Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 23, 2012
In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Back in the day when I taught Sociology at a university in Michigan, I had my students participate in a game we called “Eboseland.” On that particular day of the semester, I arrived in the classroom laden with bags and baskets of food – baked goods, fruit, veggies and drinks. I set a beautiful serving table with flowers and candles and then rearranged the desks and chairs into discreet sections I had labeled upper class, middle class, and lower class.
When the students arrived, I asked them to find a seat in the section they considered themselves to be a part of in terms of their socio-economic status. I was always a bit shocked at how quickly they were able to identify what social class they belonged to – and how eagerly they looked at the table laden with food! But they were college kids and often looked like they had just rolled out of bed, hustled to class, and had most likely skipped breakfast.
After everyone had settled in, I asked the students if they were sure they were in the right section, giving them a chance to switch seats as they reconsidered their place in the social structure of the classroom. Rarely did anyone move.
I had also set up a series of tasks. There was a corner of the room that had jump ropes and hoola hoops and another corner with drawing paper and crayons. There was a place near the chalkboard for a task in language proficiency and another corner dedicated to math and the hard sciences.
The students were required to pass the “tests” in each area in order to proceed to the food table.
— At the first station the students had to jump the rope 25 times and keep the hoola hoop off the floor for one and half minutes.
— At the second station they were to make a recognizable drawing of the outside of the building we were in and a diagram of the human digestive system.
— At the 3rd station, they were required to count to 20 in Japanese and diagram a sentence in English that contained a participle.
— And at the 4th station, they were asked to solve for “X” in an algebraic equation and name four compounds that contain Carbon.
Every time a task was completed successfully, they were to be given a token. The amount of food awarded was based on the number of tokens each earned. In keeping with societal norms, those who had taken seats in the front of the room, those who identified themselves as members of the upper class, were invited to go first. As they made their way to the various stations, I asked the students at the back of the room – those who had self-identified as lower class – to help me judge the performance of the rest of the students. I gave them the tokens and the authority to make whatever evaluation they felt was fair given the other students’ performance. The once-eager eyes of the first class students began to dull. But with some coaxing they began their tasks.
Five minutes into the game, I told the middle class kids that they could pick two of the stations to visit and would be given two tokens for every task they completed successfully – if, and only if, those who had been given authority to hand them out decided to reward their efforts.
Needless to say, there were not many happy campers in the room.
Those who clamored to the stations first found that the tasks were more than they bargained for – I mean really, who even knows what a participle is, let alone how to diagram a sentence any more?
There was cheating. There was name-calling. Some of the air turned blue.
A few students were determined to prove themselves – trying their best on the tasks that most suited them. Others wandered around wondering if any of this exercise was worth their while and whether or not I was crazy. Meanwhile, I loaded up plates. I piled them high and delivered them to the “judges” with words of encouragement and deep gratitude for their help.
That was the last straw for some of the kids and they gave up and plopped back down in their seats – angry. They deserved better. They deserved a break. They deserved to eat. They were deserving, damit. Why? Because they had always worked hard, studied hard, played hard. They were winners – they had always been on top, their needs had always been met and now they were hungry.
It sounds to me like the disciples would have identified themselves as part of the upper class when it came to being followers of Jesus. They were in it from the beginning – answering their call with eagerness and anticipation, willing and ready to leave their former lives, listening carefully as the young rabbi taught the crowds, following his cues and his feet, watching, waiting, walking. They were part of the inner circle – the shared meals and visions, the healings and even the resurrections.
Of course they expected to maintain their special place among all the people who followed Jesus. Of course they expected to have good seats at the final banquet. But Jesus wasn’t so sure about all of that. He wanted more of them – but what he really seems to have wanted was less of them.
In this passage, Jesus didn’t ask his best friends to be like children – but rather to welcome them – to make the welfare of the children their priority. Jesus was always, always on the side of the throw-away people – the people on the outside of the power circles, the people who were cast aside because of their negligible skills, their uneven tempers, their limited intellect, their dirty hands.
I’m often struck by, and ashamed of, how often I am, and so much of the church is, like my upper class students and the disciples. We know our stuff. We have patterns of piety and ways of worship that would make Jesus happy. And here at St. Paul’s, our doors are always open. Our reputation for extending a radical welcome to those who come by is well known. The Gospel lesson today would suggest that we’re doing it right. And for the most part, I think we are.
We are, however, living in a very different time than those first followers of Christ. The church has become an institution that can carry on and have our own banquets whenever and wherever we please – and there are always good seats in the house.
The trouble is, it seems to me, that we get caught up in a kind of “earthly” mindset that narrows our focus – allowing us to see the banquet and participate in it without having to deal very often with the children in the streets who haven’t found their way in.
The church – the body of Christ – the LIVING presence of God in the world – does not exist for itself, nor does it exist primarily for those who happen to find their way in through open doors. The church is meant to carry on the work of Christ – the work that makes sure no one – no one – is left out of the blessing of God’s healing love and care. We are to be about the healing of the nations, the feeding of the hungry, the release of captives – and that, my friends, does not happen between four walls – any four walls.
Our task as children of God means that we step back and take a look – a good hard look – at the big picture. We are so incredibly blessed to live in this country, this community, and to worship in this church.
But not everyone is so blessed. The poverty rates in this country alone are staggering, the millions of people dying from hunger and preventable diseases and those who lack clean water in so many parts of the world is unfathomable.
Obviously there is no easy solution – no “one trick” up anyone’s sleeve – that will be enough to welcome and care for all of God’s children. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are any more off the hook than were the disciples. We must find ways as individuals, as a community and – and dare I be so bold as to say as a nation – to take a look down the dark alleys where God’s children live, to give up our prized and maybe even earned seats, to share our bread, to wash dirty hands.
There’s enough bread. Enough wine. There’s enough love to welcome all – because the Kingdom of God is built on love – abundant, unconditional, “please-have-a seat-and-eat” love. And the miraculous, the incredulous truth is that when we welcome and care for the very least, we are welcoming the very greatest – the God whose name we claim and whose welcome and care we are all utterly dependent on. Amen.