Sermon for Sunday July 8th, 4th After Trinity
2 Samuel 5:1-10
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
‘Truly I tell you, unless you are converted and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever becomes humble like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’
Just this last week I attended a symposium on Mental Health and theology at the University where amongst others, our own Jo and Jubilee were presenting papers. One of the wonderful things about it was spending time with folk who whilst not parading their struggles with depression and the like, did not hide them either. This admission of weakness quickly opened the door in conversation, and with complete strangers we were rapidly talking about deep issues of life and faith, rather than the usual topics with strangers – ‘the weather, where are you from and, what do you think of the new rugby stadium :)’ There was a tremendous and unusual openness – not sharing our difficulties in a sort of shared therapy session, but actually a deeper sharing of life made possible by the acknowledgement of weakness.
One of the gifts of the day was to listen to Mike Noonan – Mike is a member of the L’Arche movement, established by the Catholic Priest Jean Vanier. L’Arche communities are communities of the mentally and physically able, and the mentally and physically impaired. Of course those who are ‘able’ for want of a better word, serve the needs of those who are not – but the Essence of L’Arche is that this is a true community, where all are understood to be gift to the other – all have contributions to make and indeed that it is often those who on the surface look most to have their lives together who have most to learn from those whose disabilities may mean that they can do nothing for themselves. That those who are utterly dependent actually profoundly serve those who are utterly competent. To follow on a little from last weeks theme, those who seem to have it all, have nothing and those who seem to have nothing, have it all.
Well Mike didn’t give a paper – rather he told stories and one stuck particularly in my mind, a tale about the gift of weakness and how that invited others into a new understanding of life. A group of folk from L’Arche were going to Israel on pilgrimage. Whilst they had been airborne there had been a major security alert and so when the plane put down on the tarmac of Tel Aviv Airport, the passengers were ‘Welcomed’ by the sight of massed ranks of the Israeli army, wielding rifles, pointed towards them. One of their number, Graham, was severely learning impaired. As he walked off the steps from the plane, Graham, to the consternation of the community rushed towards all these guns trained on him – pushed them aside and began vigorously shaking the hands of the soldiers. For Graham looked at the world through the eyes of a child – he didn’t see that he was faced with hostility and fear – all he saw was a group of people who had obviously come to welcome him to Israel and he was happily expressing his joy at their welcome.
I wonder what the Israeli soldiers would have made of it, how they would have felt. Whether any were changed by the encounter with the childlike Graham and perhaps put down their rifles and their fear for good. Of course they like us are very well trained in fear and defense, unlike the one who is like a child. Indeed we are very fearful of such vulnerability. Childlike vulnerability scares us. I remember not long after I’d had a period of being ill, meeting a very fearful individual, someone who was well known for using her strength and ability, to mask her own fears. She said of my time of disability ‘Ah Well – I guess that which doesn’t break you, makes you stronger’ – I bit my tongue, but actually what I wanted to say in response was – ‘Actually I’m beginning to understand that it is that which makes us stronger, that kills us in the end’
That human pathology, that is afraid of weakness, is what makes Jesus’ saying about becoming like a little child so terrifying to us. And Yet, Life being born again – another way of becoming like a Child. Graham, who was in many people’s terms a child in the body of a an adult, could see the Kingdom in a way most of us couldn’t being faced with a gun. He had no sense of shame or embarrassment – He was Perfectly himself – others may have been embarrassed by his action, but not him – and in that moment, faced with unembarrassed humility, those who watched on and the Israeli soldiers were challenged to lay down their defenses – challenged out of weakness. And i many ways that is the ky challenge of the gospel to us who are Strong, Rich, Healthy – that it is in our weakness that the power of God is revealed. Graham in his action revealed a way of being in the world that unmasked its reality and challenged all those who looked on. Yet we are afraid of such vulnerability, of nakedness, of weakness – and our response is often one of embarrassment.
Which often extends to the way we express our faith – I have spoken of our pathological need to mimic the world in terms of whom we appoint to positions of leadership, how it makes us feel safe to have those who are proven track leaders in the wider world, who have a line of glittering academic achievements behind them. One of the great challenges of the appointment of Bishop Justin to some is that his way of being in the world does not fit with what we have been led to expect – and indeed there are a good number who are privately fearful of the possibility that he will lead his flock into similar situations of vulnerability that he himself has walked this past 20 years.
