OS 25 Jeremiah 11: 18-20, James 3: 13-4:3, Mark 9: 30-37.
When the photo of Alyan Kurdi on the beach, face down and dead, went viral something changed. The Syrian civil war has been going on for quite a while and gruesome reports of its carnage have filtered into our media from time to time. We have heard the statistics of deaths and displaced people. There was something about the fate of this child that incarnated, or made present among us this horror and prompted a response.
Jesus’ disciples were distancing themselves from him. He spoke to them about how he would be betrayed, killed and rise again three days later. They didn’t understand the first time Jesus said this. Now they were too afraid to even ask him what it means.
While the disciples distance themselves from Jesus, they also begin to vie with each other for status. So often when Christians struggle to understand what Jesus is saying, they divert their energies towards working out who among them is the greatest.
The reading from the letter of James helps us understand where this impulse or craving comes from. He says the conflicts we have with others arise, very often from our own personal inner struggles. He contrasts the two kinds of wisdom that live within us and vie within us.
The wisdom from above which is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, merciful and showing good fruits, without any partiality or hypocrisy. This kind of wisdom is evidenced by works done with gentleness born of wisdom.
Earthly wisdom, by contrast, is characterised by bitter envy and selfish ambition, boastfulness and lies, disorder and wickedness of every kind. One doesn’t have to know too much church history to see how often this kind of wisdom has prevailed. We see the beginnings of it among these disciples.
This marks out the importance of taking time for silence and contemplation when we face issues of conflict and dispute. We need to examine ourselves and, and in particular what kind of wisdom driving us. We need to spend time with Jesus understanding his way. We may find when we’ve done that that we must engage in a conflict or dispute. Jesus had many disagreements in his ministry. The problem the church now is that we put far too much energy into internal disputes with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and far too little energy into challenging the kinds of things that enslave, blind and oppress people in the world that God so loved.
The disciples realised they were following earthly wisdom but wouldn’t own up to Jesus. He knew what was going on. It was the context for him to teach them about discipleship and leadership. He said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then as an acted parable he put a child among them, and then taking it into his arms he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
What is it about the child that illustrates Jesus point? In his day a child was essentially a non-person. They were the least of considerations and could really be understood to be the last and in many cases pressed into servitude from a very young age. We may like to think that we have progressed way beyond this now in our country. However there remain among us many children growing up in appalling conditions of family deprivation violence and even murder. Even in The Press this week we hear the refrain that schools are about children not teachers. Children, because of their size and immaturity, will always be vulnerable to adults: they will always be potentially last.
It is that vulnerability that is the essence of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship and leadership. Jeremiah likens himself to a gentle lamb led to slaughter. Jesus will be betrayed and killed. The disciples have yet to learn what this means for them.
As the church, this is why children are so vital to our mission. Their presence among us grounds us in the reality of our calling. Children are spontaneous, they are joyful, they are exuberant, they are vulnerable, they are small and they are shy. A church that thinks it is too sophisticated for children to attend has lost the actual essence of the gospel. Children are not just to be catered for, not just to perform, and they are not just future Christians: they are a vital part of the church of the present.
It was lovely, last Sunday, to welcome the Young Voices and some of the School servers to help celebrate the School Baptism service. A true welcome of children, though, is much more than an occasional appearance at Mass. Paul rehearses every week with the Young Voices, and we have spent a lot of time getting the school servers up to scratch. That’s the kind of background work which speaks of a real welcome. Likewise Children’s Church is also part of our welcome to children. We need, though, to encourage more children to join in, and with their families to become a regular part of St Michael’s. It’s that piece of work that I’m hoping the vestry will give priority to as we begin to look ahead to next year’s planning and budgets.
Jesus says that our willingness to welcome children demonstrates our willingness to welcome our Lord and our God. It’s no coincidence that the Old Testament prophets foretell God coming among them in the birth of a child: Isaiah says, “The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7: 14)