A Children’s Sabbath

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
October 21, 2012 Deuteronomy 11:18-21/Mark 10:13-16

We are doing something a bit different this morning. On most Sundays, we are guided by a set of scripture readings, and the hymns and choral music and prayers and sermon flow from them. This morning, we will be guided by scripture, but the theme itself has already been suggested. Children.

Congregations across the country are participating in something called “A Children’s Sabbath.” At 8:00 this morning, many of us from our ten congregation consortium, Urban Presbyterians Together, gathered on the steps of the Rochester School Board offices to pray for children in a non-partisan way, and for those who teach them, care for them, advocate for them. The UPT congregations will all share a common liturgy this morning as well.

Rarely do I chose a theme and then preach on it. Usually, a theme emerges from the Sunday morning Bible passages. This topic, though, children, seems worth it. This topic, children, seems more than worth it. We have an extraordinary opportunity in this place to connect what we offer for the children of the church – Sunday school, Qabats, youth and other offerings, with what we offer to the community in which we find ourselves, tutoring at Schools 3 and 35, the Corner Place, RAIHN, and much more. We have the opportunity and the gift and the challenge to link children everywhere so that children everywhere become our children, primarily because they are God’s children.

God commands us to care for them. Jesus insists to us that God’s kingdom is like children, and that children have a central role, pride of place, in God’s vision and God’s hopes for creation. “A Children's Sabbath” therefore is not simply a day or a weekend of worship reminding; it is the reminder that a Sabbath for children would provide a healthy and caring environment, freedom from want – from hunger or warfare or abuse, and all the love and compassion we grown-ups can summon in a world that so often abuses or neglects.

What we can do is consider a series of snapshots, images and ideas that will link together political and cultural realities with the hopes of our faith. What we can do is become agitated, perhaps, or inspired, or compelled to action.

The Children’s Defense Fund reminds us that children are the poorest group of Americans. Poverty, caused in many ways by racism and racial disparity, and poverty’s offspring – poor schools, incarceration, drug use, urban violence, funnels millions of poor children and adults of color into dead-end, powerless, and hopeless lives. Poverty afflicts 16.4 million children, many hungry and homeless, in the richest nation on earth. “We must communicate and organize more effectively, go beyond our current comfort and courage zones,” the Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman says, “and do whatever is necessary to protect children.”

We stand in a moment, and are presented with an opportunity, that casts two visions. One is sobering, troubling and discouraging; one is hopeful. According to the Children’s Defense Fund:

>Every second and a half during the school year a public school student receives an out-of-school suspension.

> Every 8 seconds during the school year a public high school student drops out.

> Every 17 seconds a child is arrested.

> Every 29 seconds a child is born into poverty.

> Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected.

> Every 67 seconds a baby is born without health insurance.

> Every 85 seconds a baby is born to a teen mother.

> Every 2 minutes a baby is born at low birth weight.

> Every 3 minutes a child is arrested for a drug offense.

> Every 6 minutes a child is arrested for a violent offense.

> Every 21 minutes a baby dies before his or her first birthday.

> Every hour and a half a child dies from an accident.

> Every 3 hours a child is killed by a firearm.

> Every 5-and-a-half hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect.

> Every 8 hours a child commits suicide.

> Every 10 hours a baby’s mother dies due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth.

We are grieved by these facts and figures. Are we also outraged by them? Yet we cannot, for Christ’s sake, for children's sake, be immobilized by them.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we are reminded that children hold a special place in God’s heart, and in the heart of the community of faith. “Teach your children” is not just a song from the 1960’s, but from the earliest moments of our Hebrew tradition. Teach your children. Care for them. Nurture them, so that they and we may have a future.

It would be easy and perhaps convenient to conclude that that means only the children within the faith community, our children. But faith will have none of that. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets call us out to care for, to protect, the widows and the children and the orphans, regardless of their location in society or the faith community.

