Leveling mountains, filling valleys

Luke 3:1-6

Sunday Sermon

Thomas Connolly
Member, Deanery Dominican Republic Committee

December 09, 2018

I'd like to introduce you to some children this morning. My grandkids. Charlene and I are brand new grandparents. Our son Michael, who grew up in this church, and his wife, Amy, gave birth to Brynna Elizabeth Connolly on Nov. 30. Two of my other grandchildren, Charlotte Grace and Sophie Elise Riddle, were here on Thanksgiving with their mom, our daughter Maggie and dad, Kevin Riddle. Maggie grew up in this church. The kids are 10 and 12 years old. They live in a safe, secure, loving home. They are active in sports and fully engaged in church, school and society. On Maslow's scale of his 1943 "Hierarchy of Needs," my grandchildren are on the peak of the mountain.

Now meet some more children. They are from the barrio at St. Martin, San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic. It's in a city of 157,000 that is actually fairly prosperous, relatively speaking, because of vast cocoa and rice crops that surround the town. But as in almost every city in the world, even tony Naples FL, there are pockets of dissipation, where exist cruelty and abuse.

The barrio is one of those low depressions. The police won't venture into this barrio at night because of the risk to their own safety. You can almost hear the cries of children exposed to the most debased state of existence. The children in the barrio are at the very bottom level—in the valley, if you will—of Maslow's pyramid.

Today's gospel tells us that every mountain will be made low and every valley will be filled. Now mountains, especially to those of us who grew up in the flatlands of the midwest, are things of great majesty and great beauty. And valleys are equally beautiful, verdant and lush with vegetation and streams and rivers. God does not want to destroy mountains or valleys. So we know we're not hearing about topography in today's gospel. We're hearing about spiritual renewal that will overcome great obstacles and result in our walk in love. Our walk in love is the salvation of all flesh. All flesh, including those at the peaks and those in the depths, victims and perpetrators alike. All flesh.

In the meantime, our vow as Christians is to love one another and help each other so that we all might have a straight path to salvation.

About 18 years ago, priests and lay people of the Naples deanery, comprised of six churches, Trinity-by-the-Cove, St. John's, St. Mary's in Bonita, St. Mark's on Marco Island, St. Monica's and St. Paul's, traveled throughout the Dominican Republic to find a ministry. The diocese of Southwest Florida and the DR were companion dioceses, and our bishop at the time, John Lipscomb, wanted more than prayers on Sunday morning to be what cemented the relationship. He urged the deans to establish a real people-to-people relationship. Our rector, a different Fr. Tom, was among them.

They got to the albergue, erected a few years before the trip by the good folks at St. Paul's in Akron, Ohio, and fell in love with little children. Inasmuch as the town's name is San Francisco, you would expect someone to echo the Tony Bennett song about leaving his heart there. That person was Wendy Happney of St. Mark's. She is still an active member of the deanery DR committee, as am I.

About a hundred kids find haven at our albergue every weekday, while their moms, mostly, go to work. Many families in the barrio have only one parent.

The principal effort of the albergue is to fill the first three needs in Maslow's hierarchy. You'll remember that the first one is the physiological need for food, water, shelter from external threats, such as from wild animals, and sleep. Once these basics are relatively satisfied, safety needs dominate behavior. Unless the first two levels are attained, the third level, a sense of being loved and belonging, is out of reach. This need is especially strong in childhood.

I can tell you that every effort is being made, through training of staff and the assistance of a psychologist, to provide not only for the physiological needs, and the safety and emotional security of each child, but to make him or her know that she is valued and belongs to a loving, nurturing Jesus-centered family. A child who is stressed about abuse or trauma likely is not in a position to learn his abcs or how to interact with others in the world.

The finances that keep the albergue open are provided by the good folks of the Episcopal churches in Naples. We offer sponsorships at $275 that covers a portion of expenses. I'll be in the narthex after this service to answer any questions you might have. Please join me there.

I've been kicking around an idea for a while. Our grandchildren live in a world where there's a lot of focus on material things. How about if we cut back just a little this Christmas, and do a little that will get them to focus on the other. Instead of a new xbox, how about purchasing a sponsorship of a child in the albergue, and present that sponsorship as a gift to a child on top of the mountain?

Think about this as a teaching moment. Teaching first of all gratitude for all the things we possess. Then tell them in your own way what you know about the life of a kid from the barrio. This will be a lesson to teach empathy. Ask your grandson or daughter to pray for his child daily. That will be teaching about how God's love is spread in the world. And, as a bonus, you will be doing your part in keeping Christ in Christmas!

I'd like to close with this prayer: Lord, we ask that you watch over your children, especially those in the valleys. Inspire your people, Lord, to be generous. Bless us with the knowledge they we doing your work in the world. Amen