Children's Sabbath

Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 12, 2006
at Church of the Transfiguration, Palos Park
Proper 27B

Late in June, Cheryl Ryniak and I began talking about holding a Children's Sabbath at Transfiguration as part of the nationwide celebration supported by The Children's Defense Fund. Congregations, synagogues and mosques around the country engage in prayer, education and service to learn more about problems facing children and poor families. Our 2006 General Convention, last June, passed a resolution to make the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) a mission priority for the Episcopal Church. There are eight MDGs, but today we focus on just one - the achievement of universal primary education.

You have been hearing the voices of our young people in worship this morning. You have witnessed the creativity and spirituality of our confirmands who wrote this morning's Psalm. And, in a little while you will hear the voices of some of our young children as they sing our offertory anthem. Children are a beautiful and wonderful part of our worshipping community. And having them share their gifts on a Sunday morning is a great way to glorify God.

And yet, as I consider my joy in witnessing this vibrancy in worship, I recognize a tension, a feeling of discomfort. Because as we listen to our children's voices, their creativity, the song of our children, as beautiful and as wonderful as it all is, I become aware of another set of voices crying out in despair. Currently there are 100 million children out of school who, if nothing is done, will add their voices to the already 1 billion voices of adults who are illiterate. And today, we are largely deaf to their cries - we have become numb.

As I was preparing for this morning, I read report after report filled with statistics from around the globe which, after awhile, became, in and of themselves, numbing. My mind can only take in so many horrifying facts and figures before it can no longer comprehend. And so, I only want you to hear those two numbers: 100 million children out of school and 1 billion illiterate adults.

And here are some of the reasons why those numbers matter: (1) studies show that economic development is directly tied to adult literacy rates; (2) education demonstrably leads to more productive farming which, in turn, leads to a decline in malnutrition, hunger, and death from starvation; (3) and adequate health care - both for the prevention of illness and the treatment of illness - is linked closely with literacy. Educated mothers are more likely to immunize their children than mothers with no schooling. The likelihood of contracting HIV is much higher among young people who have not completed primary education; and women who are not educated are less likely to seek prenatal care, assisted childbirth, and postnatal care, thereby increasing the risk of maternal and child illness and mortality [source: UNESCO, Education for All: Global Monitoring Report 2006]. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, writes, "living in a world where death is so visible, so daily, so pervasive, and so massive, and yet so unnoticed. . . we have no adequate way to relate to death's reality and potential, so we deny it with numbness" [source: The Prophetic Imagination, 2ND edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 43].

100 million children out of school and 1 billion illiterate adults . . . and the numbness sets in.

The Old Testament reading is about scarcity and abundance. Elijah, at God's bidding, enters Zarephath and requests some water and a morsel of bread from a widow. At first the widow very matter-of-factly explains, "I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." This is not the woman of the Stone Soup story I shared over the summer - not the story of a woman who would hold back what she has from a stranger to avoid the inconvenience of a house guest or weary traveller. No, this woman, the widow of Zarephath, is speaking her truth. She has enough to make a small meal for herself and for her son and then, because of their extreme poverty, they will, in all likelihood die. The widow of Zarephath knows a life of scarcity.

I do not know such a life and I find it challenging even to imagine such a life. And yet, time and time again we are called by storytellers and prophets in the Old Testament and by Jesus in the New to imagine just such a life. To see in new ways the impact our society has on many - the poorest of the poor in our congregation, in our backyard, and around the globe. But here is the challenge for us today. Most of us, myself included, cannot dare to see the world this way, cannot bear to see the world as it is, cannot endure the thought of children who cannot go to school or of young girls who are forbidden to go to school. We cannot or will not look at a world where families have no reason to worry about what college or university their child will go to because many of their children will die before they are five years of age. To be sure, we catch glimpses of these realities in the news, but we cannot bear to look for long. And, in not looking, the numbness becomes more pervasive. And that numbness leads to forgetfulness and forgetfulness leads to indifference. Soon we are denying "the legitimacy of the [Judaeo-Christian] tradition that requires us to remember, [the legitimacy] of authority that expects us to answer, and [the legitimacy] of community that calls us to care" [source: Brueggemann, p. 37].

What might we find if we dare to remember, dare to answer, and dare to care? The answer, my brothers and sisters, can be summed up in one word: Passion. Remembering, answering, caring lead us to passion which is the "capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel" [source: Brueggemann, p. 35] - and each of these are enemies of the numbness.

As a gathered worshipping community, I believe we come nearest this place of passionate remembering in the prayers of the people. And yet, even here, I am reminded of the Roman Catholic ethicist, Kelly S. Johnson who wrote:
Week after week, we plead God to grant us faithfulness for the Church; wise leaders; peace throughout the world; an end to cruelty and injustice; healing for those who are sick and relief for the poor. Then the service moves on, and no one is tempted to look out of the window to see if the world has changed [source: "Praying: Poverty," The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Hauerwas and Wells, p. 225].
Are we so numb that we no longer believe that our prayers make any difference to God or tot he world?

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an Indigo Girls concert at the Vic in Chicago. As they finished their last song, we all stood up, applauded loudly, whistled, and cheered. We did this because their performance was awesome and because we hoped they would provide an encore. And, we got it. What's more, the Indigo Girls had planned for it - they knew we'd want more and they came out and delivered. This was not arrogance on their part - no, it was part of the performance. Each of us has a role - ours was to applaud and ask for more and theirs was to perform for us yet again.

Can you imagine the Prayers of the People as our call for more? The scripture that we hear proclaimed in the first half of our worship together each Sunday tells of God's marvelous work in the world - the sick are healed, the prisoners are freed, the good news is proclaimed, and salvation is brought to the world. Then, we respond with the Prayers of the People - our invitation to God for more - more healing, more freeing, more good news, more salvation. And then, just when we might see the performance of our live, we close our eyes, afraid even to imagine that god might just deliver. Afraid to remember that we, the gathered community, are ourselves the very body of Christ called to deliver. Afraid to imagine the world actually changed by our prayer. And, in this way, the prayers fall short. Johnson describes our behavior as doing "intercession from a safe distance" [source: Johnson, p. 231].

Elijah tells the widow at Zarephath, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. She went and did as Elijah said. . . "[and] the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah." Elijah's proclamation of good news to the widow at Zarephath was not given from a distance. He was present with her. He ate wither her. And, most importantly, he believed with her that God's promise of abundance would, in fact, come to fruition in her life which before then had only known scarcity.

Two numbers: 100 million children out of school; 1 billion illiterate adults. Dare we go further, dare we enter the world of our prayers - the lives of those for whom we pray? Dare we imagine that our prayers might actually change the world? Look out the window! Expect God's encore!


Julie said…
Are you the Debra that once attended st. luke's? I'm still going there (you know me -- I have gray hair, a partner, 2 kids...). I heard the Indigo Girls at the Vic too. That's how I came upon your entry. Whether you are the Debra I know or not, I wish you peace! Cheers,JEK
Debra said…
Yes, I am "that" Debra. . . actually, I kept an eye out for you that night because I remembered what a big fan you are! Didn't see you though. . .

Glad you found my blog. . . Peace to you and your family!