The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r139.htm
s139g00 Somerton Park 8/10/2000 Sunday 27
"Jesus ... was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." Mark 10:14
I must admit I am thoroughly appreciating our new "A Prayer Book for Australia". It gives us a vast range of resources for worship which is much appreciated and the use of gender inclusive language is very welcome. May I draw your attention to the words in the preface of the book: "Since 1977, the use of male pronouns as generic terms has become unacceptable. To be sensitive to this is a matter of courtesy and justice. The Commission has adopted inclusive language in referring to human beings." (p viii) I should add that this is particularly true for public worship, which should be the last place where people should feel excluded. I believe these words to have a wider significance than just when we use the new forms of worship, and they are the reason why I have modified the words of the traditional 1662 service to adhere to this principle. The fact that many people in the congregation can't kneel, meekly or otherwise, means that the omission of these words is also a matter of courtesy and respect.
Sadly however, the new book consistently omits, in the suggested readings for baptisms, our passage from today's gospel, where Jesus blesses the children. I have no doubt that this is under the influence of the remarkably persistent thinking in some quarters that adult baptism is far preferable, and only children of properly prepared and practising "Christians" should be baptised. So in the notes on page 71 and on page 82 the book suggests Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 1:1-11 and John 3:1-8 as suitable gospel readings. The old justifying text for infant baptism for children (our gospel reading for today) has been omitted. Well, we are fortunate today, when we are having a baptism to have these words as our gospel reading.
I suppose the argument goes that Jesus didn't baptise these children, he only blessed them. But what do these words mean? Am I to take it that Jesus blessed children and, in blessing them, was content that they remain apart from the community of the faithful? Indeed, are we asserting Jesus blessed them rather than baptised them? This is surely a nonsense. Jesus blessing of the children was obviously an action of complete incorporation into the community of faith and a sign to us of the broadness of inclusion into the community.
I would want to charge that the obvious distaste by some church people for this passage from Mark's gospel, which has it's parallels in both Matthew and Luke's gospel, is an example of the disciples STILL speaking sternly to those who would bring their loved ones to Jesus for blessing. It is an example of the propensity of religious people to push others around, "protecting" God from the likes of ordinary people. I wonder if this is what lies behind Jesus consistent way of addressing the disciples: "you of little faith"?
This propensity is evidenced in many other passages in the gospel story - by the synagogue official who told people to come to the synagogue to be healed by Jesus on a day other than the sabbath. (Luke 13.14) The disciples told Jesus to send the Syrophoenician woman who was crying after them away (Matt 15.29). Before the feeding of the 5000 the disciples advised Jesus to send the crowds away to find food and lodging for themselves (Mark 6.35). And the essence of Jesus anger against the money changers and the pigeon sellers was that they too stood between ordinary people and the blessings of the worship in the Temple of God.
In Jesus, all this is cleared away, and ordinary people are welcomed.
That this propensity for pushing other people around evidenced in the disciples as much as in anyone else, should alert us to look at our own ways of doing things, to see whether our religion is serving others or is it effectively excluding others. For if that sort of behaviour has actually ceased to exist, we can now disregard the words of the scripture - we have learned that lesson - or have we?
Nearly fifty years ago a baby was baptised in what used to be called by that rather derogatory term - a private baptism - in the afternoon. The parents were not members of that congregation, indeed neither of the parents were in fact confirmed. Actually I rather suspect that the parents brought their children, because their brother and sister in law were "having theirs done". And even after the baptism the family never went back to that particular church to worship there. It wasn't for many years that the congregation saw a "result" from something done "privately" so many years earlier, The youngest child indeed did go back. He was invited back to preach to that same Church - for their festival of dedication. That child was me.
Actually it is interesting, I was reflecting recently, that I am now, after 25 years of full time study and ministry, actually beginning to realise what I believe and how to express that belief. It is not that I've disbelieved previously; I just haven't put all the elements together. To expect people without the advantages of 25 years of full time study and ministry to blithely recite the Apostles Creed, as if they know and fully understand what it's all about is a "big ask". It is no wonder to me that the Church is seen as inflicting orthodoxy rather than seeking it, of valuing orthodoxy above people.
Indeed put in this rather stark way, in some ways this devalues the person and their life experiences; to completely ignore those life experiences and accept them if they are able to recite the orthodox formula.
In some ways I am a fairly traditional priest, I actually still use the Catechism as a basis for preparation for Confirmation. One of the things I point out to candidates are the words which introduce the 10 commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage ..." I point out that God gave the commandments after rescuing them, not before. And this is a paradigm for all time. God acts graciously towards us, and (in response and thanksgiving) asks us to act graciously towards others. In some senses, and I know it's a bit of a heresy, but those who believe that God has set the universe going and has left us to our own devises, have an element of truth to their belief. While I readily acknowledge the continuing actions of God in the world (after all if we follow Jesus - there is nowhere we can go where the risen Jesus has not already been) - yet it is up to us to do what we can to be inclusive. The parables of the absent landowner returning to examine the stewardship of his servants reflect this truth.
Somehow we have got to communicate to others the grace of the gospel before we put obstacles in other people's way. The last way this might be achieved is that parents of a new-born baby to be told to come back in 20 years time.
Somehow the Church has to walk in someone's shoes for a while, before commenting on how they might live their life differently. I suspect that when we do walk in someone else's shoes for a while, we find we would make the same choices as them.
So it is a great joy to welcome these young babies into our fellowship. It will be a long time before we see them as adults and the fruits of God's Spirit in their lives. The fruit of God's Spirit may well take them in many different directions.
Ten years ago I would not have thought I'd be communicating around the world via the Internet. What sort of world will these girls experience when they come of age in 20 years time?
Of some things we can be certain - like the fact that many of us won't be living to know anyway. Next - it will be nothing like anything we have experienced. And thirdly, nothing we can say or do will have any bearing on that existence. We can give them no advise whatsoever to help them on their journey in life. We can but be there for them, if it be God's will, and allow them to find their own feet at their own pace.
I was recently reminded that clergy are properly on about the empowerment of lay people. And as I have reflected on that statement, I think that the empowerment I would offer is an empowerment which is shared with one and all.
We pray that God's Holy Spirit will indeed lead these two lovely girls, to live life to the full, to listen and learn from all the sources of inspiration and guidance around them, and to come to a knowledge of what they truly believe, for themselves and for the whole of creation.
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