Minister's Sermon - Sunday 23rd September 2018
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 23rd September 2018

James 3.13–4.3,7-8a

Mark 9.30-37

When I started thinking about “who is the greatest?” it wasn’t individual people who came to mind, but the obsession some nations have with greatness. I thought of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great again.” And our own version “Put the Great back into Britain.” I thought it was a Brexit Slogan. Until I googled it, and discovered it was David Cameron’s 2011 campaign, to market Britain as a GREAT place for tourists to visit and for companies to do business with. I don’t disagree but think slogans like these, grow out of the idea that we’re losing out, if we’re not the most important. But it’s not only nations. I hear it in the church as well. When people bemoan the loss of great preachers like Soper, Sangster and Weatherhead. Of wonderful ministers who were always available – ‘though few people ask what that did to their families. Of churches with hundreds of children in the Sunday School. In the few weeks I’ve been here I’m glad not to have heard anyone speak about restoring this church to greatness. But I am aware of the concern about the number of children and teenagers here on Sunday morning. At the same time, I’ve also begun to discover the amazing range of your work with them through Dove-tots, Messy Church, Boys and Girls Brigade, Youth Club, Puppets and YPF (apologies if I’ve missed any group out.) A range that’s much greater, than any other church I’ve been involved with. So, I haven’t heard your concern as a desire for greatness, rather that we are a church where children are welcome.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus not wanting people to know where he was. Something similar happened in the Gospel reading, two weeks ago, but then we weren’t told why then. Mark gives us the answer today. The disciples are struggling to keep up. To make sense of what Jesus is saying and of what they’re seeing. And because they don’t seem to be able to grasp hold of what he’s about, he tells them what he’s told them before, in an even briefer form. “The Son of Man,” he says, “will be handed over to those who will kill him. Three days later, however, he will rise to life.” Yet the disciples still do not understand, and now, they’re afraid to ask any questions. Maybe they don’t want a Messiah who suffers and dies. Maybe they’re afraid to reveal their ignorance. Or maybe they don’t want to be humiliated like Simon Peter. In any case, their fear of asking any questions means they remain in a state of ignorance and confusion. And instead of asking questions argue with each other - as humans have done for centuries - about who is the greatest. And when they arrive in Capernaum, and Jesus asks what they were arguing about along the way, they’re silent, too embarrassed to tell him. Of course, Jesus knows, and once again he tries to help them understand that God reverses the world’s ideas of “greatness.” In a moment, I’ll come to Jesus’ words about welcoming children, but before I do, I want to say something about our reading from James’ Letter. It’s challenging. Commentators don’t agree on whether the letter is written in a form of a Greek diatribe – some of its language suggests it might be. Or as a Christian parallel to the Jewish wisdom writing. Or a pastoral letter to a community dealing with issues over which they needed to be rebuked. We can’t be sure when the letter was written, which community it was written for, or who the James was who wrote it. Yet the writer’s passion that we that people act on the Gospel is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. In today’s passage, James’ main concern was the jealousy, bitterness and selfishness he found in the church. And I think that this is some of what results from the desire to be the greatest. A desire shared by all of us – Jesus’ followers, the world, and the church. So, what are we to make of Jesus’ response to this desire, that when we welcome a child we welcome Jesus and God? How are childlikeness and God-likeness connected? Not, I think because children are pure, or unselfish, or accepting. But because of their imagination and curiosity. Because they teach us about God’s abundance. And because they show what God’s power looks like.

