Pentecost 17 Luke 15:1-32
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Last Sunday I talked about prayer being a way of living a vision - a vision of God connected with the little, the least, and the powerless - and how in living that vision we will conflict with the false god made in the image of power. I spoke about how these Gods clash, the visions clash, not unlike in the encounter between the great warrior Goliath and shepherd boy David. As you may remember from that mythic encounter in 1 Samuel 17 David was aided by five pebbles from a brook.
So this morning I want to talk about four of the five pebbles that I have been aided and sustained by in my attempts to live into the vision of a God known among the little, the least, and the powerless. Those so-called ‘pebbles’ are children, animals, beauty, and laughter.
I heard read a New Zealand version of the old parable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. As you might recall it is a story criticizing power and pride. The Emperor [‘Mayor’ in this account] thinks he is wearing clothing that only the very intelligent can see and, unprepared to consider he might not be ‘very intelligent’, actually appears in a public parade naked. I pick up the rhyme as the parade begins:
“The Mayor tried his best to walk proudly, his bare belly wobbled and jiggled.
Then, during a lull in the cheering, a wee nipper started to giggle.
‘Mum,’ he chortled out loudly, ‘The Mayor is doing a streak!’
‘Shhh,’ said his mortified mother, ‘That’s quite enough of your check!’
But it seemed that the penny had dropped, everyone started to grin.
The grins turned to sniggers and chuckles, did all of them see only skin?”
Note three things from this extract: Firstly, the person the child is closest to, and who has the most power over his life, reproves him. Secondly, the child states the unadorned truth, the existential reality. And thirdly, the child’s honesty and courage engenders a politically destabilizing humour that brings down the mighty mayor from his puffed-up throne.
In Ched Myer’s commentary on the gospel reading Mark 10:13-16 he is critical of those who think ‘becoming a child to enter God’s realm’ is about childhood innocence or appealing to the ‘child within’. Rather he points out the lowly status and suffering of children in biblical times. Where, Myers asks, do we meet children in the Gospel of Mark? In every case it is in situations of sickness or oppression.
Myers draws upon the work of Alice Miller, philosopher and psychoanalyst, and informs us that the child is always the primary victim of practices of domination within the family. There are vicious cycles of contempt for those who are smaller and weaker. If, says Miller, we address and rectify the oppression of children we will ‘as a matter of course bring to an end the perpetuation of violence from generation to generation’. What a wonderful thought!
What Myers says about children in the New Testament, and Miller says about children in her urban American context, is of course familiar to us in New Zealand. The statistics and reality around the prevalence of child poverty, violence, and our ongoing failure to rectify them are shocking and sobering.
So in terms of prayer and living the vision, this ‘pebble’ firstly calls and challenges us to protect, to make room – safe room – in our systems, budgets, unitary plans, policies, churches, and society generally, for children, their needs and wellbeing. Then this ‘pebble’ also invites us to relate to children, to play, to use our imaginations, to honesty name and courageously change realities, to ask any and every impossible question, and dream of impossible new tomorrows. This ‘pebble’ invites us to imagine outside the lines, to colour outside the lines, and to laugh a lot. When we make safe and joyous spaces for children, question, dream, and laugh lots the might of Goliath does not seem so mighty.
Secondly: animals. I love the story of Balaam’s ass. The religious bureaucrats who determine what readings are recited in church each year always leave out Balaam’s ass. Maybe they think donkeys don’t talk? Maybe they think we shouldn’t laugh when we read the Bible?
The hapless donkey tries to avoid danger three times, and three times is beaten by Balaam who believes that he is quite entitled to beat an animal. Finally the donkey, via a bit of divine magic, talks back to Balaam admonishing him. Balaam then gets into an argument with the donkey - who is the ass now? – and relents and repents.
The lessons are these: Firstly, don’t underestimate the wisdom of animals. They see and feel things we don’t. To live well with animals one needs to learn how to cooperate. To live well and sustainably on this planet we need to learn how to cooperate. Secondly, those who use violence against animals, believing they have every right to do so, are condemned in this story. Violence is never justified against an animal or person. Protection of the vulnerable is the defining mark of a mature adult and a mature society.
Like with children, this pebble of prayer, invites us to be tender, protective, and cooperative. Animals also like to be touched – patted and stroked. The experience of sitting with a cat on one’s lap, stroking it, feeling both comforted and connected, is a common one. I would call it a prayer, for it manifests a reality and a vision of the mutuality known as God.
Thirdly: beauty. Beauty is all around us - in architecture, art, music, candles, icons, nature, relationships… and much more besides. Beauty is all around, even where and when life is extremely harsh and miserable, if we train our eyes and ears to see and hear. Such training often happens by learning how to be silent, still, and to contemplate.
Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote that prayer was not pious words or a peculiar way of getting things done in the world. Rather, it was about listening and waiting – being attentive to that which is beyond oneself, a form of concentration on that which is other. The experts in prayer, as Giles Fraser says, are therefore often strange misfits, otherworldly in so far that they eschew any practical calculation of utility. Prayer is like art; or rather prayer demands the sort of attention that art demands. It takes time. It requires silence.
I find it interesting and instructive that the one Christian denomination that has the best record in advocating for the little, the least, and powerless, is the denomination best known for its long periods of silence in worship. I refer of course to the Society of Friends, the Quakers. It’s as if in silently contemplating beauty [and in doing so also all that seeks to destroy beauty] a strong commitment arises to challenge the god made in the image of power and those who serve that god’s agenda.
The fourth ‘pebble’ is humour. As in both the story about the Mayor and Balaam’s Ass humour and courage are closely linked. Humour upsets those who think they are mighty. It can destabilize the mighty. And they hate it.
When we laugh together and joke together we embody and live into the realm of God.
There’s a great Bob Fulghum story about the game Hide & Seek compared with the game Sardines. In the former the individual hides until found, and then is a loser. The winner is the one who isn’t found. And at the end there is only one winner. Hide & Seek is a winners-losers vision of the world and of the realm of God.
In Sardines though there is only person hiding. When that person is found the seeker gets into their hiding place with them, as does the next successful seeker, and the next. In the end they are all discovered, chiefly by the sounds of children piled on top of each other and giggling. This is my vision of the world and church: being found, being together, and lots of laughter.
The fifth and last ‘pebble’ I will talk about on the 29th September, in my last sermon.
I close with a verbal prayer:
To pray is to make room,
to enlarge our hearts,
to be enlarged by children, animals, beauty, and laughter
to be enlarged by the heart of God,
so that all the little, least, and the powerless
can come on in.
Let us make room.
And be that room.
 Gurney, C The Mayor’s Flash New Clothes.
 Myers, C Binding The Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, New York: Orbis, 1994.
 Mark 5:21ff, 7:24ff, 9:14ff
 Miller, A For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983, p.280