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October 16, 2005 (Sunday 29 · Time after Pentecost/Children’s Sabbath)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Isaiah 45:1-7; I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Grace and peace to you from God our loving Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen.
Children are the future of our church and the future of our nation, so I think it is wonderful that today we are celebrating the children in our midst and remembering those children who, because of poverty or other circumstances, are not able to have the upbringing they deserve as valued children of God.
It is fitting in many ways that today our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah reminds us of a time when Cyrus, a Persian ruler, not a member of the tribe of Israel or of the Jewish faith, was declared by God to be the Messiah of Israel: Yahweh's own anointed leader who would take the children of Israel out of captivity in Babylon and back to the promised land.
This week people of many different faiths are uniting in a common desire to take children held captive by poverty in this nation and giving them a new life of promise as valued children of God. We hear many voices from several religions united in a common chorus.
I'd like to share with you some of those voices with you: Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America wrote this in a letter to Islamic religious leaders in preparation for the Children's Sabbath: "I am writing today to remind myself and you that the Qur'an directly makes us responsible for the spiritual, mental, and physical well being of our children. It is the duty of every Muslim, not just parents alone, to see that the right environment is provided for the growth and development of our upcoming generation. Poverty, violence, hunger and homelessness are the problems of so many children in our nation--and the eradication of these is the obligation of us all."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism wrote this to the members of American Hebrew Congregations: "Jewish tradition teaches, 'Why was there violence in Gilead? Because they made what is primary secondary and what is secondary primary. How so? Because they loved their possessions more than their children.' This text, centuries old, rings true in this day. And so too, in our time, we are responsible for the elimination of this suffering. Together through prayer, education, and advocacy, we can shift our priorities to focus where they belong: on our children."
What about our church? The Lutheran Church of Honolulu? The ELCA? And what about all Christian churches? What is our inspiration for responding to the suffering of children in our communities and our nation?
The call to live out an active faith, seeking justice and empowered by the Holy Spirit, is central to our identity and it's been a part of who we are since the earliest times of our Christian community.
Our epistle text for today are the first ten verses of Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica. As the kids in confirmation could tell you, this is the earliest of Paul's letters and therefore the earliest biblical message of a Christian leader to a Christian church, written only twenty years after Christ's death.
Listen again to how Paul addresses this early church: "We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know that God has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction." This is describing a church that is active in faith and love. But isn't it describing our church, today, as well?
This Scripture also makes it clear that for Paul the identity of one church is tied to the identity of another through the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Every church is unique and every church has a story to share. This Monday morning, I was able to hear this text when I participated at the text study at my home church, in Pepin, Wisconsin. Those at the study were reminded by the text from Thessalonians of how the identity of our little church changed dramatically when one of our Sunday Schoolers was abducted three years ago.
The mother and family of the child were distraught and desperate and came to church to be comforted and to gain strength. All of us were terrified, not knowing where little Christopher was and if we would see him again, but we believed in the reality of the gospel that brought our church together, and that there was a real power behind this community. And that gave our little church not only the strength we needed to support one another but also the strength we needed in order to take action to get Christopher back. And after 15 months Christopher was returned to his mother and grandparents and his church family at Immanuel Lutheran.
His presence with us there now is a reminder that a church is more than a place to go on Sunday mornings. Every church is a community of real power, and even when we feel powerless to overcome the circumstances we face, God's power is a very real help in a time of trouble. Through the power of the Spirit when Christopher was taken from us, we became lights for each other giving hope in the midst of a dark situation. Now that Christopher is back he is a light of hope for us.
Walking through my home church's sanctuary last Monday, I saw a place that was transformed by what could have been a tragic experience. Banners hung from the front of the sanctuary to back with the names of ministries that our church provides for children, many which became priorities for us during and after the ordeal of losing Christopher. Today Immanuel boldly celebrates the children of its church family. We know how precious each of child is and we want to show how much we value each of them.
