Sermon 20 August 2015

“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Perhaps not the most promising text for a preacher to take!

The sermon this morning will not be the one I was hoping to preach.

When I first read the texts in preparation for today, I was in the company of monks and nuns whose thoughts and energies are turned to interreligious dialogue. Yes, I thought, there must surely be encouragement here for that enterprise, something I can commend on Sunday – a valuing of wisdom, reflection on the suffering caused by our passions, a call to submit – you can re-read the texts and see how that might be done.

However, there are words in today’s Gospel which – at this time – refuse to be ignored. They demand to be spoken. I tried to resist: it is not nice to be subjected to such a demand. I argued: the words will sound shrill - artificial – out of context – and they mean something more nuanced in context but the words still sounded their demand. I tried again: they’re too hard – how can we respond? – we can’t do it. I think by that stage I knew I’d lost the argument. So, here are the words:

“Jesus took a little child and put it among them and taking it in his arms, he said to them ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’.”

We know this child. We’ve seen his picture/ her picture – Aylan Kurdi, whose three-year life had just ended, hanging in the arms of the Turkish police officer and the small baby sound asleep in the arms of his father swimming ashore through the waves of the Mediterranean with only a rubber ring to support their lives.

This is Jesus’ authoritative teaching, delivered once he has taken his seat in the house at Capernaum, a teaching given to his closest disciples. “Welcome him. Welcome her. Welcome me”.

The way of being a disciple of Jesus is that Willkommenskultur, that culture of hospitality, which we are struggling so hard – so ineffectually – to embrace. Jesus gives this teaching in two forms – in words that echo within us - yes - but also in an action: a child embraced - a protective, warm, loving holding – a hug, which smooths away all fear - an image which powerfully bonds to the 21st century newspaper photographs of Europe’s shores.

“Jesus took a little child and put it among them”.

The commentators will tell you this is not because of the presumed innocence of childhood - it’s not a tug at the heart strings. There was no romanticising of the child in first century Palestine – no Dickens novels, no Disney films. They’ll be right, of course and we’ll turn to their explanation in a moment but something within me refuses to believe that human responses were so different then from now. We can ignore or resent children now as much as they may have done then. Equally, their stony hearts will have melted at the open enquiring eyes of a child as swiftly as ours can do today.

Jesus took a little child and put it among them – because these men, who had been arguing over power and leadership, over who was the greatest among them, could be touched to their hearts by the sight of a loving, trusting child.

So, what do the commentators say?

They say Jesus chose a child because of the powerlessness of children. Children had no rights, no claim on anyone outside their family. They were the property of their parents. Perhaps this child belonged to Peter’s family but we’ll never find out because such personal details seemed unimportant.

The disciples had wanted to know who was the greatest – who could best be the Vizier of their Lord. Jesus read their hearts and answered them by selecting the least impressive, the least regarded human being present, the one with absolutely no influence. He said, “This is my ambassador". This boy, this girl, is my authentic representative. Since I am God’s accredited agent, so the very least person, the most lacking in power, is the one through whom you will most readily recognise the real decree of God.

The God of the Torah cares for the orphan. This is a well-known description of God. Here Jesus takes this description further and says - if you are asking whom God is most like, then here before your eyes, here in my arms, is your answer: - God is most like this powerless child, this orphan.

We read this Gospel and look at the newspaper photographs again and say: here is God’s ambassador to Christian Europe; here we are graciously given a chance again to find out who God is, what our God is like.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”.  

Jesus had been teaching his friends, his disciples, about his own way to overcome evil by powerlessness – those conflicts and disputes among us, the cravings of our hearts, of which we heard more in the letter of St James: - to become as vulnerable as a little child, adrift and utterly dependent on the whims of others, betrayed and killed – no wonder the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Twenty centuries of hearing this Gospel read in the churches of Europe don’t seem to have made us any less afraid to ask what it might mean, what it might require of us, what we are to be like if we are ambassadors for Christ.

The refugee crisis is a crisis: it hurts; there are no easy answers. If we respond with generosity, we may fail to protect our values, our way of life, as some fear. Jesus himself elsewhere bids us take stock of a situation – tot it up but God’s accounting works differently to ours. Can it be that these Christian and Muslim refugees from Syria, these children and their parents, come to our shores as the communiqué of God; God’s self-declaration?

Will it be said of us: “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him”?

                            Oswin Gartsdie CR