Nine-year-old Joey was asked by his mother what he had learned on his first day of Sunday School. 'Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God once sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his army build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he radioed headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.' His mother said, 'Now, Joey, is that really what your teacher taught you?' He replied, 'Well, no, Mom. But, if I told it the way the teacher did, you'd never believe it!'
I love ‘back to school’ … the kids get all excited and dressed up for the first day (we’ve all seen the pictures, right?), everyone gets back into their regular routine, the summer church doldrums finally end, the promise of cooler weather is on the horizon (along with a month of scary pre-Halloween movies), I get some peace and quiet at the rectory during the daytime, and … I really do love learning. I love school. I love everything about it. I hope you all do too.
Your Sunday School teachers are excited too. They’ve been thinking about and planning a great school year for our kids … and they’ve been deep in prayer trying to discern what God would like us to do, beginning with today’s ‘faith rocks’ project. I can tell you this. They are committed, deeply committed, to giving of themselves in service for your kids’ benefit. They care about your children.
I need to ask you to match that commitment! I am fully aware … you don’t have to tell me about your schedules. I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t fret about how overfull you calendars all are at this time of year, I won’t mention how many parents are living vicariously through their children, how unhealthy this sometimes is spiritually, and the word ‘helicopter’ will not pass my lips. But I am serious. I know that many families who attend church (all churches, this is not Trinity thing) worship only sporadically, once a month or once every two months. It’s to become more than that. No, that’s not a statement of judgement. No one is saying you’re shirking your duties. What we are saying, is that you need to be here.
Before I go on, I must acknowledge that none of us whose children are older are immune from the fact that so many of our own grown children don’t go to church. Only one of my three go regularly, and one of our grandchildren. I won’t ask the older folks here to raise their hands if their grown children don’t go or go regularly. I want to acknowledge this because I am trying not to be hypocritical, but to hopefully help change a sad trend. You need to be here because we have all seen the damage being done to the Body of Christ during this period in history, and we want to help you navigate it so that you and your kids don’t find yourselves in the same boat we post-school parents and grandparents are in today, wondering what we should have done differently.
So, let me tell you why you need to commit to parish life. First, you need to be here for your kids. I spoke with a fellow clergyperson this week, who shared that one of their grown children no longer attends church even though they have children aged 12, 10, and 6. When asked why the parent said, “We don’t want to instill in them what we believe in a way that would unduly influence them. We think that would be unfair. We want to allow them to grow up and make up their own minds”. Well, that won’t work. If parents do not teach and model Christianity the kids will only learn what the secular world is teaching, and if you haven’t noticed, the secular world is patently insane.
I will be beginning Confirmation classes soon. I want the young people in that class to be able to recognize, and hopefully even share, just two things … one, what the things are that Jesus teaches us about what God wants (that would be ‘ethics’) and two, who Jesus is and how he allows us to know God personally. It’s that simple, structurally; what Jesus wants and who Jesus is; but we need to be clear as to what those things imply that is different that how the world operates.
Think of these words … forgiveness, mercy, grace, humility, meekness, and reverence; not to mention ‘agape’. Yes, the secular world does encourage some virtues, but does it ever encourage these specifically Christian virtues? Think of your major politicians, celebrities, pseudo-news talking heads, and sports heroes … even the ones you like. Do any of them model forgiveness, mercy, grace, humility, meekness, and reverence? Very rarely, and when they do it is usually because they are expressly Christian, and it’s getting scarcer by the day.
In fact, there’s an interesting item in our Gospel reading today that if heard through modern secular ears would cause some controversy. When a woman who was not Jewish approached Jesus asking him for a miracle, for healing, for mercy, he responded very strangely, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs”. The idea seemed to be that he was saying that his ministry was for Jews only, but it went further than that. His use of the phrase ‘little dogs’ was actually a first-century insult, a very specific nasty one, a way in which Jews showed their utter contempt for gentiles. It was a put down and everyone knew it.
People have harsh ways of referring to ‘others’, don’t they? Centuries ago the Chinese culture was so horrified when they first encountered white traders that they called them ‘Lo Fon’, which means ‘white ghost’ or even ‘white devil’; because to their way of thinking the whites were so uncivilized as to be barely human. (But since I know the word, Mrs. B’s relatives can’t talk about me behind my back at parties.) But let’s take it a step further and get right to it. ‘Little dogs’ was a first century equivalent of the ‘N-word’. We live in a dangerous age when the use of a word, no matter how ugly, sometimes even decades ago in a completely different context, can cost someone their career now. (I can tell you a story later about an Indianapolis champion named Derek Daly that happened just this week, but that’s off point. Perhaps ask me after mass.)
