The Rev. Canon Gina Gilland Campbell
“The most popular person in the world is about to come to the United States of America.” Joe Biden said that about Pope Francis, who arrives in Washington this week. The pope will stay just down the street, at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See.
Preparations for this visit spread out across the city. Coming home from the Bishop Walker School this week, I saw a giant banner hanging from a church bell tower. “We ‘heart’ Pope Francis” it read. Those hoping to have a seat when the Pope addresses the joint session of Congress find themselves scrambling for tickets. The entire city is on notice that traffic will prove more challenging than usual; maybe even impossible; setting off a flurry of calendar re-arranging. Scaffolding and staging are going up in front of the Basilica, where – for the first time ever on United States soil, a person will be made a saint of the Catholic Church. School children will arrive in buses to greet this great man as he comes and goes.
In this attitude of heightened expectation and steady preparation; in our enthusiasm to welcome; in the presence of this great leader; we encounter this morning’s Gospel. And Pope Francis would be the first to commend it to our hearing. He would encourage us to listen to Jesus, that we might discover the true measure of greatness in the commonwealth of God.
Jesus and his disciples journey in secret through Galilee. As they travel, Jesus tells them for the second time what lies ahead. His path to greatness involves betrayal, suffering, and death. The disciples still do not understand what he means. And they do not ask him.
As they travel, the disciples argue among themselves. And when they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus turns to them and asks “So—what have you been arguing about on the way?” They meet his question with silence. For while he has been talking to them about his death; they have been arguing about their greatness: a conversation they did not mean for him to hear.
Jesus does not chastise them in their jealousy, or ambition or desire for position. Rather, he sits down and begins to teach them. “So, you want first place? Be last.”
In the spring, we in the worship department interviewed candidates for the new team of Cathedral acolytes. Having read their essays describing their desire to serve; we sat down to talk with each applicant; to get to know them. We had places for three boys. We had six applicants. I am embarrassed to admit, one of the youngest boys surprised me.
Eloquent and enthusiastic in his desire to serve; physically big enough to carry the 60 pound appointments acolytes must carry, quite winning and winsome; this boy’s final remarks caught me off guard. He was almost out the door when he turned and said “Maybe I shouldn’t say this. It could cost me a place. But you should pick Robert.”
“Tell me why.” I replied.
“Because Robert is the kind of person you want to follow; a person you want to be like. He has a good heart and strong faith. And he is excellent at teamwork. Even if I don’t get picked, you should pick Robert.” And with that, he dismissed himself.
Want to be first? Be last. Be last, and be the servant of all.
And then Jesus lifts a child into their midst. Cradling the child in his arms, Jesus says “Greatness in the world of God’s making means welcoming this child.” An eloquent, embodied parable; a sacramental act of acceptance and blessing: it absolutely astonishes the disciples.
For childhood in antiquity meant terror. Children lived as property. They could claim no position, no privilege, no rights. A child represented society’s most vulnerable, most invisible, most helpless ones. Those no one would even think to welcome.
Jesus raises the stakes even higher. “Whoever welcomes one of these children as I do welcomes me; welcomes the one who sent me. Put more starkly, Jesus says, “those who fail to welcome and serve children in my name reject me; reject God.”
What is happening to God’s children today? Those discarded in economic expediency, those dying in the desert and drowning in the sea, those deserted and lonely, who turn to violence or to the streets, for they can find no welcome.
Our greatness as a nation, our faithfulness as a church, our own relationship to Jesus hinges on what’s happening to the children.
Jesus places a child in our midst because he finds it almost impossible to speak to the adult in us. Serious, cynical, driven; the adult in us cannot really hear the inside-out, upside-down commonwealth of God language Jesus speaks.
The adult in us refuses to listen. We prefer to argue; pushing away, pressing down, projecting out any hint of dependence or need or lack.
And yet life’s challenges bring to every person an experience of what it means to feel small and vulnerable, helpless and invisible, powerless and poor. Just this week, my husband and I heard from friends. Their ten year old son was diagnosed with bone cancer.
In these times, God in Christ Jesus reaches out, lifts us up, and cradles us in loving embrace. And all God asks in return is that we do the same for others in the name of Jesus.
Those who love—serve. And in loving service, we discover the possibilities of greatness. The true challenge of greatness for you and for me is not what we must grasp or grab. Rather, God in Christ Jesus asks what we will release in order to become truly great.
It is this kind of greatness that draws us to Pope Francis. Embracing humility, he offers morning prayer for gardeners, janitors, and officer workers at the Vatican. Releasing plush housing and showy attire, he embraces the poor; speaking strongly to the kind of capitalism that breeds indifference to their plight. Releasing separateness, he embraces difference by washing the feet of a Muslim or turning aside from his scheduled rounds to visit a Buddhist temple; release judgment and embrace mercy; release rigid dogma and wrap his arms around those who have waited outside the doors of the church. Release materialism and embrace advocacy for the well-being of the earth.
Jesus calls us to live into a radical ethic of love; a love that runs deeper any act of service, a love that runs straight into our hearts, a love we would die for; until our hearts and our lives bear the image of our Lord’s life. An ethic of love lived among all the little ones of God, lived towards a vision of God’s newness; until every child, every child, every child, receives a welcome; no matter what it costs.
We need all the little ones of God; their voices bring truth to life.
New York City’s poorest children live in a community of the South Bronx called Mott Haven. These black and Latino children attend PS 30. Many of them also attend an after-school program at the Episcopal church of St. Ann’s of Morisianna.
Jonathan Kozol lived among the children; learning about their lives. They speak to him with remarkable candor and openness. Listen:
“I ask Lucia what she loves most about the world” writes Kozol. And she says “I love my heart.” Lucia manages to get some reference to ‘heart’ or God’s heart or just hearts in general into many conversations. And when she draws picture of herself, her pets, or people she draws them with unusually big hearts.
“How powerful is God?” Kozol asks.
“He’s powerful to make hearts.” Lucia replies. And then with great certainty, she adds “God needs to make hearts.”
Lucia’s friend Stephanie picks up the theme. “My mom works very hard. She does the best she can. She tries to pay the rent. She’s a single mom. She gave us our heart.”
“What would make the world better” Stephanie continues “is God’s heart. I know God’s heart is already in the world. But I would like if he would push the heart more into it. Not just halfway. Push it more.”
My brothers and sisters, God’s heart comes to us in the person of Jesus. Christ our Lord invites us to join him on the way. That’s about as pushy as God gets. And yet traveling the way with Jesus, learning from him, we become the very welcome of God; the embrace of God in a broken and lonely world. And what, dear church, greater than that, could we ever, ever, ever desire?