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I and Thou

Scripture: Ephesians 4:25-32, Luke 9:46-48

~ Watch I and Thou on Facebook ~

Any brief perusal of the internet and other social media illustrates how strong a desire it is for many to become famous; it almost seems like a built-in desire for humans to know others admire, approve, desire, or envy us.

Stained glass panel in the nave of St. John's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales (NSW). This window depicts Jesus Christ welcoming children and teaching "of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14). The inscription on this memorial window reads "To the Glory of God and in Commemoration of all the Baptisms in this Church † Erected John the Baptist Day 1932".In this morning’s reading from the gospel we can see this is nothing new; Jesus’ disciples are expressing their desire to be famous as well, “An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest.” (Luke 9:46)

We are told that Jesus was well-aware of their attitude and values; he knows they need a change in perspective and a new understanding of human valuing.

The gospel continues saying, “But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (Luke 9:47-48)

Try telling that to the Kardashians, the Duggers, Donald Trump, or any major league sports personality! The list could go on and on but the point is that in our culture we are taught that to be adored, envied, idolized and pampered is equal to being great.

Jesus however, disagrees.

Jesus make this point even clearer by choosing a child as an example.

We could easily miss the impact of this, because our culture not only affirms, but focuses on children: for some adults who have not made the “most important” list their children are a last resort to stardom–consider Justin Bieber’s mother as one obvious example. She openly talks about how she groomed him for stardom and now serves as his agent to gain her own personal notoriety.

But in Jesus’ lifetime this statement made about welcoming little children would have caused those disciples’ jaws to drop because in the first century a child was a non-person, a non-entity, a no-body; literally an “it” as the scripture portrays.

In first century Israel there is no reason or excuse for a child to be drawn close to such a great teacher as Jesus, or even close to a group of adult males.

But Jesus teaches these disciples, and us, that it is precisely when and as we welcome the nobody’s, the least, the last, and the lost that we welcome him, welcome God and gain the notoriety that matters.

Jesus calls us to change our perspective, and through that change in perspective, to change our values to align with the kin-dom’s values.

I know too well what it feels like to have one’s value as a human denied so others feel more important.

When I shared my story as a transgender man in 2009 I had no desire to become either famous or infamous, but suddenly there was a flurry of media attention.

Articles were published and interviews recorded.

All of this attention led to comments.

Most comments were supportive, but, as Caitlin Jenner has experienced, there are hateful and judgmental people in our society.

One of the more intentionally hateful comments I received was being referred to as an “it.”

But it did not impact me all that much, because I had heard it before: I was called such a name all the way back to fifth grade when my gender non-conformity was becoming quite obvious.

Jesus’ point is very clear, and very powerful.

Whenever we think and describe another human being as an “it” rather than a beloved child of God we violate the clearest commandment of the gospel, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We dare not miss or minimalize this commandment because when we do it costs human lives and it cost us our greatest opportunity to be what those disciples were arguing about, “great” in the eyes of God.

Years ago Jewish theologian and Professor Martin Buber authored a classic book about acknowledging human relationships as sacred in a book titled, “I and Thou.”

In that now classic book Martin Buber relates a true story about an encounter with a young student who came to his office to talk with him.

Buber said he did his best to listen patiently as this student shared some deep concerns in his life, but Buber’s mind was really on other things- he was a busy man, after all; he had other obligations to which he was looking forward that evening.

In essence, he was grateful when the student left.

Later that same evening, at the dinner he had been looking forward to a colleague asked if he had heard about the suicide of one of his students.

Stunned, Martin Buber replied he had not heard and inquired about which student it was.

It was the very student who had come to talk with him earlier that day; the one he secretly wished would leave soon.

Martin Buber said that at that very moment he made a resolution to never treat another human being as an “it” or as a ladder to his own success; as an object, an “it.”

Instead Buber made a commitment to treat each person he met and interacted with as a “Thou”, as a child of God of sacred worth.

He said that if he had done this with his former student perhaps the outcome may have been different.

