This is a sermon for the feast of St. Agnes of Rome, martyr, given in “the church next door.” The Scripture it references is Matthew 18:1-5.
“Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
It’s a sober statement, even an intimidating one. Many of the things we associate with being “childish” we view negatively; children are immature, impulsive, self-centred. Why would I want to be like that? What is Jesus really asking of us here?
And yet, in the last couple of years I’ve come to appreciate this saying in a new way. In my last parish, I was responsible for children’s ministry. And that forced me to learn about how to teach children to pray, beyond expecting them to close their eyes, sit still and talk to God (an approach which doesn’t come naturally to most children)!
I learned so much from doing that work. My own personal prayer life has been enormously enriched from the work I did on “praying in color” – I’m happy to lend out the book on that one, and it’s well worth experimenting with – or using icons or pictures and music and even other sensory stimuli like incense or fidget toys to enrich and deepen the range of what we can consider “prayer.”
So one of the things that I now identify with being “like a child” is openness, willingness to try new things and to experiment, eagerness for learning and new experiences, rather than being so set in my ways that I will only do what I have done before. And that makes sense in the context of Jesus’ saying, because the fullness of the kingdom of heaven is in some sense always beyond us, always more than we can grasp right now; so if we refuse to keep moving and insist on staying the same, it follows logically that we will indeed never enter it.
And Jesus’ call for humility makes sense in this context too. It’s arrogant to assume I already have all the answers, but there’s a humility about openness to new things; the natural humility of a child exploring the world for the first time.
Humility is almost as hard a sell as being childlike. Even in the church, I’ve found that people scramble to make sure that those around them realise how important, hard working and valuable they are (and just quietly, college was the very worst place for that. I think we all felt we had something to prove)!
It’s a normal and healthy human longing to want to be appreciated, valued and recognised for our potential. And a healthy humility doesn’t mean thinking demeaning and low thoughts about ourselves, denying the truth of our achievements or gifts. But a healthy humility understands that we can’t put that at the centre of our lives. Humility doesn’t say, “I’m not good at [whatever it is that you’re good at].” It says, “Yes, I’m good at that, but that’s not what’s most important.”
And this is the key, I think. Humility stems from having someone other than yourself as the centre of your attention. And this is where our reading brings us back around to connect in with the story of Agnes of Rome.
Because while we can’t know what was going through Agnes’s mind as she made the sign of the cross in the temple of Minerva, (where she had been taken so that soldiers could try to force her to offer Pagan sacrifices), one thing is clear; she felt that there was something more important than her own life, her own well-being, at stake. That’s a kind of humility.
Most of us – I daresay none of us – are ever going to face circumstances quite as stark as Agnes’. But we have the same challenge in front of us, in our own circumstances; do we consider that there is something more important than our own lives, our own well being, at stake? And are we prepared to commit ourselves to it?
Brother Lawrence, a man who knew a great deal about humility, as he worked most of his life as a kitchen hand in a monastery, wrote about it this way: “Pray remember what I have recommended to you, which is, to think often of God, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you: why then must God be neglected? Do not then forget Him, but think of Him often, adore Him continually, live and die with Him; this is the glorious employment of a Christian; if we do not know it we must learn it.”*
I think Agnes knew it. I think we can know it too, but we often tend to forget; without the discipline of Lawrence’s monastery around us, we get distracted by cares and concerns and all the background noise of our society. So maybe today is a good day to remember to think often of God, to become that little bit more childlike, that little bit more humble and open, and in that way, to let Agnes be an example for us in the life of faith.
*This quote is taken from The Practice of the Presence of God.