The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

“Shift your Focus to Those in Need”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

At the time and in place where Jesus lived, there was a rigid structure to society. Different members of society had different levels of power and these levels were rarely changed no matter how much one would try. Women had very little power. Children had no power. 

Children had no power.

In some of the most elite parts of society at the time, it was considered normal and even good to do things to children that we now work tirelessly to protect our children from, and in the poorest families as soon as children could feed themselves they were put to work caring for their siblings or farming. Worse still, many parents were slaves and so their children were often neglected and forced into slave labor as soon as the child could work.

Young children were a liability. They were not much more than a troublesome burden. Rather than pour all their energy into the well-being of their children as many of us do today, everyone was expected to pour their energy into the person or people who were above them. You would pour all your energy into our boss and our boss pours energy into the CEO who then pours energy into the local official who then pours energy into the state official and so on. It is no wonder that the Romans believed their emperor was a god. Every facet of life revolved around status and those people at the top. 

So the disciples start fighting with each other about who is the greatest of all of the them, who will have the most power, the highest status. And as they argue Jesus confronts them, and tells them that they’ve got it all wrong. He tells the disciples to look at where they put all their attention and he asks them to shift their attention to those who have no power. He is so adamant about this that he picks up a child and remember children have no power at this time. It was bizarre for a man of such stature and importance to even notice a child let alone pick up the child and as he holds this child in his arms, he tells them to welcome children. He says that when they welcome this child and they have welcomed me… and not just me, but the one who sent me. 

Last weekend we heard from the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kalu who supports blind children from the Masaai tribe in Kenya. Because the tribe has very little access to clean water and medical supplies like antibiotics, because their diet consists only of meat, because mothers need to leave their babies alone while they work the farm, nearly 40% of the children become blind or visually impaired and these children are often neglected or even abandoned because they cannot make their way to school and have a harder time initially feeding and clothing themselves. 

And of course we know that many children in our own country who are born into poor families are neglected. We had three foster children in our home for nearly a year. They were in foster care in part because they were found living in a car with their mother. These kids were blown away by the simplest things like access to milk, yogurt, and apples 24/7 in our home.

And we know that it is not just where you live or how much money you have, but it is also sinfully the color of our skin that determines our ability to meet our most basic needs. We know that the pregnancy related mortality rate among black college educated women is five times that of white college educated women. Our maternity chaplain shared the story of what happened to a young black pregnant woman who came in saying she was in excruciating pain. It did not matter that she was a Yale graduate student, she was overlooked because of the unconscious bias of her white physicians and the consequences were devastating. 

I believe that because of Jesus’ words, many people in the world now work to protect and promote the well-being of parents and children everywhere so that we can continue to welcome parents and children, whose power has been stripped from them. 

 For years, I know this community has run a beautiful Apple Festival to meet our neighbors and raise money for the work of the church. This Apple Festival is critically important. But, as Delta hit, we made the hard decision to cancel the Apple Festival for a second year. Lisa and our leadership are working hard to find new ways to meet our neighbors and raise funds for our church including selling apple pies and hosting new events. 

But this year we did not just decide to cancel the Apple Festival and leave it at that. This year, we shifted our focus. I thank God that we as a church decided to pour much of our Apple Festival volunteer energy into raising money for these blind children in Kenya and collecting craft supplies for the child care center in Bridgeport. In addition to raising money for children in Kenya and supplies for children in Bridgeport, we have also decided as a community to welcome, listen to, and promote the voices of our college and high school parishioners, who work hard to combat the sin of racism in our country and tackle environmental justice. 

In all these endeavors, we have welcomed children in the name of Jesus and thereby welcomed Jesus and welcomed God. These shifts in focus are exactly what Jesus was telling the disciples to do today. 

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Notice here, Jesus is not just telling his disciples to welcome children. Sometimes when I read this passage I think I must be nailing this faith thing because I am currently in the 24/7 welcoming children phase of my life. Jesus is not simply telling his disciples to serve children. We as a church are not just serving children. Notice here, Jesus is telling his disciples to shift their focus and we as a church shifted our focus.

He tells his disciples to stop bickering. He tells them to stop putting all their attention on their status and start welcoming and serving children, who had no power. 

In other words, he tells the disciples and he tells us pay attention to what we focus on. What do you pour your energy into? Shift your focus and pay and attention to those whose power has been stripped from them. 

Right now I spend a lot of my life working, tending my house, and focusing on my own children as I should. But I take it that Jesus is encouraging me today to put some of that down and shift some of my focus to those in need, those people that our society has tried to strip down.

In fact Jesus is telling all of us to shift our focus. If you haven’t done so already I encourage you to give to EVE. One child can be fed, clothed, and given an education for just $300/year. You can write a check to the Church and put in the memo “Eve fundraiser.” Our outreach committee will be meeting soon to identify ways that you can give to those in need every single month. 

Of course there have been countless scholarly studies that have shown the psychological benefits of giving to others who are in need. But Jesus didn’t need scholarly research. Jesus knew what we needed. He knew that if his disciples shifted their focus away from status and started giving to the powerless in society that they would stop bickering and fighting and instead cultivate compassion and love in their hearts. Jesus knows that when we shift our focus away from all the demands of our life and start giving not only do the recipients receive, but so to we receive.

So in the week ahead I encourage you to observe yourself. Notice where most of your energy lies and find ways to shift your focus to those in need.