Good Will Hunting. Mrs. Doubtfire. Patch Adams. These are films I really enjoyed, so I was as surprised as anyone this past week to learn that actor Robin Williams had died. But those of us who associated him with joy, humor, and love of life were shocked to hear that at age 63 he had taken his own life.
This past week we’ve learned a bit about Robin Williams’ background. I hadn’t known that he’d grown up in a house of privilege. His father was an auto executive and his mother a former model. Robin Williams had every material thing he needed. And yet, in his early years he was described as a boy who played alone in a large, empty room with 2000 toy soldiers. He is said to have been “lonely and in need of affection.” At school he was sometimes teased and bullied.
Later, as an adult, Williams struggled with depression and addiction. There’s no way to prove a connection between the struggles of his adult life and the disappointments of his childhood. But we all know that the experiences of our early years can be a powerful influence on the path we follow the rest of our lives.
Little children have little power in this world. They are mostly at the mercy of the choices and attitudes of the grown-ups in their lives. Without adults to constantly assure them that they are beloved they face some great challenges as adults to believe that they are worthwhile.
Such was the case of a young girl in Palestine 2000 years ago. Unlike Robin Williams, she had no social advantages. She was female, a foreigner, and had some disease that caused everyone, including her family, to conclude that she was possessed by a demon. One thing she did have, though, was a mother who would do anything for her, and that was worth more than gold! This little girl had so many strikes against her. And yet, she had one thing in abundance, the one thing that matters more than anything else in life, and that is love.
“Have mercy on me, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon”…And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away for she keeps shouting after us.” In our gospel reading two weeks ago Jesus was confronted by thousands of hungry people, and his followers said the same thing. Send the crowds away. “They’re too much trouble. They’re not our problem.”
Does this sound familiar? When children appear on our nation’s southern border the loudest voices say, “Send the crowds away! They’re a problem, but they’re not our problem.” How often throughout the world does this story play out! Whether it’s children in the U.S., Palestine, Iraq, Ukraine, it’s the same story: Adults are too busy fighting among themselves, or maintaining their own security, or feeling too overwhelmed, to think about the consequences for children.
But thank God for the persistence of parents and others who speak out for children in need. When the woman asks Jesus for help, at first he says nothing at all. But when he does speak he answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When she continues to press him his reply is shocking: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
In 1978 a new sitcom appeared on TV called Mork and Mindy. It was a smash hit and launched the career of Robin Williams, who played the role of a space alien visiting earth. Sometimes I think we treat Jesus as if he were a space alien—someone from another world with supernatural powers who can’t really relate to the struggles of what it means to be human. In our first reading the prophet Isaiah speaks for God: Maintain justice, and do what is right. But discerning justice and doing what is right is not always easy!
To be human means to wrestle with such questions. In today’s gospel we find Jesus doing exactly that! Here is a man with a war going on inside. On the one hand, he is surrounded by the voices of those who say, “We take care of our own first. Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” On the other hand, he hears the voice of a mother desperately trying to save her child. Jesus’ first response is the easy human response we all are tempted toward: taking care of his own. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
This is one tough woman who loves her daughter very much. But she’s more than that. In this story she represents nothing less than the voice of God, the voice of compassion. Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs…eat the crumbs…that fall from their masters’ table. Suddenly, Jesus remembers who he is: baptized child of God. It becomes clear to him what the right thing is to do: Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.
So, what does all this have to do with us?
We, too, may find a war going on inside. We may hear within us, on the one hand, voices for the powerless; and on the one hand the loud voices of fear and apathy. Like Jesus himself we, too, have a decision to make: Whether to follow the easy path of self-interest, or to claim our divine nature that asks different questions and demands a different response.
Here at Lakeridge Lutheran Church, we find stories of people choosing well. We have, for example, stories of foster care, adoption, and guardianship—courageous choices! Several of our children have lost parents or have had family situations that early in their lives put them at great risk. And yet, in each case many among you have seen these as opportunities to be the body of Christ and have stepped forward to love and care for these young people as if they were your own.
Last week at worship you heard the impassioned cry of a mother whose little girl lives with brain cancer. Many of you over the past couple of years have responded and will respond to her invitation to raise money and awareness about research into pediatric brain cancer. You have also found ways to love and care for this family as if it were your own.
These acts of kindness—these acts of love—get at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and there’s a lot at stake in how we choose. Children, for example, do not start wars. Grown-ups start wars. But wars and violence are often the tragic consequence of children who grew up without ever receiving the ongoing assurance that they were loved. As adults, they make choices that reflect a lack of love for themselves and for others. Although we spend a lot of energy lamenting the wars and violence that occur in the world, we will never know how many crimes and wars have been avoided because many children grew up knowing they were loved.
Christians are in the salvation business. The importance of what we do here in our small way Sunday after Sunday—and during the week!–can never be overestimated. For example, if Robin Williams as a child had been brought to the font week after week and reminded that he was beloved, would he have turned to drugs and alcohol for relief from the pain of loneliness and not knowing that he was loved? Would he have struggled as much with depression? Would he have taken his own life? Maybe yes, maybe no. But one thing is certain—when a child knows that s/he is loved, when a child has adults who are just as persistent and just as passionate as the girl’s mother in today’s reading, when there is a community ready to remember that Christians don’t take care of their own first—when these things happen, the chances of a child growing into a healthy and loving adult, ready to serve, are much better.
Robin Williams once said that he grew up in a world where children were to be seen and not heard. That was the world Jesus grew up in, too, and it may be the world in which you have grown up. But it is not the world we represent here! We, all of whom are children of God, week after week with persistent voices welcome children into this place, to be seen—and heard!–as an example to the world of Christian discipleship and God’s love for all people.