Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Unless You Change - 14.08.2012

A Homily for Holy Communion on Tuesday, 14th of August, 2012, 9 a.m. for the Sisters of the Love of God Fairacres Priory, Oxford (but not in the end delivered) Matthew 18:1-5,10,12-14 Unless You Change + May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. The English summer has many delights. Not least is that these days it comes in a number of instalments, each as charming as the last. This, of course, has nothing to do with “climate change”. But whether we’re in a sunny bit, or a rainy bit, it is warm, and pleasant to be out and about. Mainly. However, there are things one can miss, too. I spend much of my days at my desk beside the open garden doors, and in the school holidays it is noticeable that the shouts and shrieks and laughter of the playground at our local primary school – Saint John Fisher’s – are absent. Some noises one can block out – like the perpetual murmur of the ring road – but a school playground one can’t. Often you don’t notice a thing until it is gone, and today’s Gospel reading made me realise that I hadn’t heard that noise for a little while. It’s quite a remarkable passage in which Jesus sets a child in front of his disciples, to show them who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I dimly recall quite respectable theologians suggesting that Jesus’s attitude to children – taking them seriously – is remarkable in ancient literature, even that he might have invented the idea of childhood, when before, a child was simply seen as either a trainee adult, one’s posterity, or a bit of a nuisance. What’s striking in this version are his words “unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. “Unless you change …” The irony is that as children we long to change: ideally, to become older, more grown-up, to have more freedom, more power, and more money. But Jesus isn’t so interested in freedom, power, and money, so he must have something else in mind. Over the years, getting to know other people’s children, it has struck me that two things characterise the child’s nature that Jesus might have meant: spontaneity, and the sense of wonder. Children can be artless and guileless; they say what they see, or think, or feel. I remember with discomfort the day I asked aloud why my ancient great-grannie had a moustache. Within moments a great-aunt, wielding scissors, had put this matter right. But sometimes when we are small we blurt out much nicer things. The day after my father died, my little niece threw her arms around my mother and said “I love you Granny”. Many of us would give much for that kind of spontaneity. And for wonder, there are really no limits. Visiting cousins in Ohio long ago I was asked by the youngest generation what England is like. A spirit of mischief made me say “and of course, we aren’t allowed to laugh”. Wide-eyed horror. “Why not?” “Well, we had a Prime Minister called Mrs Thatcher who said laughter was inefficient, and made it against the law, so we wouldn’t waste time”. The eldest of them cannily saw something in my eyes, and asked, with a stern expression, “are you lying?” I had to tell the truth, but it was fun while it lasted. Whilst adults can lie, children can indulge in make-believe. As a child, I was variously an orang-utan up the apple tree in the garden, a polar bear in the old coal shed, a hippopotamus in the sea at Littlehampton. I was a little child, and in my mind’s eye, I could change into all these things. That wasn’t about freedom, or power, or money. It was about the sheer joy of being alive. Might it be that when we finally approach the kingdom of heaven, we will hear from outside, not angels with harps and trumpets, but the sounds of the playground? Amen. Richard Haggis Littlemore, Oxford August 2012

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