Sunday, 23 September 2018

Why there is no such being
as a guilty child – there are
only innocent children

‘Then he took a little child and put it among them’ (Mark 9: 36) … a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Nenagh, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 23 September 2018,

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVII)


11.30 a.m., The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Proverbs 31: 10-31; Psalm 1; James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37.

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 37) … Children of the Kindertransport seen in Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture at Liverpool Street Station in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Does anyone remember Sophie’s Choice. It is a disturbing American movie (1982) based on a best-selling novel by William Styron (1979). Meryl Streep plays the title role of Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who shares a boarding house in Brooklyn with Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline) and a young writer, Stingo (Peter MacNicol).

One evening, Stingo learns from Sophie that she was married, but her husband and her father were killed in a Nazi work camp, and that she was sent as a prisoner to Auschwitz with her two children.

When Sophie arrives at Auschwitz, a camp doctor forces her to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which one he would send to the labour camp. To avoid having both children killed, she chooses to have her son Jan sent to the children’s camp, and her daughter Eva sent to her death. It is a heart-wrenching decision that leaves her in mourning and filled with a guilt that she never overcomes.

The name Sophie means wisdom, but the choice Sophie faces is not between what is wise and what is foolish, between good and evil, nor even between the lesser of two evils, but between evil and evil.

This morning’s readings introduce a number of similar themes, including comparisons between the Wisdom of God and a wise wife and mother, the choices we face between good and evil, and the innocence of children in the face of competition for power and status.

Our short set of readings from the Book of Proverbs ends this morning where the book ends, with a poem that gives a detailed description of the roles and qualities of ‘a capable wife.’

Before this reading begins, we are told that the words in this closing section are ‘the words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him’ (Proverbs 31: 1).

But who is the good wife?

A good wife is mentioned earlier in this book, and several of her qualities are those of Wisdom, Sophia (Σοφία). So, is the good wife Wisdom herself?

Then our psalm (Psalm 1) compares the ways of the wicked and the ways of the godly.

In our New Testament reading (James 3: 13 to 4: 3, 7-8a), Saint James reminds his readers of the qualities of wisdom. Godly wisdom is pure, peace-loving, merciful and bears good fruits, and seeks to make peace.

In our Gospel reading (Mark 9: 30-37), Christ tells the disciples he is going to be betrayed and killed, and that he will rise again.

They do not understand what he is saying – how could they, they cannot yet expect the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Both these future events are beyond their understanding and they are afraid to ask Jesus what he is talking about, either because they do not want to show their ignorance or because they are afraid that they too may become innocent victims and suffer the consequences of being followers of Christ.

By the time they arrive in Capernaum, the disciples have been arguing over who among them is the greatest (verse 34). The disciples are shamed into silence when they realise Jesus overhears what they say. He chides them, telling them being a disciple is not about rank or power, position or prestige, but is about service. He tells them: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’ (verse 35).

To illustrate his point, he takes a little child and places him or her among them. The word here (παιδίον, paidíon) means a little child, but it could mean a young servant or even a child slave (verse 36).

He takes the child in his arms and says to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’ (verse 37).

We are not told whether this child is a boy or girl, free or slave, Jew or Samaritan, Greek or Roman, a street urchin or the child of one the Disciples.

Perhaps the Disciples never even noticed, because at that time a child was of no economic value and a burden on families until the child could earn his or her own way, or until the child had the potential of being the equivalent of a pension scheme for parents.

But when someone welcomed a child slave or servant sent on an errand or with a message, they welcomed or received the master. Jesus reminds the disciples that whoever receives the servant receives the master, whoever receives a child receives Christ, whoever receives Christ receives God the Father, who sent him.

How can we relate the first part of our Gospel reading (verses 30-32), when Jesus talks about his own impending betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection, with the second part of the Gospel reading (verses 33-37), when Jesus takes an innocent, small child and makes him or her an example of how we should behave with Kingdom values?

Sometimes, I fear, we make it too difficult to talk about the Crucifixion, and so we make it too difficult to talk about the Resurrection, unless we are talking about them in the context of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter.

But sometimes too, I fear, we make it too easy to talk about children because we romanticise childhood in our comfortable settings. Quite often, even in stained-glass windows in our churches, we romanticise this little child, thinking of a well-dressed, well-fed, well-loved child from our own family or own parish.

Yet, it is a paradox that we also find it too difficult to talk about children because so often we have to turn away, mentally and emotionally, when we see the suffering of children in the world today.

All of us have been disturbed for some years now about the terrors that are rained down on children in the world today.

I say ‘children’ and not ‘innocent children,’ because there is no such being as a guilty child – there are only innocent children.

And the suffering and plight of children is all the more distressing when it is caused by the calculations of adults who dismiss this suffering as merely collateral damage brought about by political decisions or by war.

For Christians, this distress must always be acute, must always demand our compassion, must always call for our response.

In Saint Matthew’s version of this story (Matthew 18: 1-14), Christ tells us: ‘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 … it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost’ (verses 10-14).

It cannot matter to us what label is placed on these children:

● whether the suffering Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip are Christians or Muslim;

● whether the frightened child fleeing Syria in her mother’s arms, cramped into a tiny boat in the Mediterranean, is a Christian or a Muslim;

● whether the children targeted by Saudi fighter bombers in Yemen are Shia or Sunni, going to a school or a wedding;

● whether the sobbing and distressed child separated forcibly from his parents on the border between Texas and Mexico speaks Spanish or English;

● whether the homeless children who sleep in cramped hotel rooms with their mothers tonight, not knowing where they are going to sleep tomorrow night, are travellers or settled children.

It seems these are last in the world’s priorities today. Yet Christ says ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last … Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 35, 37).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 37) … ‘Spectral Child’ on Thomas Street, Limerick, by Dermot McConaghy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 9: 30-37:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9: 37) … a window in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our guide,
you feed us with bread from heaven
as you fed your people Israel.
May we who have been inwardly nourished
be ready to follow you
all the days of our pilgrimage on earth,
until we come to your kingdom in heaven.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The loss of innocence and the destruction of wisdom … the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

10, All my hope in God is founded (CD 1);

145, Ye servant of the Lord (CD 8);

231, My song is love unknown (CD 14).

‘… and three days after being killed he will rise again’ (Mark 9: 31) … the resurrection window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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