At LCH recently we have been blessed by a greater presence of children in our midst. I sat in on the new members class a couple weeks ago and noticed that almost half of the people there were under 18. What a blessing!
We use First Thessalonians as a guide in saying directly to you, "We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember you before our God... We know that God has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction."
But Thessalonians also talks about work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope. I understand those words as a member of a church that knows what it is like to feel powerless to change a bad situation and to need God's help in order to gain endurance to continue on in the work and labor of bringing one child back to a place of hope, love, and security.
When any of us tries to wrap our minds around the numbers we are learning today--that there are 12.9 million children living in poverty and that the number of those living in extreme poverty is rapidly growing--we definitely need that same source of strength that helped the brothers and sisters at Immanuel in order to take action. When we hear that every 35 seconds a child is neglected or abused, when we hear that a child is born into poverty every 36 seconds, and a child is born without health insurance every 42 seconds, we wonder if we have enough time to catch up with those statistics. These numbers are terrifying. They make us want to freeze or look away. We ask, how can I do anything about such a big problem? How can our church take action that will actually affect this situation?
But we as Christians are called to care about these issues and we are reminded again and again in Scripture that God promises to give us the strength to live out a faith that desires exactly this type of justice for children.
Today, Many of you have been learning about what it means to be doers of the word not merely hearers. These are words from the Epistle of James, which come to us from another one of the earliest Christian churches. James stresses the importance of care for the widow and orphan, care for the helpless in society, as foundational to our Christian faith and our identity as a church.
Paul tells us that caring for the widows and orphans was the one thing the church in Jerusalem asked him to remember to do in his mission to the Gentiles, and he says in Galatians " This was the very thing I was eager to do" (Gal. 2:10).
In the year 2005 in the United States of America, in Hawa'i, on O'ahu, and in Honolulu, how eager are we to help the widow and orphan? Are we doing our part or could we do more to live out an active faith, seeking justice, inspired by the love of Christ for each of us?
In recent months we have seen children around the world suffer in tsunamis, and in earthquakes, and in acts of violence and war. And in the United States we have witnessed a hurricane and flood in the Gulf that not only destroyed cities and towns, but destroyed the façade that protected us from seeing the poverty we have allowed to grow and live like a cancer amidst our neighbors, our fellow children of God. We've seen mothers hold babies on the verge of death to cameras, calling out for justice, in our time, and in our rich nation. We've also seen the elderly left on their own to die on the street.
Cameras went to New Orleans to cover the effects of a natural disaster, but they found the overlooked unnatural disaster of poverty in America that is growing into a terrible force. The cameras told the story of an underclass in our country living without proper health care, without money, and redlined into communities with little hope--full of people who are still struggling to pursue happiness in this nation, often because of the circumstance of the race and economic class they were born into.
For many of us it probably opened our eyes to the problem of poverty in a new way. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and that can be seen here on O'ahu as well. Poverty is a local problem, it's a national problem, and it's a global problem. But it's also Christian problem.
Jesus didn't just "call our attention to" the impoverished around him he called his followers to take action and to seek justice for the poor, for the widow and orphan. All around us there are families that are just barely getting by and children that are forced to live with the burden of that poverty. Helping those in need around us is not about charity, it's about living out the dignity of God's loving claim on our life and our neighbors, and that's a part of our Christian identity.
We remember that Jesus is the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, like Christopher, the same way you and I have been sought out when we were lost, and Jesus teaches us the value of every human life is great enough that he died for each of us. How will we respond to this grace knowing that God cares that much for every child that is suffering?
We could be overwhelmed by the problems of poverty in our nation. None of us wants to witness the effects of poverty on the smallest victims; it is a scary place to go. But our faith calls us to go there, and God promises to give us strength to help the helpless, and he tells us that he will not leave us orphaned here in the world that is full of such struggles. The Spirit he sent to comfort us is full of real power to do God's work even when we sometimes feel powerless to effect change on our own. And that is the heart of the Christian community we call the church. The community we are all a part of.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus, our Lord!
Copyright © 2005 Joshua Graber
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