A sermon preached Sunday, October 14, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church. Some illustrations were provided in a Children’s Sabbath resource provided by United Methodist Family Services.
Scripture readings: Job 23:1-9; 16-17 and Mark 10:17-27
It was a Sunday morning, but something seemed different. As Erin drove to church, she noticed that the roads were more crowded than they normally were. And then she saw it. Instead of an abandoned parking lot at the Toys-R-Us like it was every other Sunday morning, the parking lot was full!
It looked like hundreds of children and their parents wrapped around the building and lined up in anticipation of something – a new Elmo toy, perhaps. Erin couldn’t help but think, “WOW.” All of these families lined up outside of a toy store just to get the newest toy.
As I reflected on Erin’s experience, I found myself thinking of all the children in our community who will never have that experience. Children who struggle to get by each day and who don’t know what the next day will bring. These children are not lined up outside of a Toys-R-Us waiting to take advantage of a sale or release of a new toy on a Sunday morning.
Take Renee for example. Renee is a client at United Methodist Family Services and she doesn’t consider herself anyone’s child. She is a ward of the state. Renee’s biological mother was 17 when Renee was born and living in poverty. Her troubled life involved convictions for theft, cocaine possession, and carrying a concealed weapon. After her mother was arrested for forgery, 7-year-old Renee was scooped up by a social worker and placed in the foster care system. Renee is not waiting outside Toys-R-Us to buy the latest and greatest toy on sale.
Renee is waiting for a forever family who will love and care for her.
Erin’s experience at Toys-R-Us and Renee’s story leaves me wondering, what is it that we the church are seeking for children? Are we seeking and pursuing justice and love for all children? Or are we focusing so much on teaching what we think Christians should believe while neglecting to show how Christians should live by actively pursuing justice?
Job doesn’t quite ask it this way in our Old Testament reading this morning, but he gets there. Job is the Biblical example of what it means to suffer. God and Satan set a bet on the table to see if Job would curse God or not if Job was no longer under God’s protection. God removes his protection from Job and Job loses everything. He loses the family farm, his children die, his wife leaves him because she can’t handle it anymore. His friends try to help, but all they offer are ways in which Job caused this suffering on himself. The verses we read this morning are often looked at by scholars as Job’s complaint to God. Complaint often has a negative tone to it. But challenge your thinking on that. Job is complaining because there is no sense of justice. Job feels that it is not right that he should suffer in the ways in which he has suffered.
Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian author and speaker, who defines himself as an “ordinary radical,” describes his own experience as a youth growing up in the United Methodist Church this way:
I began to wonder if anybody still believed Jesus meant the things he said. Jesus was crazy enough to suggest that if you want to become the greatest, you should become the least. Jesus declared God’s blessing on the poor rather than the rich and insisted it wasn’t enough to love just your friends. I thought that if we really lived like Jesus taught, it would turn the world upside down and that it was a shame Christians had become so normal. I learned in Confirmation class about the fiery beginnings of the Methodist Church, but where had the fire gone? I learned about John Wesley who said that if they didn’t kick him out of town after he spoke, he wondered if he had really preached the Gospel. Then I watched as the congregation built a $120,000 stained glass window. Wesley would not have been happy. I stared at that window. I longed for Jesus to break out of it, to free himself, to come to rise from the dead . . .again.
Claiborne’s words remind me of the story of two old men talking to each other and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to know why God allows such injustices, poverty, suffering, and hunger to exist in the world. His friend says, “Well, why don’t you ask God?” The fellow shakes his head and says he is scared too. When his friend asks him why, he answers, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”
It is quite possible that the rich man in Mark’s gospel today could have felt the same way that this old man did. The rich man comes to Jesus inquiring what he must DO to inherit eternal life. For Mark, eternal life is a synonym for the Kingdom of God. He uses the two terms interchangeably. In Jesus’ time it was widely believed that the rich were more likely to inherit the Kingdom of God. Their wealth was something that they had worked hard to accumulate over time or they had inherited. The rich man was most likely used to doing something in order to inherit great wealth (aka the Kingdom of God).
Jesus’ response is enough to jar us as it exposes the shakiness that is the bridge between the have’s and the have-not’s. Jesus flips the understanding of what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God.