In the first century culture in which Jesus ministered, children were an afterthought. Seen but not heard was the operating principle, and if they were seen at all they were lucky. That makes it all the more extraordinary when Jesus rebuked his disciples when they prevented children from coming to him. He was indignant. Let them come, he said. Let them come. The kingdom of God belongs to them. Not the grown-ups, not the adults. Not the powerful or rich. The children.

Where does that leave us? The Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral writes this: “We are guilty of many faults and errors,/but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life./Many things we need can wait./The child cannot./Right now is the time her bones are being formed,/his blood is being made and his senses are being developed./To [the child] we cannot answer “Tomorrow.”/[The child’s] name is “Today.”

Where does that leave us? Celeste Rossetto Dickey writes: “Rushing to school, their faces red and expectant,/Dancing and smiling through the classroom doors,/Hopeful for another day, another chance/To live, to grow, to learn./Many come from loving families,/Eager for new adventures./For others, school is a welcome change,/A haven from chaos and fear./A few come in anger and rage,/Daring another one to disappoint,/Afraid to try, to trust, to care/Their hatred masking years of hurt./How to reach you, little child,/How to touch your heart with peace,/How to remove the hurts ingrained,/How to give your spirit release./Our God, the answers lie with you./Let your love and wisdom flow through me./I place each precious one in your hands./Give me courage and strength to do your work.”

Where does that leave us? What is our work? I know that all in this congregation are not parents, or grandparents, or surrogate parents. Some of us are. A Children's Sabbath provides an opportunity to consider and renew all we do with and for our children. And how we support one another. It is not easy. It probably never was, but it certainly is not now. Cultural pressures on them, on us, pull us in all sorts of directions, claim our time and energy and focus.

How can we provide a Sabbath in this anti-Sabbath world? And how can we as a church family, we who have taken baptismal vows on behalf of the children of the church, give guidance and support. It’s about what happens at home, on the playing fields, in the classroom.

And it’s also about what happens here. How can we offer all of the support we possibly can to provide Sabbath for our children, all our children?

But it can’t stop there. Baptism vows, in my understanding, and our faith, as it has been passed to us, calls us to connect with and care for all of God’s children, but particularly the ones that the world neglects and abuses. So as daunting as the issues feel (poverty, education, crime, addiction), we are to become informed, and we are to act. Perhaps it would be through a program of this church – volunteer to tutor, show up at Cameron Community Ministries, read a book to a kid staying here during a RAIHN week. We can put you to work, to be sure.

Or perhaps you become involved in an effort in the city, or your own community. Perhaps you sign a letter like the one offered at coffee hour this morning, asking a politician to make decisions based on the welfare of children.

I don’t know what it is for you, but a Children's Sabbath calls us into the creative and powerful mix of prayer and giving of self and sharing of gifts and calling our city and culture to accountability for those who have no power and no voice, the ones whom Jesus said were in fact God’s kingdom.

Cellist and composer Pablo Casals wrote this: “Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe,/a moment that will never be again./And what do we teach our children?/We teach them that two and two make four,/and that Paris is the capital of France./When will we also teach them what they are?/We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are?/You are a marvel. You are unique./In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you./Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move./You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven./You have the capacity for anything./Yes, you are a marvel./And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel?/You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.”

Where does that leave us? Not without hope. Not without resources. Not without a vision. But rather a call to worship and a call to action, on behalf of our children, on behalf of the children of the church, on behalf of children everywhere – but particularly those in greatest need – to give them the Sabbath God hopes and intends for them, filled with light and laughter and love.

Let us pray. “Great God, guard the laughter of children. May they live the promises you give. Do not let us be so preoccupied with our purposes that we fail to hear their voices, or pay attention to their special vision of the truth; but keep us with them, ready to listen and to love, even as in Jesus Christ you have loved us, your grown-up, wayward children. Amen.”

(The Book of Common Worship)



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