Hosea 11.1-9

Mark 9.33-37, 42

All God’s Children

Third Sunday after Pentecost

For the longest time I have always believed it was my mother who nurtured my social justice consciousness within me - if you were here on Mother’s Day you heard me talk about that a bit.  She taught me to be respectful of others, both those like me and those unlike me, and to treat them as I myself would like to be treated.  But I learned this earlier week that there was another influence at work on my young mindfulness, a radical journal that my parents subscribed to and insisted I read when it arrived every month.  Perhaps you even got it for your own children or grandchildren.  It contained a most curious mixture of stories and drawings, with just enough diversions to keep the preadolescent mind interested.  There was a family of anthropomorphic bears, a smattering of jokes and riddles, a community of puppets or marionettes called “The Timbertoes,” a wolf named Aloysius (whom I always called Allo-soyus until I could sound it out better for myself), and a pair of agent provocateurs named Goofus and Gallant.  I’m speaking, of course, of Highlights for Children,  which I read from cover to cover the day it arrived, and to this day remains a staple in pediatricians’ offices everywhere.  And there on the back cover, every month, was a feature called “What’s Wrong?”  It was a large drawing of a typical scene of children playing, with a number of objects hidden in the picture that did not belong.   

It’s that “What’s Wrong” with this picture that came to my mind earlier this week when you and I saw the photograph of the father and daughter who perished in the Rio Grande while trying to cross the US/Mexican border.  There is a lot wrong with that picture from an ethical, moral, religious and pretty much any other perspective you choose to take.  So wrong, in fact, that Kent Johnson, the CEO of none other than Highlights for Children felt compelled to editorialize.  Here’s some of what Johnson wrote:

“Our company’s core belief... is that children are the world’s most important people. That is a belief about ALL children.  With this core belief in our minds and hearts, we denounce the practice of separating immigrant children from their families and urge our government to cease this activity, which is unconscionable and causes irreparable damage to young lives.  This is not a political statement about immigration policy.  This is a statement about human decency, plain and simple.  This is a plea for recognition that these are not simply the children of strangers for whom others are accountable.  This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and to have the opportunity to become their best selves.  Let our children draw strength and inspiration from our collective display of moral courage.  They are watching.”

When the creators of Goofus and Gallant get in your grille, you know it’s time to pay attention.

Our Old Testament lesson this morning is one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and I’m kind of surprised I haven’t shared it with you yet.  To me it reveals the deep, deep humanity of God, a picture of God wrestling with how to raise and teach children.  Should we be strict and legalistic with our children, valuing the letter of the law over the rule of compassion?  Should we let them do whatever they want and learn difficult lessons for themselves?  How does our love for our children shape the ways we surround them with the best of guidance, kindness, understanding and love?  Hosea 11 imagines Israel as a wayward child, and God as a kind of frustrated parent who has tried everything from gracious leniency to rock solid rules.  I’d like to read it again, and invite you to hear the ways that God struggles with deciding how best to raise this child, how to balance discipline on the one hand, and allowing them to make their own mistakes and learn from them on the other.  A couple things to listen for as I read:  first, God uses the names of Israel and Ephriam interchangeably; Ephriam was one of the sons of Joseph.  Second, Admah and Zeboiim were two regions within the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which God destroyed, as we learned last week, because they refused to care for the most vulnerable in their midst.   And finally, listen to God agonizing, going back and forth over whether to love Israel in spite of her stubbornness, or severely discipline them.  Here again is Hosea 11:

When Israel was a child, I loved them, and out of Egypt I called my children.
The more I called them, the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms;
   but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
   I bent down to them and fed them.
Let them return to the land of Egypt, let Assyria shall be their king,
   because they have refused to return to me.
Let the sword rage in their cities, let it consume their oracle-priests,
   and devour them because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
   To the Most High they call,
   but I will not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim for I am God and no mortal,
   the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

In spite of everything they did, God cannot turn her back on her children.  Whatever discipline they might deserve, in the end God is God, and unconditional love wins the day.

Jesus took a small child, put it among the disciples; and taking that child 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.  If any of you put an obstacle in front of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  Give him credit, Jesus will get no points for subtlety in the passage Ann read from Mark.

Given what is happening to children and families at our southern border, given that children are being torn from their families, subtlety is an extravagance we cannot afford.  And if our leadership in Washington cannot find the moral backbone to speak the words that need to be spoken, then perhaps we can take our lead from Jesus and place those same little children in our midst and hear what they have to say; the following words come from those very children being held in government detention centers:

  • From an Ecuadorean twelve year old: “Every night my sisters keep asking me, ‘When will our mommy come to get us?’  I don’t know what to tell them.”
  • From a sixteen year old mother from Honduras: “My eight month old baby was naked outside with no blanket for all four days we were there.  We were freezing.”
  • An eleven year old from El Salvador: “We cry a lot.”
  • From another sixteen year old Salvadoran mother:  “Two hours after we crossed, we met Border Patrol and they took us to a very cold house. They took away our baby’s diapers, baby formula, and all of our belongings.  After that they took us to a place with a tent. Up until this point, our family was kept together, but here they took our daughter and me out of the cell and separated my fiancé from us. Our [one-year-old] baby was crying. We asked the guards why they were taking our family apart and they yelled at us. After that we stayed in a room with 45 other children. There was no mat so my baby and I slept directly on the cement. I have been in the U.S. for six days and I have never been offered a shower or been able to brush my teeth. There is no soap here and out clothes are dirty. They have never been washed. My daughter is sick and so am I.”  

“How can I give you up, Ephriam?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?  My heart recoils within me.”  If you want to read more of these - and I’m not certain I need to; the inhumanity is plain and painful - they can be found in Friday’s Huffington Post.

As I wrote on Friday morning, there are some things we can do.  And at the top of the list, I will say, pray.  Prayer is one of the most powerful tools God has given us, because God listens and God responds.  I know a lot of folks would rather go straight for the more objectively practical solutions, but if we don’t believe that God hears and answers, then we shouldn’t bother praying in the first place – about anything at all.  Pray.  We can also contact our senators and representatives, but here in blue-state Connecticut we already know our representatives stand on the right side of morality – there just aren’t enough others who do or will.  We can bear witness:  on Friday night July 12 Chester will join communities across the nation at a rally being called “Lights for Liberty,” a nationwide vigil to end human detention camps; it will be held at North Quarter Park starting at 7:30 pm.  Unfortunately I and the Mission Team will be away that week, but perhaps we’ll find a something similar in Florida we can attend.  But perhaps the most effective thing we can do is to provide bail and bond money to help pull individuals out of detention with as much dispatch and deliberate speed as is possible.  The links I provided on Friday to two organizations that are doing this are also in this morning’s bulletin if you’d like more information about them; they have both been recommended by our United Church of Christ.

God could not give up on the people Israel; Jesus forcefully condemned anyone who would stand in the way of children coming to him; we who claim to follow both must respond in kind.

Amen.

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