Proper 20 Cotham 23 September
“But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” Words from this morning’s gospel. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
I come from a fairly big family- me and three big greedy brothers. And we all had our own particular way of expressing sibling rivalry. Patrick my eldest brother used the cool disdain of age, Steve the next one down had the familiar refrain of “its not fair”, I appealed to the privilege of being the only girl-and my youngest brother Ben just threw a tantrum. And they all worked in their different ways.
In the gospel reading this morning Jesus describes his betrayal, his death and his resurrection. And it was incomprehensible to the disciples. They suddenly felt confused, let down, fearful and uncertain. Which is perhaps why they revert to classic insecure sibling rivalry- who is going to be first- who is most important, loveable, acceptable?
And Jesus understands completely and does not judge. Instead, he holds a child in his arms and tells the disciples that the last shall be first and the first last. It is a shocking action and complete reversal of power. In Jesus’ time in the main children were non-beings and the most powerless in society. Note that the child in the reading is described as “it”. To insist that a child might represent something of importance to a group of male disciples was scandalous and insulting. And even worse- he then tells them that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”
What does he mean? There is a lot written about childhood- and in popular psychology we are encouraged to discover our inner child. But I don’t think Jesus means we are to be childish, or even childlike. We are not encouraged to be nostalgic or sentimental. We can never return to a state of innocence or complete trust. Life has changed us, and we carry the joys and scars of our lives within.
I’m reading a book by a psychotherapist Fiona Gardner about Thomas Merton who is quoted as saying “The only mind worth having is that of the child”. In it she explores the idea that Merton tried to express of going beyond an image of childhood as essentially innocent and trusting- and move into a world where we can rediscover a sense of freshness, wonder and connectedness. Becoming like a child is not about regressing, becoming mawkish or romanticising the past. It is much more about finding a wisdom and a trust within ourselves.
Not all of us want to be reminded of our childhood – it can be a mixed bag –of joy, freedom, frustration, vulnerability or loneliness.
Yet Jesus is quite emphatic about a change that we have to make within ourselves. We have to learn to see the world with the wisdom and perception of a child. Thomas Merton, an American monk who had suffered early and contradictory experiences of childhood loss wrote a lot about this. In his spiritual journey he learnt to integrate the losses in his life with the image of being on a journey that moves forward. I quote “To say I am a child of God is to say that I grow- I become- I see possibility, risk and joy”.
And mirroring this the philosopher Blaise Pascale “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. When we trust that reason of our heart- perhaps we are moving close to the heart of God. It is about a journey of learning to see God in all aspects of our lives and our world without categorising or judging- a journey of learning to see that we live as if on a sea shore at the edge of an undiscovered world- gazing out to find the wisdom, truth and love of God.
Gerard Manley Hopkins- a poet and a Jesuit familiar with the inner spiritual journey we all have to take sums this up in this terse poem
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
May we be granted the grace to find the dear freshness of God within ourselves and our world.