Sermon: Sunday, May 4, 2008: Rachel’s Day

Texts:  Jeremiah 31:15-17  ;  Psalm 73  ;  Matthew 2:13-23  ;  Mark 10:13-16


Thanks be to God, who claimed us and named us at birth, and has made us members of one human family. Amen.

To begin: We name Cordero Washington, who died at the age of 18; Dalvin Miller, who died at the age of 14; Israel Mendoza, who died at the age of 13; and Jerel Smith, who died at the age of 17. Grant them rest, O Lord, and bring us to a new beginning.

As the scene opens, Jesus has left the area near the Sea of Galilee and has begun his journey toward Jerusalem. In his teaching he has just been instructing those who would listen to him on issues related to families and marriage. He has been talking about divorce, a practice that favored men over women in his time and left women and children vulnerable, and as he finishes his discussion people begin to bring their children forward to receive a blessing – not unlike the way we bring our children to the communion rail to be blessed at the Lord’s Supper.

The followers of Jesus scold the parents of these children, but when Jesus hears them he immediately puts an end to their behavior and says, “let the little children come unto me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Then he gathered the children into his arms, he laid his hands on them, and he blessed them.

To continue: we name Karlton Well, who died at the age of 16; Rogelio Calderone, who died at the age of 17; Jose Garcia, who died at the age of 18; and Kadeidrah Marsh, who died at the age of 15. Grant them rest, O Lord, and bring us to a new beginning.

You recall that the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, the gospel we’re mainly reading from this year, begins with the story of Jesus’ birth. We heard this last Advent the story of Joseph’s visit from the angel who interrupted Joseph’s plan to break off his engagement to Mary on account of her pregnancy. Instead of leaving her, as was his right by law, God asks Joseph to claim Mary’s child as his own and to name him Jesus – which means, “God saves.”

In those days each household was led by the father, who in Roman law was given a special legal designation – the pater familias. The pater familias was head not only of his wife and children, but of his grandchildren and slaves and any property belonging to anyone in his household. When a child was born it was taken to the pater familias to be named – which was the sign that a father laid claim to a child. It was absolutely within the father’s right not to claim that child for any number of reasons. In poor families an extra mouth to feed could mean crippling hunger for the rest of the household. Baby girls would grow into young women who would require a dowry in order to be married. If a child’s paternity was in question, a pater familias might choose not to name the baby and have it left outside the home to die of exposure. Children not taken into a home could then be picked up by other families as slaves and forced to live their lives in servitude. This was common practice and accepted as law.

Jesus himself then was saved from an early death or a life of slavery because Joseph, the pater familias, claimed him as a son. Joseph made that decision public when he named Mary’s child Jesus, and in doing so he saved Jesus from an early death or a life of slavery. The scriptures call this act of mercy righteousness.

Perhaps this is why Jesus shows such tenderness to the children brought before him. He knew how fragile their lives were, and how precarious their safety was. Children lived by the mercy of their fathers. They had no standing or rights of their own. And Jesus, who shows us the righteousness of God, looked at the most fragile, most vulnerable members of his community and he brought them from the margins to the center. He took them into his arms and he laid hands on them and blessed them.

To continue: we name Salvador Contreras, who died at the age of 18; Channon Taylor, who died at the age of 18; Ruben Ivy, who died at the age of 18; and Paris Bassett, who died at the age of 16. Grant them rest, O Lord, and bring us to a new beginning.

As Christians we are living in the season of Easter. God rolls away the stone and empties the tomb, and for fifty days – a week of weeks – we celebrate God’s triumph over death. We use the season of Easter to remember our baptism – and we recall that in baptism we were joined to Christ in death so that we might also rise with him to new life and a new beginning. We remember our baptism – the waters of God’s impartiality that are shared with insiders and outsiders alike, that make us one body, one family, one holy people. We remember our baptism – and if you’ve been to a baptism recently you remember that one of the main things we do during baptism is we say a person’s name. We take an infant or an adult, we wash them with water, and we say their name. The church, which we also call the body of Christ – a vessel for God’s saving action in the world – acts as the pater familias. We name and we claim each life as holy, as a part of God’s creation, and we bring them into the family.

To continue: we name Miguel Pedro, who died at the age of 15; Chavez Clarke, who died at the age of 18; Albert Vaughn, who died at the age of 18; and Marcus Greer, who died at the age of 17. Grant them rest, O Lord, and bring us to a new beginning.

Chicago has been in the news of late for the rash of violent deaths in our city. Our senator, Barack Obama, has brought it into his campaign. Our mayor, Richard Daley, has pleaded publicly for us to turn all of our material, financial and spiritual resources to bear on this issue. In a letter sent earlier this week to all the city’s clergy, the mayor reminded us that firearm injuries are the second leading cause of injury-related deaths, and that well over 1,000 children have been killed by guns in Illinois in the last decade. He writes,

“preventing violence, especially against our children, needs to be addressed in many ways. We need good law enforcement and effective gun laws. We need to give every child a good education, a reason to stay in school and opportunities for a positive life. We need parents to take responsibility for their children. We need community and religious groups to offer safe havens and constructive activities for our children. And, we need the people of Chicago to report crimes and criminals in their neighborhoods.”

To listen to our mayor, it sounds like we need to begin acting like a family.

To continue: we name Rafael Villagrana, who died at the age of 18; Roky Uriostegui, who died at the age of 16; Leonardo Otero, who died at the age of 15; and Richard Escobar, who died at the age of 14. Grant them rest, O Lord, and bring us to a new beginning.

These names, the ones I’ve been reading are the ones we’ve been hearing about since the beginning of the school year. They are the names of the 24 Chicago Public Schools students who have been killed so far this year. They are the names that have been inscribed on pieces of paper and covered with colored cellophane, then installed like a stained glass window in classroom 10 next door in the parish hall. Come see them after worship. This piece of installation art was created by young artists from Voice of the City, one of our partners in ministry in our neighborhood. Lining the walls of that same classroom are old-fashioned schoolhouse desks that have been decorated, transformed, by children from Elijah’s Pantry and from the Saturday morning programming we host at St. Luke’s – also one of Voice of the City’s programs.

We are doing what the mayor has asked. We are feeding over 300 people a month through our food pantry. We are providing safe places for young men to grow up in our Scouti
ng program. We are building relationships between children and parents with very different backgrounds and life circumstances through our early childhood education program. Just last Sunday this church was filled with almost 70 parents and children celebrating another successful year of making art and teaching art with our partner, Voice of the City. We are reaching out to our neighborhood with programs and partnerships that say something about what we believe it means to be the church. We, who have been washed in the waters of baptism know that our children are all children, that our family is all people.

I don’t say that to congratulate us, though we can be proud of what we are doing in our community. I say that to remind us that the gift that was given to us in baptism is a gift that’s meant to be shared. We place the font at the front of our assembly so that we are constantly reminded that we have been named – we have been claimed. We have been brought into the family – not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

We do not worship a God of vengeance, we worship a God of forgiveness. Our God doesn’t respond to the murder of her child with an act of revenge, but instead a miracle of reconciliation. We are loved by God not because of how good we are, but because of God’s own goodness. We are people marked by violence, but in God’s eyes we are not defined by it. Violence, like a disease, spreads. We are called to be healers.

To finish: we name Joseph Perez, who died at the age of 17; Miguel Gomez, who died at the age of 16; Samuel Benevente, who died at the age of 14; and Arthur Jones, who died at the age of 10.

Let that be the end.

Grant them rest, O Lord, and bring us to a new beginning.


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