23rd Sunday after Pentecost – “Let the little children come to me”

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 21, 2016
The Story of Zacchaeus and Jesus
November 4, 2016

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST  

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:15-30

“Let the little children come to me…”

 I sat weeping as I watched the Four Corners programme last week. The programme focussed on the 128 children on Nauru – part of the 1,159 on the island and the 1578 on both Manus and Nauru.    I don’t watch TV generally but as an activist about those seeking asylum and refuge I couldn’t miss it.

A report released the next day by Amnesty International on 18 October, entitled: “Island of Despair” lists the deliberate acts of cruelty which in today’s definitions, is torture.  The children who spoke on the programme, filmed in secret talked of sexual abuse, assaults, humiliations, dehumanising rules, being called by boat numbers not names, and self-harming, immolation and death.

The next day, our PM denied there were children in detention – in Australia, and those on Nauru and Manus were the responsibility of the PNG Government. One of our Federal politicians called the issues raised ‘trifling incidents’. The Chief Civil Servant in charge of the Department of Immigration said the Report was lies and untrue. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher called this behaviour ‘the banality of evil’.  It is the capacity of individuals to have no imagination, to be individuals who choose not to look beyond the immediate essentials and so can refuse to count the cost of their actions.  It is how enormous suffering and death results.  However, culpability exists whether you agree or not.  Doing nothing as Christians is not an option.

So, I stand in solidarity with these children and their families, witnessing to their treatment and mourn our humanity as Jesus gave his life for them.

In Yemen, in the city of Aleppo children are starving. In Mosul, over half a million children and their families are at risk of starvation and bombings from air strikes.

There are 45 million people worldwide being trafficked, in every country and state in the world, including Australia, including children.

There are about 65 million people on the move as asylum seekers and refugees because of violence and terror and death in which Australia is either directly or indirectly involved. Many of them are unaccompanied children and orphans, prey to traffickers and the sex trade.

I stand in solidarity with these children and their families, witnessing to their treatment and mourn our humanity as Jesus gave his life for them

I have also been completing a report with a small group reviewing our Diocese’s processes in responding to allegations of child sexual abuse for the future – the scandal of our Christian Church’s past behaviour and its institutional response in Australia and elsewhere makes me hang my head in shame.   The reports being released by the Royal Commission into the wide range of government and social institutions and the Church into the institutional responses of child sexual abuse are sobering and horrific.

I stand in solidarity with these children and their families, witnessing to their treatment and mourn our humanity as Jesus gave his life for them

In Australia, on any night over 17,000 children are homeless.

This week is also Anti-Poverty week, and the report released by Anglicare Australia at the start of the week, called “Come as You Are”, notes that nearly half of those living in poverty are children, who bear the burden of our failing economic policies. 30 years ago, the Australian PM said that he would eliminate child poverty – the milestone has been and gone without a blip.  Hardly a bump in the road.

The Anglicare Australia report highlighted the fact that less than half the population is now going to church compared to the 1950s, and groups like the scouts and guides, Rotary and the Lions have seen a halving of their membership since the 1980s. The Anglicare report says ‘we have fewer neighbours’ as the gap between the rich and poor increases, and society pays less attention to those who are marginalised.

We know the answer to poverty isn’t more money, it is justice.

I stand in solidarity with these children and their families in our communities, witnessing to their treatment and mourn our humanity as Jesus gave his life for them

I thought long and hard about this sermon today, as this space for reflection in our services is a place to reflect on the Gospel, the good news given to us by Jesus and how it changes our lives. I had written a different reflection, and then, the accumulation of stories, Nauru, Aleppo, Mosul, our Church’s abuse and Anti-Poverty week piled up and the text needed revisiting.

So, what is Jesus saying:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17).

In Jesus’ time, children were invisible. They were the property of their father.  They had no rights and were equal to slaves in the economic and social order.   They were also loved, but for good or ill, their father had control.  Like today they were sold, abused, married off, used as labour and killed.

2,000 years on, and what does Jesus’ teaching tell us today.

