Jeremiah 5:20-22a, 26-31; James 1:19-27
SETTING THE CONTEXT
One hundred years before the time of Jeremiah, God warned Judah through the prophet Isaiah about their corrupt ways including ignoring the plight of the orphan and widow. Through six kings Judah continued its practices. Even though King Josiah began to make reforms in the time of the prophet Jeremiah the Lord’s anger boiled over.
READ Jeremiah 5:20-22a, 26-31
The Bible is very clear about the call of people of faith and the treatment of orphans and other vulnerable people. I looked up the word orphans and counted 43 references in the Bible. Most of these references had to do with the treatment of orphans and most of the references included two other groups with orphans. Over and over the Bible talked about how widows, orphans and aliens should be treated. By the way alien didn’t mean someone from outer space, it referred to the foreigner, refugee, immigrant and no, there was no distinction made whether they were legal or illegal. I looked.
One group of passages made sure that there was food for these vulnerable people such as Deuteronomy 24:21 “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” Another group of passages made sure that these vulnerable people got a part of the tithes included in the religious festivals. Deuteronomy 14:28 says, “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites [those are the priests], because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns may come and eat their fill so that the Lord their God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” Another group of passages state that you shall not deprive them of justice. One of the things the prophets accuse Israel and then later Judah of doing is not defending the widow and orphan. It is very easy for the powerful to prey on such vulnerable people. As I read the Old Testament prophets, nations will be judged by how they treat or mistreat the most vulnerable.
I have read and known about these passages on orphans for many years, but I really haven’t seen much application for them in my life. In this country we aren’t confronted with many orphans. I’m sure there are orphans, but we have a social system that cares for them. It may not be a perfect system, but I have to say compared to what we have seen it is a humane and compassionate system. When we met our friend Pastor Surafel, an Associate Pastor at Central UMC in Phoenix who was born and raised in Ethiopia, we found out that not all countries operate like ours. In the United States, the government provides our safety net; in most if not all Africa, the extended family provides the safety net. If, as has happened in so many families, all the adults die off from AIDS, war or famine or the adults that are left are overwhelmed, the safety net is gone and the children are left to fend for themselves. What we cannot even imagine in this country happens, children, even children as young as 3 years old, are left alone on the streets to try and survive. Having spent my life sheltered from the plight of orphans, I have had my eyes opened to the thousands who stand just beyond our sight; this is what the Bible has been talking about.
In the Letter of James, he tells the scattered church people, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Eleven of our mission team took a side trip to Ethiopia so that we could be introduced to the work that Pastor Surafel and others have been doing in Ethiopia through a ministry called Hope Maranatha. Hope Maranatha ministers to street children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia through a Drop in Feeding Center and Emergency Shelter and an orphan program called Hope for the Hopeless. George and I have sponsored 2 orphans through Hope for the Hopeless for many years and we’ve wanted to go see it ourselves so we could really testify to it. Well now we have and I want you to know it was even better than we had thought or imagined.
We were met at the airport in Ethiopia by Pastor Surafel who flew from Phoenix to be our guide. Also at the airport was some of the local staff from Hope Maranatha and a group of the orphans who welcomed us to their country. The next day we started at the Drop in Feeding Center and Emergency Shelter. When they have the money for bread which they often do not have, they will feed any child who comes. If a child really wants to change they can stay in the shelter for up to 90 days where they will receive help to change. There is a social worker, a counselor, a pastor and a cook on staff. There are prayer services three times or more a day plus counseling, education, vocational training and more to help them turn from the bad habits that they learn on the streets to behaviors that will allow them to function in a foster family. Often they do not have enough money at this shelter for food so the children must choose whether to stay at the shelter and work on changing even if they’re hungry or go back into the streets to search for food. The children at this center looked to be older, preteen and teenaged street children. One of our first acts at the center was to worship together, the body of Christ of Hope Maranatha, the body of Christ from Prescott United Methodist Church and the street children. Holy Communion has never meant so much for I knew that Christ had drawn his body together from the east and the west to serve these children. As we extended the table to include these children I knew that being invited to Christ’s table was really something for them for they had probably been chased away from many doorsteps and gutters. I tore off huge chunks of bread knowing that they were probably very hungry even as I gave us small pieces. Folks this is the embodiment of the Good News of Jesus Christ in all its fullness, that all are welcome at the table. Rich and poor, young and old, American, Ethiopian, street child and orphan all welcome at the Heavenly Father’s table.
Next we saw land that we hope will one day be a self-sustaining orphanage for 1,000 children; that is the project we hope to help become an Advance Special in the United Methodist Church. Then we met all 107 orphans in the Hope for the Hopeless program. It was pretty wild. They were very excited to meet us. These children ranged in age from 3 to 18 and were mostly younger. They have or are needing sponsors. Sponsors are people like you and me who send $20 a month which pays for food, clothing, education, medical and other expenses for a child. The orphanage that your contributions rented for a year and the other orphanage serve as a transition home where the children stay for 3 months or so when they first come off the streets. They have to go through counseling and retraining before they can be placed with a family and the orphanage gives them and the staff time for this transition. After the transition the children are put with foster families. It is best if the children are brought up in a family where they are socialized and learn to function in a family. Now remember that there are no social services. So Hope Maranatha looks for a poor family (that’s not hard to do since the unemployment rate in Ethiopia is 70%) and they tell them that if they foster an orphan they will give them enough food not only for the orphan, but for the whole family. Now you have not only helped the orphan child, but you have helped an entire family survive. We went to the homes of three foster families and heard their stories. The blind woman George told you about last week not only fosters an orphan, but she is also in one of the prayer groups so she is tied into the community in a couple of ways. The Hope Maranatha staff stays in close contact with the families for quite a while to make sure everything is going well. The director knew each foster family we met; he knew their stories. He had detailed files on each child; so he knew each of their stories as well. Likewise this dedicated staff works for very little pay. These Christians are truly living as the early Christians did serving widows and orphans with very little means, sometimes facing persecution as they share the love of Jesus Christ, for Protestant Christianity is still persecuted in some places in Ethiopia. I promised Fekadu, the director, that I would pray for him and his staff regularly. I hope you will, too.
My one regret was we didn’t have more time with the children in smaller groups. They were so adorable and full of energy as children are and they all wanted to see us. I wanted more time with the children we sponsored. We literally only had 5 minutes with them just long enough to give them pictures of our family for them to keep. But it was enough, enough to know that the Biblical imperative is real, that orphans are real. It was a beginning. The thing that struck us too is that the difference in scale of money between Ethiopia and Kenya is big enough that an average American even a poor American can make a significant difference. The average wage of a laborer for a day’s work in Ethiopia is $1.12 that’s for a day’s work. Even $1 a week could buy bread for the drop in feeding center. The foster family’s rent is $5 per month. Our gifts that may seem insignificant here can make a big difference there and that will make a big difference to both the giver and to the gifted.
As we toured Ethiopia we saw the remains of what was once a great civilization. In the work of Hope Maranatha, we saw again the tenacity, the compassion and capability of people committed to Christ and committed to facing what seems like hopeless odds in helping thousands of street children. As we saw the desolation around us and the apparent indifference of the government it seemed to me the only chance Ethiopia stands is in Jesus Christ and this grass roots movement of his body, a body we are a part of. Because of Jesus Christ there is indeed Hope for the Hopeless. Amen.
Sermon delived by Rev. Nancy Cushman on July 16, 2006.
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