Sunday Worship, May 17, 2020 “From Orphaned to Belonging”
Join us Sunday morning for Holy Trinity’s video service with Pastor Erik, “From Orphaned to Belonging.”
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From Orphaned to Belonging John 14:15-21
Symbols can remind us of stories that we shouldn’t forget. Physical markers can trigger a memory of an important lesson that was learned. These symbols, however, can become something greater than just physical objects about something from the past. They can come to be re-interpreted to bring meaning even to present situations. They can remind us that we are not alone, but belong to something greater than ourselves.
In the ancient Greek city of Athens, there was a physical symbol amongst other objects of Greek worship that stood at a certain place. It was an altar that stood like a statue, perhaps among the other statues of the Greek gods, like Zeus and Athena and Ares. The story was, that in the 6th century BC, Epimenides, a man from Crete, the southern-most island of Greece, was credited with saving Athens from a plague by praying to a god that was unknown to the Athenians. This altar had been built as a symbol to honor that god.
When the apostle Paul came to Athens centuries later, he came across this altar as he was walking through the city. We don’t know if he knew the full story of the altar or not, but when he saw the symbol and that it was dedicated to an unknown god, he saw an opportunity to share with the Greeks about the good news of the God who came into the world through Jesus. Paul senses that there could be times when the people of Athens felt orphaned by their own gods and wondered if there was something more out there that they might belong to. He then re-interprets their own symbol to share with them about the story of Christ. He uses a symbol of a time of healing in their history to explain to them how God wants to bring healing to them in the present day.
Paul does this when he speaks in front of the leaders and officials of the city where they would gather to discuss important issues on a large, rocky, outcropping called the Aeropagus. He commends the leaders for being religious then tells them, “What you worship as an unknown god, I proclaim to you, is really the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth…and of this, God has given an assurance to all by raising this Jesus from the dead. For in him we live and move and have our being.” (John 15:24, 28 & 31) Paul uses that symbolic altar to share with them there is a God who cared enough about them to become flesh and blood and come to them in Jesus to remind them to whom we really belong.
Before he goes to the cross, Jesus also reminded his followers to whom they belonged. We heard him tell his disciples in the book of John today, that he is in the Father and his disciples are in him. They belong to Jesus. They belong to God, and that isn’t going to be changed by his death on the cross, that isn’t going to be changed when he leaves them a second time and ascends into heaven after his resurrection.
Jesus knows that his disciples might feel abandoned when he leaves them. They might feel alone and like no one is looking out for them. They might feel like orphans—like children with no father or mother, like those with no guiding force in their lives to care for them. But Jesus assures them that he will not leave them orphaned. He will come back to them in the form of the Spirit, and advocate who will walk beside them, so that they will know that God is near.
To get a sense of the power of the imagery that Jesus is using when he talks about moving from being orphaned to belonging, it may be helpful to hear the story of an orphan who went from being abandoned to being adopted. Stephanie is a Korean-American woman who was interviewed by the author Lee Strobel for his book, “The Case for Grace.” Her story begins with her earliest memory, when she was only three or four years old. The Korean war had just ended. Stephanie’s mother had been together with a white soldier during the conflict who then left when the war was over. So, when Stephanie was born she was both fatherless and bi-racial. Children of mixed race were shunned in Korean society at the time and as Stephanie began to grow from an infant, her mother experienced shame from her family.
Desperate to be accepted by her family and be acceptable for a husband, Stephanie’s mother decided to get rid of her. She put Stephanie on a train with a little food and told her to get off at the next station. Her mother said an uncle would come to pick her up. That uncle never came. Stephanie had been orphaned, and abandoned. She was alone in the world, and it was there on the train platform that she was called a “toogee” by a passer-by. It was a word she would hear a lot the next four years. It was a word that meant “garbage or trash” and was associated with those who were of a mixed race, like herself.