I have three nieces, Nia, Ellen and Sophie. When Nia was 6, and Ellen 4, they went to stay with my brother who was living just outside Birmingham. One day they went into the city on a double-decker bus. It was a great occasion for them because there were no double-decker buses in Abergavenny! Soon after they’d got on, one of my nieces said in a very loud voice, “Mummy, why is her skin black?” She’d never met a black person before so my sister explained. But as we all know, children asking “why” rarely stop with one question, and they continued until they got to, “why does she live here?” At that point, my sister said she sushed up my niece, until they could get off the bus. I was amazed, because my sister’s quite comfortable with people from different races and cultures, so I asked why she hadn’t explained there and then. She said she was embarrassed and afraid of upsetting the woman. I wonder how often we transfer our embarrassment, our prejudices, our lack of imagination to children (or to their parents), when we sush them up. In 1989 I visited Jamaica. I had long, brighter red hair then, and it was a great source of fascination. People wanted to touch it. And not just the children. Adults too! The first time someone reached out I flinched. As a teenager, I’d been called names and ridiculed, because of my hair. But once I realised no harm was intended, it became the starting point for conversations, about our different skin, hair and lives. And I would have loved that to have been the outcome of Nia and Ellen’s questions, because we need to talk about questions like these, is we’re to understand each other. Religion and politics, race and poverty, Brexit. Illness, death, bodies. Noisy children in church and the reasons children don’t come on Sundays. Should all be on the table. And in the Christian community, we should be able to talk about all of these, and much more. Not as Jesus’ disciples did. Arguing about who was the greatest or has the greatest idea, as if one person or group is right, and everyone else wrong. Or as the community that James was writing too. Fighting and boasting, out of jealousy, bitterness, or selfishness because some have to be winners and others losers. But to move beyond our captivity to the way we think things should be. Mary Wolfe says that “in conversation we turn around our ideas and experiences with each other,” and as we review them, we “revisit experiences and entertain new possibilities.” (1) And that sounds to me like the transformation Jesus was inviting his disciples into. It begins with curiosity. With a generous and open wondering about the world we live in, about other people’s lives, and about God. With imagining a world where death, limitation or scarcity doesn’t have the last word. Where new life and resurrection - isn’t just a possibility – but a promise.

In the summer between leaving primary school and going to secondary school, I was given a little more freedom than I’d had before and with three girl-friends, spent a few nights camping in each other’s gardens. I guess it was the equivalent of sleep-overs. But we were slightly less accessible to our parents than if we’d been in the house. And our parents reacted differently. Mine were just OK with it, as long as it was lights out at 9pm, there was no noise, and no midnight feasts – our great longing. We disobeyed, got caught, and weren’t allowed to camp in the garden again. Sara’s Mum, gave us a little more leeway, and some cake and drinks. I don’t know whether she told our Mums. But when we stayed there, we were mostly asleep soon after 9pm, because we couldn’t wait for our midnight feast so we’d eaten at 8.30 and couldn’t stay awake any longer! And we were far less bother. I’m not suggesting children don’t need boundaries or should be given anything they want. But Sara’s Mum’s generosity – not just of food and drink – but of confidence and freedom. Resulted in the same bed time without the hassle. Looking back now, I think that the difference between our Mums, was that one was still in touch with what it was like being in that transition place between childhood and teenager. And we were embraced by her sense of generosity, fun and abundance. Debie Thomas - a children’s minister in an Episcopal Church in California – says this is typical of young children who “generally expect that there’s enough to go around. Enough time, enough hugs, enough attention, enough love. (Also, enough Teddy Grahams, cheddar-flavoured Goldfish, and Munchkin donuts!) It doesn’t occur to them to fear scarcity unless they’re conditioned to do so. Left to themselves, they assume plenitude.” She goes on to tell a story about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. “When Thérèse was four years old, she was shown a handful of colourful ribbons, and asked to choose one… she simply responded, ‘I choose all.’” (2) Like the disciples, we struggle to believe that “all” is possible, so we operate from the assumption that there won’t be enough for everyone and compete to get what we want. And whether it’s a real or assumed, scarcity, it makes us anxious. It turns us inwards. It makes us suspicious and antagonistic to those we believe are taking or changing, what’s “ours” or “mine.” Whether that’s time, energy, resources, space, worship, community, our country – or three extra children in the garden taking up time and getting in the way of Mum’s sleep. Ann Morisy explores this in her book “Bothered and Bewildered.” “Jesus,” she says, “repeatedly invites us to engage in a different economy.” ‘Though we find his insistence on the possibility of fullness of life for everybody “laughable in a worried, troubled world that has fixated on material resources.” But this need not be so. Human beings are not born with the assumption of scarcity. At some point during our childhood we lose the assumption of abundance and catch the mood of those we live amongst. Then, with Jesus’ disciples, and the community James was writing for, we have to learn again how to live with the wisdom of our generous, abundant God.

