Sunday, August 20, 2017

Being and becoming children

A Sermon preached on August 20th, Pentecost XI, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Holy Baptism: Ezekiel 36:24-28, Romans 8:14-17, Mark 10:13-16

Last week we had a young adult Baptism, this week our baptismal candidate is a child: David Leonard is 1 1/4 years old. Anglicans do both – is this yet another case of us not being able to decide? Are we Catholic or Reformed? Both! Is Christ really present in the Sacrament of bread and wine or is it just a memorial? Both! The Priesthood of all believers or Orders of ministry? Both! Baptism of adults or children? Both! Actually, these are not examples of Anglicans not being able or wanting to decide. Sometimes both is the right answer, just as Christ is both human and divine. Then of course there are cases where there really is only one possible choice, both doctrinal – one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism – and ethical and moral. In the recent events in Charlottesville, VA there was no “both” and there were not “many equivalent sides.” There was a right side and a wrong side, because racism, antisemitism, white supremacism and Nazism, whether new or old, are always wrong, as this our host country knows only too well. 

But as far as baptism are concerned, we recognize different paths and choices. Some people only come to faith later in life, and had parents who did not have them baptized, either to give their children a choice, or because the parents were not Christian. For others, the message we heard from Jesus in the Gospel has priority. “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) Membership in God’s family through Baptism, is we believe equally open to children and does not require their knowledge or understanding at that time. However, David’s parents and godparents will promise to ensure that he is brought up in the Christian faith and life and so gains that knowledge and understanding.

When we met to talk about Baptism and to prepare the service, Jennifer and Fabio asked if I could include the following poem. It is called “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer from the turn of the 20th century. 

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Analyzing poems is almost as bad as explaining jokes. I make no claims to know what the poet was thinking, or what exactly Jennifer and Fabio like about his work. But there are three things I take from this poem …. And all three are also reflected in today’s readings:

  1. While God is not explicitly mentioned in the poem, Kahlil Gibran was born and raised as a Maronite Catholic Christian.  When he writes, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,” Life has a capital L and is I think as much an image of the divine as the archer he mentions in the last verse. Our children are of course our children, but they are also the children of God.
  2. “And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” Children have a value and life of their own. Our role as parents and godparents is to love them, to equip them for life, and to help them fulfill their potential. For us as followers of Christ that includes, as David’s parents and godparents will promise, by their prayers and witness, to help him grow into the full stature of Christ.
  3. “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” Our children are not supposed to be little copies of us. On the contrary, Gibran writes, it would be good if we could be like our children, at least in their open, hope filled, and expectant attitude to the future.

So how are these themes mirrored in the two New Testament passages we heard this morning? Well we do not have to look far to find the first idea in Paul.
In Romans 8, Paul says that everyone who has received and accepted God’s Spirit, is a child of God. This status of being God’s child is freely available to anyone who chooses, it is a gift. Part of that gift is the promise that we will share in Christ’s glory, that we will be given the same status as God’s only Son ….. but another part is the reminder that we do not know what life holds in store for us or for our children when, as Gibran puts it, they are sent forth like living arrows.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel we hear clearly how important children were for Jesus and how indignant he was when his disciples tried to prevent them getting near Jesus for a blessing. In the society of that day, children had a relatively low status, but nor for Jesus who welcomed anyone who wanted to see and be with him.

Jesus goes beyond just welcoming children. He raises them up as an example to follow: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15) What does it mean to receive the kingdom as a little child, what sort of childlike behavior is required? In the extract from Romans, Paul identifies the following qualities of the children of God. Fearlessness: “you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” An attitude of joy at the great gift we have received: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Being both expectant and hopeful knowing that we are “joint heirs with Christ” and that if we suffer we will also be glorified with Christ. I also asked our Wednesday Bible group what they thought were the qualities that would allow us receive the kingdom of God as a little child, and they came up with the following list:  innate generosity, loving dependence, innocence, simple faith, trust, being open and receptive. 

As it turns out Baptism, adult or infant, is always about children. Whether we are still officially children, and some of us never seem to stop, we are all called to a childlike attitude towards our Lord: trusting, loving, open, and generous. David Leonard is already a member of one little human family by virtue of his brith. By water and by the Spirit of God we will now make him a member of a much bigger family, of Christ's Body the Church.

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