Here’s the sermon that I preached yesterday in St Andrew’s Jerusalem and St Andrew’s Tiberias, neither easy contexts into which to preach at the moment…
For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Bethlehem studying Arabic at the language centre near the Church of the Nativity. On Friday afternoon, Justin and I were walking back to Bethlehem Bible College through the quiet streets, past the closed doors of the shops of the souk. A couple of children were kicking a football back and forth, laughing and talking, and as we walked by, we found ourselves included in their fun. After a couple of minutes, we nudged the ball back in their direction and continued on our way.
I smiled to myself at the play and joy of children.
In our gospel, Jesus says, ‘Let the little children come to me’.
As we approached the Bible College which is very near to the Wall, the mood changed. Smoke rose from the rubbish bins and piles of burning tires. Our throats burned and our eyes watered as the wind blew teargas in our direction. A group of boys — children and teenagers — threw stones at the wall and gathered whatever they could find to add to the fires.
I felt my heart ache at the anger and hurt of children.
In our gospel, Jesus says, ‘it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’.
We waited outside the Bible College for our taxi to Jerusalem. A Red Crescent ambulance turned the corner and parked near us, the two paramedics inside looking looking on at the smoke and chaos. And we watched groups of boys approach them, obviously familiar faces. The paramedics were not admonishing them, but were instead talking to them quietly and patiently. I couldn’t hear or understand what they were saying, but there was an affection, a gentleness in the exchanges.
I nearly wept at the complexity of the situation in which these children find themselves.
In our gospel Jesus gathers the children to him, lays his hands on them, and blesses them.
In the traditional language of the King James version, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Suffer the little children to come to me’. ‘Let them come to me’.
But today, the old meaning of that phrase is slipping away, and so it seems that all we are left with is much suffering and little comfort.
We live in a world where too many of God’s children suffer — and not just the little ones, but all God’s children, God’s people. A world where, because of acts of violence and terror such as we’ve seen this week — and even as recently as last night, too many of God’s children witness deaths of loved ones and are orphaned. A world where, because of economic injustice, too many of God’s children live in poverty. A world where, because of oppression and persecution, too many of God’s children spend their lives in flight.
Too often that suffering is inflicted in the name of religion, in the name of God, even in the name of justice.
Our gospel reading today, of course, doesn’t start with the children. It begins with a test from the Pharisees, who ask Jesus: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He replies, as he so often does, with a question: ‘What did Moses command you?’
‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce her’.
But Jesus says to them: ‘Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, God man them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. ‘
Mark’s sudden transition into the passage about the children may at first glance seem something of a non sequitur, but the two sit together under an overarching theme of right relationship, not simply the right relationship between two people who are married, but between any people: parents and children, neighbours, friends, enemies even.
God’s intention at creation was relationships of creativity, flourishing, companionship and joy.
But because we are navigating our way through a flawed, hurting world as people whose hearts are hardened by regrets and pain and brokenness, the potential for perpetuating that regret and pain and brokenness always looms, and it is all too easy for the cycle to continue.
In our Old Testament reading, Job’s wife asks in the midst of his suffering: ‘Do you still persist in your integrity?’. As you sit scraping your sores, do you still insist on believing in wholeness? As you endure the bad, do you still have faith in the good?
How easy it would be to respond as Job’s wife thinks he should do and curse God and give up. Or curse others who inflict the pain. Or those who mock. Or those who provoke. Or those who stand silently by.
It is because of this hard-heartedness of humanity that God gave Moses the law. Scripture was given to help and unite, not to hinder and divide. The law was given to protect the vulnerable and the marginalised and the hurting.
And so Jesus sidesteps the questions of the Pharisees to remind them that relationships are not about legalities but about mutual dependence and health. And to make his point, Jesus upholds — and then holds up — the most vulnerable members of society. ‘It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ These children who laugh and play, these who hurt and cause hurt, these who are confused and passionate and innocent and angry. And these who are still so radically dependent upon the care and love and gentle words of others. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
And he blesses them.
Today is World Communion Sunday, a day when we focus on and celebrate the universality and inclusivity of the church. But the sad truth is that, while the Eucharist was instituted by Christ as a sign of unity with him and with each other, it, like scripture, like the law, has become a tool of division. It’s a day that — for me — actually serves as a reminder of how far we as a community have wandered and how much we have scattered, a reminder of our individual and corporate brokenness.
But in the Eucharist, as we ourselves gather for communion here today, we remind ourselves of a God who took on human flesh, who as a child was dependent upon others for survival, who knew suffering and fear, and whose own brokenness blessed all of humanity.
The invitation to the table is the invitation of Christ himself. Jesus invites us in our joy and in our play, to envision a community of radical hospitality and healing. He calls us, out of our anger and hurt, to demand justice for the most vulnerable and marginalised. In our vulnerability and confusion, he extends a hand and words of encouragement to gently guide us forward.
Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.