A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, July 9, 2023 – Year A / Proper 9 / Track 1
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you ever look at a person and imagine what they were like as a child? This is a skill I try to cultivate when I am faced with people who are difficult. And, of course, the most difficult person I have ever met, is myself! I try to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald did in his short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I use my imagination to interpret a difficult person in progressively younger versions of themselves until I can see them as they might have been when they were a child. A child of God, longing to be seen, to be listened to, to be accepted and nurtured, to be held, and to feel safe, loved, and secure enough to simply be who they are. This practice also helps me to gain some perspective. I can step back and see the huge difference between being childish and being childlike. When we are being childish, we want what we want, when we want it, how we want it, and if we don’t get what we want, we whine and we whinge; we become self-righteous and judgy and aggravate people to such a degree that they feel like punching us in the neck. Those are the woes of being childish. Being childlike is completely different. To be childlike is to have a divine imagination. A mind full of dreams. A life of simplicity and spontaneity, teeming with creativity, curiosity, ingenuity, and inspiration. When we are childlike, we receive those divine revelations of God’s wisdom that Jesus tells us are hidden from the wise and the intelligent.
We see this juxtaposition of being childish and being childlike in today’s Gospel Lesson. Jesus chides his generation who, like children in the marketplace, whine about not getting what they want, when and how they want it. In their childish self-righteousness they completely fail to recognize John the Baptist as their greatest prophet preparing the way for them to encounter God in Jesus the Christ. They see an ascetic mad man with a demon. Childish self-righteousness also blinds them from seeing God in Jesus himself – that glutton, drunkard, and friend of tax collectors, and sinners like me, who sits at tables with the outcasts and feasts with us. So, how do we become less childish and more childlike?
Photo albums are one way to help us with this. Pouring over old photographs of when we were infants helps us appreciate the childlike qualities each of us still possess. I’ll share a brief story about the power of seeing each other’s baby photographs. Do you have a friend you love to argue with? The friend who changes your perspective any time you argue because of their annoying brilliance? My dear friend Beatrice from our college days at New England Conservatory was one such friend. We dazzled each other with our intellectual virtuosity and wiped the floor with one another’s rebuttals, one rhetorical flourish after another. But there were angry moments when our feelings were hurt and resentments threatened to harm our friendship. Beatrice had a gift. At the height of our heated debates, she would look into my eyes, and smile. I couldn’t help but smile back. Then we would laugh until we were both in tears. Beatrice would say, “we’re in this together, darling. I’m not fighting you anymore because we’ve seen each other’s baby pictures.” That was Holy Wisdom. Our smug piety often blinds us from seeing one another’s inner child. When we choose to be childlike, and refuse to be childish, we learn what Jesus means when he says, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Deeds that help us lay down the heavy burden of needing to feel superior through childish put-downs. Deeds that help us to put on the yoke of Christ’s childlike love, gentleness, and humbleness of heart. That’s when we see the Prophet and the Christ who dwells deep within every person’s inner child; especially in those difficult people. When we can look into one another’s eyes with childlike vulnerability, smile at each other, and spontaneously laugh at our childish nonsense, we will all find rest in the ease and light of being God’s loveable children together.
We all need this re-parenting. Reflecting on what being children of God means, I revisited Dr. Gabor Maté’s writings. Parents, he says, must
emanate a simple message to their child in word, deed, and (most of all) energetic presence, that [they are] precisely the person they love, welcome, and want. The child doesn’t have to do anything, or be any different, to win that love – in fact, cannot do anything, because this abiding embrace cannot be earned, nor can it be revoked. It doesn’t depend on the child’s behavior or personality; it is just there, whether the child is showing up as “good” or “bad,” “naughty” or “nice.”
So, our homework assignment this week, if I may be so bold, is to dust off your old photo albums, or scroll through the digital ones. Find your baby pictures and photographs from your childhood; and remember that God, the Father, Mother, and Parent of us all, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, hides the answers to life’s biggest questions from the pompous intelligentsia, and reveals Divine Truths to those infants and children who still dwell deep within each of us. Amen.