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Made to Worship: What Do We Tell the Children?

(a sermon for September 23, 2018, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Proverbs 3:1-12 and Matthew 19:13-15)

It is, at least from my perspective, by far the most unpredictable part of our worship service.

I’m referring, of course, to our weekly “Ministry with the Children,” also known in many churches as the “Children’s Sermon;” and while, as I’m sure you are very much aware, as a pastor I’ve always enjoyed that part of the service and can’t imagine it not being a part of our worship, I have also learned that you have to come into this time with our churches’ children expecting the unexpected!

Oh, yes, many has been the time when I had a perfectly good, reasonably well-prepared message planned, but that wasn’t what the kids wanted to talk about that day!  And then there are countless moments when one random comment or question from one random kid completely undoes anything and everything I was trying to get across!  For instance, there was the time, years ago, when during advent I was trying to talk to the children about “preparing the way” for the coming of the Lord only to be wholly derailed by the little redheaded sparkplug who announced to the entire congregation that his whole family had helped to put up a Christmas tree, that is, everybody except for his father who, said the little boy, was “just sitting around drinking a beer!”  Oh, and did I mention his Dad, one of the Deacons of that church, was right there slinking in the pew amid the riotous laughter?  Suffice to say from there on, nobody was hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah!

On the other hand, I can tell you of “holy moments” that came about because of the unpredictability of a children’s ministry:  like the day, again years ago, the little boy shared with us all that his Mom and Dad were getting a divorce; something that none of us, myself included, knew about up until that moment but which allowed for the whole church to embrace that family with much needed love and prayer.  Or like how we were able, on the children’s level, to faithfully deal with the loss of some much beloved members of our church family, or to respond to the aftermath of 9/11.  Or simply those incredible days when you discover that despite your best efforts, a solid biblical truth got through to those kids in a way you could have never planned for; and moreover, it turned out that they remembered it, even years later as adults!  And that certainly makes all the ever-present potential of derailment worthwhile for me!

What’s interesting, you know, is that while the idea of including children in the life of the church is as old as the church itself (indeed, from that very moment in our gospel reading when Jesus rebuked his all-too proper disciples for trying to scurry the children away from him!), having a children’s “sermon,” per se, hasn’t always been a part of the landscape of our worship. There are actually a lot of theories I could offer for that:  one may be that because “back in the day” a lot of churches kept the hours of Sunday School and Morning Worship separate and children were not necessarily encouraged to come to worship until they were of a certain age!  Even in a couple of the churches I served where worship happened at the same hour as Sunday School there was often a distinction made between Sunday School and “big church” with it being a red letter day when they would be allowed in worship!

Over the past few decades, however, I think we’ve come to understand how important it is for children to have both the opportunity to learn about God and the experience of worship together with their families; and that’s where a children’s ministry has become a fairly regular part of our time together.  And thank the Lord for it!  I think you’ll agree with me when I say that having the kids we have here, ministering unto them even as they minister unto us, is a good part of what gives our life together here at East Church its vitality and its purpose.  It’s so often said that they are the future of the church; well, let me just repeat what I truly believe and have said quite often myself: that these kids are not just our future, they are our present, and we would do well to remember that!

I don’t have to tell you that these days across the church spectrum the whole concept of Sunday School, children’s ministries and even including children’s sermons in the liturgy of our worship has fallen on difficult times; sadly, a lot of churches have come to the point, what with dwindling numbers and budget cuts, where they’ve been forced to give up on it altogether.  And you know the reasons: some of it comes down to how busy families have become in these days; the reasons for which include economics and the necessity for two income families, the preponderance of Sunday sports and other activities, the fact that there’s so much competition for time and attention out there, and on and on it goes.  But it’s more than that; quite frankly, oftentimes things like Sunday School and children’s worship has just ceased to be a priority in the lives of families, an even at times, the church itself.

That’s pretty sad, and ultimately tragic, especially when one considers that most people who discover their Christian faith will do when they’re children and as they’re growing up!  Or, to put this another way, consider the words of Wilbert M. Van Dyk of the Reformed Church of America:  “The church must attend to the spiritual nurture of its children.  A congregation that neglects to ‘feed the lambs’ fails in a critical responsibility that Christ has laid on his church.” That’s a pretty sobering assessment, but it speaks to a great truth and an even greater responsibility:  we need to understand, you and me sitting in these pews, that right here is one of the most important places our children have to come and learn about a God who loves them completely, just as they are; this is where they will build a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ; this is where they will begin to be inspired and led by God’s Holy Spirit.  This is where the lifelong journey of faith and service begins.

But let me just add here that this Christian nurture isn’t wholly the responsibility of the families of these young people; it in fact, belongs to each one of us here. As we have been saying throughout this sermon series, you and I are “made to worship.”  But understand that our worshipping together every Sunday is not simply for our own benefit; it also holds great implications for those who are around us, most especially for the youngest members of our church family.  Each and every one of us in this room are responsible for the spiritual upbringing of the children of this church.  It’s part of the responsibility we took on at the time of their baptism; it’s what we promise to do as people of faith and disciples of Jesus Christ!  And things like Sunday School, children’s sermons, Christmas pageants and even a few silly songs are a part of that!

