from generation to generation. Because people believed that if they were not baptised they could not be accepted by God. I do not believe this. The most fundamental thing about human beings, is that God loves us. God loves us and longs for us to live full and fruitful lives as individuals and as communities, and anyway, sin is not passed down through our blood. This might sound like a “number of angels dancing on a pin-head” argument. One that really doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things. But it does make a difference to who we think God is. And for me, God is love, and God’s love for us, and for the whole of creation, is the most important thing about God, about human beings, and the created world.
Yet, it’s also clear, that human beings do not deal with each other with the love God has for us. The way we live with our neighbours, as well as the way we treat ourselves, is often not life-giving. And even ‘though we don’t have sin running through our veins, the world in which we live, is far from the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, our lifestyles and decisions, perpetuate violence and injustice. Mostly, this isn’t a conscious choice, but when we know – and in all the issues I mentioned earlier people know – we’re often slow to change. And knowing, yet doing nothing, is what sin is. This is the world William is growing up in. It’s a world in which it’s increasingly acceptable to choose me, or mine, first. My wishes. My families’ wishes. My nation’s wishes. A world which regards these as legitimate choices, perpetuates violence, and injustice. What John the Baptist, and the children I’ve talked about this morning offer us, is the possibility of choosing another way. And there are moments in our lives, when we are all invited to make a choice to live differently, and to confess our need to turn around and seek happiness from another direction: from the vision of the kingdom of heaven; from the life Jesus lived – that showed us in his birth, death and resurrection – how to love God and our neighbours as ourselves; from people who inspires us. And for that, William will need people around him, his parents and God-parents, his family and friends, and his church family, to show him the way. To demonstrate the way in our lives. To embody it in our relationships. To reveal to him what it means to live out of the vision of the kingdom of heaven rather than the values of this world. And when the time comes, to invite him to commit himself to it, in confirmation.
It’s asking a lot of children to lead us. To show us the way. And I think we have to recognise that they’re only doing it, because we adults, have not lived up to our responsibilities. If that’s sobering, then hear it as an invitation to change the direction you’re seeking happiness from, and listen to what these children are asking of us. Listen as well, to John the Baptist’s conviction that he’s only a forerunner, that all he’s doing is preparing the way. For another. For the one who will embody the kingdom of heaven in his life, in his actions, in who he is. Who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. The one we’re waiting for in this Advent season, who is coming, as our judge and as a child. A child who can lead us to find happiness in another direction. A child whose love for God, and for our neighbours as ourselves, is born in us when we choose his way. The child who will show us what we all have the potential to become. And we can choose because his love is the most fundamental thing about God. Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
7th December 2019
(1) Chika Unigwe
(3) Thomas Keating
(3) Thomas Keating