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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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The Lessons We Share

10471158_814195258599841_7719467859240146499_nIn what I suppose could easily be described as a pastor’s version of a “busman’s holiday,” while on my recent summer vacation I was asked if I might step in and lead a graveside memorial service at the cemetery in my home town.  In the interest of full disclosure (and proper pastoral ethics), I should add here that I wouldn’t have ordinarily been asked to do this; but as it happened, the family’s pastor had concluded her ministry at their church just a few days before and had already left the state; the funeral director, a long-time friend and neighbor on the lake, was in dire need of clergy and knew I was available (!); and, as it turned out, this service would include a great many people from that town and congregation where I grew up, some of whom I hadn’t seen in well over 30 years.

So how could I say “no” to that?

It ended up a rather moving experience for me, as before and after the service I was greeted with smiles and tears by old friends who, each in their own way, were instrumental in the nurturing of my Christian faith as a youth, as well as in the discernment and cultivation of my own call to ministry:  the Sunday School teacher who brought scripture to life by coming to our classroom dressed as biblical figures; the Deacon and “Deaconess” (as they were known then!) who recommended that I be granted “in-care” status (as that used to be known) by the Aroostook Association of the United Church of Christ; the woman with whom I once sang in the choir and who, as a UCC lay minister in her own right, in my early years of ministry became a valued colleague in many a wedding, funeral and worship service; and so many others – old neighbors, former classmates and family friends – people who opened up a floodgate of memories for me; and who, whether they knew it or not, shared a great many lessons of life, faith and ministry that I still carry with me all these many years later.

This past week at East Church was “Homecoming Sunday,” which traditionally marks the beginning of a new year of Sunday School; and so, much of our service on Sunday was purposefully and joyfully “child friendly.”  Our opening hymn was “It Is Good,” an epic children’s song about God’s Creation with a chorus that will, I promise you, stay in your head forever (!); and the Children’s Message for the day had to do with “imitating God” in all things, and featured truly horrendous animal imitations on the part of this pastor (the highlight was when one of the kids asked me, “How do you even keep a straight face when you do that?”). Afterward, the children met with their teachers, and together they developed a classroom covenant in which they promised, among other things, to “treat other people how they’d like to be treated.”  There were stories, games and even an after-church pizza luncheon with the whole church family.

And all through the day there was laughter, and love, and above all, faith shared and nurtured.

As of late there has been much written on the so-called “blogosphere” and elsewhere about Christian Education and Children’s Ministry in this current age; the gist of these articles being that the traditional model of Sunday School is long since outmoded.  These articles inevitably speak of how much the world, culture and the family dynamic has changed over the last 25 years (which is true); how stressed-out and time-poor today’s average family has become (also true); how churches need to minister to families as they are today, not how they were (or at least how we perceived them to be) years ago when Sunday School classrooms were usually filled to overflowing (sadly, yes).

Granted, these ministries have fallen on hard times in our churches; but the answer is not, as some have opined, that we simply let go of the idea of Sunday School altogether.  On the contrary; it seems to me that now is the time for broadening our understanding of Christian Education; for churches to embrace the idea that to truly nurture the faith of the next generation of believers requires a holistic approach; in which we welcome our children, youth and seeking adults into the whole life and experience of the church: a ministry that certainly includes Sunday School, yes; but also involves worship and fellowship as an experience that involves the whole congregation, that includes shared mission and outreach as a caring community, and which ever and always emphasizes the mutual care and support that comes in being part of a family of faith.

More simply stated, the lessons we’ve learned as Christians and as the church are the very lessons we need to teach to our children. Sometimes those lessons do come in the form of goofball songs, bible stories and arts and crafts that happen in an hour on a Sunday morning; it might happen in a moment of prayer and reflection at a worship service; or else it’ll be found in the warm smile and loving embrace of the person sitting next to at the pot-luck dinner.  But make no mistake, these will be the lessons that our kids will remember, and which will take root in their hearts as they grow in faith…

…and years later, whether they know it or not, these will be lessons they will share with their own children.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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The Parable of the Cross and Crown Pins

cong cross and crownSpending 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

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2013 in Church, Jesus, Joy, Reflections, Worship

 

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