So what do we tell the children… about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about faith?  Well, in the words of our Old Testament reading today, we want their hearts to keep God’s commandments “so [they] will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.” And in that, we do want them to grow up with some understanding of scripture, so that they might have some reverence for God’s Word and begin to have a sense of how the Bible speaks to them in their lives.  We want to tell them all about what it means to live life as a believer, and how to stand strong in God’s love and his peace and his strength and his joy in whatever challenges come their way.  We want them to know the joy of being part of the church, the Body of Christ, both here at East Church and in other communities of faith wherever they happen to go in their lives and living.  And we want them, in whatever path they follow on their journeys of faith, to ever and always be about the work of God’s kingdom.

Mostly, however, we want to tell them they are ever and always loved beyond measure and unconditionally.  John Claypool, in his book Stories Jesus Still Tells, writes about trying to put his four-year-old to bed while she took three trips to the bathroom, asked for a drink of water, wanted another story and all the rest of the stalls that go with bedtime for a preschooler (it was part of what we in our family used to refer to as “zoo time!”).  Claypool wrote that finally, he thought he’d gotten his daughter settled down to sleep, but no… soon enough here was his daughter standing at the living room door.  “‘Laura, what do you want me to do?’ he asked with more irritation in his voice than he wanted to betray.  She padded into the room and grabbed his arm.  ‘Nothing, Daddy.  I just want to be close to you.’” (quoted from Mike Yaconnelli’s book “Getting Fired for the Glory of God.”)

I cannot convey to you often or strongly enough just how very important our ministry with the children is here at East Church, and I cannot stress enough how crucial it is that each one of us here share in that ministry through Sunday School, in the Youth Group or in special events like the Christmas pageant.  But may I say to you now that as children of God and disciples of Christ – and, in that, the hands and heart of Jesus himself – the best thing you can be doing is simply to “be close” to these children; to teach them your faith and show them the love of the Lord simply by who you are!

That might be the best by-product of our Christian worship, and the most shining example of a thankful heart I could name for you today.

So let us love, nurture and enable our children in the name of Jesus Christ.  And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on September 23, 2018 in Ministry, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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A Long Life Lived Full and Well

Proverbs(a sermon for September 28, 2014, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Proverbs 3:1-12, 21-35)

Like most parents of young children, I suppose, when our kids were in school Lisa and I did our share of volunteering.  Actually, to be honest, Lisa did far more of that than I did; I always kind of felt that since in everything they ever did at church their Dad was constantly underfoot, they didn’t need me around all the time at school!  That said, however, I did my time: I did career day (which was always interesting!); I brought my guitar into a whole lot of classrooms and once, thanks to a small piece of political rabble-rousing on the part of my wife, I even got to join a local rabbi to do a middle school program on the meaning of Christmas and Hanukkah!

There was one thing, however, that I steadfastly refused to do; and that’s when my oldest son Jake was playing Little League and I was approached about being an umpire!  First of all, I will be the first to admit that though I love baseball, particularly when it’s played by kids, I definitely do not have the skill-set be an umpire; but aside from that, and more to the point, I would have been the world’s worst umpire because I would be way too soft on those kids!  “Strike three?  Oh, that’s alright, honey, you go ahead and take another swing!”  “Four strikes?  I think it’s time for a do-over!”  “Out?  Oh, I don’t think so… he tried so hard, and look, he’s upset now!  Why don’t we just go with ‘safe’ this once, and next time, it’ll be an ‘out,’ I promise!”

Put me behind home plate, and that’d be how it would go, I know it!  And I also know that not only would this most certainly raise the ire of the coaches, the parents and at least some of the players, but also that by taking that kind of an attitude, those kids would never learn the fundamentals of the game, they’d never come to understand sportsmanship and how to be a good loser, and ultimately they would be deprived of the joy and satisfaction that comes in playing the game!  You see, it’s one thing to enjoy reaping the rewards of what you do; but the thing is, those rewards almost always come at the cost of hard work and of discipline.  You’re going to strike out as many times as you get a hit – usually a lot more (!) – but that’s just the way the game of baseball is played, and especially when you’re a kid in Little League, that’s how you learn!  And that’s not only true for baseball, football or any other sport or activity you can name, that’s also true when it comes to life itself.

Well, this morning we return to the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: which, as we’ve said before, is a collection of Godly Wisdom attributed to King Solomon but truly speaking with the voice of God. And as illustrated by our text today, it also takes on something of a parental tone; that is, this admonition to a life of wisdom is spoken in much the same way that a father or mother would speak to their children.  “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let you heart keep my commandments… do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you… trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.”  Indeed, in this passage, and throughout Proverbs, there’s this strong sense that “these lessons that I’m teaching you are important; so you’d better be listening and pay attention!”  Because if you do, says this parent to his child – if you heed God’s wisdom and “in all your ways acknowledge him” – the rewards will be great.

And he’s not kidding – did you hear those rewards as Lisa read them a few moments ago?  A long and prosperous life… “favor and good repute” with God and with other people… a straight and smooth pathway through life… “healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body…”  and, of course (and I love this verse), “your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”  Health, wealth, a life lived with ease… it all can be yours if only you will “trust in the LORD with all your heart… [and] honor the LORD with your substance.”