Jesus’ invitation to welcome children, is an invitation to embrace imagination and curiosity, and to see the world as a place of abundance rather than anxiety-creating scarcity. Children can. But sometime during our childhood we lose this capacity. And we have to relearn it as we grow older. This relearning begins with conversation about our lives and our world with those who hold different perspectives. And it includes reflection on the wisdom of scripture – the wisdom that is “peaceful, gentle and friendly… full of compassion and [that] produces a harvest of good deeds” – and the witness of people who are generous because they assume abundance. Eventually, it leads us to understand that transformation, for us, the church and the world, requires a letting go and self-emptying. Accepting dependence and powerlessness. Handing ourselves over. When Jesus says for a second time, that he’ll be handed over, killed, and after three days will rise again, this is what he’s talking about. For the majority of us, this handing over doesn’t lead to death, but a willingness to accept a loss of control over our lives. As we place ourselves alongside those who have none over theirs. Children, who in some cultures are invisible, or not protected by law. Children, who in every place and time, are at the mercy of those who are older, bigger, stronger. This picture of dependence and vulnerability is what Jesus says God is like. For “in God’s economy, power and prestige come to those who consent to be little, vulnerable, invisible, or low.” (2) And we gain greatness through service, by empathizing with others, and by seeking the well-being of others first. Jesus turns human hierarchies upside down when he holds a child in his arms.  “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” So, if this is what God is like, where is God? Look at those children who delight you with their joy. Look at those children who are noisy in church and scream in the supermarket. (And at the parents struggling to keep them quiet because they know they’re irritating you.) God is next to you. Look at the child in detention on at the US / Mexico border. At the children who land on the shores of Europe, escaping wars, seeking a better life. And at the thousands upon thousands of children in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Gaza, Turkey, Jordan and other countries much poorer than ours. God is there. Look at the children in our rich democracy, whose parents’ need foodbanks or starve themselves, so they can eat. At children who have to travel miles away from their homes to get mental health care. At children all over the world who only have access to the most limited health care. God is there. I don’t think I need go on, Jesus words are radical, challenging and uncomfortable. He questions the way the world works. And he invites us, as James does, “to come near to God” in a way that turns everything this world knows upside down. So, as Debie Thomas says, “Look at the weak, the small, the simple, the vulnerable, and the helpless. Look to the ones who are not in charge. Look at the tiniest faces, and see God.” (2)

I began by reflecting on greatness. For me, greatness is a question of faith, a theological question. A question that all Christians need to consider. A question Jesus answers by placing a child in their midst. In Mark’s Gospel, this action, is connected to Jesus’ second prediction that he will handed over, killed, and after three days will rise again. And this is God-with-us – the one we’ve chosen to follow. One of the central truths of our faith, the most challenging to many, is that God became human. As a helpless human child. And this week’s Gospel extends that, as it invites us to rethink our understanding of what is God-like, and affirms that children everywhere point us to God. God’s imagination. God’s abundance. God’s power. When we welcome a child we welcome God. So, when we reject a child, we reject God. To cultivate childlikeness is to cultivate Godliness. To consent to be last, least, little. To be willingly vulnerable, or powerless, is to become great. This is challenging. Not only to get our minds around - but to embody it. It makes demands on us. It may bring us to suffering. Yet it is the way to life that Jesus invites us to live. For us. For our church and community. For the world. So, let us pray for the humility and wisdom, to understand that it is so. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

M Wolfe in Bothered and Bewildered Ann Morisy 2009, 38