How To Neighbor - Week 3: "Orphans Embraced"

This week we are continuing our sermon series entitled "How To Neighbor"-- series focused on how we can enter into real relationships with our neighbors in need, and how to do good in those relationships.  

The world is becoming more and more connected--and even though we may not share a fence with our neighbors, we can still share in their burdens and joys... if we are willing to step outside of ourselves and learn what it means to truly be a neighbor.

We've explored how we can fulfill our calling to be true neighbors who empower the power, reconcile racism and now we're going to explore how we are called to embrace those who are orphans...

Did you know that human beings have what could be called an obsession with orphans--in literature and culture.   I recently read an ancient Algerian folktale entitled "The First Tears."
Once there was a child wandering about on the earth who was an orphan. He had neither father nor mother, and he was very sad. Nobody paid any attention to him, and nobody asked why he was sad. Though he was sad, the child did not know how to weep, for there were no tears yet in the world. 
When the moon saw the orphan child going about, he felt compassion: since it was night, the moon came down from heaven, lay down on the earth in front of the child and said, “Weep, orphan child! But do not let your tears fall on the earth, from which people get their food, for that would make the earth unclean. Let your tears fall on me. I shall take them with me back to the sky. 
The orphan child wept. Those were the first tears in the world, and they fell on the moon. The moon said: “I shall now give you the blessing that all people shall love you.” After the child had wept his heart out, the moon went back to the sky. From that day on the orphan child was happy. Everyone gave him whatever delighted and gladdened him. To this day people can see on the moon’s face the stains of the orphan child’s tears, which were the first tears in the world.
You probably have stories that are near and dear to your heart that have orphans as the hero.

What stories stand out for you?  For some of you, it might be Annie--the lovable redheaded tyke with the dog named Sandy.  Or Oliver, from Dickens' classic story Oliver Twist.

For you fans of Star Wars--you probably thought of Anakin Skywalker... and then for all intents and purposes Luke Skywalker.

Or perhaps the most famous character in the last fifty years or more--Harry Potter himself.

Why are we obsessed with these stories--of children who are essentially orphaned and then are miraculously delivered, who find belonging, family, connection and even destiny?

What are we confronting?  What are we ultimately afraid of?

Is it a fear of being left alone?  Of being abandoned when we are vulnerable?

Or is it something deeper?

Is it a fear that God has abandoned us?  Left us to figure this all out on our own?

Let's hold on to that for a moment.

Try as we might in our efforts to romanticize the idea of being orphaned---the reality isn't romantic at all.  In fact, the reality in our current culture is sobering at best and shocking at worst.

The Department of Health and Human Services reported that in 2016 there were on average 437,500 children in foster care on any given day.  Nearly 102,000 of those children were eligible for adoption.

I know.  Those are the kinds of numbers that freeze us in our tracks, aren't they?  We are immobilized by them because they are too vast for us to comprehend such need.  We don't even know what to do about such numbers, so we typically do nothing... at... all.

I mean, what can we do?  And are we really the people who are called to do something?  After all, we're a church, right?

Here's the problem for those of us who get frozen in place by the knowledge that there are 437,500 kids today at this moment who are in foster care in America.

For God--the Church has always been plan A when it comes to caring for orphans.  There is no plan B.  There is no outside committee to figure this out.  We can't defer our responsibility.  If we are part of the Church that means that we--you and I--are the committee.

The word orphan is mentioned 39 times in the Bible in 27 different passages and almost every single one of those mentions whether it's in the Old or the New Testament calls the people of God to faithfulness.

In Psalm 82:3-4 the Psalmist declares that God is the kind of God who will:
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Psalm 68:5-6 declares that God is:
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
6 God sets the lonely in families,[c]
    he leads out the prisoners with singing;
    but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

This is who God is, and the people of God--it's made clear in Scripture--are called to do what God does when it comes to those who are orphaned, weak and helpless.

In the book of James, the brother of Jesus declares that:
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Another translation of that passage reads, "True religion is this..."  True religion.

When it comes to caring for orphans God has called his people to task in every age and every time:

This is what I want.  You say you worship me?  You say you follow me through my Son, Jesus?  Then care for orphaned, the weak, the needy.