My point is that the secular world doesn’t embrace or value repentance, forgiveness, or mercy … which are the ways Christians are taught to heal past wrongs. Instead, the secular world only knows offense, rage, and punishment. The secular world would not care that in our reading Jesus was actually being wry, that he was teasing his own disciples into seeing that this woman was worth more than the little insults of the day, and that her humility and gratitude should have melted their hard hearts. He used the insult because his disciples would have, and because she did not react with anger at the insult, he was able to make his point about God’s grace and mercy, that she was due the dignity of everyone who was created in the image of God. But if asked, how would the secular world judge Jesus’s words? As proof of how confused people are today, I once heard a priest of our church preach on this text that the lesson here was that even Jesus ‘had to recognize and repent of his own racism’. Apparently, the ‘he lived and died as one of us, yet without sin’ part has no meaning for some leaders of our own church.
We need to show our children that Jesus is different. He’s not just one teacher among many, one who helps guide us on one way towards truth that leads to a happier life; but rather that he is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. He guides us and judges us; not the other way around; and if we don’t show the kids how that works, they will get their morality from post-modernism, which teaches that our own self-oriented feelings create for us our own truth; and that will be a disaster.
But it’s not just for your kids. You need to be here for yourselves. All this … kneeling, sitting, standing … listening to scripture and sermon … receiving Communion … even that faint smell of incense. It all matters because we have been hard-wired to need something to stimulate our own sense of worship and reverence. We need it because we are drawn to God from more than just our rational brains, but from deeper places. Without it, when the kids grow up and leave the nest, you’d be surprised at how often parents go through a crisis. What do they do now? Who are they? What purpose are they serving? Sometimes they get depressed. Sometimes marriages suffer.
I remember when Mrs. B and I got married and we blended a family. We tried so hard to make sure everyone got what they needed, especially their own bedroom; that they felt included and loved. But one day she said something that was very wise. She said, “Remember, someday it will be just you and me, so we’d better make sure that we’re solid” (or something like that, I wasn’t really listening that closely). But here’s the thing. Someday it will be just you and God. That’s it, you and God. There is nothing more heartbreaking for me as a priest to see people reach the point where everyone else is gone and they realize they’ve never fully cultivated their relationship with God, and now they feel the void, a void of not just missing those who have gone beyond, but not being so grounded in the Creator’s love that they cannot have faith that we will all be reunited. Yes, we have events and classes for the kids, but you need to be here … for you. This is not just about them. It’s also about you. God wants to feed you!
Third, we need you. The parish needs you. Yes, it includes money, everyone needs to kick in to run this place; it’s really big and really expensive and we are facing a deficit. Everyone needs to chip in. And yes, there is an ‘age’ issue. Look around. The average age of the people doing most of the work in most parishes is about 60. Long ago they should have handed the reigns of leadership to you who are in your prime. But way way more than even that … we need your friendship. We need your prayers. We need you to be on the team. We need you in our lives. The Body of Christ needs you. No one is expendable. No part of the Body can say it doesn’t need another. We’re supposed to do all this together. We suffer together, and we rejoice together. We lean on each other. We hold each other up. We laugh together. And we fulfill God’s call to us together.
Because fourth, God needs you. Think about that. I know that the Greek philosophers said that God was eternal and unchanging and so perfect that God couldn’t be affected by anything that we peons did down here. The very point of Jesus revealing the living God is that nothing can be further than the truth. Jesus on the cross showed us a solidarity that God suffers with us, that no pain we go through is unfelt by God, and that God has a plan for dealing with that. But to accomplish this, God is counting on us. I often focus on the Feast of the Ascension, that moment when Jesus went to heaven, where we say that he is supposedly ‘seated on the right hand of God’. One way of looking at it is that Jesus left. He’s left us all alone, or so it seems. Yet I prefer to look at it another way. Jesus trusts us. He says that it’s time for us to carry on his work. He’s given us what we need to know. He’s empowered us by giving us the Holy Spirit. It’s not ‘what we get out of church’, but rather, it’s that Jesus called us ‘out of the world’ … to be his eyes, his ears, his hands … to love with his heart … to be the Body of Christ … nothing more, nothing less. Amen. ... See MoreSee Less