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F. Earle Fox
Sermon at the Episcopal Church of the Blessed Sacrament
Placentia, CA, September 6, 2009
Pentecost 14 - Is. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37
Why would anyone have to be a child in God to be an adult in the world? What on earth does that mean??? Are there not millions of adults in the world who are not in any particular sense children of God? At least not in the Biblical sense of being, as Jesus said, "born again..."
The subject of the spiritual life has suffered from depersonalization over the years, and so has become for many persons hard to identify with. The spiritual life does not seem to have any very real connection with the lives we actually live -- or at least think we live. That is certainly the conclusion of many westerners who are voting with their feet against (as we say) the "organized" church. Our spiritual lives are very personal things. So, theological abstractions rarely make a dent in changing our personal spirituality. Many people claim to be "spiritual" who never darken the door of a church. And, I think, in many cases, they are correct. They really are interested in things of the spirit.
I want to suggest some things today that may help bridge that gap in our Christian lack of ability to talk with our family, friends, and neighbors about life as reality.
Our understanding of childhood and adulthood is central both to the Biblical story of salvation, and to our very understanding of ourselves as human beings. Everyone wrestles with his or her childhood (or perhaps childishness) and with our struggle toward what we think is adulthood.
In almost all cases, childhood is thought to be something we outgrow, and adulthood is that into which we grow -- if we are fortunate enough to navigate this rather unpredictable thing called "growing up".
So, what do we normally mean by these two words, childhood and adulthood?
Childhood obviously refers to that early stage of our lives when we are dependent, needy, unable to fend for ourselves. We are not self-sufficient, self-sustaining. We are lacking both physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and are thus in need of others to take care of us. Our very survival depends on having reasonably dependable and helpful persons around. We all know about that.
As we survey in our own youth the world with its fascinating opportunities, growing ever more fascinating in our imaginations, we long for that independence which we imagine adulthood to offer. We might think that adulthood means, "I am old enough to do what I want..." Adulthood means freedom from supervision, freedom from constraint of my will.
And that is partly true. When I am 20, my parents will not be supervising me with nearly the closeness they did when I was 2. But I soon learn that there are other folks who will be supervising me -- my employer, the government in its many manifestations (some might say infestations), my spouse. There are many persons who have, or think they have, a claim on my life, my resources, my behavior, my loyalty, my obedience. So when do I ever get to that longed-for state of being "old enough to do what I want"?
The truth is, of course, that there is no such age. One does not become an adult by aging. One becomes an adult by maturing -- growing up intellectually, morally, and spiritually. Aging and maturing are two different things.
And, the world has a quite different understanding of childhood and adulthood than does God.
When Jesus told his disciples that "unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven..." (Mt. 18:3), He was telling us that childhood is not something we grow out of, it is something we grow into.
To understand childhood, you have to understand the nature of our dependency. We are by nature creatures. We will never, not ever, be totally self-sufficient, on our own, free from needs to be met by others, free from obligation to others. We will, in that sense, always be children. To deny those facts is to become self-destructive. We must deal realistically with those truths, or never become free, and never become adults in the proper sense.
Our dependency has two primary aspects:
First, we are dependent on things outside of ourselves for our very being. We are not ontologically self-sufficient, we do not create ourselves, and we are not, like God, inherently self-existing. We can be damaged, or die. We need a power outside of ourselves merely to exist at all, let alone to exist well.
And secondly, we are dependent upon some outside source for our moral direction, for our meaning in life, for our reason for existence. We cannot supply that for ourselves.
That is the fundamental meaning of our childhood. We will always, into eternity, be children.
So we are, and will always be, dependent at those two most basic levels of life -- for our being, and for the purpose for our being. We are ontologically and morally dependent beings, and will never be otherwise. That is the nature of being a creature.
In the Fall, we lose, or badly compromise, both of those dependencies. We lose contact with God, either thinking that He does not exist, or we have a badly warped image of Him. We come to think of God, as Adam and Eve did immediately upon their first sin, as their enemy, out to get them, not a loving friend to be trusted in any and all circumstances.
So we, like them, distance ourselves from Him. And things then go from bad to worse.... just as I might expect if I push myself away from my very source of being and meaning. Life will become less and less real, and increasingly self-destructive. The search for adulthood will take tragic directions, betraying us into one or another of the devilish imitations of adulthood. And, we will die.
So the question is, How can we successfully be children? not, How can we stop being children?
And the answer is quite amazingly simple and direct: We must become children of God, no longer children of the world. So, how to do that???
Back again to the question: What does childhood mean?
We are children in the two senses reflected by our parenting -- which, by the design of God, give us our two primary stabilities.
In a healthy family, a child receives his or her first gift of grace through mother, the ability to be myself, the ability to sense a security of my being -- which I absorb, soak up, from a the security of my mother. This gift of grace is really from God, of course, but the child does not know that yet. Mother is my world, the one in whom I live and move and have my being.
