Iglesia Santa Cruz
San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic
12 December 2014
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
Several years ago I visited a Diocese on Ash Wednesday. I have powerful memories of that day, kneeling in the front of the church to put ashes on the foreheads of a long line of three year olds. Those children were very solemn. They were also very clearly at home in that school – and they knew they were loved. The teachers who cared for those little ones day after day had given many cups of cold water and other acts of service, and they were certainly being rewarded every day, in the love shared with those children.
Jesus says that anyone who cares for one of the little ones receives the Lord himself. We meet God in our neighbors, whether they are children, the poor, or someone whose life has gone awry. When we discover a person in difficulty, or respond to a need with compassion, we meet the God who is love.
The people of this island have a long and difficult history. Most of the original inhabitants died of disease and violence when this was a French and Spanish colony. Their descendants struggle to understand their common history and their relationship as children of the same God and the same land, even when they speak different languages. The injustices of centuries are still being played out as some try to prevent others from having the basic stuff of life – whether it’s a name and identity, education, or the ability to work and marry.
Jesus’ words about enemies are haunting in the current season – ‘your enemies will be those of your own household’ he says. Who are the members of our household? Does he mean the people who live on the other half of the island? Are they people who speak a different language? Or are they our own relations who try to drive out strangers or people with a different heritage?
The sad truth is that division within families and communities is as old as Cain and Abel. As Christians, we’re meant to bridge those divisions, to build connections of solidarity with those who need cold water or a place in this world, even if it makes enemies of those closest to us. Jesus is challenging us to see that our primary loyalty is to those in need. That offends our primal sensibilities when family or friends call on us to serve only them or support their sense of fear and scarcity. We find Jesus in the suffering, the poor, the despised and beaten. Go there, he says, and answer their cries. You will find Jesus, and you will find your life, given back to you – full measure, pressed down, and overflowing – that is abundant life.
Who are the little ones around you, crying out for cold water? How are the children in your community? In Africa, among the Masai tribe, that is a traditional greeting – “how are the children?” If the children are well-fed, healthy, learning and growing, then the whole community is undoubtedly healthy and whole – and saved. That’s the reward or blessing that Jesus speaks about.
What if we asked the same about all the people? How are the least of these, how are the little ones, how are the forgotten and hungry? It does tend to cause some upset when we start looking after strangers who are hungry. It happens every time the church starts talking about justice and immigration policies. We discover that some in the church, and plenty of people outside it, begin to think they are being personally threatened. As if greater justice for some means that other people are going to lose their access to justice. It’s not a game where there is just one winner. In God’s economy, when justice increases, everyone benefits. The Reign of God is coming when the children are well, and the forgotten are reintegrated into the community, and the hungry enjoy a feast, and all who lived in scarcity have found abundance.
For the love of God, keep asking, “how are the children, how are the children of God here?”