Shafts of Light, XII: UNICEF
Psalm 82 A Plea for Justice
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!
It is my joy and privilege to offer the final sermon of the “Shafts of Light” series that Bill, Katie, and I have been preaching on the group of accomplished individuals whose faces shine through the Malott Chapel windows. Dr. Bowen and Church leaders chose heroes for the children to “idealize and follow.” This 12th sermon highlights a unique window in the series. Psalm 82 is our reading.
In February of this year, an airplane landed in Ghana, carrying the first vaccines from the international COVAX facility. The shots were kept cold making their way through a series of refrigerated warehouses, vehicles, freezers, then perhaps compact solar powered coolers small enough to fit on a bike or motorcycle. They were kept cold until they reached the arms of humans. Perhaps, you like me, had never heard of this cold chain. Like me you may not have known that for years UNICEF led in developing this vast global cold chain in order to provide measles, polio, tetanus, and other vital immunizations to 40% of the world’s children.
Today’s window depicts a version of the UNICEF logo and instead of well-known 20th century individuals, it illuminates a collection of everyday parents and children representing the diversity of the world.
Speaking of stained glass, have you been to the Art Institute lately? A magnificent Tiffany window at the top of the Grand Staircase. And then right next door, in a special exhibition gallery, are the stunning, photographic quilts of Bisa Butler. The first one featured is called “Safety Patrol” The caption reads:
This piece considers the potential of seven children as future caretakers of the world. The boy in the center stands in front of his classmates, wearing a sash that signals his role in helping other children.... His outstretched arms reinforce his duty to lead and protect and his facial expression registers that he is poised and not afraid of what lies ahead. As the artist has noted, the letters OK printed diagonally on his shirt...forecast[s] that the children are prepared for the future and will be alright.
There is something about that description and the poise of the children in Butler’s quilt that echoes when I look at our UNICEF window. Don’t the two children in our window have a similar stance and gaze, representing their potential to be future caretakers of the world, prepared to face whatever lies ahead?
Since its founding UNICEF has been working to ensure every child has what they need to survive and as Butler would say “be alright”. Created after WWII, under the auspices of the newly formed United Nations, to provide food and clothing to children in Europe and China, the agency emerged as what historian Jennifer Morris names as the “apolitical, international effort to provide relief aid for children and mothers throughout the world.”
In its 75 years of existence UNICEF has created a better world for children in need. The website catalogs historical photos that both tug at the heart and fill me with hope—pictures of children of all races and cultures receiving education, nutrition, safe drinking water, and shelter.
In the United States, the UNICEF fund raises money from faith partners, corporations, and individual donors to raise money for these world wide efforts. Perhaps you trick-or-treated for UNICEF? For many years, the Children’s Sunday School offering was given to UNICEF—the main reason why it is a part of our windows today.
The same year this window was installed, 1993, UNICEF reported the outstanding progress made since WWII: halving Infant and child death rates, raising the proportion of children starting school from 50 per cent to 75 per cent, and raising the number of rural families with access to safe drinking water from just 10% to almost 60%.”
None of these amazing humanitarian strides nor the cold chain we need today would be possible without international cooperation. In 1965 UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the “promotion of brotherhood among nations.” Even so, United States public support for UNICEF has ebbed and flowed over the years. There were the initial hesitations to fund the United Nations itself. And there was reluctance to aid children in communist countries during the Cold War to name two examples.
I did some digging into this and didn’t find approval ratings specifically for UNICEF, but Pew Research has a wealth of statistics on the umbrella organization, the United Nations. The numbers reveal that public perception of the United Nations has remained about 70% positive from 1990 to now. Great news. But if you look at positive perception parsed by political party affiliation, you see a widening gap—from just 5 percentage points difference in the 1990s, to a difference of around 40 percentage points today.
Like me you might also be surprised to learn that the most ratified treaty in human history is the Convention on the Rights of the Child which outlines 54 principles, including every child’s right to life, and protection from abuse. Rights to play and rest. The right to a name.
This treaty became international law in 1990—about the time the chapel windows were being planned. Since then, one hundred ninety six countries have become parties to the treaty. One hundred ninety six—That’s what makes it the closest thing we have to a universal law. The United States is the one country which has signed it but not yet ratified it. No US president from 1990 to now has sent it to the Senate for approval. The reasons some hesitate for the US to ratify this international treaty are many. Though law is not my field, I understand that issues of US sovereignty and states’ rights are complex. I offer all this to say that while care for children is nearly universally agreed upon, agreeing on ways to do so gets complicated, even polarizing, quickly.
So, given the complexities of the world we live in, dare I ask if this window has stood the test of time as well as the others?
Let us turn to scripture for guidance. The poetry of Psalm 82 invites us to an imaginary large, heavy table—you know the type of conference tables with gravitas befitting the decisions made around them. Seated in stately chairs are people with enormous power, the kind of power even monotheists might describe as God-like. And then, God—not any made-up, almost God, idol, or God-like entity—but God God’s own self takes a seat and begins to flip through the report lying on the table. The room goes eerily quiet. Unhappy with the report’s contents, God speaks, making clear the metrics of success: justice for the weak and orphan, the lowly and destitute. Rescue the needy.
God finishes the short speech with a reminder for those around the table—saying, and this is my paraphrase, “I am God. You are human. You may have some power, but I’ve been clear about how you are to use it. I’m paying attention” And then, hearing these powerful words, our psalmist, let’s imagine they are the meeting recorder that day, is so overcome with praise that they can’t help but enter their own exclamation into the official meeting minutes: “Rise up O God, judge the earth, all nations belong to you!”
I’m with the psalmist. Let’s lift our voices to proclaim God ruler of all—the God of justice throughout the arc of scripture, who makes clear that we are to create a world where the orphan, the weak and the lowly, and all God’s children will be ok.
And so I’m also with those who chose this brilliant window almost 30 years ago. UNICEF makes a global difference in the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable…. UNICEF is making a difference in all of our lives through the cold chain. Using the justice metrics of Psalm 82, I imagine God would find things to be pleased about.
Thank you to this congregation for filling the children’s chapel with images that invite curiosity about individuals who may not be covered in elementary history class. Thank you for illuminating circumstances that create an opportunity to unite around our common work: the work of mercy, justice, and peace. Thank you for this particular UNICEF window where the children will always invite us to follow their gaze, into a future where humankind cooperates for the well-being of all.
Thank God for these faithful witnesses in our windows—a wisp of the great cloud of ordinary and extraordinary people who inspire courage and hope and faith. Throughout this series we’ve seen each of these shafts of light illuminating a portion of God’s movement in the world:
- In window and word we see the Spirit’s wisdom moving through the writings of the prophets crying for justice from Babylon, on the pages written behind secret bookcases, in safe havens posing as libraries.
- In window and word we know Christ’s healing not just for the people of first century Galilee, but moving in the streets of Calcutta, and in hospitals serving the remotest villages. Mercy extending like a vast cold chain network saving lives in a global pandemic.
- In window and in word God’s voice speaks of freedom as people flee across the Red Sea, march from Selma to Montgomery, and gather on the Village Green. God’s voice reverberates like hammers on concrete tearing down the walls that divide us.
- In window and in word God looks at us through the eyes of children, the lowly eyes of a newborn in a manger, the alert gaze of the middle school crossing guard, the eyes of children in our neighborhoods smiling over their masks, reminding us that God’s future is a future filled with hope that are to create.
Thanks be to God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.