Easy, right?  Talk about your “prosperity gospel!”  I mean, why would anyone choose foolishness over wisdom if this is what you get from a life of wisdom?  And yet… I find it very interesting that at the end of this long list of blessing that are the rewards of wisdom and faith, suddenly and quite abruptly this parent says this to his child (and for this, I want to go to The Message translation):  “But don’t… resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction.  It’s the child he loves that God corrects; a father’s delight is behind all this.”

Perhaps all these rewards are not as easily won as it appears… perhaps this business of trusting God in all things is not an automatic, but requires earnest and continuing effort on our parts.  Maybe a life of wisdom – Godly wisdom, most especially – requires more than just hearing, but also doing; it needs for us to be moved, and shaped, and influenced by a loving, nurturing God.

That’s significant, friends; in fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the teaching of the whole Book of Proverbs in a nutshell.  C. S. Lewis, in a book entitled The Abolition of Man, was writing about the difference between “ancient wisdom” and what passes for wisdom in our own time.  “For the wise [ones] of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.”  Today, Lewis went on, “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.”  To put this another way, so much of what we refer to today as “self-help” comes down to the effort of trying to change the world around us, so that it will fit into what our souls want or what we think they need.  And that’s fine to a point; but we all know that only goes far because the world and its culture does not shift in a way that’s going to leave us healthy, wealthy and well-rested!  What we have in Proverbs, however, is different: these aren’t teachings of how we’re to change the world out there; it’s all about changing what’s in here; changing us so that our souls, our Godly lives match the reality around us.

That’s the challenge, friends; to incorporate these new habits into our lives and living so that, over time, we do become wise and live, as The Message puts it, “a long life lived full and well.”  But that’s where the discipline of it comes in as well.  By the way, important to note that when the Bible speaks here of “the LORD’s discipline,” we’re not talking about punishment; this is not to be thought of God’s penalty for bad behavior.  Rather, the original Hebrew of this word “discipline” actually translates as “pain for the person,” or “pain for their sake.”  In other words, it’s adversity, and it’s difficult and sometimes it hurts but it’s there for our growing; it’s there to teach us wisdom.

I mean, ultimately, that’s the thing about being a parent, isn’t it?  No mother or father wants their child to suffer; you never want to see them go through any of horrible stuff that can happen in life, and you certainly don’t want them to start crying or get mad at you!   But then there comes a point, maybe during the “terrible twos,” or during the dreaded teenage years, when you think, “Fine.  Let ‘em be mad!  This is how they’ll learn!” And does there not also often come a time in every parent’s life when you know that your son or your daughter has to go through what they’re going through if they are going to learn and grow and become the mature and fulfilled adult you know they were always meant to be?

I think that most of us know this intrinsically, but it’s sometimes hard to accept as a reality:  love is not always about saying yes, any more than learning to play baseball is about never being allowed to strike out.   Love given and taught is actually rarely about choosing or accepting the easier pathway; and it’s certainly not about blessing without accountability.  And that’s why as wonderful and as beautiful as it is for any of us to say, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” the reality of trying to actually incorporate that into our lives can be difficult; and why, as we stumble along in the learning process, we might face some adversity and suffering along the way.  But that doesn’t mean we should stop:  you know that famous comic book edict that “with great power comes great responsibility?” (Extra points if you know where that comes from!)  Well, in this instance, we can say that with great wisdom also comes great responsibility; but also, if we stay with it – if we don’t lose sight of what God has to teach us and not “let loyalty and faithfulness forsake [us],” then with great wisdom will also come those great rewards.

So does this translate to everyday life?  Well, that’s part and parcel of 31 chapters of Proverbs, and we heard a small part of it today:  to “never walk away from someone who deserves help;” to not be trying to take advantage of someone when they’ve trusted you; to never “walk around with a chip on your shoulder, always spoiling for a fight.”  And never… ever be a bully, “because GOD can’t stand twisted souls.”  And it goes on and on from there; truly – and didn’t you love this verse (!) – “wise living gets reward with honor; stupid living gets the booby prize.”

It’s not easy; but then, I don’t think that Solomon (or God) ever thought that it would be.  The fact is, and I count myself among those of whom I’m speaking here, most of us are more adept that foolishness than wisdom; far better at leaning on our own understandings of things than to rely on God!   But the good news is that with each new day there is also a new opportunity to act and to live with wisdom; and that in that effort, we are never alone, but in the company and with the loving encouragement of our loving parent who is our God!  For you see, not only do we need this path to wisdom to gain the rewards of a long life lived full and well, we also need someone to walk that pathway with us.  We need a God who will guide us; who will correct us along the way; and who will hold us accountable when we insist on going our own way despite all of his best efforts!  We need a God of justice and of mercy; who will discipline for the sake of our growth, but who will never, ever write us off when we fail in the attempt.

That alone is more than enough to keep us true along the journey that awaits us in this life.

So for the great wisdom he shares with us and the infinite love he gives to us…

…let our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 
 

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