St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • The Children’s Fire – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    September 19, 2021

    Out of the nations that lived in ancient Americas, comes a tradition – a way of discernment, of communal decision making – called the Children’s Fire.

    As the community gathers for decision making, they kindle, at the center of their circle, at the center of their gathering, a Children’s Fire. This fire is a pledge, a promise.  A promise made by them to themselves that no law, no action shall be allowed that will harm the children’s future. So as all the chiefs, the powerful people of their nations – both men and women – gather to make decisions, they pledge at the outset of their gathering, to allow no harm to come to the Children’s Fire.

    This pledge, you see, is a pledge to life itself. For life itself to continue past our own short stay here on this planet, we cannot place ourselves in the center of the circle, we must allow life – the future of life – to be at the center of the circle.  It’s a humbling of human intellect and skill.  It’s a reigning in of power and of technology.

    In our Gospel message today, we see this same refocusing come from our teacher Jesus, indeed our savior Jesus. The one who saves us from ourselves and our own short-sighted, self-focused efforts.

    Christ Among the Children by Emil Nolde

    We have Jesus traveling with his disciples to Capernaum and when the arrive at their destination, Jesus asks, “What were you all arguing about?”  But they didn’t answer. It seems, however, that Jesus already knew what they were talking about and was just trying to get them to cop to it and admit their behavior. Because he called them together and sat them down and said:

    Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And he picked up a child. And in the middle of their gathering, he held this child so that all could see. And he said: Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.

    The one who sent Jesus is, of course, God. The creator, the father and mother of all. The one who welcomes this child, who cares for this child, who serves the welfare and the future of this child, is the one who welcomes God.

    Children, of course, being the ones in any society with absolutely no rights, no personhood, and no way of advocating for themselves.  They are the most vulnerable.  So they are the easiest to forget.

    In other words, Jesus is saying, the one who seems to have it all together is not blessed by God.  God’s blessing is not demonstrated by an easy life – a life of power and wealth and prestige.

    What does Jesus mean by these paradoxical statements? Don’t we believe, in the depth of our heart, that if God loves us, God will bless us? Don’t we believe that, if we struggle, if we are “the least of these” that we’ve done something to deserve it? There are Christian denominations who actually preach this as true!

    And I marvel at that because it’s clear as crystal that Jesus is telling us the exact opposite here.  Wealth, prestige, power… all of it… this is not God’s blessing.  These are the rewards of playing the world’s game well.  The game that makes us believe that the one with all the toys at the end wins.

    God’s blessing comes as we let go of our need for all of that. God’s blessing comes through the thriving of life, the uplifting of others, the placing of the Children’s Fire at the center of our decisions.

    This is the reversal that Jesus is trying to explain to his students. It’s a part of last week’s Gospel question: “Who do you say that I am?” The question, who do we think we are following? And it’s clear that the disciples want a powerful messiah who will be contemptable on behalf of their own interests so that they can wage war against the powers that be. But this is not who Jesus is.  This is not the salvation Jesus offers.

    And the reversal Jesus offers in today’s message is significant because it is the salvation Jesus offers.  The disciples had just been arguing about who was the greatest.  They were arguing about power and skill and intellect. And Jesus says, it’s not like you think it is.  I’m teaching you about the God of Life the God who is Love… and God does not care about power and skill and intellect if it’s used for profit or promotion or other short-sighted, self-focused efforts.  God wants us to care about life itself.

    So, whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all.  And whoever welcomes this child as a servant of this child, is one who welcomes God. To me, it sounds a lot like the wisdom of those who lived in the ancient Americas.

    What would it look like if we made the Children’s Fire the center of our decision making? What would it look like if we honored life itself and made our decisions based on how all life may thrive – especially those who come after us?

    Yesterday, I was talking with someone about the fires in the Western states.

    I lived in Oregon and California for 10 years of my adult life and came to understand more about wildfires.  Fires have always been a part of life in the Western states – long before American society started to move into the wilderness, building in places that are prone to wildfires. It’s also true that these fires have become more numerous, larger, and more unwieldy over the last 20 years due to human negligence, drought, and extremes in weather.

    But the real threat to the forests in the west, are not these wildfires. Trees, plants, and wildlife have been recovering from fires for eons because, even when humans weren’t encroaching on the forests, lightning strikes would sometimes cause them naturally.

    Actually, the largest threat to these forests is an insect called the bark beetle.  Because of warming temperatures due to the climate crisis, the bark beetle is able to survive the winter in places where they used to die off. The population of bark beetles has risen so drastically that they have been the cause, for example, of 660,000 acres of pine forest destruction in Colorado in one year. Similar outbreaks have occurred and continue to occur in every Western state – Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Not only are the trees destroyed.  But because they are destroyed, they leave dead, dry debris – perfect fuel for wildfires.

    We don’t live with the constant threat of wildfires here in New York so, I realize the problem seems remote to us. I suspect much like the outbreak of COVID in our region in early 2020, left other places in this country shrugging their shoulders in disbelief that it was as bad as it was… until this past summer that is.

    Regardless of where we live, however, we are responsible for one another.  What happens in the west should absolutely concern us here in New York and what happens in New York should concern those who live elsewhere.  And what happens in the future should be our concern now. Because we need look no further than these catastrophes to realize that we have not held the Children’s Fire at the center of our collective decision making.

    We didn’t do it when someone took several guns into Sandy Hook Elementary school and killed 20 school children in 2012.  And still haven’t because gun laws haven’t changed.
    We didn’t do it when our government created a situation in which parents were separated from their children at the border.
    We didn’t do it when we created the school to prison pipeline for children of color. Only now are we starting to come to terms with all the ways systemic racism is a part of the fabric of our society.
    And we certainly haven’t responded to the righteous anger of Greta Thunberg and others in her generation, teenagers fighting for their own future against the profit-driven companies and consumers who have created the climate crisis we are now facing.

    So now what? Where is our hope?
    As always, our hope is in Christ… in the incarnate love that connects us one to another.  It is Christ, that teaches us how to listen to the voice of the God of Life and we re-center ourselves around a Children’s Fire.

    The struggle is, of course, that we as individuals don’t have much control over the larger decisions that shape the way we live. Large corporations.  Governments.  Wealth.  Power.  Privilege. Most of us don’t sit in the board rooms and offices where decisions get made.

    But we do make decisions for ourselves. We do have influence over the decisions that are made in our city of Kingston and in Ulster County. And we do have influence over the decisions we make as a congregation.  Are they decisions that we make on behalf of those who will come after us?  On behalf of life itself? Or do we make short-term decisions that just make it easier on us?

    What Jesus is saying to us is that we must learn how to de-center ourselves and make our decisions for the life of those around us, and for the lives of those who will come after us.

    Our hope is not in ourselves. Our hope is in those who come after us and so, their hope… right now… is in us.  In the decisions we make today. Our hope then, is in learning how to serve the most vulnerable among us.

    Because Jesus tells us: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.