Monday, November 20, 2017

Welcome The Children

Celebration of Holy Baptism, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

- Mark 10:13-16

I wonder if Jesus enjoyed spending time with children.

Last Sunday, Andrew and I hosted the new rector at St. Mary the Virgin, David Ericson, his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriella (5), and John (3) for dinner.  Our son, Nehemiah, is a college sophomore in Boston, so it has been a while since we’ve had little ones in the house.   Andrew found a box of old toy trains and planes, stuffed animals, and books from Nehemiah’s childhood and put it in the living room.  Gabriella and John were enchanted to discover these old treasures, which were new to them.  John seemed to enjoy shooting a plastic cannon ball at me.  Gabriella, a budding ballerina, was taken by a pink elephant wearing a tutu that I had forgotten about.  No wonder Nehemiah is a dance major! 

During dinner, John would periodically disappear under the table and scratch my leg, pretending to be a dog.  Finally, he worked his way onto my lap and asked, “Am I sleeping here tonight?”  I’m not sure if he asked out of hope or fear or both.  When they left, I was exhausted.  But I had a great big grin on my face.

I think Jesus welcomed the children because he knew he would enjoy it. 

I wonder, though, if Jesus also found his time with these children heart-breaking.  Remember that people were bringing these children to him so that he might touch them.  Usually, when people wanted Jesus to touch them, it was because they needed healing.  These were probably children from peasant families, malnourished, and unwell.  These kids needed help. 

It is easy for us to romanticize childhood.  We live in a society where very few infants are lost at birth or prior to weaning.  In Jesus’ world, probably a third of children born live died before the age of six.  By sixteen, something like 60% would be dead.[1]  For Jesus to allow these children to come close to him, was to come close to the pain in the communities he visited.  It had to be heart-breaking.

Jesus was indignant – he was angry – when his disciples tried to prevent people from bringing the children to him.  I used to think the disciples were just being mean, treating these children as expendable, unworthy of Jesus’ attention.  I’m not so sure now.  Maybe they were just practicing triage, believing that these kids were hopeless cases.  Maybe they were trying to protect Jesus from compassion fatigue.  I’m sure they had the best of intentions. 

But Jesus refuses their protection.  By embracing these children, he embraces their vulnerability, as well as his own.  In this mutual vulnerability, hedged around with love and care, they claim the blessing that is their birthright. 

When the children come to Jesus, don’t think of kids sitting on Santa’s lap posing for a picture.  Think of Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta.  Did Jesus find joy in these children?  Yes!  But not before he came close to their pain.  Which is the flat-out truth of the matter even for the most privileged families: children are vulnerable by definition.  They just come that way.  Jesus tells us that we must stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our community, we must be willing to come close to their pain, if we want to enter the kingdom of God.  The kingdom happens when we make our mutual vulnerability a blessing rather than a curse; an opportunity for joy rather than for exploitation.

It is the social location of these children – as marginal, expendable, worthless – not some romantic notion of their innocence –  that cries out for our solidarity with them.  Notice too, that this solidarity is not just the responsibility of parents or families.  Jesus is not a parent.  These are not his biological or adoptive children, but he takes responsibility for blessing them and admonishes his followers to imitate him in this. 

Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[2]   This is a radical statement in a culture where children were socially marginal and subject to exposure when unwanted or considered burdensome:  literally, disposable people.  Jesus says that embracing a child is embracing God!   There is that of God in each of us.  There are no disposable people!  The only way to realize the kingdom of God is to embrace the deep truth of our intrinsic value and interdependence.   For Jesus, welcoming and blessing children epitomizes God gracious embrace of the vulnerable and needy.[3]

It isn’t easy to acknowledge our vulnerability.  It isn’t easy to come close to the pain in our communities.  But to close ourselves off from the vulnerability and pain, to prevent the children from coming to us, also closes us off from the joy of claiming and sharing God’s blessing.  

Earlier this week, I had occasion to attend the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education meeting, along with a couple of other members of St. James, and leaders from other congregations who are a part of Faith in Action Bay Area’s faith-based community organizing work.  We were there to support the efforts of Dr. Vincent Matthews, the Superintendent, who declared a state of emergency among African American children in our city.

