A sermon on Mark 9:33-37, 42 delivered the volunteers, counselors, and supports of the ministry of City Camp, an urban day camp ministry with the Office of Youth and Family Ministries of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, at their closing Eucharist on July 30, 2016, the feast day of William Wilberforce, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Germantown.
Elected to Parliament at the age of 21, William Wilberforce admittedly did not enter into a life of politics to be in service to others. Early in his career, however, he had a conversion experience in which he became convicted of the importance of a life lived by a high moral code and the ungodly nature of the British slave trade. Wondering if he could live a life both in service to God and to the people, Wilberforce sought advice from a family friend and evangelical pastor, John Newton, who is most known for his hymn, Amazing Grace. Newton encouraged Wilberforce to use his position in the parliament for the good of all those made in the image of God, especially through the ending of the slave trade.
Wilberforce led the charge in the parliament among the abolitionists. Bringing to light the awful conditions with which people were treated once they were in the system of the slave trade, Wilberforce sought to win over the parliament to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. “Having heard all of this, you may look away, but you can never again say you did not know,” he is attributed with saying to a hostile, pro-slave trade parliament. Year after year, for 13 years, Wilberforce’s resolution to abolish the slave trade was defeated as he continually got up presenting the evidence, pleading with those in the parliament to put a stop to the horrors behind which they put their political power. It wasn’t until 1807 that Wilberforce’s resolution to abolish the slave trade was passed into law; twenty more years after that, Wilberforce was on his death bed when he received word that the parliament had, finally, made slavery illegal.
Today, in the Anglican Communion, it is the feast day for William Wilberforce; it is a time to remember his life and work. It is a time to remember that through the deeply troubling history of the slave trade, its development, implementation, and eventual abolition, there are moments and people who rise above and help lead humanity toward a more full expression of treating all as they are: bearers of the image of God; a goal for which we still strive today. In a world and system that thrived on the continuing of the slave trade, Wilberforce worked to foster hope and bring about a better future by serving those who were vulnerable and had no voice. Today we look back and celebrate William Wilberforce, even as we mourn the ways in which we have yet to realize as a society the reality of Saint Paul’s words of radical equality to the Galatians; we admire Wilberforce’s courage and bravery even as we attempt to live a life that boldly welcomes and includes those who are vulnerable among us.
There is a sign in the parish hall of the church of St. Simon the Cyrenian where more than 40 kids have come everyday for the past five weeks for City Camp that reads, “You are amazing. You are important. You are loved.” This sign was firmly in place early in the first week of camp; it was prominently placed before the campers or counselors even had the chance to get to know each other. What is important about this sign is not who made it or whether or not the person reading the sign is, in fact, amazing; what is important about this sign is that it expresses a conviction intrinsic to our Christian faith: that all people are loved by God, and it is, at least in part, our jobs as Christians not to be the best, but to show this love of God to others.
In our gospel passage today, Mark lays out a scenario in which Jesus recognizes a problem among his disciples. Arguing over who was the best, the disciples are quieted as Jesus flips the perceived order of the world on its head by sitting with them and telling them that it is not the greatest who will be first, but rather, it is those who are the last of all and servant of all. Jesus then takes a small child and puts the child among the twelve, and Jesus gives another instruction that seems equally unlikely. The act of welcoming a child in the name of Christ is actually the act of welcoming God. At all cost, it is imperative to foster the love of God among these little ones.
Children play a large role in Jesus’ message, often representing the marginalized, the vulnerable, and those who are unable to fend for themselves, but they also represent something sacred and pure. The same is true today; the innocence and joy of a child is some of the purest delight that can be found. The intense joy that is found in the eyes of a child who proudly shows the visiting chaplain that they can tie BOTH of their shoes and the sense of love and belonging that beams through a handstand competition at the local community pool radiates hope and joy. While children are some of the most vulnerable of our society, they are also some of the most hopeful, and there is something ubiquitously hopeful about children, and to welcome a child is to welcome hope itself.
Like the rest of the world, those of us living in community at St. Margaret’s House next door have struggled this summer to understand the events that have played out on the local, national, and global levels. In a house that is half British and half American, the young City Camp Counselors have struggled to make sense of things like Brexit, the polemic American political cycle, terrorism around the world, and the far-too-often and far-too-tragic episodes of gun violence in our country. The question that remains on our lips as we are silenced by fear or anger, or perhaps both, is what do we say? Or what do we do? Or how can we move forward? With all that is happening in the world it seems impossible to live a life of service to others; it seems impossible to put another’s needs before our own. It seems impossible when we struggle with compassion fatigue to give up our notions of being the best and to live a life in service to others when there is so much to do and no clear way to heal the pain in this world. But this, I suppose, it the point. When the impossible seems the only path – it is God who restores and provides a path to fix the brokenness with which we all live.
It is God, present in the very act of the welcoming of the little child that restores and makes a path forward known. It is God, whose very face we can see in Ziggy or Josie or Nadik or any of the other children whom we have served and loved this summer through City Camp, who offers up hope in the darkest of times. It is not the greatest or best of our society that leads us to restoration, but those who welcome and foster the hope of a child; the world is in dire need for those who live a life with the express purpose of serving others, welcoming and fostering hope. This hope, this sacred hope that is to be found most of all in young children is achieved best through service to others rather than attempting to be the best or greatest.
It is through service that we most clearly see ourselves, our enemies, and our loved ones as barriers of the image of God. It is through caring for the vulnerable that we know that hope speaks louder than the pain. And it is through the hard and beautiful work of living a life in service that we welcome God into our lives, our relationships, and our communities.