Sunday, September 19, 2021
Last Sunday afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend an interfaith gathering of clergy and local officials at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. There was good representation from several Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. We were gathering to begin a new project together, called “Upholding Humanity.” The vision is to focus on immediate needs in our community here on Long Island to come together as people of different faiths to help our fellow humans. We are starting with a coordinated effort to assist refugee families coming from Afghanistan who are either coming back to Long Island because they are U.S. citizens or who plan to resettle here because they already have families living here, but we also discussed other important areas we could help – the ongoing opioid crisis, assisting families recovering from flooding and other natural disasters here on Long Island, and so on.
One of the more inspiring speakers at this kick-off event was the current president of the Islamic Center, who himself came to the United States from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. He is a commercial pilot, and he told us he volunteered his services to fly 300 refugees from Qatar to the United States just three weeks ago. He said that out of those 300 people, 80 were children under 12 years old, and 12 were infants, some just a few weeks old. He also said in his entire flying career, he had never loaded an airplane so quickly – 300 people in 8 minutes. He said they were able to do that because no one had any luggage to bring on board with them. Maybe a handbag or backpack, most had nothing, not even shoes. So, when you hear people talking about refugees coming with only the shirts on their back, he said this was quite literally true from his experience.
Several agreed at this event that the goal of “upholding humanity” as people of diverse faiths seems like a simple thing, but we see daily how difficult it is to recognize the humanity in all people. Today, Christ calls us to serve. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says in the gospel. As I said at the beginning of worship, we are asking this question, which may at first seem like a simple one, “What does it mean to serve?” In the face of so many human needs, like the crisis in Afghanistan, we are compelled as Christians to respond and serve, to the best of our ability. So let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is talking about when he asks us to serve in today’s gospel.
First of all, in this short passage in chapter 9 of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples for the second time that he will be betrayed, killed and rise again after three days. And they still don’t understand. They’re afraid to ask him more about it because they know he has already told them this once before. It’s important for us to try to understand where these disciples are coming from. It may not seem that shocking to us for Jesus to be talking about his death and resurrection – we know this. This is the core of our Christian story, Jesus’ death and resurrection. But as I said last week, it was completely foreign for the first disciples to be told that the Messiah would suffer, die, and rise again. We understand that the core of what it means to serve is found in Jesus’ selfless sacrifice for us on the cross – his willingness to lose his life for the sake of others, for the sake of the least of these.
Also, it doesn’t’ seem that controversial to us to talk about welcoming a child or serving the least of these. In Christian art, Jesus is often depicted welcoming little children and it’s a favorite Christian story. But in the disciples’ worldview, in Greco-Roman understanding, children were non-persons. Did you notice that Mark says that Jesus put “it” among them and takes “it” in his arms? “It” is referring to the child. Children were not cherished and valued like they are today. In fact, the word used for child in this passage could also refer to a household slave – a child laborer. This child represents the overlooked, the unappreciated, the lowest in a very hierarchical social structure. The disciples are probably thinking to themselves, “What is this great teacher, an unmarried grown man, doing wasting his time with IT?” Surely Jesus has more important things to do than holding a child.
Ironically, the disciples themselves meanwhile are acting like children, arguing about who is the greatest. When Jesus asks them what they’re arguing about, they again are quiet because they know it’s a stupid thing to be arguing about, but I guess they can’t help themselves. In bringing an actual child among them, it is as if Jesus is saying, “It’s alright, you might act childish and not understand at times, but even children are of value to me. You are of value to me – can you welcome others with that same value?”
What does it mean to serve? Well, Jesus tells us we serve others not so it looks good on our resume or so that we can collect enough community service hours for requirements at school or work or to accumulate recognition for ourselves, that’s for sure. Service is welcome to the lowly, to the overlooked and to the vulnerable, especially to children. And so when we hear about children who need help, whether they are refugees in Afghanistan or south of our border or right down the street in our own schools, we ask how we might help. Because all people, children included, are not “its” but human beings, created, loved, and valued by God.
One of the marks of what it means to be a disciple, to be a baptized, committed Christian, we say is to “serve ALL people, following the example of Jesus.” This is the promise we make at our confirmation, a promise our parents make at our baptism. Here we have it in the words of Jesus himself, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” All. How quickly we make exceptions. How easy it can be to say, “Yes, we can uphold humanity and serve all people except what about “those” people?” What about non-Christians? What about non-citizens? What about criminals? What about people who don’t speak English?” And this is where a simple question about what it means to serve with a simple answer of “all people” becomes difficult. The disciples, like us, try to make exceptions and put themselves first. It’s too shocking and uncomfortable for all to mean all. Jesus takes a little child and puts her, puts him, first. Jesus says all people means all people. Even children can serve, and in fact, they do without making all of the distinctions and exceptions we so quickly do.
Here’s an amazing thought. While the disciples here still don’t understand what Jesus is doing and what he is going to do with this death and resurrection talk, we know that the early Christian community transformed the world in lasting ways. Christians uplifted the dignity of servanthood. Instead of being a lower-class underling, being a deacon—a person dedicated to service -- became an official position in the church and was recognized as a calling from God. What’s more, early Christian communities were known for improving children’s quality of life, particularly orphans, and combatting the practice of infanticide that was widespread in Greco-Roman society. It’s a good thing that Jesus’ words are not that shocking to us today, because it means the disciples listened to these words of Jesus and followed them, even if it was going against the dominant culture, even if it didn’t make much sense to them at the time, improving treatment of children and influencing how we view children up to the present day! What does it mean to serve all people, following the example of Jesus? It means continuing to open ourselves to Jesus’ reversal of the world’s status and values so that we put first what others put last and humanize what others try to dehumanize. I look forward to keeping you all posted on this interfaith effort to uphold humanity by serving Afghan refugees in some concrete ways. I know we are looking specifically for temporary housing, food and clothing, language interpretation, legal services, mental health counseling, and financial support. I will be sharing more details in the coming weeks. For now, we remember as Christians, we are saved to serve. We are called to serve, because Christ first served us. Thanks be to God. Amen.