So, if mother is insecure, I am living in a whole world which is insecure. I will feel myself to be just a part of that cosmic insecurity. On the other hand, if mother is secure and nurturing, I will feel comfortably secure in my own being. I will know who I am.
This mothering gift of personal stability is the necessary foundation for that second gift from father, the child's primary sense of moral direction, his reason for existence. If my father is absent or compromised in his own sense of moral direction, if father is confused or immature about such matters, then again, my world will contain that confusion and inadequacy. And so will I.
God has us raised in families, the foundation of which is a mother and a father made in His Image, so that those two fundamental stabilities will be supplied in the Image of God to the child. The human parents are God's first introducing of Himself to the growing child.
The goal of life, then, is for the child to move from the place where mother and father are God, to the place where God becomes mother and father, the place where I am a child now of God, no longer of my human parents. That was Jesus' message to Nicodemus that fateful night of Nicodemus's visit to Jesus. We must be born again, born of the Spirit.
Childhood is something we grow into, not out of. We must develop childing skills, just like we may need parenting skills. We must know how successfully to become a child in God. How do I navigate such a journey?
So long as I am dependent on the world for my two stabilities, I will remain a child of the world. Some aspect of the world, not God, will be the parent over me.
But now, see what happens...! If I am a child in God, if I am receiving my personal, ontological stability from God Himself, and if I am receiving my moral direction, my purpose in life, from God Himself, then I am no longer dependent on the world for them in any respect. The world loses its hold on me because I am no longer its child. And that is what enables me to be an adult in the world. Only a child in God can be an adult in the world.
I must be born again, under the parenthood of God, to see the Kingdom of God, to see that place where people are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful -- as Paul says in I Cor. 13, to see the place where the personal stability of God and the sovereignty of God are the lived and rejoiced foundations of all life.
Having said all that, let us look at our lessons for this morning...
In every case, we see God ministering to His people in these two ways -- security of being and moral stability -- giving them stability of personhood and helping them fulfill their reason for being.
In Isaiah 35, we hear that God who loves us will turn back our enemies, that the blind shall see again, the lame walk, the dumb speak, as Jesus demonstrated. Streams will break forth in the desert. These all point to factors in our personal and corporate stability.
Psalm 146:2 -- "Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of the earth, for there is no help in them!" They have no ability to stabilize your life or give it moral direction. The best help they can give is to point you on to the real Help.
:4 "Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God!"
:6 "Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger."
James 1:17-27. "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights..."
He who looks into a mirror and then forgets what he looks like does not know what manner of person he is. "But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing." He will be able to act, as Jesus, effectively and maturely, as an adult.
Just so, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus gives an example of one who can act effectively in the healing of the deaf and mute man. An adult in the world can take command even of the physical aspects of the world. Jesus expected, and still expects, His disciples to do the same.
Why are we not doing such things? Because we are lacking in our trust and obedience to God, we are still largely trusting and obeying aspects of the world, the flesh, or the devil. Jesus is the perfect example of adulthood in the world, because He is absolutely dependent upon and obedient to His Father in Heaven. That made Him impervious to the destructiveness of the world. They could cause Jesus pain, but they could not make Him be anything less than the fullness of the Son of God.
We must become likewise, persons whom the world, the flesh, and the devil might be able to cause pain, but they can never cause us to be less than sons and daughters of God, witnessing to the truth, giving our testimony anywhere, any time, with anyone.
Jesus tells his disciples in His prayer after the Last Supper in the Gospel of John to be "in the world, but not of it". He is making the same point as being a child in God so that we can be adults in the world.
To be "of" the world is to be rooted and founded in it, to be dependent on and obedient to it. Secular and pagan persons sometimes think of themselves as triumphantly "worldly", in the world -- and mock us whom they see as not in the world. But such persons cannot be fully "in" the world. Persons who are "of" the world are inherently defensive against the world, they have walls up which prevent them from being "in" the world, precisely because they are still very vulnerable children of the world.
The world they are "in" is the dying world of pleasure-seeking and power-struggle. They have walled themselves off from the real world of personal relationships -- which God is building, with us, into the Kingdom of faith, love, and hope. We who are beings saved must continue to take down those walls in ourselves. They are still all over the landscape.
That is the meaning also of putting our fear solely in the Lord - which we do when we trust and obey God alone. And that means we then will not fear anything in the world, because we no longer (in that ultimate sense) are trusting or obeying anything in the world.
And that is the freedom wherewith Christ has set us free.
Paradoxically, the inner child is the foundation of our adult. The adult stands on the shoulders of the secure-in-God child. The child is standing on the Hand of God. That is why -- to be an adult in the world, you must be a child in God.
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