Incredibly, Stephanie managed to survive. She wandered the countryside, picking up food from the fields or scraps that villagers would throw out. She suffered sickness and abuse, but somehow got by, eventually making it into a city where there was an encampment of homeless children by a river. It was run by a gang of older kids who took advantage of Stephanie, but at least she had some semblance of food and shelter. When she was around seven years old, a wave of cholera hit the country and Stephanie fell victim to the illness. She ended up passing out from fever on a garbage heap where she might have died, but a nurse from Sweden working with a local clinic found her.
The nurse almost didn’t take her in, because at the time her job was to rescue only babies who had been abandoned. This was because babies were more likely to survive, more likely to get adopted, and less likely to have behavioral issues. But the nurse, who was a quiet Lutheran woman, said she heard something like God’s voice inside her saying, “This child is mine.” So she took Stephanie in and cared for her. A few weeks later, Stephanie was transferred to an orphanage run by a Christian non-profit called World Vision where eventually she was adopted by an American missionary couple.
Even though she was now in a good home, it took a while for Stephanie to realize what it really meant to be adopted. She believed that the only reason the missionaries had taken her from the orphanage was that they must have needed some cheap labor. Her experience was that children like her were either shunned or only valuable to do jobs no one else wanted to do. Her new parents, however, cleaned her up, gave her medicine and food to get her healthy. They kept feeding her, tucking her into bed and buying new clothes, but not putting to her to work, like she thought they would.
Stephanie was confused and for a few months she wondered why they treated her like this, but she was too afraid to bring it up. When she sometimes traveled to a village with the missionary couple, other people were now treating her with respect. Before she had been called a toogee—mixed race trash—but now she was being treated like a princess.
Then one day as she was playing with a neighbor girl, Stephanie expressed to her how strange it was that the missionary couple was being so nice to her. The girl looked back at Stephanie with surprise and said, “Don’t you realize that you are their daughter now?!?” Stephanie said the idea had never occurred to her and she replied back, “I am not their daughter!” The girl insisted, “Yes, you are! You…are… their…daughter.”
Stephanie was astonished! She turned and ran out of the room and up the hill toward her house, trying to grasp her new discovery. I’m their daughter. I’m their daughter. Oh, that’s why I’ve been treated this way. That’s why no one is beating me. That’s why no one is calling me a toogee-trash anymore. I’m their daughter! She ran into the house and went up to her adoptive mother and said, “I’m your daughter.” Her adoptive mother didn’t speak Korean yet, but after someone translated for, her tears began to run down her face. She nodded and said, “Yes, Stephanie, you are my daughter!”
When asked how his made her feel, Stephanie paused. As she had told her story she had spoken very candidly about her life, including unthinkable mistreatment and suffering, abandonment and rejection, humiliation and pain. But now words seemed to fail her. She finally just threw up her hands and said “There are no words to describe it.” Sometimes language cannot contain grace.
Language cannot contain the grace that we have been given in Jesus Christ. We who so often go astray and yet are still welcomed back into the arms of God. Many of us probably have not had the extreme experience of abandonment that Stephanie had. Most of us have probably not been orphans like she was, but we may have experienced in some way what it means to be an orphan of the heart. We may have had something happen it our life where we have felt lost. We may have had a time of grief where a loved one who had cared for us was now gone. We may have had a time when we were away from family, when we didn’t feel like we really had any friends, and we felt like we were alone in the world.
I think the crisis of the pandemic could cause us to feel a little abandoned. With so many losing jobs and incomes, with so many feeling isolated or lonely, with the rising insecurity and uncertainty we are facing, it could feel like we have been left by ourselves to stand there looking around wondering if anyone is out there that cares for us.
In times like these, Christians look again to the symbol of the cross. Symbols can remind us of stories that we shouldn’t forget. The cross reminds us of the story of God becoming human and entering history. The cross reminds us that God knows what it is like to suffer and feel uncertainty and anxiety. The cross reveals that God isn’t just a great unknown, but came to be known in Jesus. It shows us that we are not alone, but belong to something greater than ourselves. The cross reveals a personal message from a cosmic God who says to us today, “I will not leave you orphaned. You are my son. You are my daughter. You are my child, and I am coming to you. I have sent you my spirit and it will be with you forever.” Amen
-Pastor Erik Goehner