How green is green enough? There was a program on TV a little while ago where a sort of Green Gestapo would descend on some fairly ordinary middle-class household and calculate how many tonnes of carbon per year they were spewing into the atmosphere – drawing attention to the environmental impact of long showers and Netflix bingeing as well as overseas trips and four wheel drives. The households that recycled and composted and saved their grey-water were smug and self-righteous - everyone else looked guilty and alarmed as the team read a list of impossible-sounding "recommendations for a lower carbon footprint. It was more than a bit puritanical, and maybe that was the point. Getting too judgemental and hung up about our green credentials just might mean we miss the point of living in joyful harmony with the environment and one another.
So, how holy is holy enough for the kingdom of God, and when does holiness flip over into a sort of looking down the nose at people who don’t measure up? This is more or less where we’ve been going with Luke’s gospel for the last couple of weeks, and Jesus keeps upsetting his audience by giving them example after example showing that real righteousness might just be the opposite of what they’d always assumed. We got the example of the grateful Samaritan, the outsider with the wrong religion who recognises his true relationship with God and returns to give thanks – then the persistent widow who keeps on badgering the unjust judge until she gets justice is a reminder that God is on the side of the vulnerable and the poor, and last week we also heard the story of the righteous tax collector whose prayer hits just the right spot – "God, have mercy on me, a sinner". Jesus’ listeners get the point, and so do we – holiness is not about looking holy, or even about doing good – holiness is about recognising the truth about our own lives and the truth about our relationships with one another and with God.
We get the point. We know that sometimes we’re hypocritical and that our rhetoric sometimes doesn’t match our actions, and we can work on that. We do recognise the contradictions when church becomes a club of the like-minded for "nice" people, or for educated people, when the loud or disturbed or unkempt are subtly filtered out. We take Jesus’ point that God’s priority is for the downtrodden and the broken and the unsavoury who actually know their need for God’s mercy better than the comfortable and the sanctimonious, and even if deep down we know that our priorities are sometimes a bit different from God’s, we’d like to think we’re working on it.
But today, Jesus raises the stakes. We could relate to the Samaritan, we could relate to the widow and even, in our deep-down awareness of our own lack of perfection, we related pretty well to the tax collector. Now Jesus insists on hob-nobbing with children – and Jesus version of living the kingdom of God just got even harder.
Actually, we need to put aside our 21st century preconceptions here, because the ancient world wasn’t quite as child-friendly as ours. Parents, no doubt, loved their children but with 30% infant mortality and about two-thirds of the rest dying before their 16th birthday you didn’t get too attached. Children were extra mouths to feed in a hand-to-mouth economy, and so they got sent out to work. Not only was childhood a vulnerable and precarious existence, children didn’t really get treated as actual people who mattered. Maybe these kids saw in Jesus the possibility of a different reality. We don’t know why exactly the disciples were trying to shoo them away, maybe they were just being good minders but Jesus says ‘no, let them come’ – not just because children are the future of the church – not because they’re cute, which they probably weren’t – not even because it’s how we treat the weakest and the most vulnerable that shows whether or not we’ve actually got what Jesus has been on about all this time – but because there’s something here you grown-ups had better pay close attention to. Not only are children OK by God, but the only way you’re going to be OK by God is if you too can come as a child. That’s what Jesus says to them.
You see, it just got even harder being green. Jesus says something similar in John’s gospel, something that on the face of it is just as impossible, he says to Nicodemus, unless you are born anew, unless you are born from the Spirit, you’re not going to get the point, and you can’t get into God’s kingdom – and Nicodemus says the obvious and the sensible thing, the thing that shows he’s totally missed the point – well, how can you be born again when you’re already grown up? How do we adults put aside all the experience and preconceptions and well-defended opinions that come with the territory of having grown up, how do we put aside our self-sufficiency and come along to Jesus with the minds of children?
Today, Ellis has brought along his mum and dad, and his big brother Henry, because he’s going to baptised. When you look at Ellis [and when I had a hold of him for the first time just before the service], I think you get a glimpse of what Jesus was talking about. You see, Ellis is only nine months old, so he’s really not very self-sufficient yet. He hasn’t got it all worked out like you and I have, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do for a living, he doesn’t care about politics, he doesn’t know anything about climate change or economics or religion – Ellis is blissfully ignorant of all the grownup stuff that he’s going to have to negotiate his life around in 20 years or so - in fact I think the only thing that’s really, really important to him right now is his dad’s strong arms and his mum’s hug and his big brother’s bright face. The only thing Ellis really knows is that the people around him love him, and that their love is what keeps him safe. Not only that, but the very most important lesson Ellis is ever going to learn in his life is the one he’s soaking up like a sponge right now, that the sort of love that reaches out to other people and heals them and keeps them safe is actually what life is all about. See what Ellis just taught us? God isn’t much interested in religious ritual, God isn’t much interested in our stuffy morality and God’s certainly not overly interested in how much we understand, in how much we achieve or in how much we possess. What God is interested in is how much we know we depend on one another’s love, and on God’s love too.
Only trouble is, that’s pretty hard for grown-ups. We need kids around us to remind us how it’s done. Like Nicodemus, we find it a contradiction in terms, we can’t let go of being grown-up and self-sufficient and knowing stuff.
So, in today’s reading, along comes the guy that, actually, we should be able to relate to the easiest of all. You don’t have to be a government official, or rich, to know where this guy’s coming from. He’s a busy adult, he’s got stuff happening in his life, he’s got responsibilities and possessions and people depending on him. ‘Well, that’s all very well’, he says, ‘but there’s no going back to childhood for me – how am I going to be OK with God?’ And Jesus gives him the famous answer that makes rich people everywhere squirm, but in fact it should make all of us squirm, because it’s not just about money. "Sell everything’, he tells him. ‘Just give it away, and follow me wherever the Spirit takes you’. ‘Let go of the safety net – you don’t need any other security except me’. The point is, Jesus might as well have told him to fly to the moon, because he can’t do what Jesus is asking him. I can’t do it, either. I know what he’s asking me to do – but like the rich ruler, I’m looking for ways in which I can be a disciple in amongst the busyness and responsibility and the clutter of my life. I’m looking for the spirituality of the everyday, and is Jesus telling me it isn’t possible?
Like being green, being holy seems to lead us into the paradox that we can’t really do it and still live normal lives. And that, finally, is the real point. ‘What’s impossible for you’, Jesus reminds us, ‘is all in a day’s work for God’. Because when it comes down to it, holiness isn’t a DIY project at all. The greening of your spiritual life starts right when you notice that it’s God’s initiative, not yours. Don’t tie yourself in knots of being acceptable to God. Just delight in the fact that the God who comes to you in the naivety and trust of a child - wants you just as you are.