Year B; Proper 21; 9.23.2018
On Labor Day a few weeks ago, “The Washington Post” published an article about photographer Lewis Hine who photographed child laborers from about 1896 to 1916. In the article were some of his moving photos of children laboring in various places like coal mines, cotton fields, textile factories and fisheries. Mr. Hine was able to gain access to photograph the children because he posed as a bible salesman wearing a three-piece suit. He was granted broad access and began taking photos, documenting the countless small, poor children who labored in fields, factories and mines.
Suspicions had been mounting that the abusive practice of child labor was broadly practiced. Though investigations into child labor practices and abuses had been conducted, nothing changed until Lewis Hine began to publish his photographs.
There were several photos that moved me. One photo in particular was of boys who were working in a coal mine. There are two rows of five boys many different ages. Their faces smudged and clothes torn. They stare blankly toward the camera. Another photo was of a five-year-old standing bare-foot in a vast, dusty cotton field. He is wearing a burlap sun hat with a large burlap bag larger than him, across his shoulder. His ungloved hand is attempting to pick the cotton from the plant. He too, is staring blankly at the camera.
The photos raised a public outcry and ended child labor practices in this country.
But this was not the first time in history that children were objectified, abused or ignored. No, in ancient Palestine, children were not even seen. Children had no inherent value or worth to a community or even a family. Therefore, they had absolutely no status or rights. Indeed, in Greek, the pronoun used for children was “it,” not even he or she.
That must be why Jesus took that little child in his arms and declared him as “greatest” in today’s story from Mark’s gospel. He aimed to demonstrate that in God’s realm, in God’s community, social systems were turned upside-down. The “greatest,” the rulers and those who scraped and clawed and fought to be first, would be last and the last would be first, just like this little child.
The disciples had been arguing about this very thing. Who is the greatest? Jesus caught a whiff of their argument and asked them about it. They fell silent. In a way, you can’t blame them for arguing about something seemingly trivial when, just before that, Jesus had just raised their stress level by making yet another prediction of his betrayal, suffering, death and in three days, resurrection.
This was the second time he had predicted such a dire future. Neither time did the disciples understand him. I suspect that they were not capable of taking in all that Jesus was telling them.
“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” They not only couldn’t take it in. They were afraid to learn anything else about it. “They were afraid to ask.”
It’s like when we are sitting in class and the professor gives a presentation that we vaguely understand, or better yet, utterly fail to understand. And the professor says, “Questions?” No one dares to ask questions that might confuse everything even more. “Stay quiet, everybody!”
And so, they broke out in an argument about who was the greatest. And Jesus knew their argument exposed the breach in their understanding of the mission they were on: Heal the sick, show mercy, share in the peace and proclaim God’s reign on earth now and for ever. They had demonstrated none of that as they argued about who was the greatest.
Then, Jesus brought to them a symbol of the mission they were on. Jesus brought to them the most insignificant, NON-greatest symbol of their culture, a child, and declared her as “greatest.”
“Then he took a little child and put ‘it’ among them; and taking ‘it’ in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcome not me but the one who sent me.’”
His message was clear, “You are fighting among yourselves – who is the greatest. But our mission, God’s mission is to turn that completely upside-down. When you welcome this little child, you welcome me. And that way you are welcoming the one who sent me. This is how we expose the brokenness of the world. This is how we set our eyes on the things that God values.
The late Elizabeth O’Conner frequently wrote about her experience working as a lay volunteer at the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. Her mission was to help people of faith discern the work God called them to by virtue of understanding their spiritual, God-given gifts.
Her book, “Cry Pain, Cry Hope” focuses on servant leadership and she shares stories of her pastoral and spiritual work. One story reminds me of “it” people. The lowest of the low whom she and her church served in their neighborhood. Church of the Savior had a strong volunteer staff that organized a nightly shelter for women who lived on the street.
O’Connor writes, “It was a very cold night and the women began to arrive early in the evening. The rooms reserved for them were behind the sanctuary of the church and were used for other purposes during the day. Many of the women chose a mat as soon as they arrived. Some had very little with them, though most of them had the bags that had given them the name of bag ladies. One carried her possessions in a child’s wagon, and another, more affluent, had hers piled dangerously high in a supermarket cart. The conversation was disconnected, but the atmosphere was warm and peaceful. Each was given a bowl of stew, bread and tea…
“When morning came, the peaceful atmosphere inside the shelter turned hostile. Distraught women – some of them old and sick – could not comprehend why they were once more being ‘pushed out’ into the streets. We who had received them so warmly the night before were the very ones hurrying them along, benefactors so soon to become enemies.
“In the narrow hall where the women were having breakfast, an old woman with a gentle face kneeled to pray. She was in the way of another woman who taunted her, ‘Get up woman. God don’t hear your prayer.’ The praying woman did not respond and her taunter said, again, ‘God don’t hear your prayer woman. God don’t hear your prayer.’”
O’Connor writes, “I asked myself, ‘Does God hear her prayer?’ Then I remembered. God is in me and where I am God is. The real question was, ‘Did I hear her prayer?’”
Through God in us, whom do we see?
As our mission as disciples unfolds, we might “see” for the first time with compassion, love and mercy someone who has been invisible to us. As if a photo of them now reveals and compels us to see them with eyes of God:
“A bag lady is the greatest, a homeless teen is treasured, a lonely widow is seen and honored, the aging are revered, the addicted are beloved, the veteran who lives under the bridge is adored, an immigrant is a friend, a child is a delight.”
The welcome we give these sisters and brothers bears witness to God’s order, and that order turns this sinful and broken world on its head to expose God’s enduring love.