Rev Rainer Schack

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Footscray Baptist Church

Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:13-15

“Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.”

Last week a good friend of mine from Sydney visited. He had never been to the Grampians, so I decided to take him to some of the places which are special to me. We had a look at the Baptist Church in Stawell where I worked for almost a year before I went to Papua in Indonesia. We went to the look-out point in Stawell where I met Maggie from Katoomba who has become a close friend of mine. Finally we went to Venus Baths in Halls Gap, a stunning place with waterholes and a creek running over the rocks. Venus Baths was the place I used to go to, to find inspiration for my sermons, or just to rest and pray and connect with the Spirit of God.

What a blessing it was to reconnect with these special places which helped me remember special moments in my life and to get spiritually refreshed.

At Venus Baths we saw children play around the waterholes – truly enjoying themselves. What a different experience these children have to the 86 children who are still locked up in Australia’s detention centres.

Arnold Zable, a spokesman on refugee issues, said the following in The Age on Wednesday, September 29, 2004:

On May 13 this year, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report on children held in immigration detention was tabled in Federal Parliament. The abuses documented in the 900-page report are shocking. The report found children in prolonged detention suffered from anxiety, bed-wetting and self-destructive behaviour, including attempted suicide, self-mutilation and swallowing shampoos and detergents. Some have been diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses such as clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many had been caught in the middle of riots, fires and hunger strikes.

I first became aware of some of these impacts during visits to the Maribyrnong detention centre, beginning in January 2001.

I met children who had glimpsed the body of a suicide victim lying in a pool of blood on a basketball court at the centre. The children were plagued by nightmares, bouts of anger and periods of withdrawal. One mother reported her child waking up from nightmares screaming “don’t touch me, don’t touch me”. On some nights, guards would poke their torches into the family’s cell, every hour or so, and interrupt their uneasy sleep. I found it hard to believe this was happening in my city.

The HREOC inquiry was based on countless witness accounts, testimony of centre staff, subpoenaed department documents, public hearings and exhaustive research. It concluded that the mandatory detention of children has resulted in multiple and continuing breaches of children’s fundamental human rights. The report recommended the immediate release of all children and offered a range of viable alternatives.

[Zable continues] Perhaps we need to return to the innocent view of the child. Soon after I began visiting the Maribyrnong detention centre in 2001, I took in my son, who was then seven years old, and introduced him to children his age and younger, including some who had been born in detention. My son was uneasy at first. The detention centres are prisons. We had to enter through a series of locked doors. However, he befriended some of the children and became a regular visitor.

Whenever we left the prison and stepped out into the fresh night air, my son would ask the simple questions we should all be asking our Prime Minister as he travels the campaign circuit. Why are the children in there? Why are they locked up? He could not understand it. Neither can I. …. (Opinion, page 17).

Jesus said to his disciples “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (emphasis mine).

Friends, don’t fall into the trap of imagining happy little children running towards a gentle Jesus with curly blond hair. The Social-Science Commentary has this to say about children in antiquity:

… childhood in antiquity was a time of terror. Children were the weakest, most vulnerable members of society…. Children were always the first to suffer from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive.

Children had little status within the community or family. A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he/she a free person who could inherit the family estate (B J Malina and R L Rohrbaugh Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, 117).

Has the situation changed for the children in Australia? Thank God, we can say, it has changed dramatically to the better—for our children—that is. But what about the situation of the 86 children in Australia’s detention centres? Has their situation changed as well or is their childhood still “a time of terror”?

If you agree that childhood is still a time of terror for a large number of children under Australia’s care, according to what we have heard from Arnold Zable and the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, whose responsibility is it to make a difference?

Whose responsibility is it to let the children experience the blessing of Jesus, God in human form who says: “Let the children come to me”?

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that these children experience that the Kingdom of Heaven is truly theirs, and that they play a central part in it, in the here and now?

Jesus says “for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs” – present tense, not will belong, but belongs, in the here and now!

What will we say to Jesus, when we meet him face to face at the end of our days, when he will ask us about what we have done—and have not done—“for the least of these” (see Matthew 25:45-46)? Will we be able to say that we have made the suffering of the abused and helpless members of our society a priority of our lives and of our mission—personally and as a people of God?

Will we be able to say that we have tried as hard as we could to make a difference for those who feel that life is not worth living anymore, because they’ve been locked up for too long and the key to a free life has been thrown away?

Will we be able to say that we have written letters to our politicians to make sure they introduce solutions which honour basic human rights for all people, but as a matter of urgency for the forgotten children in our detention centres?

As the federal election is coming up this Saturday, will you be able to say that you have cast your vote in a prayerful, responsible way, not looking to your own interests only, but looking to the interests of others (see Philippians 2:4), particularly to the interests of those for whom life is a time of terror?

Friends, I believe that as we have reflected upon the situation of the children locked up in Australia’s detention centres, we are called to repent.

We are called to admit that as a people of God we have not followed Jesus’ footsteps in doing justice, liberating the prisoners, and welcoming the children.

But repentance means more than admitting that we have done wrong or that we have not done enough.

Repentance according to the New Testament understanding of the word means to turn around and to live and act differently in the future, to live according to God’s dream of the Kingdom of God.

As we will celebrate communion in a moment, may this time in the presence of God be our opportunity to repent, to receive God’s forgiveness for falling short of what God has called us to do, and to receive the strength and courage to turn around, to accept the challenges which Christ places before us, and to follow into the future the Christ who says:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them;

For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.”