Easter 6A – End of the Orphan Train
May 21, 2017
In the mid-1800’s there were an estimated
30,000 homeless, orphaned, and abandoned children in New York City.
Some of these children were orphaned when their parents died
from typhoid, yellow fever or the flu.
Others were abandoned due to poverty or addiction.
Many children sold matches, rags, or newspapers to survive.
For protection against street violence, they got together and formed gangs.[3
They lived on the streets
without much hope of a better life.
In a kind of early foster care program –
with both the blessings and abuses of modern day foster care –
the Children’s Aid Society sent some of these children
by train to live and work on farms out west.
The orphan train movement lasted from 1853 through the early 1900’s.
The movement began with the heartfelt belief
In a handful of community leaders that no child should be left alone…
That children should feel safe.
That they should be loved and cared for.
Today’s gospel reminds us that regardless how old we are;
Whether we have living parents or not;
It is human to want to feel safe.
It is human to want to be loved and cared for.
It is human to be afraid of being left alone.
Jesus tells his disciples…and each of us today…
You are not alone.
You are never alone.
A reading from the gospel of John:
Jesus said to his disciples:
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me;
because I live, you also will live.”
By the time John the gospel writer is writing this book,
Jesus has long been gone.
It’s the 90’s –
not the 1990’s with grunge bands and new portable CD players…
but the 90’s with persecution and death squads.
Most people in John’s community have never met Jesus in person.
By this time, most if not all the disciples have died,
and Jesus has not returned victorious as expected.
The temple is destroyed,
and Jesus’ followers threatened and rounded up.
John pulls together these words from Jesus as a reminder
of why they even still gather.
This passage is called the ‘farewell discourse,’
And it’s kind of like the ‘last lecture’ that some retiring faculty give at universities.
It’s the speech that they’d like to endure long after they’re gone.[i]
As John describes it,
the central word of Jesus,
the thing that he wants to endure is love.
“If you love me you will keep my commandments,“ he says.
” A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you. “
” I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Love is hard.
Love is hard in the best of times…
but it’s particularly hard in difficult times.
Love is hard
when family and friends have polar opposite political beliefs.
(Can I get a witness?)
Love is hard
when those children you adore are screaming at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Love is hard
when you’re not sure the marriage you’re in is the one you imagined.
Love is hard.
And when love is hard, life gets lonely…very lonely.
But in his ‘last lecture,’ Jesus says,
You are not alone in this.
I am sending you the Holy Spirit – an Advocate (with capital “A”).
So far I’ve only hired an advocate – a lawyer – once in my life.
I think it was when I bought my first house.
I was a little nervous as I first sat in her office.
But the first thing she said to me was…
I’m your attorney – I’m here for you.
And what a relief that was.
I wasn’t alone in signing all those papers I didn’t understand.
There was someone beside me.
Someone who was on my side.
The Holy Spirit – the Advocate is here for you –
Especially when love gets hard.
Today we are receiving new members.
Hannah and Megan and Cliff
And Eric and Sharon and Tom and Tabby,
And Dan and Sheila and Mona and Oscar,
And Janis and Michele and Randy.
Lori, our evangelical outreach chair,
Who helps us reach out and welcome new members
Challenged me with a question a couple of weeks ago.
She asked, “Why would someone want to become a new member of a church?”
(It wasn’t rhetorical.)
It made me think…
It’s different from when I was young.
When I was young, joining a church is what a fine upstanding member of the community did.
It was kind of shady not to be part of a church.
So why join a church today when there’s no social pressure?
Here’s what I think:
Joining a church is joining a community.
It’s having faith that when love is hard, we’re stronger together.
It’s making a commitment that we intend to live a certain way –
That we intend to make our life choices based on our understanding of Jesus
and how he lived.
It’s saying that we want to be in relationship with others…
That we want to grow spiritually …
That when things are tough,
when love is hard,
we want help to remind us that we can trust in God being there.
Joining a church is a tangible reminder
that we are not orphans.
The orphan train movement ended in the early 1900’s
for a number of reasons.
But a significant one was the realization that communities are stronger
when they come together in love.
Legislation was passed giving support to poor families
so they could keep their children at home.
There were fewer children on the streets
And less need for trains to take them away.
When it’s at its best a church is a community
Which professes its faith in God who comes to us
To encourage us, look out for us, care for us, and stay with us
When love is hard…
So that we may do the same for others.
A community of faith marks
The end of the orphan train.