Ezekiel 36: 24—28
Romans 8: 14 – 17
It says in today’s Gospel: “(the disciples) did not understand what (Jesus) was saying and were afraid to ask him . . .”
It’s really difficult to try to offer guidance, to try to get people to understand you, in the first place, and then to believe that you mean well. To get involved in a helpful way in someone else’s life and make a difference for good isn’t easy.
Case in point: Years ago I was driving through the town of Rosetown, Saskatchewan, and I saw a young family coming out of the local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet with a huge bag of chicken (and other goodies no doubt) – the whole meal deal. Their children were obviously really excited about all this. I looked on from my car as they all piled into the car and pulled away, leaving the huge bag of food sitting on the roof of the car!
They seemed to be heading out of town, toward the highway, and because Rosetown isn’t a big place, I knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d be up to highway speed, and the chicken dinner would be roadkill.
So I tried to intervene in the potential tragedy. I accelerated and pulled alongside, honking at them (with my car horn) to get their attention. I made hand gestures, pointing toward the roof of their car. Another driver did the same thing, and people walking along the sidewalk also pointed and signalled. No doubt intent on getting home and tying into that chicken, the family looked around – mystified – and were apparently annoyed by the interference. In any case, they just kept driving. They gave me a look which suggested “What do YOU want?” or maybe: “You’re not getting OUR chicken!” (the fact is, if I’d really wanted it, I could almost have reached out and taken it off their car roof!) As I kept driving alongside, honking, signalling, one of them gave me the finger, and they then turned on to a road leading out of town, and began accelerating off into the country, the crazy bag of KFC still perched on the car. We all know that stuff is heavy as lead, but I’m sure once they hit highway speed, that chicken would have taken flight, and their dinner would have disappeared.
Only later – too late — would they have come to realize that we meant them well and were trying to help. How difficult it is to get someone to open up in trust so they might learn something! How difficult it is to teach an old dog new tricks! And how unfortunate, in this case anyway, that we often automatically assume a stranger is an enemy or a threat.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions, there is a character named Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout, like Vonnegut himself, spends his life in an effort to get people to see things in a new way by writing Science Fiction stories. Kilgore conceives a story about an alien (Zog) who arrives from another planet with a cure for cancer and the knowledge of how to prevent wars, but he could only communicate by farting and tap dancing. As soon as he arrives, he sees a house burning down, and the alien comes up to the house, frantically tap dancing (etc.), trying to communicate to the owners about the potential danger, and the owner responds by braining Zog with a golf club. I heard Vonnegut being interviewed about this passage – he was an old man at the time – and both he and the interviewer were almost falling out of their chairs laughing at what Vonnegut calls “a tragic failure of communication,” in which we see a typical pattern of how people fail to respond to new or alien ideas. As such, Zog is something like a Christ figure, coming from another realm, being completely misunderstood despite having a great message, and ends up getting killed for his troubles.
Indeed, Christ’s message was too radical – too alien – and he was met with hostility and suspicion by many, rather than gratitude. Again, today’s Gospel says:“(the disciples) did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” So often we remain locked up in our ignorance, our insecurities, and fixed ways of perceiving, and miss opportunities for growth and new life.
It is enormously difficult to get through to adults – as a Buddhist master said to his students, to explain his departure: “If you had believed me, you would have changed by now.” The Gospel is honest enough to point out that even the disciples were pretty thick at times. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about the deeper meaning of his ministry, and what’s on their minds? They’re jabbering away about who’s the greatest, and who will be first in line when the kingdom comes! A couple weeks ago, we read the Gospel (Mark 7) in which the Pharisees criticize Jesus for the way he washes his hands. Jesus was in the process of showing how to bring healing, compassion, meaning and purpose to people – and what key issue is on the Pharisees’ minds? What do THEY want to engage him about? They want to discuss handwashing!
Small wonder Jesus points in the direction of a child, someone not yet corrupted and cynical about the world, about people, someone still living from their heart, in love and trust, and not carefully calculating every encounter, every interaction, constantly anxious and afraid of being harmed or taken advantage of, or looking for ways to take advantage of others..
Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
A child is a beautiful symbol of a new beginning, a willingness to be open to what life will bring. The joy a child can bring is immense. A child has the innate ability to light up your life. A child has a radiant power that can cause transformation. It seems to me that we baptize children not because they understand all the logic, and all the good reasons for being baptized, but because often as not they are the Christ-figures in their lives.
Case in point: After a recent trip to Save-On Foods I was fuming at the rude service I received. The clerk offered no civilities such as hello, thank-you, or whatever, continued to chat right through me to the clerk behind me at the next till, forgot to ask for my discount card, and ended up getting both my bill wrong and the groceries very badly bagged. I contemplated calling management and complaining; I thought about boycotting the store and taking my business somewhere else. But I decided to give the store another chance, and it turned out to be a good choice. Still very conscious of the previous trip there, I got my groceries and proceeded to the check-out. In the line-up was a little boy, 4 –5 years old, with his mother. When I arrived at the line-up, he looked up at me and gave me a huge smile, which I automatically returned. He then smiled again, this time trying to imitate how my eyebrows went up, trying to reflect the face I was giving him. This went back and forth a bit, all in the space of a few moments.
He was so open, so friendly, it was almost embarrassing! Part of me was delighting in the moment, and part of me was saying to myself: Don’t encourage this — kids who are too friendly, too open, can get be taken advantage of by weirdos — maybe his mother will think I’m a weirdo! Fortunately, the better part of me won out and I just continued to engage this very engaging little guy.
A very simple thing perhaps, but for me, it was an enlightening moment – a gift from God – a healing grace. The little boy probably went home quite unconscious of what a gift he had been, and what a power he had exercised in that few moments at the check-out. Both of us at least knew, for a moment, the power of a smiling face. After that encounter, I wouldn’t have cared if the clerk had been the Bride of Frankenstein, but I needn’t have worried, because the smile had stayed on my face, and the clerk returned it with a very friendly response!
Jesus makes a child a symbol of the spiritual life for a lot of very good reasons, but partly because they are that open. They still have a capacity and willingness to trust, and they are not yet prejudiced and suspicious. You might say they are closer to heaven and to their soul, and they have not yet compromised the power of their love to transform the world. We adults, thinking we know better, attempt to impose another agenda on life than the simple one God reveals to us. The Gospels urge us to hang on to that capacity to be childlike, and at Baptism we give ourselves the opportunity to renew that faith, that orientation toward God. As St. Paul says, don’t be conformed to the way the world is – be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Put on the mind of Christ! (Romans 12; I Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2: 5–8).
Baptism is God’s promise to put his spirit into us, to give us a new heart, and to remove from us the fear which limits and enslaves us, preventing us from being fully alive.
Our Baptism is a summons into a new life, and a reminder that our life has a direction, a purpose not entirely our own. We speak of belonging to God, becoming God’s children. And our Baptism continues to call us to move into the depths of it, into the reality of it – to move onward, just as the disciples did when they agreed to follow Jesus, just as Jesus did when he recognized his own destiny.
I invite and encourage you to open your hearts today, as children do, and allow the waters of Baptism to flow into our hearts so you may be renewed, so you may live lovingly, radiantly, joyfully, and so you might connect with others, and with the world, as God intends you to, as Jesus did, and thereby become a source of light and joy to a world often preferring to dwell in darkness.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers