Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday: A little child shall lead them

Isaiah 11.6-9, Mark 9.33-37

In early September 1939 the largest mass movement of children that has ever taken place in the UK got underway. It’s estimated that at the start of WW2 something like 1.5 million children were evacuated from their homes to areas thought to be safer. I know that there are people here this morning who have personal or family experience of being evacuated or receiving evacuees. Some children were even sent overseas. My grandmother thought very seriously about sending my mother, aged 7, and her 5 year old sister from Plymouth to family members in South Africa, to escape the bombing in Plymouth, only changing her mind when several ships carrying evacuees were torpedoed. There were agonising choices to be made.

For some who were evacuated, their time away from home was wonderful; new experiences, perhaps better homes and lives than they had known, fresh air and space. For others it was misery, put more or less at random in the homes of complete strangers who might or might not treat them well. Many evacuees were brought home within weeks; their families missed them too much. But others never really came home at all. Family bonds were broken during the war, parents were killed, homes were destroyed. There was no one and nowhere to return to.

At home or evacuated, war left its mark on the children who lived through it. Food was rationed. Nights were interrupted by air raid alerts, and you never knew what the next day would bring. A  clergyman I worked with, who’d been a child in London during the war, once told me how it became routine for him to go into school in the morning and find a desk empty, a friend no longer there, killed in the previous night’s raids. He recognised the impact it had had on his ability to form friendships for ever after.

Mercifully, children growing up in the UK don’t have to endure things like this now, but that’s not the case for children in other parts of the world. UNICEF estimates that there are currently something like 28 million children around the world who have been driven from their homes by war. 28 million children. I’ll repeat that number because you may wonder whether you heard it right. Some have become refugees in other countries. Others have been internally displaced, seeking shelter in other parts of their own countries, often in overcrowded camps, without access to health care and education. And of course many more children are still in warzones, some of them even forced to fight themselves. That 28 million is just the ones who’ve got away.

It’s natural and right, on Remembrance Sunday, to think of and give thanks for members of the armed forces who gave their lives in war.  Their names are the ones recorded on our War Memorials. In modern wars, though, far more civilians are killed than military personnel. While wars were once predominantly fought between armies on battlefields, or warships on the ocean, now they are often fought  through aerial bombardment and drone strikes carried out from a distance, or by guerrilla forces fighting street to street in towns and cities. It’s estimated that something like 80 – 90% of the casualties of modern warfare are civilians – and many of them are children. Adults declare war, but children suffer the effects. And as they grow up, the things they’ve seen don’t leave them. The trauma of war can leave them anxious and insecure or bitter and angry, fuelling another cycle of violence in the next generation.

Children are often overlooked in times of war, but the Bible readings we heard today both put children right at the centre of the story. In the reading from Mark’s Gospel Jesus takes a little child and literally stands it in the middle of his fractious, squabbling disciples. They’ve been arguing among themselves about which one of them is the greatest, and Jesus was obviously very aware of this.

His disciples had imagined that the Messiah, God’s chosen leader, would be a great military or political leader. They’d come to the conclusion that Jesus was this Messiah, and they were longing for him to show his hand. They were sure that through him God would throw out the occupying Roman forces, and usher in God’s new kingdom, a kingdom like the one their great King David had ruled over. They imagined crowns and thrones, and power for those who were closest to the new king. But who would be greatest among them when that day came, the right hand man?

They’re obviously embarrassed when Jesus calls them out on this. They didn’t realise he’d been listening. Deep down they know it is a silly thing to argue about – as most of our arguments are. “What were you arguing about ?”  he asks them. But he doesn’t press them for an answer. Asking the question is enough. Instead he simply takes a child, a small child, and puts it in the middle of them. Look at this child, says Jesus. The kingdom of God isn’t about sitting on thrones and wearing crowns. It’s not about throwing your weight around and having people bow down to you. If you want to know what the kingdom of God is about, what really matters in it, then this child is it.

What did Jesus mean?

The key thing we need to know is that, at the time of Jesus, children were even more vulnerable than they are today. There were no child protection laws. There was no United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Childhood wasn’t sentimentalised, or regarded as a special, more innocent time of life. Children were entirely at the mercy of their fathers, who had power of life and death over them. They weren’t really counted as of much worth until they got to an age when they could work.  I am sure that many were loved, but they were essentially powerless, and whenever they are mentioned in the Bible that’s what we’re meant to keep in mind. The Gospels sometimes call them “little ones”, but that phrase doesn’t just include children. It is anyone who is disempowered in some way – by old age as well as youth, by disability, gender or social status. “Little ones” are the ones at the bottom of the heap, left to fend for themselves.

It’s sometimes said that you can tell how civilised a nation really is by the way it treats people like these. In the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, they come first - not out of kindness, or worse still, pity, but because they are the place where God’s work starts.  The Kingdom of God isn’t built by mighty armies that conquer and subdue by force and terror. Its greatness isn’t shown by splendid robes and golden crowns. It is seen when the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable “little ones” are centre stage, rather than being shoved to the periphery. 

Jesus tells stories in the Gospel about the Kingdom of God being like a tiny seed or a grain of yeast, something almost too small to see, but which can grow into a great tree or raise an entire loaf, given time. Littleness matters to him. He pays the ultimate price for standing up for the “little ones” in his society when he’s crucified like a worthless criminal on the waste ground outside Jerusalem. But he never turns back from his commitment to them. Miss these people out, says Jesus, and you miss out on God, because they are where he is at work, they are where his kingdom begins.

Detail from “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks 1780-1849
“A little child shall lead them,” said Isaiah, in the passage our Cubs and Beavers read to us. That passage is often called the vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom”. It was written at a time of great conflict and turmoil for the Jewish people, who’d been crushed by the Babylonians. It looked like it was all over for them, but God hadn’t forgotten them, says Isaiah.  There could be a better future. But it wouldn’t be a future in which the powerful lorded it over everyone else. It would be a time when rivalries and divisions were put to an end, even in the animal kingdom. Wolves and lambs would live in peace. The picture on the service sheet  is a detail from a painting of this scene  by Edward Hicks , a Quaker living in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. He despaired, as we all do sometimes, when he looked at the world around him. Even among his Quaker brothers and sisters, bitter squabbles and rivalries often took hold, as they do in any close community.  He painted many versions of this scene – he’s famous for it. But each one is slightly different, and experts reckon that the differences between them probably represent the ups and downs of the relationships in the community around him.

In the version I’ve given you, I think that lion looks as if his patience is starting to wear thin with the child who is pulling at his mane, and the leopard seems to be about to lose it too. They’re holding it together, but only just. Maybe it’s hard for them to give up the instinct to snarl and snap, to make themselves feel big and secure by making other animals feel small and afraid.   Hicks’ picture is a reminder that peace isn’t something we can ever take for granted. It takes hard work from all of us for it to thrive. It takes a commitment to respect one another and to refrain from throwing our weight around. It takes the courage to trust that we have enough of what we need so we can hold it in open hands and feel safe sharing it. We may not think that anything we do will make much difference to the course of world history, for good or ill, but the truth is that the seeds both of peace and of conflict are sown in the tiny, everyday things of life. They’re sown in our relationships and attitudes, our prejudices and fears, the decisions we make, consciously or unconsciously, about who we’ll listen to and who we’ll dismiss. Small things matter. Small people matter. The little things are the big things, or they will become so one day.

On this Remembrance Sunday, may we keep in mind God’s children, his little ones, and the littleness that is in each of us if we are honest, the part of us that’s afraid, insecure, not sure which way to turn for help.  And may that little child, outside us and within, lead us in the paths of peace, for all our sakes.

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