Sermon for the World Day of Prayer – Cuba
Williamstown Uniting Church, 4th of March 2016
The choice of the women of Cuba of the theme of today’s service, ‘Jesus said to them “Receive children. Receive me.” is both extremely timely and extremely challenging for the churches here in Australia.
I don’t know whether any of you listen to the Religion and Ethics Report on Radio National? It’s on every Wednesday and I never miss it. This week the presenter, Andrew West, talked with Professor John Haldane of St Andrew’s University in Scotland who is in Australia to give several public lectures. Andrew and Professor Haldane talked about a story that the actor Alec Guinness told in one of his volumes of autobiography. Guinness was walking down a street in France in the 1950s dressed as a Catholic priest, because he was playing the part of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. A child who thought that Guinness was a priest came up to him, took his hand, and walked with Guinness back to where he was staying. Professor Haldane said that Guinness had been brought up with a generally hostile opinion of Catholicism and this experience made him think that an institution that could inspire that much trust and loyalty and affection must have something going for it. It was the beginning of his conversion. Professor Haldane then pointed out that the current circumstances in which an institution is immediately suspect when someone sees a priest taking a child’s hand or a child taking a priest’s hand also say something very significant and very challenging for the church.
To the great sorrow and shame of the churches, we no longer automatically inspire trust and loyalty and affection in our relationships with children. In 2013 the Parliament of Victoria released the report Betrayal of Trust: Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations. This was the result of months of rigorous inquiry into situations of child abuse and the responses of organisations to them. The report makes damning reading for those of us who are members and leaders in churches. The authors write: ‘The Committee heard graphic accounts that detailed horrendous and traumatic experiences of victims abused as children in the care of non-government organisations that spanned a period of decades through to more recent times. Victims provided confronting accounts of their feelings of fear and helplessness when subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse by personnel in organisations. In circumstances of sexual abuse, many explained that as children they lacked the intellectual framework to understand their abuse. They spoke of subsequent feelings of guilt and embarrassment, and a belief that they needed to conceal what they felt was a deeply shameful secret.’ (p. xxvii)
As bad as the experience of the child abuse was, it was frequently compounded by the response of churches and other organisations to the victims when they reported it. Again quoting from the report: ‘It is beyond dispute that some trusted organisations made a deliberate choice not to follow processes for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse’. (p. xxvi) The Inquiry said that instead of reporting abuse there was substantial evidence that some leaders of religious bodies took deliberate steps to cover it up. (p. 10)
The Betrayal of Trust report only described the situation in Victoria. As I’m sure you’re aware, there is currently a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse taking place. The proceedings are streamed, so that people can watch and listen to them via computers, and for the twelve days that the Commission looked into the situation at Knox Grammar School in New South Wales, a Presbyterian and then Uniting Church School, I had the hearing constantly running in the background of my office on my computer, needing to know what had been done by a school that is part of the church that ordained me.
We are all members of different churches, and none of us can distance ourselves from what’s happening. One thing that the Victorian Enquiry and the Royal Commission have both shown is that to a greater or lesser extent every church in Australia has been implicated in the abuse of children. When the Chairperson of the Royal Commission, Justice Peter McClellan, spoke to the Uniting Church’s National Assembly last year he told us that, ‘From the work we have done we know that there have been failures to protect children in residential facilities, schools, including boarding schools, Christian churches of every character, Jewish organisations, kindergartens, after school care, sporting organisations, dance classes, music organisations, scouts, hospitals and other institutions.’ No church is innocent.
It’s in this context that we hear the gospel reading that the women of Cuba have chosen for us, the story of people bringing children to Jesus to be blessed. It’s an extremely well-known story, told in Matthew and Luke as well as in Mark, but it is only in Mark’s version that we are told that Jesus was indignant with his disciples and only in Mark’s version that we are told that Jesus took the children up in his arms as he blessed them, so I’m glad that it’s Mark’s version that the women of Cuba have chosen for us.
Why did the disciples speak sternly to the people bringing children to Jesus? Was it because they considered Jesus too important to be bothered with children; were they afraid that these people were wasting Jesus’ valuable time? Or was it because the children and those with them were creating a commotion? Sadly, there are still some people in our congregations who see children as noisy nuisances, who ‘humph’ when a baby’s crying or a toddler’s laughter is heard during a service of worship. Jesus’ disciples could have been like those congregation members, annoyed that their time of learning from Jesus’ teaching is being made more difficult by noisy children.
Jesus is indignant; in some translations ‘he grew angry’. He does not believe that he is doing something that is more important than blessing children, and he rebukes the disciples. ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ Later on the church used this passage as the basis for the baptism of babies, but this isn’t Jesus’ focus. Jesus’ next statement starts with ‘Truly I tell you’ – in Greek, amen lego – which when I was a student I was told basically means ‘what is following is really important, pay attention!’ ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
In what way should we be as little children? It’s unlikely that Jesus meant that we need to be innocent and adorable in order to enter the kingdom of God. Lucky for us! It is much more likely that Jesus is referring to the way that children are vulnerable and dependent. Children cannot look after themselves; they must be taken care of by others. And children take their dependency for granted. They know that they cannot feed or clothe themselves, and they blithely expect that those who love them will feed and clothe them. They receive everything they need as pure gift; they do not try and earn it. This is the way, Jesus says, that we will enter the kingdom of heaven; as pure gift, freely received. No more than children do we need to do anything to earn God’s love.
The child who took Alec Guinness’s hand was demonstrating their understanding of this. They saw a priest, a representative of the church, and expected to be welcomed by him. And this is what makes the abuse of children by religious leaders so particularly damning. The writers of the Victorian report say: ‘children abused by a minister of religion or a spiritual leader have been found to develop a sense of alienation from the world. Abuse by a trusted religious figure can destroy a child’s belief that the world is a safe place and can make the world seem chaotic and unstructured.’ (p. xxviii) It is appalling that the church, the body of Christ, can have fallen so far from the example of Jesus, who took the children up in his arms and blessed them.
The service that we are sharing in today talks about the many different ways in which we care for children: by passing the Word of God on to them; by cooking for them and nourishing them; by helping them to go to school to learn; by providing them with the opportunity to play safely with others. It also talks about the ways in which we have failed children: by denying them the opportunity to participate fully; by not denouncing injustices that hurt children; and by not acknowledging the violence that women, children and the elderly experience in places where they should be safe. We members of Australian churches are discovering now the sins that our churches have committed against children; sins that have endangered children’s health and growth and lives as badly as the economic blockade endangered the health and growth of Cuban children. Today’s service will hopefully inspire us to do everything we can to care for those abused as children in the past and to prevent children from being abused in the future. Our different churches may go about this in different ways, but as we read the words the Cuban women chose for today’s service: ‘Anyone who welcomes a child in my name welcomes me’ we know we have no choice. Let us again become churches that inspire trust and loyalty and affection in children, who can come to us as safely as they came to Jesus. Amen.