Sunday, October 3, 2021

19th Pentecost, 2021-B: Embrace the least

 Lectionary: Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16 

It is comforting and exciting that our readings from Scripture today are so relevant to our current climate of deep political divisions, the continuing presence of the pandemic, and the co-opting of the word “Christianity,” its meaning and embodiment, by voices that seek to control people rather than to trust God.

The story of Job and his ability to endure unfair and humiliating circumstances frees us from the mistaken notion that good people are blessed and bad people are cursed. Job was righteous, blameless before God, yet terrible things happened to him. And no matter how bad it got for Job, he never cursed God or forgot God’s promises. Job acted faithfully, enduring until God’s redemption was made manifest.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to uphold a group of early Christian converts from Judaism who were suffering oppression probably in the form of humiliation and social ostracism. Trying to live out their faith put them at odds with the culture around them so the epistle writer offers them comfort while at the same time reminding of their responsibility to respond in faithfulness to God, saying, we may be
imperfect, but Jesus is perfect and in him is our hope.

The gospel is about God’s faithfulness to us despite our continuing failure to love one another as God loves us, despite our propensity to cling to legality and the narrow justice we can conceive rather than trusting in God’s plan of redemption to establish perfect justice.

The divorce discussion in Mark is about the equality and respect of persons. It is not a condemnation of divorce but of disrespect of a child of God. In this discussion Jesus raises women up to equal footing with men. This is an unheard-of concept in a culture where husbands owned their wives as property and could legally ditch a wife for any reason or no reason at all, at their whim, sending her into a life of ruin, poverty, or prostitution. The law given to them by Moses was necessary, Jesus says, because of their hardness of hearts. They had chosen to legalize the mistreatment of a female child of God.

Then Jesus contrasts this choice with the choice to love and he uses another iconic image – a child. Children expect the best until they learn not to, and they are really good at hospitality because they haven’t learned prejudice or bigotry. They receive what they are given, trusting the giver, especially if the giver is the person meant to take care of them.

Mark tells us that people had been bringing children to Jesus so that he would ‘touch’ them. It’s so interesting to me that the word translated as ‘touch’ also translates to mean ‘to enlighten, to put fire into.’

Do you hear the symbolic message of that? When people bring the children of God to Jesus he puts his fire (his divinity) into them, enlightening them. If that isn’t a call to evangelism, I don’t know what is.

The disciples were stuck in their habitual, culturally given understanding of children as weak and helpless human property. When they tried to stop the children from coming near to Jesus, Jesus became ‘pained in body and mind’ as the Greek translates it. The dullard disciples were still unable to “see” and understand his teaching, so he made it plain, speaking those now-famous words that bring comfort to the oppressed and discomfort to the powerful: “Let the little children come to me and don’t stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.”

Taking the children into his embrace, Jesus laid hands on them and blessed them. In that culture, to lay hands on someone meant to take them under your protection, to commit to upholding them.

Jesus is embodying two very important messages by this action. First, that those whom the world judges to be the least come first in the kingdom of God. They are welcome and are, in fact, under the protection of the One who calls them.

Second, by laying hands on the children, who represent all of the people of God, Jesus is committing to protect and uphold us. When Jesus touches us today as he still does in prayer, in the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, and in Scripture, Jesus is promising to carry us through whatever confronts us, like a pandemic that just won’t quit, by enlightening us, putting the fire of his divine love into us.

‘Come to me like this,’ Jesus says, with his arms wrapped around a little child. Trust me enough to receive what I have to give you. Trust me the way this child trusts me. Open yourself to me and expect the best. Forget about prejudice and bigotry, power over or control of another – those aren’t in the Way of Love I am showing you. Let me enkindle you with the fire of my divine love so that you might shine with it and draw others into my embrace as well. Welcome everyone, especially those whom you judge to be least, because to me they are the first priority.’

How’s that for good news? Jesus chooses us and trusts us to be his partners in this work of reconciliation. To the suffering, he promises redemption and relief. To those in power, he promises the freedom to be the child again, to trust God to bring everything to perfection.

Culture doesn’t support Jesus’ approach any more now than it did then. Today we see culture politicizing issues in order to hamstring or silence the church’s response to the least among us, issues like compassion for immigrants, people of color, the poor, or the LGBTQIA+ among us, all of whom are being systemically oppressed.

Calling for their protection and caring for their needs is exactly what the church is called to do, what we’ve always done. In the 4th century, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra learned of three young women whose father couldn’t afford the dowery needed to marry them off, which meant the girls would likely end up as prostitutes, so he went by their house at night and tossed money into their window, some say St. Nick tossed his gift down the chimney, thus saving them from that terrible fate. During the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, Constance and the martyrs of Memphis cared for the sick whom others had tossed out to die, feeding and caring for them, eventually dying themselves from that plague. The freedoms women and people of color enjoy today and the movement toward full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people have an awful lot to do with the advocacy of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, an Episcopal priest, and race and gender advocate, who in the 1950s – before Dr. King and Ruth Bader Ginsberg - picked up the torch of co-creating systemic change.

We all need to hear Jesus’ good news: “Let my children come to me – all of them - and do not stop a single one; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” We need to hear again and receive the gift of the truth in the letter to the Hebrews: that humans have been crowned with glory and honor – all of us.

We, the church, the body of Christ in the world, are not gatekeepers protecting God from the unworthy. We’re all unworthy, yet all of us have been given the gift of redemption in Jesus. Do we trust him enough to receive it? Do we trust him enough to share this gift with those judged to be “the least” in our time?

The church, and we who are members of it, are bearers of the fire of Jesus’ divine love, and we are called to shine the light of his love until everyone, every child of God, is loved, protected, and welcomed in the wholeness of his holiness. There is no one who is outside the reach of God’s love; and there is no issue no matter how culture works to co-opt it, that disqualifies anyone from our compassion, respect, and our active advocacy.

I love that our church is called Emmanuel – God with us. The truth of that is deeply moving. God is with us. We don’t do this alone.

In fact, God and the whole company of heaven are with us! That’s why we, like Job, can endure whatever difficulty comes our way. Wearing our crown of glory, trusting in the promises of God, and clinging to our hope in Christ, we can reach out and embrace those whom society casts as “least” and welcome them into our lives, our parish community, and our worship where they will find healing and wholeness in Jesus. 

Good news, indeed. Amen.

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