“Lord, make our lives clear spaces where children can see light and meaning, and through which they can enter into your love. Amen.” That prayer comes to us from the late Bill Greenlaw, a beloved Episcopal priest who served for many years in our community as a pastor and counselor. I’m told that he lived these words—his life was indeed a clear space where many children, youth and adults saw light and meaning.
I was going to preach on Proverbs today, but then I ran that idea by my wife, Carol. According to Carol, a more fitting opening line for our reading, at least in our family, might go like this: “A capable husband who can find?”
I’m sticking with our Gospel reading, which is just too good to pass up. Today, I want you to hear the good news that in Christ, there is no longer us and them. There is only us in radical kinship with each other. I borrow these words about the power of kinship from Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who for decades has ministered with the poor of Los Angeles.
Back in the eighties, as a newly-minted priest serving a small mission parish, Fr. Greg knew exactly what do to on Sundays: celebrate Mass, preach the Gospel, visit folks in the hospital or their homes.
But during the week, no one came to his tiny church. He decided not to wait for people to come to him. He began to ride his bike through the neighborhood in order to get to know his neighbors.
During this time, gang violence in Los Angeles was endemic. Police would stop Fr. Greg on his bike and tell him to go back home—it was too dangerous for him to be out there on the streets on his bike. Over time, Fr. Greg got to know the people around his parish, especially the youth, who were being murdered by gang-related violence in astonishing numbers. Fr. Greg officiated at hundreds of funerals for young men and women.
At a time when law enforcement took a no-holds-barred, military-style approach to curb the violence, Fr. Greg tried a different tact, the way of self-giving love. He came to understand that young people joined gangs because they were traumatized and hopeless. As he puts it, nothing stops a bullet better than a job.
So, he founded Homeboy Industries, which provides jobs, counseling, and tattoo removal. That last service may seem kind of strange until you remember that gang identity and membership are often signified by tattoos. Erase those tattoos and you are helping the young men and women re-identify themselves as children of God, marked as Christ’s own forever.
During a college commencement address, Fr. Greg tells the story of two men named Manuel and Snoopy. They were once members of rival gangs who tried to kill each other. But at Homeboy Industries, the only thing they shoot at each other are text messages of mutual support. Through the reconciling power of God, they’ve become kin.
But Fr. Greg isn’t addressing gang members during his commencement address. He’s speaking to young adults who are preparing to go out into what is so often called the “real world,” which is short-hand for a dog-eat-dog, market-centered life that has surprising parallels with the world of gangs.
The way to advance in this highly-competitive system is through ambition, hard-work, climbing one’s way up the ladder one promotion at a time until one has finally arrived at top of the heap.
This is what Fr. Greg had to say to those ambitious and bright graduates of Occidental College: “There is no longer us and them, only us. The measure of your compassion is not serving those on the margins, but in your willingness to see yourself in kinship with them. [Occidental] is not the place you go to, it’s the place you go from, and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that God may recognize it.”
Jesus is creating a community of kinship today, a group such that God may recognize them. Let’s imagine this scene together. Jesus and his friends are back on their old stomping grounds in the region of Galilee after a foray into a rival gang’s territory, the region of the Gentiles.
There, a Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, has just insisted that she is kin to Jesus and his followers. She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. When he witnesses her faith and fierce love for her daughter, he heals the young woman and accepts her as a member of God’s family.
Then he meets a deaf and mute man. He, too, as a Gentile, is from a rival gang. But Jesus says to him: “Ephphatha—be opened.” And he is: the man can suddenly hear and speak. All the while, it’s like Jesus is teaching a senior seminar to the twelve, who are learning that in Christ, there is no us and them. There is just us. Those old tribal divisions of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, young and old are falling away, only to be replaced with a new identity in Jesus’s kinship with God.
The students are beginning to truly get it. Peter even goes so far as to exclaim: “Jesus, you are the Messiah!” That’s it! The students are now ready to graduate and go out into the world on their own.
On the way to commencement exercises back in Galilee, the students begin to talk among themselves. “I’m graduating cum laude.” “Oh, yeah, I’m graduating summa cum laude.” “I just got a job at a Big-Six accounting firm.” “Good for you―did I mention that I was just admitted to Yale Law?” You get the idea.
The disciples have bought into the worldview of us and them, disregarding their kinship as God’s beloved children. Jesus takes them aside and delivers his version of a commencement address:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, he takes a little child in his arms and declares, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Words like these could conjure up sentimental images we all have of Jesus gathering children into his arms. In fact, in my front hallway, we have a plate with that image on it, saccharine sweet. It’s a heartwarming picture, but the warmth obscures a cold fact: Jesus calls children because they are utterly powerless vis-à-vis the powers of this world.
Compared to Herod and Pontius Pilate and the religious authorities, relative to the wealthy people and citizens of high social standing, the children have no power. They are completely vulnerable.
In this, they are as powerless and vulnerable as children in our own time, a time marked by a return to a tribal and dog-eat-dog worldview, us and them.
How many times have you heard someone say recently: “’I’ve found my tribe,’ which is another way of saying our party, our race, our religion, our talking points, our border, our little kingdom of mutual admiration.”
Which brings us back to Manuel, Snoopy and Fr. Greg, who remind us: “there is no longer us and them, only us. The measure of our compassion is not serving those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in in kinship with them. [St. John’s] is not the place you go to, it’s the place you go from, and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that God may recognize it.”
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, Jesus took a little child in his arms and declared, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
May God, the one who sent Jesus, make our lives clear spaces where children and youth can see light and meaning, and through which they can enter into God’s love.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen on September 23, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL.