October 4, 2015 – World Communion Sunday
Watching the Pope’s visit to the US last week, I was taken by how many people wanted to touch or be touched by him—or wanted their children to be touched by him. My favorite was when Pope Francis was in Philadelphia, among the crowd was a baby girl dressed in a tiny pope’s outfit, right down to the white mitre on her little head. One of the Pope’s handlers picked the baby out of the crowd and carried her across the street to the Pope who reached down from the Pope mobile to kiss her. (Was it a sign that the Pope is in favor of women’s priests?)
So of course I was thinking about that image as I read in Mark’s gospel about people bringing little children to Jesus so that he might touch them and bless them.
Up until now, in Mark’s gospel, people came to Jesus to touch him or to be touched by him because they needed healing. But in this scene, there’s no mention that any of the children are ill. Instead, there’s a sense that the adults believe Jesus has some kind of power and they want their children to benefit from being close to and blessed by Jesus.
Children in the first century were vulnerable with no legal protections. A child was a father’s property and as property, the father could do with the child as he wanted. If a girl baby was born and her father wanted a boy (to pass on his name and wealth) or the baby was born with a weakness or handicap, the father could legally put the newborn outside to starve to death.
So the disciples think the children are a waste of time. It’s only been a few verses back that the disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. And what does Jesus tell them? “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (9.35) Well, a child is certainly last of all—and particularly so in the first century. So we see the disciples are still struggling with what following Jesus is all about. They’re looking for social promotion and reward and can’t comprehend what Jesus is talking about. The disciples say to those who have brought their children, “Why do you waste the teacher’s time with creatures who have no standing and do not matter?”
But Jesus says to the disciples, “Bring the children to me.” The last shall be first. The first shall be last. Discipleship, the way of following Jesus, includes protecting and supporting the most vulnerable; those with the least standing, the least power, the least privilege. Joyce Mercer, who teaches at Virginia Theological Seminary, says, “Under God’s reign, [Mark’s] Gospel announces, even the lowliest persons find welcome and empowerment into the abundant life of God.”
So what happens when it’s not just individuals but communities—who are the most vulnerable, have the least standing, the least power, the least privilege—what happens when communities go through generations of this kind of vulnerability? When communities of people for generations are excluded from the opportunities that contribute to an abundant life? How do we as disciples of Christ offer support and access for those who have been excluded?
I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of education. We know that because of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism, people of color and particularly people of color who are also poor have been denied education and lacked support for education. Remember, it was not just that blacks who were enslaved were not given an education, it was illegal in many states to teach those who were enslaved to read. We know that having an education opens doors to greater economic opportunities. Which means those who have been denied an education or not had support for getting an education also fall behind in their ability to earn and save money to provide for themselves and their families.
Maybe you saw the article in The Courier-Journal two weeks ago that said “African Americans living in Kentucky saw their average yearly incomes drop by more than 11 percent” between 2013 and 2014 while the “overall median household income” in the state “fell by 2 percent.” Sadiqa Reynolds, the incoming president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, commenting on the drop in income said, “Lower incomes make it harder to save and build wealth…This leads to generations of poverty and often to vicious life struggles.”
The day before that article ran, the Mayor had a piece in the Forum section of the paper about his educational initiative called Cradle to Career. It’s a plan targeted at early childhood, K through 12, postsecondary, and career education—creating a lifelong commitment to learning in our community, starting when children are born and continuing through when someone enters the workforce.
I remember the sports section article a couple of years ago—I think it was on the front page of the sports section—when Russ Smith decided not to enter the NBA draft but chose to stay on for his senior year to play basketball at UofL. Part of the reason was to keep honing his basketball skills but part of the reason was that if he stayed another year and graduated he would be the first person in his family to graduate from college.
In our congregation, an overwhelming majority of us have graduated from college. And many of us have degrees beyond a bachelor’s degree. I’m not boasting about that, it’s just a demographic fact from a survey our congregation completed a few years ago. I suspect that most of us have people in our families who graduated from college. I also suspect that many of us had lots of support in our families and in our schools to learn and grow. We were able to go to good or excellent schools—many of them public schools. We were read to as children. Our parents participated in our schools and went to parent-teacher conferences. Someone was at home to help us with homework. We had plenty of books to read from the library or the bookstore. Now I know that’s not true for everyone but it’s true for many of us in this congregation. I’m not saying this as a value judgment, I’m saying education is something that many of us are familiar with and have had support for throughout our lives. It’s a collective strength we have. And it’s a privilege many of us were given.
Last week I attended the Mayor’s summit on education. And I heard again the statistic that being able to read at grade level in third grade is critical to a child’s ability to succeed in the rest of their educational endeavors. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation confirms the connection between not being able to read proficiently by the end of third grade and “ongoing academic difficulties in school, failure to graduate from high school on time and chances of succeeding economically later in life—including [the] ability to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.” The Mayor’s summit confirmed this and said the greatest place of inequity in Louisville for children being able to read at grade level is among boys of color. The Director of Louisville Metro Corrections said almost 70% of people in jail do not have a high school diploma. A census data study out of Northeastern University found that “about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.” And a recent study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports that 11 states in the country now spend more state money on prisons than they do on public colleges.
The truth is we either pay now for children and young people to get an education or we pay later for them to be in prison. There’s a direct correlation.
Internationally, we know that “girls who complete primary and secondary education are more likely to earn income, have fewer unwanted pregnancies and break the cycle of poverty”; they “tend to be healthier, and provide better health care and education to their children.” And we know that the education of girls is still considered a threat in some places of the world. The story of Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan is such a story. The Taliban said girls should not be educated. Malala insisted that she and other girls had a right to receive an education. And she was shot in the head by the Taliban in an attempt to stop her advocacy for the education of girls.
So it seems to me that education is a radical act of social justice and might be a place to engage in our community. As a congregation, we certainly have strengths, resources, experience and passion for education.
Now this might seem like I’ve wandered a long way from Jesus welcoming children but I definitely see it as connected. It is clear to me that how we care for our children now and the kind of educational support and resources we provide for them makes an enormous difference in the trajectory and well-being of the rest of their lives. And I don’t mean just “our children” as in the children in our congregation, I mean “our children”—the sisters and brothers to whom we are connected because we are all part of God’s family. We can’t undo the wrongs that denied access and support for education to generations of people of color and to people who are poor, but perhaps we can do something to begin to repair the damage that has been done. And in doing so we clear the road that leads to the abundant life God intends for all of her children.
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 William C. Placher, Mark, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 135.
 Joyce Ann Mercer, “Mark 10:13-16 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 304.
 Phillip M Bailey, “Black Income Levels Plunge 11%,” in The Courier-Journal, 21 September 2015, 3A
 Greg Fischer, “Cradle to Career is focus of education efforts,” in The Courier-Journal, 20 September 2015, 1H
 “Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading,” (Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013), 3.
 “An Urban Myth That Should be True,” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/an-urban-myth-that-should-be-true/259329/, accessed 3 October 2015.
 “11 states spend more on prisons than on higher education,” http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/01/pf/college/higher-education-prison-state-spending/, accessed 3 October 2015.
 “Girls’ Education,” http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/brief/girls-education, accessed 3 October 2015.
 Girls’ Education” http://www.globalpartnership.org/focus-areas/girls-education, accessed 3 October 2015.