A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast live on FaceBook Sirach 26:10
Pentecost XVII - Proper 20B - September 19, 2021
When I lived in Maine, my family was very involved in foster care. We took in foster care children, mostly on a short term, emergency basis. That might mean a weekend or a few weeks and, depending on placement opportunities, those few weeks might suddenly become a few months.
I’m not going to try to romanticize it: Foster care was hard work. It was a work of the heart and mind, soul and body. It was impossible, at times – especially around the holidays. But mostly, it was humbling. Over time, we learned that what foster kids want is not what we think they want. What many of us think they want are X-boxes or smart phones, expensive sneakers, sports bikes or dolls.
Those things are relatively easy to attain but it’s not the thing they want – they want what the thing represents: That they are special enough, loved enough – in fact, enough – that someone will give them the “things” that represent that love, that special status.
Some of those kids in foster care wanted us to think they want those things because it is embarrassing to admit the truth of what they really want. It’s humbling to think they might not ever be deserving what they really want: a home, a family, love. So, they don’t – well, rarely – ask for that.
I remember one teenaged kid – I’ll call him “Ronnie” – we had for a weekend because there had been some crisis in the group home with the foster parent and all the kids had to be placed in other homes. In the midst of this turmoil, the news came that one of his favorite uncles had died in a car accident. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ronnie felt he couldn’t attend because he didn’t have proper clothing.
Ronnie had been in and out of foster care for much of his childhood. He had moved around a great deal, and didn’t even have a suitcase. Instead, every time he moved, all of his possessions were dumped into two large, black garbage bags. Imagine the message that gave about your worth.
"I don't really own even a shirt and tie or dress shoes," he said. "I was going to be seeing some of my old family members, and it was kind of embarrassing to not have a suit when everyone else would have one. If I could make one small wish, it would be that I would have something to wear so I wouldn’t embarrass myself or my family at my uncle’s funeral."
His caseworker said that she was unable to justify buying him a suit because it was considered a “nonessential expense”. Nonessential. I’m sure in the Land of Bureaucrats and Red Policy Tape, and forms that need to be filled out in triplicate and certified and stamped by a Notary Public, anything that might help the still-forming self-image of a young teenage boy would be considered pretty “nonessential”.
But, that ‘nonessential expense’ was the one small wish of this young teen: He did not want to be an embarrassment. It took a lot of humility – indeed, maturity – for him to admit that. As I think about it, aren’t some of our most important small wishes that which seems “nonessential” to others? And, doesn’t that take a lot of humility to admit, especially as grown ups?
I remember talking with one of the nuns who taught at the Catholic school where we sent all our kids – the public school system was so bad it was out of the question to send the kids – so we paid the tuition our of our subsidy. Sister knew what we were doing and gave us a bit of a ‘discount’. She listened very carefully and asked me about how much I thought a suit might cost. I did some quick math in my head and told her the number, to which she nodded and then crossed her fingers as her eyes sparkled with hope.
Later that morning, Sister called me to say she had received a gift from an anonymous donor and if I would please come by the office and pick up the money she was certain I could find a new suit, shirt, tie, socks and shoes for young Ronnie and still have him back at the convent before the end of the day so another Sister would tailor it for him so he’d look especially sharp for his uncle’s wake and funeral.
Ronnie was with us for just a week, but that week changed his life and ours. Indeed, when he left us, he was getting ready to move in temporarily with the widow of his uncle who died. She and he had had some wonderful conversations about the man they both loved and admired, at the end of which, she said she knew exactly what she was to do – something her husband had said was his “one small wish” – to take Ronnie in and give him a home.
“I was always resistant to that idea,” she said. “I don’t know why. I really don’t. I guess I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle you. You always looked so . . . lost . . . so . . . scared and sad. But now, you look like a young man who knows he’s going somewhere. And, I want to be part of that journey.”
I thought about Ronnie as I considered the lessons for today. The lesson from Proverbs is a recitation of the teachings of the mother of King Lemuel – thought to be King Solomon whose mother would have been Bathsheba. Which sorta makes me giggle. If you listen carefully you’ll be able to hear the ancient wisdom of something that became a hit song in the 60s, by the Fabulous Miracles: “(My Momma Told Me), You bettershop around.)”
“A capable or noble woman,” taught Bathsheba, “. . . . opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.”
I think there are two or three women in this story of Ronnie who fit that description. Bathsheba adds, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Somebody give Bathsheba an “Amen.”
As for the Foster Care Case worker, it still makes me wince as I remember her saying – with a straight face – that she could not justify the cost of getting a suit for Ronnie because it was deemed “an unnecessary expense.” St. James writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
I suspect what St. James, the brother of Jesus, knew was that to “ask wrongly” is to not ask out of a sense of humility, a place of truth, a knowledge of our own poverty, that “one small wish”. Ronnie knew how to do that. So did his uncle. And, eventually, his aunt.
Somebody give James an “Amen.”
As Jesus was passing through Galilee, he heard his disciples arguing among themselves about who was the greatest among them. Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
As I think about Ronnie, I find myself wondering what ever happened to him. One of the really hard parts of foster care is that you often lose touch with them as they move through ‘the system’. He only spent one week of his life with us and yet so much happened to change his life and ours. I have prayed that his life with this aunt worked out for both of them.
I suspect it did as both of them were answering the “one small wish” of someone else. I have come to know that those “one small wishes” are the prayers that reach closest to the heart of God.
I have come to hear the words of Jesus we heard this morning as the “one small wish” from the heart of Jesus deep into to our hearts. If we worked to give Jesus his wish, just think of how different the world would be. If we were as generous as we know how to be and spend lavishly on what others might consider an “unnecessary expense” to build up the self esteem and self confidence of a child, how different might his – and our – future be?
The one small wish from the heart of Jesus is this, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Might we be able to do that? Might we consider being servant first and put our own needs after someone else’s? Might we listen for the “one small wish” that’s in our own hearts and be humble enough to ask for that?
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Somebody give Jesus an “Amen.”