Glynn Cardy 6th August 2023
Children throughout most of recorded history have been seen as the property of their fathers, similar in that sense to women and slaves. It was the father in the ancient Roman world who determined whether a child would live or die. It is estimated that 20-40% of children were either killed or abandoned, with some of the latter surviving as slaves. A child was a nobody unless the father accepted him or her within the family. It was girls who were more often the victims of this rejection.
This is the context for the stories of Jesus welcoming and blessing children. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes children in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them. These are the bodily actions of a father designating a new-born infant for life rather than death, for acceptance not rejection. Scholars think there was a debate going on in the early Jesus groups about whether to adopt abandoned children, with some leaders staunchly opposed. Mark aligns Jesus with adoption. Jesus, he says, was good news for children, especially vulnerable children.
In John’s Gospel, the author goes a step further than just welcoming children. He tells a story of a young boy, who in response to the hunger of the crowd, offers five barley loaves and two fish to help feed them. The incredible thing here is not the multiplication miracle that follows (which is aligning the prophetic ministry of Jesus with that of Elijah), but that it is a child who is the catalyst. It is this child who gives up all that he has in order to serve the needs of the many. The child is the exemplar of faith. And it is the disciple Andrew (who doesn’t get the starry write-up that his brother Peter does) who recognizes this faith for what it is: the courage to try and make a difference.
All through the gospels there are these stories of faith. Not just Jesus’ faith, nor his closest followers’ faith, but the faith of marginal people. People who had no or little power or prestige in the usual run of things. People who were misfits. Like the foreign Syro-Phoenician woman whose child is suffering. Like the leper who returns to give thanks. Like the tax-collector who repays those he’s wronged four times over. Or like this boy who gives up the little food he has because he sees a great need.
Can you imagine a church today made up of foreign women, lepers, tax-collectors, and children? Or made up of Samaritan women, Pharisees, beggars, widows, and fishermen? Churches with people of all shapes and varieties, of privilege and poverty, of varying beliefs, of faith and faithlessness? For maybe one way to understand the four gospels in the Bible is that they are reflecting not so much historical events or historical people but the great variety of folk – the wonderful and the wacky, the insiders and the outliers – who were part of Jesus groups when these gospels were written.
And maybe that is the clearest sign of what a church is and looks like today. Not a group who assent to a creed, or the Bible, or the Book of Order… or have a minister to lead them, or elders, or a bishop… or have building to worship in, with cross and communion table and parking. No maybe the clearest sign of a church today is one, following Robert Fulghum’s tale, that makes space for and welcomes giants, wizards, and dwarfs roiling in wild disarray… and even makes space for and welcomes mermaids.
One of the things I used to do to relax was read the British Church of England newspaper. The Church Times is arguably the most interesting of ecclesial newspapers anywhere in the world, and it would invariably put a smile on my face.
Like the minister from Basingstoke who amused himself making Lego cathedrals. The Lego Company, pleased to have a collared disciple, made Lego organ pipes specially for him and his followers. I suppose we could start a Lego club here?
Like the numerous clergy who have love affairs with trains. Big train sets that expand out of the study into the hallway and beyond. Or going for picnics on hillsides where one can watch the trains passing below. My theory is that things that go where you plan them to go are very appealing to those whose day-to-day experience is usually the opposite.
And then there is the minister with his rhinoceros. The vicar of St Mary’s in the town of Dalton-in-Furness created a fiberglass five-foot-long rhinoceros using wood and carpet rolls. He intended it to be a mould for future models that would be displayed around the town.
Why rhinos? Why rhinos in Dalton-in-Furness? The justification must surely be a church kindergarten project with an ecological purpose, or at the least a fund-raiser to repair the church roof? Yet the Rev Allan Mitchell offered no such explanation. He just liked rhinos, and making them, and then finding sponsors to make more of them. He told The Church Times he wanted to build ten of them, and call them the ‘Rhino Rumble.’ It defies reason!
And that is the point. There is no reason. Attracting people to church, feeding the poor, or changing the world does not motivate the rhino’s creator. He made it because he just made it, just because he liked to make it.
What I enjoy about this story is visualizing the vicar working away in his garage on something totally disconnected from normal church life. There he crafts a statue that has seemingly no point.
One of the things I love about churches, any church, well most churches, is that at their best they try not to be a club for the like-minded but a symbol that all can and do belong. Reverend Mitchell is such a symbol. His counter-cultural love of rhinoceri, making them, and not seeing any conflict between this and his ministerial vocation, is a wonderful reminder that in the vast ecology of God there is a place for us all.
Sometimes the kiwi version of church leadership worries me. Leadership is hailed and hallowed as professional, educated, pastorally competent, and hard working. These are the values that silently predominate, are what we are meant to aspire to, even as we preach a gospel of inclusion. Where is the room for the oddball, the mermaid, and the rhino lover? Eccentricity and difference need to be valued otherwise we might lose them. And in my nearly 40 years as a minister, I’ve seen our denominations losing them more and more.
Many parishes though are attractive to the wonderful and wacky in our communities. Such folk brighten and enliven our common life as church. And keep the clergy on their toes. I remember one woman – Irish, Catholic, and bruised by life – who would regularly interpret my sermon, hollering “What do you mean by that?” It was probably what others wanted to ask to! I came to appreciate her contributions, though not her chatty phone calls at 2 a.m.
In my time I’ve worshipped with a giant (who didn’t look like a giant – but I suppose you never know?), with a time-traveler from the 16th century, with Jesus Christ’s aunt, as well as many of more mundane pedigree. I’ve worshipped too with law-breakers and law-makers, with animals and those more behaviorally challenged, the harried and the harassed, and with the gentle and ready-smilers. If I wrote a gospel reflecting those 40 years it would be full of people like… like… well, like you find in the gospels.
It is truly a privilege as a minister to open one’s arms wide and say without any hesitation that all giants, wizards, dwarfs, and mermaids are welcome. All are welcome to enter, participate, and commune. All are part of God’s ecology.
And this is what baptism is. It is we, the church, opening our arms wide and saying you Georgia-Eden belong. Not because of anything you have done, not because of your parentage, whakapapa, connections, intellect, beauty, or wealth (all of which you may have in spades, or not). No, you simply belong, as all belong, in the wonderful ecology and embrace of God (which we try to emulate).
We need to be always aware that God’s acceptance of a person is not restricted to those who we think are acceptable. That God does not share our fear of difference that wants to judge and separate. For God’s love is so broad that there are no boundaries or conditions. God deals with the dissenters and doubters by welcoming them. God welcomes the Lego makers, the train enthusiasts, the rhino crafters, and the time-travelers.
This is immensely encouraging and hopeful. For it means, even with all our foibles and failings, all our beliefs or lack of them, God still welcomes even me and you.