In the last few years we have watched the news and seen images of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean in small boats; and watched the unravelling of the wars around our world, most recently with the dreadful violence in Syria. There have been two images engraved on my mind.
The first was of the small child, a toddler dead on a sandy beach, the tiny body being gently nudged by the waves on the shore, a small, sad fatality from one of the hundreds of boats overturned during these dangerous journeys. A punctuation point in the stories of refusal and denial while people flee in their thousands through north Africa and the middle east, to seek refuge and asylum in Europe and the UK.
The other image was of a small boy, perhaps about four or five years old, with eyes wide open, sitting on a seat in the back of a battered ambulance, covered in brick and concrete dust, having been pulled out of the rubble of a bombed building, shocked and silent, stilled and terrorised, and with no parents in sight.
It is with these images in my mind and remembering the tears I have shed each time I come across them in the media, I hear Jesus’ words today:
Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. (Matt.18:10)
Our detention camps off and onshore hold children, young people and adults who are despised. In refugee camps around the world, children are growing up without welcome, safety, education or healthcare. Hundreds of thousands of orphans are left to their own devices as countries place politics ahead of compassion.
Jesus pointed out and explained God’s vulnerable ones already have their portion in heaven in some way. They are already in God’s presence in a manner which we refer to as angels. Our exclusion and denial of the children is our response to Jesus’ story as we refuse to listen and respond.
It is in this reflection of how our world, our countries, our communities, our leaders, and how we ourselves have come to this point and imagine any of this is acceptable, that we hear Jesus speak.
Jesus talks about his search for the single missing sheep, leaving behind the ninety-nine on the mountainside, and as this takes shape in our minds, we think about his repeated references to his ‘little ones’.
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray? (Matt.18:12)
I’m not sure if you imagine yourself as the single sheep that has left the fold and for whom Jesus has come looking; or if you and I are among the ninety-nine sheep left behind, watching Jesus head out to search for his ‘little ones’. Either way, the text asks us as Christians, to consider where we are in relation to God, to each other and to the ‘other’, the 100th sheep gone missing.
And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. (Matt.18:13)
I think Jesus is asking all of us, as Christ’s gathered body on earth, to stop waiting for our shepherd to look after us and keep us safe, passively and perhaps selfishly, and instead join him in searching for ‘these little ones’.
And when we find the ‘little ones’, the ones who have gone astray, I have been reflecting on what it is we should be doing as a church and parish to welcome them back into God’s family. How might we reflect our loving and generous God into the wider community, showing God is relevant and real in our lives today and how this could be the same for others? How do we welcome the ‘other’?
My response is I think it is how we think about others rather than ourselves. Can we imagine what it is like to be a new mother coming for the first time and worried about whether her child will make a noise and be frowned upon? Perhaps turning up without work and money, frightened and needing help? What is it like for someone who doesn’t know what to do, to walk in the door and be confronted with all the things we do automatically and assume everyone else will pick up? What does it feel like to be different – because of skin colour, past criminal behaviour, unending poverty, age, gender, disability or for a wide range of life experiences – and how is that accepted by us in our welcome? How does a warm welcome feel like when its genuine? How do we adopt a real caring sensitivity which personalises the Gospel for everyone? And rather than waiting for them to find us, how do we go out and look for the ‘little ones’ who are lost? As Jesus said:
…it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (Matt.18:14)
The principle we are discussing here, after all is not about what makes us comfortable as we imagine we have made it into the kingdom. Those who join God’s family should expect something very different. And when Jesus then says:
If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt.1817)
Jesus is not inviting you to reject, exclude, punish and oppress those who get lost and go astray. He is asking us to start again, afresh, seeing the individual as one who is lost and needs to be searched for and found.
We remember Jesus had a great love for tax collectors and Gentiles. He had a great love and compassion for children. Our church has not always remembered this.
God is inviting us to see ourselves as a family. Jesus is in the midst of this family, a family that is inclusive and forgiving, rather than one which controls, oppresses and executes its offenders. As we join God’s family, we and everyone of God’s ‘little ones’ expect patient kindness, grace, humble prayerfulness, compassion, love and forgiveness from each of us.
Are there limits to this? No, thank goodness. Jesus reminds us along with Peter and disciples, it isn’t forgiveness with a limit of seven times, but seventy-seven times … which means we will get a lot of practice and we ourselves will receive abundant forgiveness and kindness from each other and from God when we too need it. Thank goodness.
As I look at our children, and our parents, family and friends, the endless store of patience and kindness with which they love them and have welcomed them into their family is reflected in this story told by Jesus, and in how we as God’s family are ourselves changed and shaped by our welcome and love for one another, friend and stranger alike.
As a community we need to make sure we are with Jesus searching for the ones who have gone astray, not sitting, waiting for God to come and feed us. We are out there with him, and if anyone should challenge us about why we do this for people who are apparently worthless and disposable, we should never forget we too rely and trust God and God’s family to search us out when we go astray; for those who are out there not yet welcomed or found, we should be out there too, with them in the darkness on the mountainside, searching and welcoming.
The Lord be with you.