Easter People: of all ages
Morning Service led by Revd. Jennifer Millington, to include the baptisms of Shannon, Alfie, Summer and Scarlett Hatley
This sermon is taken from 1 Kings 3, verses 5-12; Mark 10, verses 13-16
Easter People - Of All Ages
There are many people who love the company of little children. They never get tired of playing bears and lions with them; they enjoy building space ships out of cereal boxes; and they will read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” ten times over without even a sigh.
There are also people who do not enjoy children. They wish them no harm but prefer them in small doses or at a safe distance.
Within this church there are adults who really love our Parade Services in which children take an active part and the music is lively and the worship more informal. There are others who feel closer to God in stillness, with space for serious reflection and with no percussion instruments….. This is all fine. We are people with different tastes and different inclinations. It takes all sorts to make a world and it takes all sorts to make a church.
I was surprised then, in our Gospel reading, that Jesus and his disciples were not tolerating each other’s differences when it came to children. The Greek language in which the story was written puts things far more strongly than our English translation. When the disciples turn the parents and children away, it is not kindly done- Jesus is tired, give him some space. The disciples “rebuked” them, told them they were bang out of order. How dare they bring children to a holy man like Jesus?
And when Jesus finds out what is going on he does not shrug and say, “oh let them come, I don’t’ mind.” He is “indignant” and this is the only time that particular word is used in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus was angry. “How dare you turn them away? You are missing the whole point of God’s kingdom.” What is the big deal here? Why did both sides feel so strongly?
In the culture of that time, it was considered a serious social and religious duty to care for your children and to bring them up well. They were loved and valued. But in the religious life, which was for those people, their whole social life as well, children did not really “count” until as a boys, they reached the age of 13, when they celebrated their Bar Mitzvah and were received as men with full status in the work and worship of their local synagogue. Girls at that time, never really counted at all. Although acknowledged as adults, they spent the rest of their lives in the outer court of the synagogue, along with the children.
Maybe this is why the disciples felt so strongly that children should not be brought to Jesus? Children had no voice of their own in religion. When men gathered around a local Rabbi for teaching and discussion on the Scriptures, it would have been unthinkable for a woman or a child to have joined the group. Perhaps the disciples felt that to bring children to Jesus would in some way discredit him as a holy teacher?
This would explain why Jesus was so indignant with them. All through his ministry he had gone out of his way to reach out to those people who were excluded from Jewish religious life: women, foreigners, tax collectors, lepers, teaching that they too belonged to the kingdom of God. Now he sees that even his closest followers still do not get it because they are trying to turn children away. And his reason for trying to include the outcasts was not some kind of charitable impulse: let’s to be nice to the people whom nobody else likes. It was about the spiritual wellbeing of his own followers: you need these people. It is little children who can show you the truth of God’s kingdom and you are turning them away!”
Jesus is speaking very strongly but one of the biggest problems most religions have had is in the drawing of a line to separate those who are “in” from those who are “out.” It happens at first almost automatically because organised religion takes a lot of commitment. There will be those who regularly attend a place of worship; read their scriptures; follow the moral codes of their faith and those who do not. In and out.
The first temptation then is for those who are “in” to decide for themselves where the line should be drawn. There will be certain types of person, certain ways of behaving (or not behaving) who are deemed unacceptable to the religion. They are “out.”
The second temptation is for those who are “in” to ignore those who are “out.” Keep right away from them if you-those who are “in”- want to remain holy.
You can understand where all this is coming from but the results do not tend to be good or godly. When a religion makes it its business to exclude certain groups of people then its followers tend either to end up dishonest or despairing.
Jesus met a lot of religious people who were dishonest. They were keeping all the rules and rituals of their religion but they could not admit that they were actually failing in the desired effect of religion, which was to enable them to love God more deeply and their neighbour more dearly. Jesus told them that they were “straining out gnats and swallowing camels.”
One heart-breaking example of this is seen in the film, based on the true story of Philomena. Sister Hildegard, as a young woman, took a vow of chastity, sincerely believing that this was the life to which God was calling her. As an old woman, she declares that she kept that vow. And good for her, if it brought her closer to God. But the keeping of her own religious vow led her to believe that she had the right to deny a dying man, the lost illegitimate son of a young girl, now an old lady desperately searching for him, the chance to meet his mother. Does this behaviour suggest a woman who is close to God? Or does it suggest serious spiritual dishonesty?
Then of course there are those who, unlike Sister Hildegarde, do not succeed in living up to the rules of their religion or the commitments they have made. And because that line is there- In/Out- they believe that they must now be out and stay out. There is no place in their god’s heart for those who break his rules. Jesus also met many people with this conviction. They believed that because they or their ancestors before them, had broken God’s laws, they must now be forever excluded from any kind of relationship with God. And they lived in a state of quiet despair. There was no hope for them.