All too often our embarrassment proves too much for us and we cover up – take for example in our reading from 2nd Samuel this morning. You will not be aware but the lectionary had taken a pair of scissors to the text of the story of David taking Jerusalem from the Jebusites – the text that someone was too embarrassed to allow us to hear was this “The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back” —thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. 8David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” As has been pointed out by many detractors from the faith there are many stories and words in the scripture which you wouldn’t want your elderly spinster aunt to hear, lest she be overcome by a fit of the vapours. The Bible, our ‘Sacred text’, the Word of God – is full of Murder, Rape, theft and politically unacceptable attacks on the lame and the blind (actually I typed blond here – and I’m sure you’d find something against blond people too if you were looking for it 🙂 ). For some reason or other these verses have been taken out of the text you heard. Now I think that this is just Wrong. For it assumes a) most Christians are biblically illiterate and won’t notice – b) that we have a right to change the story to fit our own petty morals and c) that our faith is actually NOT about the real world at all, that our faith is to do with a world where such things do not happen. We want a Nice and a Respectable faith – not one associated with embarrassing texts
One name particularly associated with this whole movement towards intellectual unembarrassment was the German theologian Frederick Shleiermacher. He grew up in an atmosphere of religious skepticism, and desired to express a faith in terms that were acceptable to what he called the ‘cultured despisers’. We may ourselves think this reasonable, but we ought to take more careful note of what was going on – for actually Schleiermacher’s project was in essence to create a faith which He himself could accept, having as a young man rejected orthodox Christian beliefs. His ‘cultured despisers’ were in fact a projection of his own inner rejection of faith.
In regard to all this fleeing from weakness and embarrassment, the Apostle Paul is a stinging rebuke. His entire agenda with the church in Corinth seems to be heading towards the passage we read from earlier, where he says “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul’s consistent theme throughout the letters to Corinth is that humanly speaking he could boast in many many things – as many have noted for example, his letters often display a man of Exceptional intellect – here in our passage he alludes to the fact that he could allude to Spiritual experiences I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. Generally it is accepted that Paul is probably talking about himself, but he puts this into the third person – I am not going to boast about that – what will I boast about? So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, I will boast of that which the world in all its sophistication, and remember that cultured despisers of the gospel have Always been around – ‘I will boast of my weakness – so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.’ Unless you become like a little child . . .
Paul rejoices in the vulnerability of faith in Christ Crucified and refuses to know anything else except this disturbing image of a dead naked Jew, nailed to a Roman Cross as being the entire meaning of human Life and existence – so that Nothing gets in the way of his proclamation of Christ – as he says right at the beginning of his first letter to Corinth, trying to cajole them into fuller faith Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: Remember who you were – not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, In the way Graham reduced to nothing the fear and histility of those Israeli soldiers. Remember your weakness – not many powerful, not many wise, not many of noble birth – by and large nothing, like the child, but CHOSEN. Why is Christian faith So counter cultural? Because we do not choose it – we are chosen – as we are, in foolishness and weakness, to reveal the life of Christ – for our faith is not about us – it is about Christ – he is the heart of our faith, and his life is its outworking – it is not about us – and Paul challenges us ‘Is Christ enough?’ – Or must we dress our faith up – seek to make it intellectually respectable – cover up the unmentionable parts, and in so doing obscure Christ, who comes to us in unmentionable childlike vulnerability.
But Simple faith and trust in him is actually not the easiest thing – it is not the refuge of the lazy or the thoughtless as some might make out – it requires us to be like children and That , for those of us who have spent years building our careful defences against vulnerability and weakness, is the hardest thing of all – because it leaves us as exposed as he was.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the gospel contains some very scary words – Jesus has returned to Nazareth and there he is confronted by the village community who look at him and say “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” Just like Paul and the Corinthians, they had heard his reputation, but in the flesh?? This is just Mary and Joseph’s lad – who does he think he is – he has got above himself!! The people of Nazareth more than anyone knew the Human reality of Christ – perhaps apart from on the cross, he was never more vulnerable than before them – and then those Very Scary words “He could do no deed of Power because of their unbelief” Jesus, helpless. Jesus himself – the little child – Jesus, vulnerable – Jesus Himself – naked and unembarrassed – nothing in the eyes of those who knew him.
This is essence of lived faith and the meaning of the way of the Cross – that it is all about God, that no-one may boast – that Faith is Not a magic bullet – and that that is made clear as Jesus is with his own – He could do no deed of power. The way of weakness is not a formula for a successful life, but it is how the life of Christ is revealed amongst us. The Life of Christ For it is not about us – not about our lives – not about our achievements, not about our wisdom or strength – it is about Christ – and the power of Christ cannot rest in or on us – unless we let go of our own
Our faith really Is ‘All about God’ – we have no business trying to put anything in the way of his power, but in the face of human unbelief we understand the double side of what it means to be a child. We are invited to be like Graham – to a disarming vulnerability and openness, but with no guarantee the world will lay down its weapons. Graham’s story could have worked out Very differently. ‘If anyone would be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me’