Spending time this week getting ready for our congregation’s upcoming “Children’s Sunday” has given rise to memories of one such celebration early on in my ministry as student pastor of a small church in northern Maine. I remember it specifically because this was the year we got the great idea to give out “cross and crown” pins to the children in our Sunday School on the basis of each one’s regular attendance and participation throughout the year.
These days you don’t hear too much about cross and crown pins; but there was a time, not too many years ago, when it was the gold standard of attendance awards in Sunday Schools across America. Back then at our church, we’d been trying to maintain some consistency in the size of our classes from week to week, along with seeking to encourage some sense of faith commitment amongst the kids themselves, and the very design of the pins themselves – which could be added to with each successive year of active participation – seemed like a good incentive.
And by and large, it was. Most of the children actually embraced the whole idea of “perfect attendance,” and worked at it with great enthusiasm as the months passed. The only problem was that come the end of the Sunday School year, we came to the rather sobering conclusion that out of about 20 children, only about two or three would actually qualify for a pin! So now, here we were, after having laid out this program and making such a big deal out of these pins all year, knowing that there were now going to be a whole bunch of really disappointed kids!
But then we started looking at the records of the kids who’d almost made the cut. One little girl had been the hospital with pneumonia one Sunday – well, we really can’t hold that against her, can we? Then there were the three children who’d had a very rough winter because their mother and father were going through a divorce – we certainly don’t want to add to the trauma of that! And what about those Sunday mornings in January when the roads were icy – nobody could be expected to drive to church in that kind of weather!
Well, you guessed it; much to their surprise, using Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard as our biblical model (you know, the one where the vineyard owner pays those who only worked in the vineyard one hour the same amount (!) as those who’d worked the full day), we finally decided that on Children’s Sunday we would give each one of the kids a pin, regardless of their actual attendance. Now, some of the children were pretty happy about this turn of events; but what I’ll always remember is just how many of them weren’t! In fact, a few of those kids were quite put out with us adults that we’d changed the rules! I’ll never forget it: one sweet and angelic little girl, who up until that time had never, ever missed a chance to give me a great big hug, actually came up to me in the line after church, greeted me with an icy stare, and with a voice to match, said to me, “This isn’t fair, Mr. Lowry – Joey Johnson got a pin and he hardly ever came to Sunday School!”
This low-grade resentment wasn’t exclusive to the children, either; a couple of parents, only half-jokingly, informed me that if they’d known that this is how it was all going to turn out, they’d have turned over and gone back to sleep rather than drive their kids into church school on those snowy Sunday mornings! Suffice to say that what we found out is that this noble idea we’d had of giving out pins to everyone was not all that well received. What we’d hoped for and expected – much like the vineyard owner, I suspect – was that everyone would be so pleased to get the pin, they’d be immediately filled with a spirit of joy and gratitude; what we got was simmering resentment, as well as a bit of that which sows the seed of the deadly sin known as envy.
Actually, over the years that memory has become for me a parable in and of itself, one that points up the true insidious nature of envy. Most often when we talk about envy, we’re referring to our human tendency to become jealous or upset that others have that which we wish we had but do not: however, as our adventure with the cross and crown pins demonstrated, envy’s deep sinfulness can even be revealed in our fierce determination that others should never get what we’ve got!
When Jesus told his story of what might be better named the “Generous Vineyard Owner,” he wanted to point out a truth regarding God’s extravagant love extending to all people, even and especially the people we’d never expect would merit consideration where the Kingdom of God is concerned! As the vineyard owner himself asked his disgruntled workers, why should anyone be envious because of his generosity? Indeed, such an attitude only serves to limit the joy that comes in receiving what’s been given! It’s a reminder of how easily we can lose focus on God’s extravagant love, and how prone we are as people – yes, as Christian people – to draw far too many distinctions as to how and when that love ought to be shared with others, thus missing out on so much of the blessing that comes in the spiritual life.
Eugene Peterson, the pastor and scholar responsible for the wonderful paraphrase of scripture entitled The Message has written that the key to spiritual satisfaction is in knowing that God is a generous God who gives us what we need before we even know we need it. It is “not [in] getting God to do something you think needs to get done, but becoming aware of what God is doing so you can respond to it, learn from it, take delight in it, and naturally be grateful for it. Identifying the movement of God in your own life trains you to spot in the lives of others, with similar gratitude, their blessedness too.”
The bottom line is that our God is good and generous; God wants our lives – all of our lives – to be enriched with as many “cross and crown pins” as possible, so to speak; to rejoice in the gift and all its recipients; and above all to remember the giver with thanksgiving. Which, come to think of it; is also a pretty good place for a journey of faith to begin.
This Sunday, though we don’t do pins or attendance awards in our little Sunday School here in New Hampshire, there will be a few Bibles awarded to some excited third graders, and there’s an ice cream social planned that will no doubt be a highlight for everyone involved. Mostly, however, our “Children’s Sunday” will be the culmination of a year’s worth of fun and fellowship and learning, with the singing of some silly songs (a necessity with this pastor around!), a “kid friendly” message in lieu of a sermon, and a worship service that will not only make the children know they are each and all important members of this church family but also help bring them closer to God as they grow to become everything they’ve been created to be.
Seems to me that that’s a blessing that needs to be shared as widely and generously as possible!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry