Mission Festival Message

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Combined worship of Immanuel and St. Paul's Lutheran Churches, Glenvil, NE - October 28, 2007

I want to start by reading a portion of a story that was published by BBC last week.  The title of the story is “Bolivia’s Abandoned Children”

There are telephone shops all over Bolivia, places where people - often too poor to have a phone of their own - go to make their calls.  They are full of rickety plastic booths and are abuzz with the sound of locals calling long distance.  Frequently, they are calling the people who clean houses, look after other people's children, pick fruit, and work on construction sites in countries like Spain, Italy, Argentina and Britain.  These migrant workers are the fathers or mothers of youngsters like Carlita.  Her mother left their home in Santa Cruz a year ago and now works as a domestic servant in Madrid.  "She is going to send for me as soon as I turn 18," Carlita says as she leads me towards her home along a dusty path where bin liners blow in the warm breeze.  Carlita, who is 17, seems a typical teenage girl with a shy, awkward smile.  But her childhood ended some time ago.  Until recently, she lived with her grandmother and aunt who promised to take care of her.  But it seems what they cared for most was the cash her mother sent from Spain each month.  Carlita felt ignored, began to fight with her aunt, and before long the rows became violent.  When Carlita telephoned her mother to tell her she wanted to leave, her aunt feared the remittances would be lost.  Her reaction was to beat Carlita until she was black and blue, and could hardly move.  "She used a belt," Carlita tells me, glancing towards the psychologist who is here to check on her progress and is sitting in on our interview.  "I do not know where I found the strength to defend myself, because I did defend myself.  "But I know that if I had been younger and smaller, I would not have been able to put up a fight," she says.  Carlita now sleeps on the floor in another aunt's ramshackle house.  There are 17 children staying here, many of whom have a parent working abroad or in another part of Bolivia.

This is a story that is far too familiar for us.  It is a story very similar to that of many street children.  Most children living on the streets also had a childhood that ended long ago.  In some cases, the mother works out on the street selling goods all day every day.  The child is around the street culture and eventually finds friends there, starts drugs, and becomes attracted to that life. For most of them there were problems in their family, mom and dad broke up, and then a new stepparent moved in.  Before long, the new stepparent becomes physically and/or sexually abusive to the child.  Eventually the child tells their parent.  Their parent does not believe them, the abuse continues, and the child runs away.  In other cases, the child lives with a family that simply cannot afford to care for them.  Sometimes this is due to having a large family, but mostly it is just due to poverty.  Since the parent cannot care for their child, they find a relative to care for them, much like Carlita in the story from the BBC.  Some children have a mother who is a prostitute.  They are left to fend for themselves for the day while their mother works.

Most people around the world think that children go to the streets to get out of doing homework or chores at home.  Most people call them rodents, scum, or trash.  The kids on the street are beaten and raped by police, other adults on the streets, and other adults in the city.  Children do not choose to go to the streets to find an “easier life.”  Children are abandoned to the streets.  They are abandoned by their family, by society, and by the church.

We live in a world that allows 200 million children to live on the streets.  I am not talking about kids who might stay one or two nights on the street, I am talking about kids who live on the streets on a daily basis for years.  These are kids, starting as early as infancy, whose only family and only option for sleeping is on the streets.  Life on the streets is dangerous, dirty, and undignified.  From our surveys in La Paz, we know that almost 90% of all street children report physical abuse, 20% of these children have been abused sexually.  During our time in La Paz, we found that nearly 10% of children living on the street die in any given year.  Some die from suicide, others die at the hand of other street people, some die accidentally.  Nevertheless, children die on the street every day.  The church allows this to happen.

There are children that live on the streets in every major city in the world.  We allow children to live in these conditions, but Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God belongs to these very children.  God also tells us that all people are created in God’s image, and are declared as something good.  Children who are valuable in God’s eyes are allowed to die on the streets of our world.  We are discarding what God values.  Jesus also tells us to take care of the poor.  Jesus healed the sick, fed the poor, gave dignity to all people, and gave His life for them.  In John 20:21, he tells us that we are to do as he did.  In Galatians Paul says that the apostles in Jerusalem only asked one thing of him as he started his mission among the Gentiles, that he “remember the poor.”

The love that Jesus talked about is lived out every day in La Paz.  There are people that love and care for these children like their own, and together they start new lives and new families.  At the Bolivian Street Children Project, our main goal is to demonstrate to each of these children their worth through treating them with dignity and respect.  We spend time with children on the street playing soccer, doing devotionals, and just hanging out.  We consider the children living on the streets as our friends, and we treat them as though they are our own children.  We are there to share moments of sadness when someone on the streets die, and we have been there to share times of excitement as children leave the streets and start new lives.
Most of the children we work with have spent over half of their lives on the streets.  The only thing they know is the streets.  Their friends and family are other street children.  They have found ways to make money, to get clothes, and to have some food to eat.  They might live in shacks made of tarps, they may be beaten or raped, but they go through life together.  They have created their own family on the street with other abandoned children.  Most of them have left the streets many times only to be put in a home where they are abused and neglected.  They eventually return to the streets.  We can easily think of many good reasons for kids to leave the streets.  For them, the streets are all they have and all they know.  They can only think of reasons stay in the streets.  More than anything, the streets are a known quantity for them.  They know what works, they know who to trust and who not to trust, and they know how to get through life day after day.

Yet when we spend time with them, demonstrate a new kind of love to them, and walk with them they begin to trust us.  When we tell them they are valuable children of God, and they are able to see and experience what they mean to us, they get it.  These children make a leap of faith, leaving everything they know to be true, everything they know that “works”, to come live in a new home.

It demonstrates an incredible faith when children decide to make this transition from living in the streets with their friends to living in a house with strangers.  When the child walks into our home, they are greeted with loving and open arms.  The children in the home run up to them, give them a hug, and welcome them.  Often knowing the new child, they start to tell them about all of the fun things they will do together in the home.  Then our staff counselor takes them and gives them a tour of the house.  “This is your bed,” he will say.  “This is going to be your room, these are going to be your brothers, and this is going to be your family.”  Our home is not an orphanage, and the children never call it that.  They call it their home, and they call the staff their parents.  I will never forget the story I heard one day when a group of our kids starting going to public school for the first time in years.  The teacher in their classroom asked the kids “from the home” to stand up so everyone would know who they are.  One of our boys, Grover, stood up and said, “I am not from a home.  I have a mom and a dad and we live in a house together as a family.”  He sat back down.  The teacher later apologized for singling out our children.

All of the boys in our homes follow a schedule.  They all wake up in the morning, fix their beds, get dressed and come to the breakfast table.  They sit together, share a devotional, pray and then eat.  Their day is filled with activities – they spend their morning in private tutoring, they have a recess break that usually means they play soccer, they have lunch, and they go to public school.  They come home at night, share dinner together, another devotional and then finish their homework before going to bed.  The boys have a life filled with activities.  Sometimes they complain, but most of the time they enjoy it.  Activities like these breathe life into their daily routine and these boys usually enjoy every moment of it.

It is incredibly relevant to talk about street children on Reformation Sunday.  Our lives are so much like theirs.  When it comes to God’s kingdom are we not just like these children?  We live now in our comfortable, regular, lives and God tells us that he has prepared something different for us.  We have our survival mechanisms.  We know what works, what we are comfortable with, what gets us through the day.  We prefer to live in the streets, the place we think has everything we need, rather than trust God’s calling into something new.  We prefer to live in a life that we know, one that gets us through the day.  Our routine that worked yesterday and we know will work tomorrow.  We exchange the glory of being in God’s presence for the rugged tarps of what is comfortable in our everyday life.

Just like children don’t need to earn a place in our home, we have done nothing to deserve God’s grace – it is freely given to us.  God comes to us, he befriends us, and he asks us to dwell in His grace.  Nothing we do earns us a place in God’s grace, and nothing we do expels us from it.  It is God, through Jesus Christ, who redeems us and makes a place for us.
Our faith life is like the lives of these children in the home.  The boys could sit idly through the day – not doing homework, not participating with the other boys, just waking up and going through the motions each day of their life.  But what kind of life would this lead to?  Is a boy who just idles through life going to have the rich experiences that our sorrows and joys of life bring?  While it might seem like work at the time, the chores we do, the homework we do, the activities we do all bring rich blessings into our lives.  They help form us as a person, they help to form our vocation, and give us meaning and purpose each day.

How much more does putting our faith into practice breathe life into our faith?  Many of you know that Luther was opposed to “good works”, those things done to earn your salvation.  What many might not know is how vitally important Luther thought works of faith, those things done in response to God’s grace, were to our faith life.  Luther would completely agree with James 2:26 that says “faith without works is dead.”  For Luther, good works were a necessary consequence of our salvation.  Luther believed that – good works are a necessary consequence, not a cause, of our salvation.  Luther even goes further, explaining that justification, our salvation, is effective without works, but faith is not.  Luther says, “We say that justification is effective without works, not that faith is effective without works.  For faith, which lacks fruit is not an effective but a useless faith.  It is one thing that faith justifies without works; it is another thing that faith exists without works.”  For Luther, faith without works simply does not exist.

Luther uses the analogy of a fruit tree.  A good fruit tree, Luther said, must bear fruit.  The fruit, only shows whether the tree is a good fruit true or not.  The tree cannot be a good fruit tree without producing fruit, but the fruit does not cause the tree to be a fruit tree.  In other words, seeing an apple on a tree tells you that the tree is an apple tree.  Hanging an apple on a maple tree, however, does not turn the maple tree into an apple tree.

I find it helpful to think about our breathing.  Who here can exist without breathing?  Nobody can exist without breathing – we must breathe to be who we are.  Our breath gives us life.  But does breathing make you who you are?  No.  We need to breathe to exist as who we are, but breathing does not make us who we are.  It is the same way with our faith.  Good works do not make us faithful, but good works are a fruit of our faith and breathes life into our faith.  Good works are the natural demonstration of the faith that we have through the grace of Jesus Christ.  Good works do not cause faith to exist, but faith does not exist without good works.

What then, do we do with our lives?  We are stuck here on the streets, living in our comfortable shacks of daily life.  But God is calling us to something greater – God is calling us to a life of faithfulness.  One thing we know that Jesus teaches us is that, “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.”
Stepping out in faith is always uncomfortable; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it in faith.  The children we worked with on the street were uncomfortable leaving the streets, but they hoped for something better.  We are stuck in the same situation.  Leaving our normal routine is uncomfortable and unnerving for us, but we hope for something better through God’s grace.  When the children left the street, they left it for good.  Sure, they had their challenges, but they kept striving for a new and better life.  When they left the streets they didn’t just leave the streets for Sunday, and then go back to live on the streets during the week – they left for good.  When they walked into our home, they entrusted us with their treasures believing that we would care for them and provide what they needed.

God asks the same of us.  When we become a part of God’s family through the grace of Jesus Christ God asks us to hand over our treasure to him.  It should feel uncomfortable to us, because it is an act of faith – trusting in something we cannot see or understand.  Just as the children hand over everything to the staff as they come into the home and trust that we will provide for them, so we hand our lives and the treasures of our lives over to Christ, trusting that he will provide for us.
In Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz he tells a story of a friend who talked to him about what it meant to believe in God’s grace.  Donald writes, “Andrew would say that dying for something is easy.  Living for something is the hard thing.  We live for what we believe.  If Andrew is right, if I live what I believe, then I don’t believe very many noble things.  My life testifies that the first thing I believe in is that I am the most important person in the world.  My life testifies to this because I care more about my food and shelter and happiness than about anybody else.”

What does our life testify too?  Where and to whom do we entrust our lives and the treasures of our lives?  It is time we start living our lives for Christ, trusting and serving him with the treasures of our money, our time and our talents.  We need to breathe life into our faith through serving others in response to the grace that God has given us.  Let’s put behind the rugged tarps of our old life as we now belong to the family of God.  Let us hand over the burden of our treasures to God, trust in His grace, and embrace all that it means to be a part of God’s Kingdom.