Jesus was deeply saddened by both the dishonest and the despairing people he met. Maybe this business of children was the last straw. The kingdom of heaven, he said, is a gift to be received, not a favour to be earned. Children know how to receive a gift. They do not ask whether they deserve it; they just enjoy it. You need children, he said, to show you the way to God. True religion is not about being “in” or “out.” It is about receiving the love of God in your life. Learn from little children and overcome both dishonesty and despair.
The Old Testament story of King Solomon reads like a fairy tale. Just after he has become King- and he was only about 20 years old- God appears to him in a dream and says, “I will give you anything you ask for.” In a lot of fairy stories this turns out to be a trick question. Either the Magician has a secret agenda which will end up enslaving the young man for life or the recipient is dazzled by the thought of unlimited gold or beautiful women and ends up helplessly trapped in an underground treasure chamber or in the arms of a woman who is out to destroy him.
But in this story, everything works out well. God is genuinely wishing to give Solomon the most precious of gifts and Solomon has the sense to choose the most precious of gifts: “Give your servant a discerning heart.”
Solomon realises that it is no use being given serious power or vast wealth if he has not got the coping skills to use them well. How many powerful people have lost their throne because they simply did not know how to handle the power they had been given? How many people have become multi-millionaires overnight and ended up in poverty because they had no coping skills when it came to money? How many people have married the man or woman of their dreams believing that they will live happily ever after, only to find the relationship breaking up because they do not understand how to build a strong partnership? “Give your servant a discerning heart.”
On becoming King, Solomon had already acquired a certain amount of money and power. God promises that he will go on to acquire much more because Solomon has had the sense to ask for help in dealing with the gifts he has been given. Solomon did become a great King. Two and half thousand years later we still speak of “the wisdom of Solomon” when talking about an impressive leader. And why was Solomon so wise? Paradoxically, because he never thought that he was wise enough. This greatest and most powerful of Kings had a humble heart and it was this very humility which enabled his power to increase.
In the south-east, we live in a high-achieving culture. We are surrounded by people who work hard, study hard, focus on what they are doing and where they want to be and, often do very well in terms of professional achievement. And that is great. If humanity is going to move forwards then we need bright, committed, focussed men and women. But in my years of ministry I have noticed with great sadness that the hardest possible thing for these high achievers to do is to admit when they cannot cope. I have seen bright teenagers afflicted by mental illness caused by stress; I have seen professional men and women clearly struggling with new systems or standards of work but jumping down your throat if you dare to suggest that they are struggling; I have seen families torn apart because no-one will admit to financial strain until it is too late; I have seen people crushed with grief or heavily burdened with care, too proud to ask for help and so losing their own emotional or physical health.
Why is it such a personal disgrace for a human being to admit that they are not super-human? Solomon had the sense to realise that he was not super-human. He needed God’s help. Faith, for him was not a refuge for the weak but a powerhouse for the strong. “I need an understanding heart so that, hour by hour, I can find the right way of using my power, not only for my good but for the good of the whole nation.”
True strength lies in admitting your own weakness. Maybe this too, is what Jesus was talking about when he said that the kingdom of heaven was for those “like children.” A child is not afraid to ask for help. A child has faith in good parents and teachers that they will not pour scorn on her when she finds something difficult but will help and advise her how to cope. “Give your servant a discerning heart.”
Have we not had a lovely time this morning? Receiving those four lovely children for baptism and welcome into the Christian church.
The baptism of children sends out some very powerful messages, which I would like to leave you with.
First- that children are precious in the sight of God. They are never too young or too ignorant to know that God is their Father; Jesus their friend and the Holy Spirit the power (pp power) in them.
Second- that children should be precious in the sight of the church. Not only because we have a sacred duty to teach and nurture our children but because there is so much that we can learn and receive from them. If God is the Father of all, Jesus Christ the friend of all and the Holy Spirit the power in all, then each child can play their part in bringing us closer to God. We need them to ask questions. We need them to pass comments. We need them on occasion to suggest that we might have got something wrong. Easter People- people of faith and hope- come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and all ages. Jesus said so.
Third - that baptism, although a wonderful celebration, is not a one-off event that will keep a child safe and successful for the rest of their lives. Those children are not super-human. They will need help and guidance in every way. The Sacrament of baptism will need to become a sacrament of everyday life in which all things can be holy; all things speak of God. And if the promises we made today are kept faithfully then those children will learn to find God in their lives and to receive God’s gifts for themselves as they grow up.
And finally- that in witnessing a baptism, each person present is challenged to re-explore their own faith, to renew their own commitment and to turn once again, humbly to God and ask, as a trusting child, that we might be given a discerning heart.