“Last of All”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 23, 2018
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
God gathers the outcasts of Israel.
God heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.
God determines the number of the stars;
God gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
God’s understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
God casts the corrupt to the ground.
Then the disciples came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 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 welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
This depiction of Jesus welcoming a child with a hug and admonishing his disciples to do likewise is a heart-warming scene, isn’t it? Instead of seeming like a challenging invitation to fit our sermon series, it makes me think of the numerous paintings of Jesus welcoming the little children with a joyful smile on his face, aglow with the delight of interacting with open-hearted, curious souls.
But such touching images obscure just how very radical this act was in a society that counted children as almost less-than-human. Children in ancient Israel were of course loved by their families, but they had no social status and no rights. Due to disease and poverty, over half of the children who made it through childbirth would not live to see puberty; it didn’t make sense to afford them the same worth as grown adults who could support a family or participate in religious life.
So when Jesus brings a child into the middle of his gathered disciples – a select group of grown men privy to the most profound spiritual secrets of their esteemed rabbi – it’s a moment of cognitive dissonance. The least important has been held up beside the most important, and in a shocking act of social alchemy, the two have been given equal value.
In some ways, it’s hard for us to flip our perspective of this tender moment and to see it as the disruptive, prophetic action it was. We put “baby on board” stickers on our cars and “drive like your kids live here” signs on our streets and we vociferously debate abortion because our culture sees a young, innocent life as something to be protected at all costs. (It probably helps that most kids tend to live past their teenage years now – we’re investing in people who will very likely be around to take care of us in our old age!)
And yet… and yet almost 500 children separated from their asylum-seeking parents at the border remain in detention centers, including 22 children under the age of 5, without their families.
And yet… we consign Puerto Rican kids to living in tents and shuttered schools a year after a hurricane.
And yet… we refuse to address the epidemic of gun violence which disproportionately affects children and teenagers and schoolkids.
And yet… we cover up epidemics of sexual abuse to protect religious leaders.
And yet… we tell young girls that their trauma as victims of sexual assault isn’t nearly as important as preserving the bright future of the young men who violated them – or as giving a pass to grown men because they happened to get away with that violation until they were adults.
So maybe Jesus’ statement calls us to account just as much as it did the disciples bickering about who among them was the greatest.
Here’s Jesus’ point – we are only as good at being human as the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. We are only as good at being leaders as we are good at welcoming the powerless into the center and following their lead – whether that’s children, or immigrants, or transgender people, or people living with disabilities, or people of color, or women, or survivors of assault.
Actress Anne Hathaway said at a Human Rights Campaign event this week that there is a “myth…that gayness orbits around straightness, transgender orbits around cisgender, and that all races orbit around whiteness.” We might add to those the myth that girls orbit around boys, that immigrants orbit around citizens, that poor people orbit around the rich, that fat people orbit around skinny people, that children orbit around adults – I’m sure you can add others.
Jesus’ status-flipping challenge reminds us that while these myths are very real in their negative effects on people, they are not actually the truth. They are a distortion of the way God created the world to be. That is why God is described in this morning’s Psalm as gathering the outcasts, healing the broken-hearted, lifting up the downtrodden and casting the wicked to the ground: our God is in the business of erasing injustices and ironing out inequalities that would give power to some at the expense of others.
To welcome this God into your midst, Jesus says – to be close to the divine in a meaningful way – you need to welcome the people on the outsides. If you want to be first, Jesus says, you need to put yourself last. If you want to lead others, Jesus says, you must serve others, treating them as the center of your world.
In other words – if your agenda is ever more important than the well-being of the people you’ve been entrusted to lead, you are doing it wrong.
Jesus’ proclamation is the exact opposite of what’s become de rigueur in our political system, where politicians on both sides shy away from doing what they know to be right because it might cost them the support of their base, the backing of their funders, their seat, their office, their power.
That kind of leadership is God-less – void of the presence of the One who favors the downtrodden and powerless above everything else.
So what does God-filled leadership – leadership that welcomes the outcasts as if they were Jesus himself – look like?
Those of you who watched the Partners in Health documentary last fall will remember that the Harvard-trained doctors working in impoverished Haitian villages and tuberculosis-infested South American slums couldn’t figure out why their treatment protocols were failing – why patients provided with free anti-retroviral drugs, for example, were nevertheless dying of AIDS. At first, the doctors believed the myth, assumed to be truth in so much of the global health world, that their patients were noncompliant – medical speak for too lazy, ignorant, superstitious, or willful to follow their sage advice.
But when the doctors started asking their patients about their lives and truly listened to their answers – when they put their patients in the center and paid attention – they learned that it’s hard to focus on medical treatment when you don’t have enough food, or your kids can’t get to school, or you don’t have access to clean water. When the doctors started addressing the hardships that put their patients on the margins in the first place, their patients responded by getting well.
Remarkable things happen when we welcome those at the margins into the centers of power.
But how can we, in our spheres of influence that are not nearly as wide-reaching as our politicians’, welcome the least and the last as if we were welcoming Jesus? How can we give them the place of honor, how can we hand over power to them?
We can believe people – particularly women – who report sexual assault.
We can continue to press our elected leaders with phone calls and letters to speed up reunification of detained minors with family members or placement with sponsors and to support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and to conduct a trauma-informed investigation into Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s accusations against Judge Kavanaugh.
We can vote – on our ballots and with our wallets, choosing to support companies that pay vulnerable workers a living wage.
And we can think about the places where we each have power and how we might share it or hand it off altogether to people who have been orbiting around us for far too long.
As a man or as a white person, you can notice how many times in a meeting people who look like you speak and how often they interrupt women or people of color, and you can point it out.
As a straight person, a cis-gender person, or a white person, you can call out racist, homophobic, or transphobic comments and you can lobby for organizations you are a part of to put queer people, people of color, and women in positions of power – and choose which new organizations to support based on whether their leadership, not just their PR brochures, reflects real diversity.
As a supervisor or a human resources person, you can take harassment complaints seriously and make sure you steer clear of suggesting the complainant stay quiet or go along to get along.
As a parent or a teacher you can be alert to the way the power you hold over the young people in your life helps them feel respected and safe with good boundaries – or how you might be using it for your own convenience or to try to mold them into who you want them to be rather than who they are meant to be.
As a neurotypical person, a person without a disability, a person with a socially acceptable body, or a person without chronic or mental illness, you can educate yourself about the ways the world is built to accommodate you and look for ways to question and dismantle the barriers erected for those who move through the world differently than you do.
And we can all commit to listening more – listening to the stories of those whose experiences have been different from our own, whose access to power is different from ours – and then commit to experimenting with how life could be different if we put those experiences first; if we welcomed those at the bottom as if Jesus himself had shown up.
Because no matter how large a following he had, no matter how learned he was, no matter how beatifically he smiles in our portraits of him with children at his knee – Jesus ultimately ended his ministry scorned and shamed on a cross, cast aside and utterly humiliated.
So when we spend our time debating how we might push our own agendas; when we reward with our attention only those who have the respect and admiration of society; when we listen without a second thought to those whose voices are the loudest and automatically give credence to those who sit at the pinnacle of power – we are dismissing and denying a savior who died a traitor and an outcast, the very least and last.
And we are denying ourselves the very holiness we crave – the very presence of a God who uses power beyond measure to lift up the downtrodden and calls us to use our power to do the same. Amen.