Since 2000, the African American community in San Francisco shrank by 27 percent.  Life expectancy among African Americans here is 15 years less than the rest of the population.  The median household income of white households is more than $100k, while that of African American households is $30K.  48% of African American children live in households earning less than the federal poverty line, compared to 2% of white children.   Our schools are failing these children, 74% of whom score well below grade level on standardized tests and have been for more than 25 years across different state tests.  It is no wonder that 67% of African Americans in our city do not have a high school diploma, compared to 16% of the white population.[4]  Racial and socioeconomic segregation and institutional racism is creating a public health crisis for African American children in our city.  This is what a slow-moving genocide looks like.

Are we willing to come close to the pain in our community?  What would it look like to embrace and bless these children?  

These are not easy questions.  But I do know this:  white guilt and white fragility, the attitude that issues of race are just too painful and unpleasant to address, is the resort of privilege.  Jesus invites us to choose a different option: using our privilege and power to welcome, heal, and bless.  In our baptism, we are empowered to be ambassadors of Jesus, agents of reconciliation.  The work of reconciliation begins with relationship. 

What if we chose to come close to the pain rather than deny or ignore it?  What if we partnered with a congregation in the Bayview or Western Addition to adopt a failing elementary school there?  What if we built relationships with the families in that congregation, listened deeply to their stories, and opened ourselves, as Elizabeth Nelson invited us last week, not only to their brokenness but also to the unique gifts they bring to the party?  What if, like Jesus, we discovered that we enjoyed our time with these families and their children? What if we claimed them as our children too.  I’m sure that we would feel vulnerable, even uncomfortable.  I suspect that we would be changed.  I trust that we would find ourselves on the inside of the kingdom of God. 

Today, we welcome and embrace Boden, Brooks, and Logan in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We promise to hold them close in their pain and in their joy.  We promise to honor the unique gifts they bring to the table, a table in which all are invited and included.  In so doing, they push the circle of our embrace to make it a little bit wider.  May the scope of that embrace keep expanding until it knows no limits.  Let the children come.  It may be exhausting sometimes, but it will leave a big grin on your face.  Amen. 

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 4.
[2] Mark 9:37.
[3] James L. Bailey, “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16,” Word & World (Volume XV, Number 1, Winter 1995), p. 62.
[4] Data from the 2016 San Francisco Community Health Needs Assessment and the Superintendent’s 90-Day Report.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

We Are Powerful People

We are powerful people.

But sometimes, we forget.  And sometimes, the rulers of this world would like us to believe otherwise.  It isn’t true.  Don’t believe them for a minute.  We are powerful people.

Many of you have been personally affected by the terrible wild fires that swept through this part of the country last month, leaving 42 people dead and others still missing.   More than 8,000 buildings were engulfed in flames covering some 250 square miles, displacing thousands of people.  Santa Rosa alone lost 3,000 homes. 

In the face of such catastrophe, it would be easy to feel powerless, but within two days of the fires food and clothing distribution centers already were overwhelmed – not by the need of the victims – but by the generosity of donors.  Neighbors quickly opened their doors to neighbors, some of whom they will be housing for many months.  The crisis is far from over, and the work of reconstruction has only begun, but there is hope because of people like you.

One of the silver linings of this terrible experience has been the discovery that we can make a difference in our world.  Our action – and inaction – has real consequences.  When we allow ourselves to see and experience the pain of others, when we hear their cry, we want to help.  When we recognize our common humanity, we can claim our power to alleviate suffering and promote healing and restorative justice.  

One of the many moving stories related to the fires was about the 3,800 forest fire fighters who are California prison inmates.  Prisoners convicted of low level felonies with good behavior can volunteer to serve in this capacity, developing useful skills, earning $2 per hour and reducing their sentence by two days for each day of service to the community.  They literally underwent a baptism by fire that will lead to new life for them and others.  No matter our circumstances, every one of us has the capacity to be of service to others.

We are powerful people.

Now it was hard to miss the fires.  Even in San Francisco, we were choking on the fumes.  We couldn’t act like everything was OK, that it wasn’t our problem, that life should just go on as if nothing bad were happening.  We are too close to the pain to pretend it isn’t there.  It was our pain too.

And yet, and yet, seeing and experiencing the pain of others is a choice.  We can and do choose to ignore suffering.  We can even benefit from the pain of others, and so mask their suffering to preserve our privilege.  The prophet Micah wails against the leaders of Judah and the false prophets who cry, “Peace!” and say, “Surely the Lord is with us!  No harm shall come upon us,” willfully denying their complicity in the violent exploitation of the poor. 

Micah defends subsistence farmers struggling to keep their ancestral inheritance against the greedy expropriation of their land by Judean elites.   There was a homeless crisis in Judea, exacerbated by rapacious landlords evicting tenants without any regard for their pain, supported by corrupt judges eager to accept bribes and false prophets preaching a gospel of prosperity. 

In this conflict between the all too real pain of the poor, and the denial of their pain on the part of the privileged, Micah finds his voice, shouting, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” 

Don’t believe those false prophets!  We are powerful people!  When others deny the reality of injustice, we can make the pain visible!  We have the power to de-legitimate social structures that oppress God’s children.  But we must choose to see.  We must be willing to experience the pain that others willfully dismiss.

Some pain is hard to see.  It isn’t like a roaring forest fire.  It smolders in the shadowy spaces of society, kept out of sight and out of mind in hospitals, jails, trailer parks, tent cities, and detention centers.  We must look for the pain to be in touch with it.  We must exercise our power to uncover it, to bring it into the light of day so that it can be seen, challenged, and healed. 

The detention and deportation machine that is crushing the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants, tearing parents away from their children, and forcing people to live in fear is one of the hidden structures of evil in our society.  It is the source of great pain, but it is far removed from most of us.  We don’t see Immigration and Customs Enforcement police raiding our schools, homes, and businesses.  

We don’t see people like Floricel Ramos, a single mother and farm worker, who was picked up by ICE in Lodi.  She is now being held in detention.  Last week, she had a hearing before an Immigration Court in San Francisco.  Floricel's hearing, which was scheduled for 9am, did not come before the judge until 11:55 am.  The judge summarily declared that five minutes was not enough time before the noon recess for the government to make its case. Therefore, the judge said, she would postpone the hearing for 15 more days.

Floricel’s daughter, Jennifer, wept, desperate for her mother. At 17, Jennifer is a parent to her younger siblings, Michael, 13, and Daisy, 10. She coordinates school drop-offs and pick-ups and takes Daisy, who has autism, to her speech therapy sessions. She takes them to mass, helps them with their homework, and takes them to the park on the weekend after she finishes her shift at a local taco truck. Because her father was deported five years ago, she is also a surrogate partner to her mother in detention, reassuring her on their daily phone calls that the children are well. Jennifer is also a normal high school student who spends her evenings studying for her medical assistant class.

Floricel and her children are not alone.  Members of Faith in Action, a faith based community organizing group promoting dignity and justice, including folks from St. James and other Episcopal congregations, packed the courtroom, offering prayers, and chanting, Liberen a Floricel! Free Floricel.  We are now raising money to make bond and reunite this beautiful family.  Last weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of California’s Convention voted to declare ourselves a Sanctuary Diocese.   We see their pain, and the pain of the 11 million undocumented sisters and brothers in our land, and we will not be silent.   We will accompany them in their pain, advocate for justice, protect their children and claim our citizenship in a kingdom without borders because we are powerful people. 

Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for those who, secure in their privilege, place great burdens on the poor who live on the margins of society, while making no attempt to relieve their pain.   Jesus instructs us to have no regard for their privilege, to afford them no special, much less, superior deference or honor because greatness is reserved for those who live lives of humble service:  people like Floricel and Jennifer Ramos.  Rather, Jesus invites us to join him in a discipleship of equals, in which all are sisters and brothers, bound together in mutual service, living close to the pain in our communities, and claiming our power to promote dignity and justice. 

We are powerful people, because we serve a powerful God. God comes to us in Jesus, the pain-bearer, the life-giver, to reignite our imagination and creativity, our collective power to resist evil and become the midwives of a new world that God is birthing, a world in which God’s reign becomes our reality.  This power takes the form of love. It is ours!  We were made for it! Claim it! Use it!  Share it!  Give it away! 

We can make a difference in our world.  We are powerful people and God is counting on us!  Thanks be to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine!  Amen.