Because you were once orphaned.  You were once enslaved.  You were imprisoned.  And I set you free.  I gave you a family.  I lifted you up.  I became your parent--the one you cry out Abba, Father out to.  Remember who you were.  Know that my heart yearns for those who are lost.  I want them to know that they are not... alone.  

Think about this:

There are almost as many churches in the U.S. as there are children in foster care.

So what do we do--as the Church--to fulfill our role as "Plan A."

First, we need to begin by working to eliminate the reasons children are in these situations in the first place.  Much like we said last week when we said we need to change the road to Jericho...

It's like that old analogy of how you can keep on standing by the river trying to rescue people who are drowning or you can go upstream and try to find out why they are falling in the water.

The number one reason that kids are placed in foster care is that their parents become overwhelmed by their addiction to drugs.  There are also other reasons, abuse, generational poverty, hopelessness, crime... cycles that get repeated and passed from one generation to another.

And we can do something about this.  Our church chooses to focus on making a difference by affecting issues of education and homelessness through sustained relationships with mission partners, who are awesome at what they do.

Through our work with refugee services, Kids Hope, Manos de Cristo and other partners, we are taking action---but we could do more.  And we need more of you to get involved in order to do more.

Second, we need to support organizations who are on the front lines.  It's true that we can't take on that whole big number of kids in foster care all at once, but we can work with organizations with a bigger reach.

And listen... we have one of those organizations right down the street!  Presbyterian Children's Home and Services--literally has it's national offices... right down the street.  And the president of PCHAS is a member of our church!

Here's how you can get involved--right now:

You serve as a tutor or a mentor to a child.  You can provide childcare during parent training sessions.  You can help babysit or serve as a Respite Provider for foster parents, or provide meals for foster families. 

And if you're scared of all of that--you can serve as an assistant at the PCHAS office, help with mailings, do data entry and so much more. 

And that's only a small part of what you can do if you feel called to step into the gap. 

Finally, and this is a big one, you can decide to foster parent or adopt a child or children on your own.  If this is what you feel God is calling you to do, I have two promises for you:  It won't be easy.  But if you are called to it--it will be worth it.

My friends Marc and Tanya Naugler had four boys of their own, but they felt called to adopt kids who were at-risk and in foster care.  In the end, after a lot of prayers, they  adopted four African-American siblings--three girls and a boy--all of whome were essentially rescued from the worst kind of situation.

It has been incredibly hard for Marc and Tanya and their four boys to enter into this kind of sacrificial ministry.  But it's been worth it.

I asked Tanya what this experience has taught her about her identity in God.  And this is what she said:
So what have I learned about God or how He adopts us/loves us. For starters i look back at the guys of old, they were a bunch of stinkers. From Adam to the NT. I think, if God is patient with them and used them, than He is equally as patient with me and with the lils. Same is true for His love for me and them. That's been eye opening to me lately, how the OT is alive with drama and hurt and really poor choices, this is true of my life and my adopted kids, but I know God can use them in spite of it all. 
Sometimes, in reference to the "true neighbor" you spoke about in the text, i feel that i am learning that i make the choices daily to love them and be the "neighbor" God calls me to be. Even to them. There are so many days that the joy is gone, that the thing i want most is to simply JUST enjoy them, and it's so hard. But God is showing me that i am to love on them how i would a stranger, or a lonely person or a neighbor. Sounds silly but i talk to myself daily about how to go about loving/caring/inhabiting with these lils b/c they are crazy and they are so manipulative and its honestly, SO exhausting, i have to give myself pep talks all the time. 
God often reminds me that He chose THESE 4 for us. He did this union. I didn't, Marc didn't. Sometimes i wonder if i'm going to make it but then i remember God did this. God doesn't make mistakes. God is faithful. God knows the end of the story so i can rest in that. 

Here's why all of this talk of caring for orphans matters to me.

My dad was adopted as a baby.

He was put up for adoption by his birth mother, who was overwhelmed and hopeless.  He was one of the dozens of babies in an orphanage in Denver when my grandparents walked in.

My grandparents had been planning to adopt and had gone through the process to make that happen, but the night before they met my father, my grandmother had a dream that their baby was at the orphanage.  She convinced my grandfather to drive them the 200-plus miles to Denver and they went into the nursery where all of the babies were. 

My dad was crying and pitching a fit, and my grandfather walked over to him and peered down into his crib.  And my dad immediately stopped crying and smiled. 

I am standing here because of that moment.


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