Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome, Child


Here's today's homily. The readings are Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37.

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Dear child:

There you are in Jesus’ arms. We don’t know how old you are; we don’t even know your gender.  We don’t know if you were a cherished heir, a beloved child of the family who owned that house in Capernaum, or a slave. Whatever your status, you would have been considered the legal property of your parents, not yet a person in your own right.
 
That’s also true of your mother, whether she was a servant or the “capable wife” celebrated in today’s reading from Proverbs, who acts almost entirely for the good of her husband and family.  It sounds like this wife loves her husband, and we have to hope he loves her back, because she’s his legal property too. That’s going to last a long time. Where I live, in the United States -- a country that doesn’t exist yet, in your time -- the law saying that a wife is her husband’s property won’t be declared fully unconstitutional until 1981. Where I live, so far in your future you couldn’t even imagine it, women still don’t get equal pay for equal work. My country has never had a female President. In some quarters, the view that women are people too is still controversial.  

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? You don’t know about any of that, don’t care about it. You’re in Jesus’ arms, enjoying the attention from his friends. They’ve just been arguing about who’s the greatest -- the most famous, the most influential -- and Jesus is using you to make a point. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to take care of you. They have to welcome you. They have to treat you like a person. He’s telling them that if they really want to be great, they have to treat you as if you’re him:  the Messiah, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace.

Jesus knows about being a child. Jesus came to Earth as a child, a baby, and even though he was a cherished heir, he was also poor. His mother wasn’t like that ideal wife in Proverbs, with her servants and vineyards. He was born in a stable because no one would give his parents a room. Some poor shepherds knew who he was, and so did some rich kings, but a lot of other people didn’t, and still don’t. The Messiah is supposed to be great and powerful. Children aren’t. A lot of what Jesus does looks upside-down to everyone else, even his closest friends. He wants them to use their power to give, not to take, but he has to keep reminding them how it works.  That’s why he’s holding you, now, and telling them to welcome you.

What do they do, I wonder? The story doesn’t tell us. Do they ask your name? Do they play with you? When Jesus puts you down again, what happens? Will you ever see these men again? What does your future look like?

Child -- boy or girl, slave or free, EveryChild -- I wish I didn’t know as much about your future as I do. Where I live, here in the United States in 2015, we still haven’t fully learned what Jesus was trying to teach his friends. We welcome some children, our cherished heirs. As I write this, my niece is about to deliver her first child, a little boy named Charlie, and our family and friends can’t wait to welcome him. But yesterday in the news I read about a five year old refugee who drowned trying to reach safety in Europe. In my own country, more than 21% of children live in poverty. That’s the highest poverty rate of any age group. In my country, the average age of a homeless person is 11, and one in thirty children is homeless. Poor children are often hungry, and hungry children can’t learn, and that puts them at risk for other problems, terrible problems happening right here within our own borders, like the sex trafficking we hear about on the news that makes us shudder and hug our own kids more tightly and thank God they’re safe.
 
Remember when I talked about women, about equal pay for equal work?  These things are connected. Women and their children bear the brunt of poverty, and income inequality is part of the reason why.  

I’m talking about politics now, and there are people who say it’s impolite to talk about politics to anyone, let alone children. In my country, we believe in the separation of church and state. But Jesus was a political figure. He’s just told his followers that he’ll die a political death, although they don’t want to believe it. He’s trying to teach them about the proper uses of power, and you can’t get much more political than that. If we’re going to welcome you, child, it can’t just be in our own families. It has to be in the rest of the world, too:  in stables and homeless shelters and hospitals, in refugee camps and war zones, and in poor and struggling neighborhoods here at home. We say we care about children in my country, but we don’t fund education the way we should.  We don’t respect teachers or pay them as if they’re important. We don’t have universal daycare to make it easier for parents to work and feed their kids, or universal healthcare to keep children and their parents healthy. Two years ago, the United States ranked 34th out of 35 countries in child welfare; only Romania ranked lower.
Please don’t get me wrong. A lot of us do try to welcome you. We donate money and volunteer and support programs and agencies that help kids. When we see a child right in front of us -- a child who’s hurt or hungry or frightened or poor -- we offer every comfort we can.
I remember a child I met in the ER where I volunteer. The little boy was a year old, maybe. A foster-care caseworker had brought him in for an evaluation. X-rays showed signs of earlier abuse:  multiple healed fractures of the long bones of his arms. A tech who had to start an IV on him asked for my help, because the baby liked women. He lay quietly on his gurney, but when he saw me, he smiled and reached out his arms to be picked up.  He played with my hair, my glasses, my ID badge. He never cried, not even when the tech started the IV.  Most children scream during that procedure. They buck and bite and kick. They have to be held down by five adults. Somewhere, this baby had learned to stay completely still and quiet.  His silence haunts me. How much pain do we never hear, because the children and adults suffering it have learned that if they cry, no one will come? How many have learned that if they cry, anyone who answers will only hurt them more?

Child, we help you when we can see you, but so often you’re invisible to us. A lot of that is political, too. Some of our leaders want us to care more about some children than about others. We need to learn to look out for all, and to act for all. We need to vote for school bonds even if we have no children in those schools. We need to support political initiatives that will help parents and children. We need to resist the lie that children from other families or neighborhoods, countries or religions, matter less than our children.  

All children are our children. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach us. All children are his children. All children are him.

Child, we don’t know your name, your gender, your parentage.  We don’t know what your life was like before Jesus picked you up, or what it will be like after he puts you down.  We don’t know if you’ll remember him when you grow up. But we know that right now, you are safe and loved, cherished and nurtured, held in the warmth of Jesus’ arms while his friends smile at you.  And for his sake, we promise to do our very best to offer that same love and welcome to every child we meet.

Amen.

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