Monday, October 09, 2006

Ugly Side

Texts: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:13-16

If you flip through the pictures from our trip to Ethiopia, you may notice a pattern – tree, tukel, church, Amy with some kids, tree, monkey, church, Amy and kids. It’s probably no secret – I love kids – and whenever we came across them in our travels, I just had to engage them - usually with bubbles. We had the foresight to bring little containers of bubbles, like the kind you would get for a wedding, and just about any time there were kids around, those bubbles came out. At the Bedele congregation, walking down the street, heck, even if our land cruiser was stopped only for a few moments to so we could buy some bananas from the side of the road, I was breaking out those bubbles. It was an easy way to communicate when your shared vocabulary didn’t go past “you, you, you” and “feringi” and the wonder that filled those kids’ eyes, one of those things that gets you right here.

One of the things that got me right here in a different way, that shocked and disturbed me, was that there were some children I wasn’t so eager to engage. Some children I actually unthinkingly took small steps away from. The first time I caught myself doing this was at the Gore hostel for children – a wonderful place our church has supported that gives a home and vocational training to children without living family or family that can support them. As we were walking up the steps to the girls dormitory, we meet several of the young girls who lived there. One of them was a beautiful little girl, about seven or eight, with dark, deep eyes, and, oh, and an infected growth about the size of half a tennis ball on one side of her face. Here’s where I took that step back. Such a beautiful child marred with such an unfortunate and treatable disfigurement. I was startled, and yes, even sickened by that sight. And I was shamed. I doubt I was the only one who had such a reaction. As we talked with the children I couldn’t help but notice how self-conscious this child was about her face, trying to keep the side with the growth, the ugly side, out of view. It broke my heart that she had been made to feel ashamed by the imperfection on her cheek – and that I was one of those who helped enforce such feelings.

The second time I caught myself taking a step back was when we meet a group of young boys who were playing in the streets near one a prison. We had stopped at the prison to purchase some basket weaving from the prisoners – part of how they support themselves – and three young boys with gorgeous big smiles and genuine curiosity about these foreigners who rolled up in a nice Land Cruiser came running our way. As I went to do my usual thing – shake hands, act silly, bring out some bubbles – I realized these children didn’t have any hair. Instead, on their heads, was a fungus of some kind. I shuddered. And then I felt shame once again.

And then… The Spirit has a clever and crafty way of sneaking up on you and giving you just what you need in the moment. And in that moment, our Mark text popped into my head as clear as anything else and some how I knew this story was speaking to this moment. That the children Jesus welcomed with open arms were the children standing before me. That when Jesus said “let the little children come to me, do not stop them” he just wasn’t refuting an age-based prejudice. For the longest time I thought the Mark text was about just that, it was an ageist thing. The disciples thought children weren’t worthy or worthy Jesus’ time because of their age. The young didn’t matter.
I still think an ageist reading of the text is valid but in that moment in Ethiopia I realized that there was more to this story, a something more that I never could appreciate being amid the wonderful – clean – children in our nice, pristine church. The children Jesus welcomed were just as susceptible to diseases and deformities as the children I meet in Ethiopia. In our 21st century world, 1.5 million children each year die from diseases relating just to lack of safe water and proper sanitation.[1] I can only imagine the number and percentage of the 1st century world. Both groups of children were/are exposed to diseases we in our developed world don’t run across on a regular basis and the good medical care we do have access to – not an option in either setting.
When Jesus opened his arms to the children the disciples would have shooed away, he was opening his arms to children with fungus for hair, growths on their faces, deformities that made them outcasts, diseases and health conditions that caused suffering and for many would prove fatal.

These children were being brought to Jesus not so they could learn about from a wise teacher – a special temple field trip – rather they were being brought to him that he might TOUCH them. The children I took steps back from are the children being brought to Jesus for his powerful touch for when Jesus touches someone, they are healed, body, mind, soul.

It may seem odd, then, that the disciples are trying to keep children who could use that healing touch away from Christ. They’ve known healing is what he does. He’s cured a blind man, a deaf man, a paraplegic, and all kinds of sick in villages, cities, farms – everywhere. Jesus heals – it’s a huge part of his ministry and who he is. Jesus also welcomes children which the disciples should know. They witnessed, after all, so long before this moment Jesus setting a child in front of them and saying “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Perhaps the disciples are worried about Jesus’ energy. While he’s God, he’s also human and that humanness needs a break every now and again. Perhaps they were concerned about the diseases those kids might be carrying. Sure Jesus can heal, but kids, everyone knows kids are the worst carriers of disease – ask any school teacher about cold and flu season.

Or perhaps there’s something more going on with the disciples. Maybe I just want to put myself in good company, but I feel a kinship of sorts with the disciples in this story – wonder if perhaps they too were recoiling at the sight of children – those who are often viewed as the personification of goodness and innocence – marred by physical imperfections.

The visual evidence of disease is hard to stomach for many people, not just myself or the disciples. Look at Job’s wife. As her husband Job lost everything – his property, his children – which of course meant she lost everything too – she stood by, kept silent or at the very least said nothing of note. She stood by and watched as her once strong, proud husband went from the top of the world to a pile of ashes. It was only once her husband was stricken by sores which went from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head that she speaks up. Much has been made of her statement and Job’s response but. What I find particularly interesting today is her timing. When she and her husband lost their possessions, nothing. When they lost their children – their flesh and blood – nothing. It wasn’t until her husband was covered in physical evidence of misfortune, physical imperfections, that she said “why do you persist in your integrity? curse God and die.” Perhaps she was of the “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything” mentality. Or perhaps the sores which Job scraped with a piece of broken pottery served as the final proof – there was something wrong with Job.

Much of the ancient Israelite world operated under the assumption that if misfortune befell you, you must have done something to deserve it. Job’s children died: perhaps he or they did something to offend God. Job lost his property: maybe he’s not as righteous as they say. Job is covered with incriminating sores – well, it’s hard to deny his guilt now. It’s written all over him. For only could a sinner be inflicted with such horrible condition. Job’s wife looks upon the evidence of her husband’s unrighteousness and tells him to die. Nothing about this man who tries to cling to his integrity when the evidence of some secret immorality is so visible is worth holding onto. Just die already, Job. What’s the point of holding on?

This understanding of illness present in Job’s time is also present in Jesus’ time. In the Gospel according to John, the disciples – this group which would have kept the little children away from Jesus – see a blind man ask their teacher “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[2] They assumed that since this man bore what they saw as a physical imperfection, he or his parents sinned. Somewhere someone sinned and this man’s blindness is evidence of that. Illness, deformity, blindness – all of these were understood by many – including, it would seem, the disciples – as physical marks of moral imperfection.

If the little children people were bringing to Jesus looked at all like some of the children I meet in Ethiopia, then the disciples saw young children who bore what some understood as marks of sin. No wonder they spoke sternly. There’s that old “saying” that what bothers you most about someone else is what you don’t like about yourself reflected in them. The disciples looked upon these children and whether they were consciously aware of it or not, were perhaps reacting to something inside themselves. Saw the marks of illness on children and thought of their own ugly side. The people were bringing to Jesus – bringing before the disciples – the embodiment of their own – our own – fallen state. Somehow children with such imperfections embody our ruined innocence better than anyone else. Because a child with a big grin, welcoming spirit, loving eyes, is the perfect illustration of innocence, of the grace and goodness God created us in. And the marks of disease which mar their little bodies are the reminders of our imperfect, our fallen, our sin-filled state.

Though they had seen Jesus welcome those whom others considered outcast, sinners, worthless, the disciples still struggled to believe. Jesus, why would you want to touch these who bear the marks of sin? Why would you hold them, bless them?
As he has before and he would again, Jesus explained that he came not for the righteous but for the sinners, for those who bore marks, external and internal. Jesus explained that it is to these little children – these imperfect children of God – to whom the kingdom of God belongs. Jesus looks upon these children, sees the growths on their faces, sees the imperfections which make others cringe, sees their “ugly side,” and says “let them come to me.” He opens his arms to those others would shun, he touches them, blesses them. He loves them imperfections and all.

Even in his presence, the disciples couldn’t fully appreciate who Jesus was, who Jesus loved. Even with our years of tradition, even with songs like Jesus Loves Me and Jesus Loves the Little Children – all the children of the world, we don’t fully believe that Jesus sees us as the sin-filled creatures we are, and touches us, heals us. When I saw those children in Ethiopia, I—like the disciples—backed away because I looked at them and saw sin. Not their sin or their parents sin, but my sin. I saw the sin of children in one part of the world being exposed to conditions and diseases no child should ever have to know while in my own part of the world most children do not. I saw the horribly unfair imbalance where the world I am a part of has so much more. I saw the injustice that as a citizen of the developed world I have a hand in. I saw that injustice, saw my sin, and I couldn’t face it and so I stepped away.

We don’t always fully believe that we don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of Jesus’ embrace. We listen to the voices of those like Job’s wife who would have us believe that we are hopeless in our fallen state. We listen to those voices instead of the one that says only those who come as little children, those who come as God’s good creation with imperfections, ugly sides, those who come with marks that make others cringe, only these will enter the kingdom of God. We don’t always listen to the voice which says “let them come to me,” “let yourself come to me,” to the voice which dares us to see ourselves as touched, healed, loved.

Children of God, you are loved, you are touched, you are healed. You come into this world as good and by God’s grace – no matter what you may find yourself covered with – you are still called beautiful children of God. Our own grace-filled state, this is a truth that many of us struggle with – I know I do. We have heard the voices of those who would deem as unworthy of love – even Jesus’ love – too long, too loud.

I’d like to invite you to listen to other voices. The voice of Jesus in this passage, the voice of your brothers and sisters – children of God all of you. I invite you to stand, as you are able, and join with me in the first 4 questions of the Belonging to God Catechism, a catechism for children that we can all appreciate and need to hear.

Who are you?
I am a child of God.

What does it mean to be a child of God?
That I belong to God, who loves me.

What makes you a child of God?
Grace – God’s free gift of love that I do not deserve and cannot earn.

Don’t you have to be good for God to love you?
No. God loves me in spite of all I do wrong.

[1] UNICEF Press Release, Sept 28, 2006
[2] John 9:2

No comments: