Text: Isaiah 25:1-9
What would you count among your best days? The day you got married. The day you landed your dream job. The day you completed your first half marathon. The first day of retirement. Or the day your child was born. Really, how would you describe your best days? For me, some of my very best days are when I have the privilege to hold a baby in my arms and walk them around this sanctuary introducing them to their faith community. My best days are when I walk into Wednesday night dinner and one of our Pullen children greets me with a spaghetti hug. My best days are when I get to pick up one of our Pullen children or youth and take them to get ice cream because they have a story they want to share with me. My best days are when I perform a wedding for a Pullen young adult whose second birthday party I attended years earlier. My best days are the Sunday mornings when I take 3 minutes to stop in on the 2 and 3 year-olds Sunday school class to say hello before heading upstairs to prepare for worship. My best days are when I march and engage in civil disobedience and went to jail for the welfare and well-being of our children.
Moving Forward with Hope: Love and Justice for Every Child is the theme for this year’s Children’s Sabbath. If ever I have felt the weight of interpreting a theme it is this one.
Moving Forward…Honestly, right now those two words feel like a joke. Every day in America feels like we are going backwards at lightening speed. Here in North Carolina it seems we are rolling back every advancement we have made in the last 50 years—from women’s rights to human rights to voting rights—all issues that sound very adult but have a profound impact on our children. The achievement gap between affluent and poor students in our nation’s schools is wider than ever. Threatened repeal of the Affordable Care Act and destruction of Medicaid will make the number of uninsured children soar. And children of color watch as tragedy after tragedy unfolds on the national stage without justice for black lives. As one of my friends explained recently, her 8 year-old son was afraid to drive through Baltimore because he feared the police in the wake of the Freddie Gray death in police custody. No, Moving Forward is not exactly the watchword for today, especially when it comes to addressing the problems our children are facing in America and in the world.
And what about “With Hope”…Someone once said “a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” I don’t know about you, but even hope seems complicated these days. I’m often left wondering, “What do I hope for?” Do I hope from some miraculous, even magic event to take place and get us out of the mess we are in as a country and world? Do I hope for some divine intervention? Do I hope by praying or marching or writing letters to my legislators? What do I hope for for our children? Do I hope that our leaders will wake up in the morning and realize that global warming is real and do something about it so that our children will have a planet to live on? Do I hope that our legislators will protect public education and make sure that every child has a right to a good quality education? Do I hope that somehow, someway we will, as the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world, make sure every child receives quality healthcare? What do I hope for and how do I hope? King said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” But I wonder when it comes to our children, must we accept finite disappointment?
As I searched for hope, I asked Ted Buckner, who grew up a Pullen kid and who is now an adult bringing his grandchildren to this church what it was like growing up a child at Pullen. Listen to his memories:
Our family joined Pullen when I was in middle school (called junior high in those days). 1974? 1975?
Wednesday nights were strictly a time for the youth to meet in the previous Finlator Hall. There was no adult program. We had a cook who made us hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks. Sunday school was on the third floor. I remember my parents going to the new Grope Group that was started. During church service, we sat either with each other somewhere or with our families. There was no youth balcony.
Youth retreats were often camping trips to state parks (thanks to youth leader Alan Eakes from the NC State Parks), including Stone Mountain and Hammock’s Beach at Bear Island. There was also a bike trip by the Pamlico River with a weekend stay at the Kimsey’s house. We were dropped off in Chocowinity and were to ride some 30 miles to Aurora and take the ferry across to our destination. We were under no instructions to stay together, so I rode alone straight through Aurora, later on hitching a ride back in the rain, treated to a hamburger and a round of pool until they could get a special ferry ride for me in the dark. Youth leaders had the sheriff department out looking for me.
Lemma Mackie directed the youth choir. We managed a trip to the Channel 11 studio, (in Durham in those days) to perform on a religious program called Curious Kaleidoscope.
For our children and youth, hope might just be a little closer to hand than we actually realize. As the guardians of their young lives, our job as parents and families and church and community is to create a container in which they can grow. A container that is first and foremost safe and loving, but that is also fun and challenging. For our children and youth, church doesn’t need to be a place where they come to be weighed down by the weight of the world, although it is our responsibility to teach them of the injustices in the world. No, for our children and youth, and for the children and youth in our larger community, this church simply needs to be a place where kids can come for a time “just for them.” We need to be that place where they can come and not be subjected to another adult program but can get a hamburger and maybe some fries and talk about what matters to them. We need to be that place where they can find friends who will accept them for who they are, a place where adults give of their time to mentor them and take them on camping trips and call the sheriff when they get lost, a place where they can learn about hunger by packing meals for the hungry, a place where they find direction with compassion and grace, not judgment and punishment, a place of belonging where grownups know their names. These are the ways we grow hope in our children and young people.
Love and Justice…Love is always justice seeking. Karen Sazani who grew up in this church as Karen Hall and is now raising her daughter Megan in this church also reflected on what it was like growing up at Pullen as a child. Listen to what Karen wrote.
Growing up in Pullen, I have had some amazing role models and mentors. As a child I felt loved and was treated with value. As a youth I knew this was not a place to passively sit and be preached at, but a place to be pushed and to question and to find my own way. Sometimes I felt overshadowed by a more outgoing older brother, and I still strive to live up to the example set by my mother, but Pullen has helped shape who I am and how I see others.
Those words have stayed with me. “I felt loved…I knew this was not a place to passively sit…but a place to be pushed and to question and to find my own way.” Love is always justice seeking, even for and especially for our children and youth. I hate to break the news to you adults, but our children and youth are asking the hard questions of what justice-love is all about, too.
Every Child…And here the challenge in this theme: How do we make a better America, a better world, that values each and every child, regardless of skin color, faith, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or immigration status? How do we remind political leaders with unwavering clarity that every child is sacred and that God did not make two classes of children?
Moving Forward with Hope: Love and Justice for Every Child – How do we the church truly began to put these words together so that they mean something? How do we shape hope and love and justice for our children such that we become a refuge and a shelter for them?
The prophet Isaiah wrote:
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and
a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was
like a winter rainstorm,
The noise of aliens like heat in a
You subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
I want for a moment to imagine Isaiah writing that text today. Might we imagine it to go something like this:
For you, Pullen Church, have been a refuge to the children,
a refuge to the young ones in their distress…
hunger, abuse, neglect, inaccessible and insufficient health care;
a shelter from the rainstorm of…
materialism, hyper-gendered stereotypes, gun violence, bullying;
a shade from the heat of…
suicide, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and disease.
When the blast of partisan politics was
like a winter rainstorm,
The noise of senseless lawmakers like heat in a
You Pullen Church were among the faithful
who provided a safe place for the children
from the bullying and the anxiety and the greed and the abuse.
You moved forward with hope and love and justice for every child.
Imagine that in the sacred text that future generations of God’s people will read, these are the words they will find. Imagine if we are that place for our children—a place of refuge and shelter.
We have to start here, with our children, moving forward with hope and love and justice—the kind that has feet and hands and voice. But we cannot, we must not stop here. We must unite our efforts, amplify our voices, and proclaim in word and action that there is hope for our future when we work for justice and care for every child. To the children living in this world, we have a moral obligation to their welfare and well-being. That means we fight for healthcare for all. That means we fight for quality education for every child. That means we guard against tax cuts that advantage the wealthy and give crumbs to low-and middle-income families, and protect important safety net programs while also advocating for needed increases in the living wage. That means that we curtail the proliferation of guns with common sense gun safety measures, and that we dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis that criminalizes Black and Brown children at alarming rates through zero tolerance discipline policies, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and more. These are the things that withhold hope and love and justice from our children.
Moving Forward with Hope: Love and Justice for Every Child. It will take work, hard work, with commitment and dedication and sacrifice to begin to put those words together so that they mean something for these times. But this we know, while we are at work doing our part, God is forever at work doing God’s part being that refuge and shelter in the rainstorm. And in that truth, there is great hope and love and justice for every child and every person.
May our best days before us be days when we move forward with body, mind, soul, and strength toward hope, love, and justice for every child.