Buber’s book, I and Thou which I highly recommend to you, discusses how we may treat one another with understanding, compassion, respect, dignity, and patience rather than as “it”–as objects, things, or ladders on the rung to our own stardom and success.

Jesus implores us not to overlook the beauty and wisdom of one another in relation to the kin-dom God offers.

I will close with one last example for you to ponder: it is another true story from a favorite book, Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawaii; it is titled, “Grandma Fujikawa:”

“Every Sunday after church Mama would have the car loaded with a picnic meal. We’d hop in the car and drive off to the beach. But first, we’d stop by to get Grandma at her home in Nu’uana. I’d be the one to run around the back and up the gray wooden stairs, two steps at a time.

“Grandma!!”

“Olight, Olight! Hai, hai, I coming” she would laugh excitedly.

Grandman looked forward to our weekly Sunday picnics at Ala Moana Park. She came to Hawaii from Japan a long time ago, but still could not speak much English.

I only heard her say, “Dinda, you gudu girl ne?” (Linda, you good girl, yes?) while she patted me on the head as if she were petting a dog.

When I would call for her in her tiny, gray room, she’d gather up her purse, slip on her shoes and roll the tops of her knee-high stockings until they were just above her ankles. I never thought they looked funny. I just thought that was the way she normally dressed.

She’d laugh all the way down the stairs and shuffle as fast as she could all the way to the car.

At the beach the older folks played Hanafude (Japanese flower cards) but grandma just sat and watched. I don’t recall anyone talking to her. She just sat all afternoon, watched … laughed, and walked around the park … She always seemed so happy.

I never thought of talking to her except to say, “Hi Grandma!” Nor did I ever think of disclosing my private thoughts … When I went to my first prom, I never thought of sharing my excitement with Grandma. And when I had my first boyfriend, I merely introduced him to her. She just laughed and said, “Ali Su. You get nisu boy-friendo.” (nice, you get nice boyfriend)

When I graduated from high school, I just remember her stroking my arm and saying, “Dinda, you smarto girl ne?” (Linda, you smart girl, yes?)

When I graduated from college and got married, Grandma sat at our wedding table. I didn’t really talk to her because I was so caught up in the festivities, but I still remember her voice, “Dinda, you good guru, ne?” (Linda, you good girl, yes?)

Shortly after I had my first child my husband and I moved to Japan. It was a strange feeling to be a literate, college graduate one day, and an illiterate “henne gaigin” (strange foreigner) the next. That’s when I began to understand …

At first I frantically thumbed through my little red dictionary to search for the right Japanese words to express myself, but thoughts came faster than my fingers could move so I put the book away. It was easier to just smile and laugh. I slowly began to understand how grandma must have felt when she moved to Hawaii from her home in Japan. Suddenly I knew why she laughed a lot.

The first time I went to the neighborhood market to shop I couldn’t read the labels on the caned goods. They were all written in Japanese, so I had to guess what was inside by looking at the pictures on the cans.

I wondered if Grandma shopped by pictures, too.

Then there was the time my baby was hurt, and I needed ended up at a small clinic where I could where I could not understand a word the doctor was saying. As he pulled out a huge hypodermic needle, I wondered if grandma had ever felt as helpless as I did at that moment.

I wondered, How did grandma deal with a new culture (in which she was an it) that expected her to ask questions in order to get information when the very core of her upbringing did not allow her to speak up?

One day I decided to find out. I wrote Grandma a letter: “Did you feel stupid, humiliation, isolation and pain just so we could have a better life?” (Did you feel like an ‘it’?)

You always seemed so happy I didn’t know.”

My letter was translated and then sent. Four weeks later I received a reply and the translation that read: “For the first time in my life, I am so happy, so much that I cannot help but cry. You see, for the first time in my life, someone understands, someone in my family understands me.”

I still have that letter. Every night as I lay in bed and pray and then gently slip Grandma’s tear-stained letter out from under my pillow and read it. Her words have become my own. Someone finally understands.

“Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

May it be so.

Amen, and Amen!


Originally delivered July 19, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Stained glass: Alfred Handel, d. 1946[1], photo: Toby Hudson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons