THE LITTLE ONES
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 27th 2009
Mark 9: 42 “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
What an assortment of readings today – the Gospel (from Mark 9) in particular has several sayings of Jesus that seem unrelated. It starts with: “He that is not against us is for us” – which gives a particular slant on being inclusive. In other words inclusive doesn’t mean those who are against us.
Then Jesus talks about giving a cup of water – a reference to giving to charity, which is at the heart of our life as Christians. Then we come verse 42, one of Jesus’ references to children. From there we move to some of Jesus’ most extreme, even say blood-thirsty sayings, If your hands, or feet, or eyes cause you to sin – cut them off!
Well who amongst us hasn’t sinned, even metaphorically, with our eyes, or hands, or feet? Surely Jesus isn’t being serious – of course not. He is using dramatic language to underline how serious our Christian calling is.
As if the Gospel were not enough to ponder, the first reading from Numbers 11 has two interesting stories.
Firstly, during the Exodus the Jews grumbled. They were led out of slavery by Moses, and now they are complaining about the Manna God gave them in the desert – wishing they were back in Egypt eating the meat, the fish, and melons, leeks, onions and garlic – now there’s an interesting salad!
We then move to the story of Eldad and Medad. It’s a fascinating account of these two men who didn’t go with the other seventy elders chosen by Moses to the tabernacle for worship and instruction. They stayed behind in the camp. Even though they weren’t with the others, they still received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It seems to suggest that the select few are not as privileged as we might imagine.
Not to be outdone, in the Epistle (James 4) St James sounds a warning to the double-minded. He is addressing those who seem complacent, and says: if you’re joyful you should be mourning. Because they have their priorities wrong.
What’s a preacher to do with such an assortment of readings?
Well the theme flowing through all these readings is commitment. What St James is saying is that if you are a Christian – live like one! Don’t be double-minded, and don’t be pretentious. Above all he says love your fellow Christians. In other words our commitment to Christ must be shown by our actions.
The first reading from Numbers reminds us of a very important principle for Christians:
Don’t complain about God when you think he is not looking after you – but always give thanks to God for his blessings to you.
You know it’s so easy to ask God to do this and fix that, and to say “Why God?” Even for loyal Christians, we are tempted to think that God owes us something. We need to reflect on what He has given us – and we all have received many blessings. If we always started our requests to God with an awareness of how God has blessed us – then perhaps we wouldn’t be so eager to complain.
So when you are tempted to grumble about life – like the Jews – or tempted to judge others – as Saint James warns – turn to God in thanks for what he has done for you.
The Gospel, of course, does focus on commitment in an extreme way. Now I don’t expect to see our congregation next week full of people with one leg, one arm, or one eye! But I do expect all of us to go home today and reflect on the seriousness of our call to follow Christ. It’s not easy being a Christian – but so often we take it easily. Jesus’ challenge about sin comes home to us.
It’s a good challenge, I believe – for October is stewardship month. That month for all Episcopal parishes when we are challenged to make a financial commitment to our parish, and to pledge.
Many people think stewardship is all about parish finances and our budget, much like any other organization we might belong to. About our life as a group with a common purpose. About keeping our church going, which we want to of course.
Stewardship may well be about all these things – and I do encourage you all to come to parish dinner, which is one of those unique occasions when as a family the congregations of 8am and 10am come together to enjoy our life as a parish family.
And, of course, I encourage you to make a financial commitment to our parish and to pledge.
All that is true and appropriate. But what stewardship is really about is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel…..following him is serious business! We cannot hold back, and we must have commitment and zeal.
Of course Jesus is not talking about money. He had no budget! But we who follow him here at All Saints’ do have a budget – and making a financial commitment to our budget is both a sign and an expression of our commitment to Christ.
Having said all that, what about that text I chose for my sermon – that odd saying of Jesus that those who sin against “little ones” should be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their necks. This always reminds me of those gangster movies, where the enemy or traitor is thrown into a river with leaded shoes!
Jesus said a number of things about children. When I am on a plane near a noisy family I think of his well-known saying: “Suffer the little children!”
In Matthew 18:10 we find his account of the same conversatrion: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my father”.
Not for Matthew a reference to millstones – but a declaration about guardian angels, particularly for children. This is one of the teachings of the church – that all of us are protected by guardian angels. As we think about commitment, this is a good point to finish on.
In all our living out of the Gospel – both individually, and as a parish – we must remember the Christian life is more than just this world. It is about the next world, and the unseen world.
Saint James says as much today in 4:7: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you”. Saint Peter said that the devil goes around like a roaring lion seeing whom he can devour. We do not see him – but he is there! Satan is in the spiritual realm – but his activity and his influence very much affects this dimension.
In the same way we do not see the angels. But they are there, unseen – helping and protecting us.
Some people think that angels belong to the realm of fairy-tales, or only exist at Christmas. But Scripture tells us that they are both guardians and messengers from heaven – from that other realm, which we will inherit.
If modern scientific discovery has shown us anything, it is that there is a lot out there that we can not see, nor feel, nor understand. So the Scriptural account of angels is both scientific and encouraging.
God is not just Lord of this world – He is Lord of every world, of every dimension.
How wonderful that in his great love for us God created angels to help us – both in this world and in the world to come.
Yes, we have much to thank God for – that surely is worth our response and commitment!