Jesus is trying to help his disciples understand who will enter God’s kingdom, as we’ve seen in the recent Gospel readings – the Pharisee and the tax collector last week, the children and the rich ruler today; next week its Zacchaeus.

Today, once again we’re being told clearly: those who enter the kingdom are the marginalised, the disabled, the blind, widows, tax collectors, aliens and now children, all marginalised by society and not fitting into the social rules.

The kingdom isn’t possessed or controlled by children, but it is made up of people like children.   It means thinking about the kingdom in the way a child would, eagerly, with optimism and probably also with desperation.

It means we need to be people without social advantages, nothing to offer in return, nothing to bargain with or negotiate our way into a privileged space, using our own efforts and contacts, demonstrating our highly valuable economic, political, powerful worth. It means having no excuses about why we’ve had to compromise for the moment on particular laws and why children and the marginalised must always remain at the bottom of the heap for the time being, as they are useful for using as examples and as weapons of war and for maintaining our lifestyles.

Jesus reminds us over and over again, that he is turning the social order upside down along with all the privileges it protects, unlike those living on the margins.

It means receiving the kingdom in the same way Jesus welcomed the children, extending genuine hospitality and being in solidarity with all who constitute the kingdom, the powerless and vulnerable, to whom the kingdom belongs.

The rich ruler has presumed the key to eternal life lies in being good.   He’s obeyed the law because he can with his wealth, education, social position and reputation.

However, the kingdom is only given, it’s not earned or occupied. It’s not bought or sold, or won in battle, with bombs and threats, it is not consumed, commodified, valued or stolen.  The kingdom has no tax breaks or negative gearing.

In the instruction to the ruler to give away his money, Jesus is concerned we let go our wealth and redistribute it among those who cannot repay our generosity (6:33-35), and among those with no social influence. It is a deliberate act of surrendering power and influence, to join the poor.  Jesus is not praising poverty, but reminding us that possessions, status and power get in the way; and although they may be used for good, they block any chance of making a true commitment and trusting in God.

They tempt us to keep faith with our own individual capacity to make this life and world work for us, selfishly, and separate us from relationships with each other, God and God’s children. We need take on a whole new social status and identity and then follow Jesus.

Children can claim no riches or power or privilege, and Jesus has just said, it is people like this who have access to the kingdom.

Someone contacted me on Monday night after the Four Corners programme and said ‘so where is your God?’ My reflection was one in line with Dietrich Bonhoffeur who reminds us what Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn”.  Those who mourn are people who stand in solidarity with the world, alongside those who are suffering, witnessing to the lack of humanity and what that is doing to other people and God’s creation.  Jesus loved us so much he was not prepared to compromise with worldly powers and died so that we would be saved.   Jesus had no apparent political, economic or worldly power other than his words and deeds.  He went to Jerusalem to die on behalf of all of us because he loved us so much.

He said to us, the kingdom and salvation is possible for all of us. It is possible to change what we’re doing and be different.  It is possible to repent with God’s help and be forgiven.  It is possible to free the captives and lift up the lowly.  We don’t need to be afraid.

So where is God in all this? Jesus is in the camps with those poor children, he’s walking on the roads with the refugees, he’s fleeing terror and destruction with the asylum seekers, he’s on the boats; he is starving with the hungry, he is with the fearful parents, he’s holding the hands of those dying, the hopeless, the desperate and weary.  He’s with the abused and terrorised.  He’s been there before us and he is present in the world, working in us, loving us.  He’s with us that we might tell of the kingdom, of a new way of being, of the good news that with God’s help we might take up Jesus’ invitation to enter the kingdom.

And whatever we choose to keep as we think about what God is asking us to give up and offering us in love, whether it is giving up particular laws, land and country, weapons and terror, money, power, the use of violence, the ability to terrorise and humiliate, the willingness to use another human being as an example, all this should make us tremble at the monumental challenge of holding it so closely we cannot see or enter into the kingdom.

Sisters and brothers, we can be different with God’s help. In this text, Jesus’ final comment to the disciples is one of hope.  God’s love will hold us safe.  We do not have to do this on our own.  This is God’s gift to us.      The Lord be with you.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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