Remember last week when we read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples were trying to keep the children away from Jesus? Jesus said, “Let them come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to ones such as these.” Remember how Edwin told us a few times that in Jesus’ day, children were expected to not be seen and not be heard. They had no social status what so ever. They were the least of these. And Jesus says that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus has flipped the understanding of how to enter the Kingdom. He does the same this week, with the rich man.
Jesus calls the rich man to give up all of his possessions and follow Him. The man, as Lamar Williamson, points out, was mostly awe-struck, astonished at what Jesus was asking of him. And the man walked away.
This is the part of the story where we usually yell out like we were watching our favorite TV show, “Dude, what are you doing?? You’re walking away from Jesus??” In Mark’s gospel this is the only time someone is called to follow Jesus and does not immediately do so. But, as Megan, who is also preaching on this text today, pointed out to me, we don’t know what the man does when he leaves. Maybe he was disappointed. Maybe he was angry and bitter. We really don’t know, Mark does not tell us, that’s another story for another book for another day. The question it raises for us is, where are we walking? Where are we going when Jesus calls us?
Today is Children’s Sabbath which is sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund who works tirelessly to ensure every child is healthy, is educated, and has an equal start. They challenge faith communities, like this one, to transform our communities and our nation as they defend and care for the youngest, weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable. The least of these.
So, while we are here in this beautiful place of worship and not in line at the Toys-R-Us, we must tackle some tough questions. Are we engaging in our Christian education in spiritual disciplines that lead to the practice of risk-taking mission and deep authentic community to seek justice for all children? Are we engaging people in our ministries in leadership to equip them to be the change they wish to see in the world? As we consider the millions of children in our own country who live in poverty, who are homeless, abused, neglected, without health insurance, or who are hungry, we must think about how we can be the body, the hands, and the feet of Christ for these children to work for – to pursue – justice on their behalf.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel knew something about pursuing justice. He said once, after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, “It felt as if my feet were praying.” Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King were walking with purpose and intent. To pursue is to hold purpose, there is nothing accidental or incidental about what we are doing. Rabbi Heschel would write, “The term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice”; in other words, justice is something we actively pursue. We don’t just sit back and say oh, that’s a great idea. The talk the talk and we walk the walk.
When a child is in absolute jeopardy, mortal danger, we put out an Amber Alert – we tell the whole community that we are in pursuit of the child and the one who is endangering that child, it is a time of utmost urgency and everyone has to get involved, everyone is expected to be aware, to look out for the child, to do what they can to help rescue the child in danger.
Brothers and sisters, this is our Amber Alert. We as a community of faith, as ones who follow the Christ, need to be on the lookout for children in danger, we need to be in pursuit for safety, to see that justice is done. In an Amber Alert, we get all kinds of information about the child, including their face, name, and story plastered everywhere!
There are countless faces of children lining up, not at Toys-R-Us, but at soup kitchens and other churches and agencies to get one hot meal or one box of food or for the lucky chance of getting to see a doctor at the free clinic. They are lining up all over Africa, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Dominic Republic, Washington D. C., and Lynchburg, Virginia.
We most likely will not get to see the faces of the 16.4 million children in this country who live in poverty, or the millions without needed health care, or the countless faces of children who go to bed hungry. We most likely won’t see the faces of the 5, 367 children and youth who are in foster care in Virginia and the 1, 372 who are waiting to be adopted by a forever family.
But some of us will. 25% of the population in Lynchburg is made up of children living below the poverty level. It is easy to look out and not see, but chances are with 25% of the population being children below the poverty level, we’ve met them. We’ve see them somewhere. How are we going to respond? Are we going to walk away?
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was, and he answered two-fold: “Love God. Love each other.” We are called to love our neighbors are ourselves. We are called to love our enemies. We are called to love all people. And because we love, we pursue justice. When we pursue justice we are showing others our love.
We can rest assured that the faces we don’t see, God does. God knows each of their names, each of their faces, and each of their stories, just as God knows each of ours. And God has called us to go in pursuit of justice and love on their behalf – the nameless/faceless children of our community and our world. I challenge you this week to consider how God is calling you to be in ministry with children and youth whether that is here at Peakland or in our community of Lynchburg, or beyond. How is God calling you and how fast are you willing to go?