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Pentecost 17 September 20, 2015 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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Pentecost 17 Proper 20 Year B
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday September 20, 2015
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
 
 
 We dwell in a culture that, for the most part, cares deeply for children: children who are the future of the human race, children who are vulnerable and need protection, children who are educated for many years so that they might follow their own callings in life, children who frequently benefit from the adoring largesse of their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Given our cultural propensity to care for, love, and protect children, it would seem perfectly normal to imagine that Jesus would also demonstrate special regard for them. Perhaps with me, some of you learned that childhood Sunday School song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
 
It can come as a surprise, then, to discover that children were viewed quite differently in the culture of Jesus and his first followers. Were you and I children in that world, then, we would not be the recipients of loving parental attention. Indeed, the sign in our Sunday School space that declares “God made me special” would have been unthinkable in Jesus’ world for there was virtually nothing “special” about being a child – a notion that emerges only in the Victorian era of the 19th c. There were no pediatricians, no nurses, no neo-natal caregivers, no one to treat a sick child. Thus, death claimed 30% of all newborns and 60% of all children died by age sixteen. While modern western cultures tend to place the child first and risk everything to save children first in an emergency, such was not the case in ancient Palestine. If there were flood or fire, every effort was made to save the elderly first, the parents next, and the child last. One could always have more children, went the thinking, but one had to save the elders who possessed experience, knowledge, and wisdom that were needed to guide the family or community. Thus, in a famine, the elderly were fed first, the children last. For the child in ancient Palestine was considered no different than a slave: someone with virtually no rights, no voice, and no claim upon the family. Oh yes, a child might be appreciated, why even loved once he or she reached maturity and could work, thus ensuring that parents would be cared for in old age and that more children, potential members of the domestic work force, would be born. But special? No. Innocent? Heaven’s no. Adorable? Never. 
 
Then why would Jesus place a child before his followers and invite them to offer hospitality to this boy or girl? Why would he ask them to welcome, in his name, a category of person who had virtually no social significance, who was considered physically weak and morally unformed, considered a burden until he or she were capable of working for the family? Was his intention to expose their arguments over who was the greatest and thus shame them, ridicule them, by comparing them to someone of remarkably low social status? Or this: do we not encounter his incredible frustration with their continued failure to grasp who he is and his purpose in life? After all, these poor clods can’t imagine for a minute that he would suffer for the way he lived his life. Indeed, they find it so very difficult to grasp that he did not – he did not – enter this world in order to make the comfortable and the assured and the allegedly “great” even more comfortable and assured and great. But rather, as St. Paul notes, he let go of the greatness he enjoyed with God and emptied himself, becoming a person of little account in a world that seems to reward only the “great” and the self-assured, the clever entrepreneur, the flashy entertainer, the outspoken politician.
 
Or say it this way: by the way he lived his life and the way he died, is he not asking you and me to consider and accept anew the way he redefines the exercise of power in this world and in our lives? For he does not lord it over others, does not claim any form of exceptionalism, does not constantly check the temperature of his reputation. Rather, his power, his influence, is broken apart, given away, from below (not patronizingly from above). I wonder: does he not ask the same of you and me: that whatever influence or power you and I might hold with others, that such power and influence is to be “broken apart” at the service of those around us who are most in need: especially when such service will lead you and me to speak out, to act when a sister, a brother, an elder, or a vulnerable child is ignored, overlooked as insignificant, demeaned, or used and tossed away in a culture such as ours shaped by disposability?
 
My PLU colleague, Tony Finitsis, a native of Greece, visited his elderly parents last month on the island of Chios. There he encountered the unexpected: a flood of Syrian refugees who had just landed on the beach in the rickety boats that brought them from Turkey. Standing in line to buy his groceries, Tony noticed two Syrian children, two boys, their pants still wet from wading to the shore. Each held an ice cream cone in one hand, the other hand opened and empty, for they no money. In that impoverished country we call Greece, where the poor and the sick struggle to survive, the clerk simply smiled and waved them out the door as the man behind them tried to pay for their ice cream, the clerk refusing his payment: those boys who seem to have no rights, no voice, and no claim upon anyone, who at this very moment are being demeaned by the leaders of the allegedly Christian nations they must pass through to gain security and safety. While 11, 000 families in Lutheran Iceland have volunteered to sponsor 11,000 Muslim Syrian families; our president announces that the U.S. will be able to take in only 10,000 Syrian refugees.
 
The mystery of the Christian faith is this, if it is anything: the wounded and risen Christ seeks out and is with those who suffer the injustice and prejudice of this world, seeks out and is with those considered weak and thus expendable by the powers and principalities of this world. After all, were not his impoverished parents forced to flee a brutal ruler intent on murdering their infant son and so become refugees in a foreign land?
 
 A friend of our parish told me recently that what she always looks for in a sermon is that one thing she can take home and mull over during the week. If that is your desire as well, then here it is: will you and I be moved beyond our many comforts and actually save a child who is in peril?