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Friday, 2 October 2015

The Powerlesness of the Child

SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST NAPIER
ORDINARY SUNDAY 26 (September 20th) 2015

Readings:
Job 1:1-2, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16


There is much syrupy teaching about the child as portrayed here in the presence of Christ. Most of it stems not from biblical analysis but from a Blakean, Romantic notion of childhood innocence.
 
 Blake’s poetic perspective is that children are innocents, wide-eyed and sweet, lamb-like, and that it is only as they transition into adolescence that they begin to slip outside their Eden, and begin to transition into wild-eyed monsters, more tiger than lamb.
 
Blake’s and the Romantics’ world view contains a modicum of truth, but little more than that.  Those of us who can recall the sleepless nights of infant raising, and who have (as one friend of mine once put it) placed a baby or toddler just a little bit more firmly on the change-table when it comes to the fourth or fifth nappy change in the wee-small hours, we might well question whether an infant is totally innocent und un-manipulative. Parents might after months (or in my case years) of sleep-deprivation side instead with St Augustine, who knew very little about children, but was so paranoid about processes  and results of human procreation that he was adamant that the child is a bearer of the mark of the devil from the moment of its conception.
 
Neither is a biblical perspective. Neither Blake’s nor Augustine’s is the perspective of Mark when he tells of Jesus’ response to a child placed in his presence: “let the children come to me” Jesus said, not because they were icons of innocence (like Blake’s “little lamb”), nor because they were beacons of intellectual inquisitiveness, as Plato and Aristotle recognized millennia earlier, but because they were amongst the most powerless in society.
 
In other words the one who will soon on the Cross reveal the full extent of divine love precisely in powerlessness, a victim of brutal betrayal and tyrannical oppression, takes a powerless being and tells us “this is how you must be.”
 
The implications of this are profound for us if we claim to be followers of Jesus. If I sometimes seem unimpressed by the behaviour of Anglican and other church bodies that still enact an old and no longer relevant paradigm of attempting to moralize from positions of assumed importance it is not only because I believe those are ancient and long-dead paradigms, but because they were wrong in the first place. Anglican synods especially expend an awful lot of hot air composing motions directing governments to do this or that, and church leaders and lobby groups still despatch missives attempting to tell politicians of the Right and the Left what they should be doing. We do not need to have advanced degrees in political theory to know that politicians have a well-designed round basket-ware receptacle for such directives.
 
Which is not to say we should do nothing. It is, though, to say that we need to change our lenses. If there has been a large though still incomplete shift in international discourse about refugees in recent weeks it is no accident that it began (more or less) with the shattering image, as I have said here before, of the dead child Aylan Al-Kurdi. Aylan was not an innocent in any metaphysical sense, nor was he guilty in any sense. He was utterly powerless, trapped in the tectonic shifts of politics and peoples, of clashing ideologies and civilizations, of economic opportunism and oppression. Ayla was trapped and killed by these and a myriad more “principalities and powers,” politicians and people-smugglers and arms-dealer and mercenaries to whom he, like the child in front of Jesus, was no more than flotsam and jetsam.
 
At this point we are given an insight into that magnificent force that we call people power – the power of non-violent protest and discourse. Suddenly after Aylan Al-Kurdi dies, with his mother and brother, suddenly career politicians changed their language of the current crisis from language of queue-jumping, language of implied voluntary migration, to the language of suffering human refugees in desperate need. God knows why it took a little boy to tell them what countless millions already knew, but sin is like that. (As an aside we might question whether the discourse of our American friends with regards to guns will ever change, or whether they will; stay for ever locked into a Wild West paradigm of rights to bear arms at will: “how many deaths,” Dylan asked 53 years ago, “will it take till he knows  that too many people have died?”).
 
We are privileged to take part in the great world-wide opening of eyes, calling on governments for compassion and direct action for those who have fled horrors beyond our imagining. But, while Jesus was speaking about human action for justice, he was also drawing on a greater, cosmic canvas, that too often drops out of our consciousness. He was speaking of the eternal injustices of sin, and the eternal reconciliations of redemption. His words, as recorded by Mark, were set down after he had passed from death to life in the greatest of non-violent justice-actions, the first Easter. His words are part of a story of the conquest of that greatest injustice of all, the injustice that death apparently transcends life and love, the injustice that says “no” to the dreams the Al-Kurdi family had for their children, the injustice that says “no” to the eternality of love as relationships die either in death or in irreconcilable breakdown.
 
He was then and is now still placing our life stories into his own, as the author of Hebrews puts it, going before us as one who is “like us.” He was and is placing our lives into the context of his own, picking us up as hitch-hikers on the doubt-conquering and injustice-conquering and death-conquering journey of his own life “through the curtain.” To change the time-stamp of the imagery he was and is inviting us to join in his eternal life-story as one goes before us, who paves the way for our own inclusion in the “yes,” the eternal presence of the God who creates hope and life and love and does not allow sin or death or injustice of any form to have the final word. He was inviting us to journey with him.
 
He was embracing the child because the child was powerless, as we too are powerless against the vastness and emptiness and seeming injustice of history and the universe. He was saying “come,” because “no” is not the final word, and you are invited into the yes-breathing eternity of God’s love and justice. Though we cannot see it yet he was offering good news even when political machinations seem lost, and the earth we are hell-bent on shutting down appears to be in its death-throes.

The peace of Christ be always with you.

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