As many of you can likely attest, there is something both liberating and satisfying about going somewhere and unplugging for a period of time. Paying scant attention to your cell phone or your email with no television in sight, no computer accessible, and no newspaper to read. Catching only fleeting glimpses of what’s going on in the world as you immerse yourself in whatever activity happens to be occupying your time and energy.
Such was the case for me in South Dakota last week, where I thoroughly appreciated being largely untethered from any electronic devices so I could focus on the Mission Trip experience at hand. As soon as we made it to the Rapid City airport for our return trip last Saturday, however, I fell back into familiar habits. Checking my phone messages, looking for places to plug in my recharging cord, and watching various television screens for Red Sox and World Cup updates and highlights.
It took me a day or so longer to catch up on the news I had missed. And one of the very first stories I saw on television was the story of Janne Godinez, a beautiful seven year old girl from Guatemala who was reunited with her mother, Buena Ventura Martin Godinez, and her baby brother, in the Miami Dade airport a few days ago. Among the twenty-three hundred plus families separated at the United States border as a result of the “zero tolerance” policy, Janne had been held apart from her mother and her baby brother for two months in a detention facility. Meanwhile, Janne’s father remains in detention, seeking political asylum in this country away from pervasive gang violence in his homeland, with no assurance that he will see his wife or his two children anytime in the near future.
The video clip of the reunion between Janne and her mother was simultaneously heartwarming and heart-wrenching. With news cameras poised nearby and random airport passers-by filming the reunion on their cell phones, the whole scene hardly qualified as a private moment. But none of those distractions mattered to Janne and Buena Ventura. As Janne ran into her mother’s arms, Buena Ventura held onto her tightly, shielding Janne from the gathering crowd and fiercely determined to protect her daughter and not let her go. Meanwhile, as tears streamed down Janne’s cheeks, Buena Ventura over and over caressed her daughter’s hair and face with her hand to let her know she was safe in her mother’s arms again.
A short time later, with her daughter still clinging to her side, Buena Ventura answered a reporter’s question through a translator. “Here the law is very tough,” she said, “and people don’t have a heart.” “To have us separated is very painful, because children are God’s blessing…”
When I saw Janne and Buena Ventura reunited, I had been home from the SPF Mission Trip in South Dakota for two days. And yet that powerful mother-daughter image took me right back in my mind to our week of work and play and laughter and tears and hugs with the children who live on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation. That image, along with the simple and poignant words Buena Ventura spoke in Spanish. “Because children are God’s blessing.”
Watching Janne and Buena Ventura, I went back in my mind to Sergio, whose unpredictable behavior is the result of being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. And yet whose smile was wide enough to give you just enough patience to wait for his next breakthrough moment. I went back in my mind to Ziggy, a five year old little boy who came to camp at the end of last week wearing sweat pants that were at least two sizes too big. With no underwear. And the only thing holding his pants up was a makeshift belt, fashioned out of a rolled up plastic shopping bag that you and I could find if we walked across the street to Stop and Shop.
I went right back in my mind to all those boys and girls on the reservation last week who raced in the doors of the community center and barely stopped to take off their backpacks before making a beeline for the kitchen so they could have a bowl of Cheerios. No matter how fun summer camp might be, it’s no fun at all on an empty stomach. And I went right back in my mind to the houses on the reservation where we dropped the kids off at the end of each day. Wondering what routine, what challenge, what hardship lay in store for each child overnight until we saw them at camp again the next morning…
Because children are God’s blessing…
The ninth chapter in Mark’s Gospel began with Jesus shining in dazzling light on top of a mountain. What a sight the Transfiguration was for Peter, James and John…but eventually, Jesus and the disciples had to come down from the mountain. And when they reached the base, it didn’t take long before the three disciples started to bicker among themselves over who was the greatest.
In this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jesus asked the disciples what they were arguing about. Even though he already knew. And then Jesus sat down with the disciples, trying to get through to them. Even though he had already tried that in other places at other times.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus reminded his friends. And Jesus, as often happened in Mark’s Gospel, was met with blank stares. So Jesus took a little child in his arms. Whose child was it? Maybe a child of one of the male disciples or one of the women who followed Jesus. Or perhaps, since they were actually in his hometown, it was a child related to Jesus himself. Either way, for Jesus that little child was every bit as important as the dazzling vision that occurred on the mountain top.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” Jesus continued. In spite of his passion, however, Jesus had no luck. Peter, James and John still had their heads in the clouds, their imaginations still running wild with all they had seen on the mountain. And Jesus could not get them to notice the child he held on his lap.
Jesus wanted the disciples to see that child, not because the child was cute or innocent or angelic or curious or naturally religious. Jesus wanted the disciples to see and welcome that child because the child was at the bottom of the social heap…
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, in fact, children were often sick or disabled or marginalized in some way. Jairus’ daughter was near death when her father knelt before Jesus asking for help. The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit. And just before this morning’s Scripture passage there’s a story about a boy who experienced terrible convulsions since childhood which the disciples weren’t able to heal.
Children in Mark’s Gospel are not symbols of holiness. Rather they are victims of poverty and disease. And when Jesus drew the little child into his lap in this morning’s story, he effectively brought the child from the margins into the very center. Where there could be no mistaking the fact that the child was a person. Yes often overlooked and taken for granted, but still a person…
Surely we are different in the year 2018, though. Almost every church growth strategy you could find out there includes among its top priorities a thriving program for children of all ages.
On the other hand, if you listen carefully to the loudest voices in the public square today, too often it seems like there is more fervor for unborn children than there is for children who are already born. Cuts to children’s health programs, cuts in education funding to low income students, little done to stem gun violence in schools, climate change and damage to the environment that will have a severe impact on the next generation…it’s enough to make you wonder whether the worst thing that can happen to some children is coming into our world in the first place…
“Do you see this child?” Jesus asked his disciples…and you and me. “Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” It sounds straightforward but by the very next chapter in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have already forgotten the message. People brought their little children to Jesus for a blessing early in Chapter Ten and the disciples spoke sternly to them. They fell back into familiar habits, sort of like what might happen in the church of today when a child fidgets too much in their pew or talks too loudly during the prayer or plays a handheld video game in the middle of the sermon.
But if we see children in worship. If we see children out in the neighborhood. If we see children at camp in the summer or waiting for the school bus in the fall. If we see them in airports reunited with their parents or in food pantry lines waiting for something to eat. Then maybe we’ll remember children when those in power debate immigration practices or children’s health insurance policies or Head Start programs or food stamp benefits. Maybe we’ll remember that children are real persons…
Peter, James and John were so busy trying to figure out who among them was the greatest that they didn’t pay attention to the child Jesus held in his lap. Yet the truth is that all our arguments about how great we are mean nothing if we don’t kneel down low enough to see the ones among us who are too often overlooked and unseen. They are the ones Jesus is whispering to. “You are God’s blessing…”
Jesus wants us to care for children even if we don’t have any of our own. Jesus wants us to care for children even if our own children are already grown up. Jesus wants us to care about what happens to children as much as we care about what happens to adults. Jesus wants us to care about children as much as we care about people who vote and people who have money and influence.
Jesus wants us to care about Janne, forcibly separated from her mother and father and baby brother at the border. Jesus wants us to care about Sergio and Ziggy, born on Indian reservations with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and growing up wearing plastic shopping bags for a belt. And Jesus wants us to care about children who need a bowl of Cheerios to help them make it through the day.
Our ability to see children matters. In the eyes of Jesus, in the eyes of our faith, in the eyes of all that is good and right and just, our ability to see and welcome and love children is the way in which we measure hope.
Because children are a blessing…God’s blessing. Amen.