Sunday, October 04, 2015

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Apparently this sermon should write itself.

We’re talking about receiving the kingdom of God like a little child, so we make lists: Kids are open, kids are fun, kids forgive their parents foolishness and so on. ‘Be more like kids,” I’m supposed to say, then it’s off to lunch. Even a child could write such a sermon.

But that would be too easy. And the hot dogs aren’t ready, so we carry on. And someone might need time to raise a counter-point, get a little debate going. Not the five podiums and awkward translation kind of debate, but a look at passages that speak to our passage to find out what the Bible has to say to the Bible.

First, to recap: Jesus said “Let the little children come to me” (I actually prefer the KJV Jesus who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me”) ‘and don’t stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.‘ And just to underline the point, he goes a step further, saying “Truly I tell you, unless you receive the kingdom like a little child, you will not be able to enter it.”

The kingdom belongs to children and unless you are child-like you cannot enter the kingdom. That’s Mark 10, and Matthew 19, and Luke 18. It’s all over the first three Gospels, though it does’t appear in John. John’s prologue says that those who welcome the light of the world become children of God, but there’s no story of embracing a little child.

Beginning, then, with rule that unless you are child-like you cannot enter the kingdom, we turn to St. Paul. And if you’ve ever attended a wedding, you may already know Paul’s counter-point to becoming like a child: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Good word, spake. That’s five letters and 11 points for you Scrabble players.

So Paul is putting away childish things, to peer through a glass, darkly—and ponder the mystery of God. He seems to equate over-confidence in faith as somehow child-like, and worth discouraging. Instead, we ought to wait for the mysteries of God to be revealed in eternity, and put aside foolish over-confidence.

A chapter later, Paul picks up the topic once more, and seems to modify his stance: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults” (1 Corinthians 14:20). In other words, approach evil with child-like innocence, but in all other situations, think like adults. This seems to fit with the “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” theme that Jesus develops in Matthew, but it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding his kingdom command.

Finally, in 1 Peter 2, we may have the answer. The author picks up this discussion and adds this bit of advice: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Perhaps, then, we enter the kingdom like newborns, and only then do we grow into mature spiritual beings. If we follow 1 Peter, being child-like is not the terminal destination, only the only starting point for entering the kingdom.

In other words, the sermon won’t write itself. You can’t simply point to kid and say ‘everything we treasure about her is your ticket to the kingdom—here, let me make a list.’ Describing the pure, spiritual milk of human kindness might be a staring point, but the scriptural record suggests that we then mature into something more. And since our goal here is to understand Jesus before we disagree with Jesus, we need to explore further.

Maybe we should look at this idea of spiritual development, and then be able to blend the need to be child-like and the need to grow in the faith. I might begin with the work of Ram Dass, and a helpful metaphor he shared to describe our spiritual development. He argues that we all view the world through various levels of reality or “planes of consciousness.” And to get at the idea of people seeing the world through levels of reality, he uses the simple metaphor of television. He describes the channels we receive, and begins with the one or two that all of us get:

We all receive channel one. It is the view we begin with as babies, seeing the physical make-up of the people around us (young, old, light, dark, male, and female). As adults we still possess this channel and still view it with comfort.

On channel two we view the social world around us. We begin by placing our family of origin into the categories of father, mother, sibling and what these titles mean in terms of social interaction. Later we see other categories like teacher or doctor, blue collar/white collar and so on. Finally, this channel allows us to view psychological attributes like happy, sad, angry or afraid. Add to the list affiliations such as conservative or liberal, and we begin to see why this is the most watched channel and why so many people are stuck on two channels.

Channel three is little known and seldom watched. It is about the myths and roles we place on ourselves and how we understand others. If you are aware that someone is struggling because they are trying to live up to ideal they have placed on themselves then you are watching channel three. This channel asks the "why" question and tries to understand behavior as part of a larger pattern.

The fourth channel is the place where we view the people around us and we no longer see differences but only similarities. We embrace our common humanity and the connection between all people through the Spirit. We only get glimpses of this channel and some have never seen it. (Sharp, p.74)

So Ram Dass—on the surface at least—seems to be making the opposite argument to entering the kingdom as a little child. He is arguing that we begin with an awareness of human physicality and nothing more, and only later we discover non-physical attributes (role and identity) and finally some context. And having mastered all that, if we are really fortunate, we may enter the territory of mystics and seers and find the common humanity that can only be described as the kingdom of God.

And just because I love spiritual biographies, I will share one that fits our metaphor perfectly, the ‘conversion’ of Thomas Merton. Merton was the Roman Catholic monk who almost singlehandedly reintroduced mystic spirituality to North America, and he did it from a small cabin in rural Kentucky. And his conversion, like the best spiritual biographies, comes with a time and a place.

On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton went into the city from his monastic home to do a little shopping. He wrote these words: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

It was at this moment that he resolved to re-engage with the world beyond his monastery, and work for peace. He confessed that he had come to regard himself as a different sort of being from others, also a ‘pseudo-angel’ in his monastic life. But through his Fourth and Walnut experience he discovered his common humanity with others, and some might argue moved from mystic to saint.

So back to Ram Dass and his television metaphor, he describes the ‘little children’ that Jesus lifts up as little more than observers of the physical world (young/old, light/dark) and nothing else. But what he fails to note is what children do not see—and that would be the things that divide.

If you have a small child at Sunday dinner, try to guess what they think of the people at the table who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, deficit spending or cap-and-trade. You won’t be able to guess, because like mystics and seers, little children see only people and their common humanity, not titles or roles. In effect, there is a great circle where we begin life literally unable to discriminate, we travel through a life of categories and bias, hopefully to come to some context and maybe—just maybe—a child-like sense that all-are-one.

And as I mentioned last week—in a completely non-partisan way—that some will seek to divide us, and encourage us to regard others with suspicion and fear, but we ought to look at children instead. We ought to imagine a time when distinctions didn’t matter, didn’t even occur to us, and claim our place in the kingdom of God. Amen.


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