Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at the Welcome Service to new students at Ripon College Cuddesdon on Sunday 23rd September at All Saints’, Cuddesdon.
Readings: James 3:13-4:3,7-8a and Mark 9: 30-37.
This week at Garsington School, thanks to the help of some people here, we were able to erect a marquee on the playing field, a prayer and reflection space which amazingly survived the storms that followed. Inside, four areas were created to enable the children to pray and reflect. Using cushions, coloured hangings, bubble tubes and lots of postits the children were invited, half a class at a time, to explore this magical world, a space where they could simply be, and pause for a while. In the worry area the bubbles floated up through the watered light to take their troubles heavenward, a map of the world was soon covered with prayer postit for pandas, storms, those who do not know God, the World Cup and all people. While the sorry sand wiped out words of regret with the shake of forgiveness. Finally in the thank you area, mummies, footballs and smiley faces came into play-dough being only to be squashed together and shaped into something new by the next child.
Be Space which is the remarkable charity behind the incredible outreach work to children and schools, simply does what its name implies and gives children and adults the space to simply be.
It is a remarkable privilege to then hear what the children say and read what they write on the multicoloured papers that litter the tent after a day. Worries about homework and grampies in hospital, concern for those caught up in storms far from here, joy and delight at the people and activities they love and easy forgiveness that wipes away wrongs and bears no grudges. To my mind, Be Space encapsulates that special something about children which Jesus refers to in our gospel reading this morning.
Having had two children myself and watched playground antics I don’t want to idealize children but amidst all the squabbling, tantrums and persistent lack of sharing there are moments when a child can just cut through all the adult barriers we create and say and do things which are pure gospel gold. ‘I’ll just go and see daddy, he is a little upset’ says the child to her widowed granny on a funeral visit last week. Leaving a baptism with my hair in all sorts of plaits and clips following a hairdressing session by a four year old. Just two out of many moments of magic.
If you want to see what the kingdom of heaven is like then look at a child says Jesus. Not for nothing does Mark place this encounter with a child into the midst of a very real and dare I say childish argument amongst the disciples over who is the greatest.
There is something refreshingly honest about this account of the disciples’ discussion. It’s a very adult game that we see played out across the centuries and throughout communities the world over, not least within the church. How easy it is to be drawn into those speculative observations of who in your year will follow the greats of Cuddesdon past. Runcie, Ramsey, Chartres, Harries, James, Pelham, Scott-Joynt, Stancliffe to name but a few, all bishops from this college and yet forget those thousands of loyal parish priests who faithfully lived out vocations no less great than anyone else. We forget this at our peril, as a church and as a college community. The letter of James is a cautionary tale to anyone who confuses ambition for vocation, when the gods of envy and selfish ambition usurp the throne of grace. It is then that the fruits of righteousness wither even on the branch leaving only the gall of bitterness for anyone seduced by their false fruits.
Jesus cuts through the disciples childish bickering and focusses their and our eyes once more on our childlike vocation. For all of us here have been called to play a part, unique only to us, in the great mystery play of God’s unfolding salvation. Whether it be to pour the coffee, or write faculty forms, to clean the church loo, to teach or to preach, to pastor or simply to pray, when we do these things in the name of the one who knows us and calls us to himself then we play our part in the building of God’s kingdom. So put on your blinkers, stay true to your vocation and follow wherever he calls you to go, however humble and surprising.
I would like to end with a prayer which I stumbled across the other week when visiting Cardinal John Henry Newman’s College in Littlemore. I believe it was given to me to give to you today as we gather in our respective and great ministries as one church of Christ.
A Prayer of Trust in God:
God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling. Therefore, my God, I will put myself without reserve into your hands. What have I in heaven, and apart from you what do I want upon earth? My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the God of my heart, and my portion for ever.