3Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” – Mark 9:33-37
I have a question for you? If you could have one superpower, what would it be? I am always caught between being able to fly or be invisible. If I could fly, I wouldn’t have to sit in traffic, or purchase an expensive airplane ticket. But if I were invisible, I could get on a plane without buying a ticket. I could enter into conversations to get the latest gossip. There have to be a multitude of advantages of being invisible. In fact, if you didn’t like my sermon and wanted to approach me about it, I could turn on my superpower and disappear. Invisibility is the ultimate conflict avoidance!
However, if we read comics growing up – we know that the superpowers of the superheroes have an Achilles heel– for example, Superman’s weakness was Kryptonite –which takes away his superpowers and returns him to a mere mortal. The Green lantern lost his powers when he encountered the color yellow. Without their super powers, their status in society became invisible.
Jesus and the Upside Down Kingdom
In our Gospel lesson for today, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest? But Jesus throws them for a loop when he lifts up the invisible of his society – children. Children were socially invisible. In first century Palestine, children were considered a liability not an asset – an extra expense, an extra mouth to feed. Children had no social status within a village community. By putting a child before the apostles and embracing them, Jesus was reversing the normal social customs. Jesus was telling his followers and us, 2000 years later, that the kingdom of God is counter-cultural.
Which begs us to take a hard look at who in our society are socially invisible? Who do we not see, or worse, choose not to see or acknowledge?
Our History of Creating Invisible Persons
We only have to look at the history of the United States. When early European explorers and settlers arrived, land and culture was taken from the Native Americans – we segregated them into reservations, forced Baptism upon them and believed they were less than the white settlers. Slaves were brought from Africa to work on plantations, seen only as 3/5th of a white person without any freedom or rights. Women struggled for voting rights, equal pay in the workplace. Persons of color were relegated to the back of the bus, unable to use White restrooms or even attend the same schools. We turned away a ship full of Jews escaping genocide under Hitler. Our history of immigration created groups of persons who were seen as less then – Chinese, Irish, Italians, Mexicans, even Catholics. Their cultures and identities were forced into invisibility by expecting them to either leave or assimilate into the white European Protestant culture.
The “Whiteness” of the ELCA
Last week I attended an Anti-racism training at the ELCA headquarters in Chicago. I believed that I would be attending to learn to teach others about racism, but I was confronted with my own biases and beliefs when it came to people of color. While I know that many of our brothers and sisters are targeted by police, or immigration enforcement and these actions horrified me, I also learned that I have a privilege that was invisible to me.
This invisible privilege allows me to drive the streets without the fear of being pulled over; going into a convenience store without the clerks eyes watching me as I stroll through the aisles. This privilege gives me the comfort that I will be worshipping with people like me; getting medical care or legal services from people like me and 90 % of the time I won’t feel like the “outsider”.
These are examples of the invisibility of white privilege. It is a term that makes many of us, including myself, feel a bit uncomfortable. According to Peggy McIntosh, a white anti-racism activist, whites in Western societies enjoy advantages that non-whites do not experience, as “an invisible package of unearned assets”. White privilege denotes both obvious and less obvious passive advantages that white people may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The effects can be seen in professional, educational, and personal contexts. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.
The ELCA is currently struggling with being the “whitest” protestant denomination in the United States – with over 96% of members defining themselves as white, with western European heritage. The question before the church is how to increase the membership of people of color, including church leadership. We may need to ask ourselves – do we want to maintain the status quo or do the hard work of building relationships with those we may deem on the margins of our society. It may also mean altering the way we do “church” if we want to include those whom have been invisible from the Lutheran Church.
Who are the Invisible people of our society today?
Let’s look at our society through the gospel lens of our reading today, who would Jesus be lifting up? Who in our society lacks social power? It might be the unaccompanied minor who crossed the border illegally to get away from gangs, poverty and violence. It might be the gay teenager who is struggling with his identity and the support of his family. It might be the homeless vet who sleeps on the sidewalk, hoping for spare change. It might even be a female African American pastor who is hoping for a call based on her credentials, and not on her skin color.
God is a God of Grace
It’s a hard pill to swallow to think that Jesus might welcome those who become invisible to us first into the kingdom. After all, I had no control that I was born into a white family that came with inherent perks. I grew up in a predominately white Lutheran Church. So I am going to suffer because of things I have no control over? It doesn’t seem fair.
Thankfully, we worship a God who is a God of Love and Grace. All of us are equally endowed with this grace and given access to the Kingdom of God. Nobody is invisible in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is here and now – and we are called to bring visibility to the invisible.
The Dangers of Invisibility
But, from time to time invisibility has its perks as well. We become invisible when it comes to speaking out against injustice. If we stay invisible, we don’t risk losing friends or family or maybe even a job. Fear can take hold and prevent us from doing what God is calling us to do. Sometimes we just want to maintain status quo, especially if our actions will impact others. If I speak out and lose my job, my family will suffer. If I speak out at family dinner then I rupture the relationship with my family member. These are real concerns. As much as I would like to think that I would have no hesitation standing up or speaking out, I wouldn’t be truthful if I also have those same fears. When we fail to speak out on behalf of injustice, we become complicit. Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for speaking out – his life.
We can change!
Changing the world starts with small steps. Looking inward to understand how we contribute to oppression and injustice. Take a risk by building a relationship with someone of a different social class, ethnicity or gender identity. Probably one of the hardest actions is seeing God in everyone we meet; even those for whom we disagree or might consider an enemy. But Jesus tell us that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”-
Jesus knows our stories and I believe that if we take the time to learn other people’s stories it will begin to break down the walls of bias, prejudice and social invisibility. It is easy to make judgments from a distance.
You can’t turn on the TV or look at social media without hearing a lot of false narratives attacking groups of people. When we hear these stories, it is imperative that we hear more than one voice –We are not born with prejudice –it is a learned behavior. However, the stories we heard from our parents, grandparents, teachers, friends and even the media shaped our views of those we deem “The others”. Let’s face it, when we tear each other down, it makes us feel better. I watch Extreme Hoarders to make myself feel better when I should be cleaning my own house!
Hebrews 10:24-25 tell us “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” –
It’s about relationships, even uncomfortable relationships. It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor. It’s about seeing God in everyone. It’s about helping those who are invisible in our society be seen as Children of God.
Every culture has its biases, and Jesus is calling his disciples and calling us to examine how we treat all of his children in society. It’s a journey and this journey ultimately leads to the foot of the cross. To serve the powerless is the deepest meaning of the cross. Jesus’ disciples share in the dying and rising of Christ by serving the least. By giving everything, maybe even death, we as his disciples continue his redemption within the cross’ shadow. “To be first you must become last.”
I am closing with a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”- Amen.