Deut. 11:18-21, 26-28; Ps. 31; Rom. 3:21-25a, 28; Matthew 7:21-27
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen
And Moses told the people of Israel, "You shall lay up these words of [God] in your heart and in your soul . . . and you shall teach them to your children."
In today's text from Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are commanded to make God's word a part of their whole being, and to make a commitment to the Lord God in all aspects of their life. And most importantly, the people were to teach God's word to their children at all times and in all places: a practice that would ensure the blessings of a rich and full life.
Kevin Nichols is a clergy colleague of mine who is the rector of St. Stephen's, in Pittsfield. Kevin is bi-vocational working both as a priest, and for a major corporation located - in of all places - Danbury, Connecticut, where I grew up. Kevin has a six year old son, named Keaton. Last week Kevin was preparing for a major sales meeting that he was leading in Charlotte, NC. The morning before the day of the meeting, he woke up with a case of laryngitis. He was very frustrated, and his frustration was very evident to Keaton that morning as Kevin drove him to school. "Why don't you use sign language to do your presentation?", Keaton said to his dad. "Well, I don't know any sign language, otherwise that would be a great idea", relied a rather bemused Kevin. "Do you know any sign language? " Kevin asked Keaton. "Well, not much Keaton said, I only know two words: hungry and love."
"Hungry and love." Moses commanded us to teach our children the word of God, but so often it is our children who teach us the true meaning and value of God's message. If any Christian had to choose two words to speak in any language - hungry and love would be the two that I would choose. They are two words that intimately connect us to God.
"Blessed are those who hunger . . . for they will be filled" Jesus says. And what they will be filled with is His love.
Our parish is in the process of re-imagining our Sunday School and youth programs. Just like the choices of blessing and curse placed before the Israelites by God, today we have two choices placed before us as well. We can choose to take the words of Moses to heart, and to prayerfully consider what it means for each and everyone of us to give of ourselves, to teach God's word to our children. Or we can ignore them. People of St. John's, our children stand before us hungry, will we fill them with the loving word of God? Will we choose the blessing or the curse?
In her book Plan B:Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott describes being called to establish a Sunday School at her church, St. Andrew, Presbyterian. She writes this:
"I did not mean to help start a Sunday School, and did not have a speck of confidence that I could . . . I do not particularly like large groups of children , which is to say, more than two at a time, and I could not bear to miss any of the regular service, with which Sunday School would be concurrent. There was one more problem. There weren't any children, except Sam. [Her son]
But six years ago I came to believe that I was supposed to start a Sunday School while our church was temporarily located at a senior center during the construction of a new building . . . One day at the senior center, I could feel something tugging on my inside sleeve, which is the only place I ever hear from God: on the shirt sleeve of my heart. I understood that someone needed to start a school, because it was the right thing to do, and most important, I needed to make church more fun for Sam . . .
I was utterly open to the call, in a tense, clinically sensitive way. So I told Kris, my best friend at St. Andrew that we were having a call.
‘We are?' she asked.
I nodded grimly.
‘Where would we start?"
‘And what will we teach them? Kris asked.
This was a problem. I don't know much about God; only that He or She is love, and is not an American, or a male. I do love Jesus and I'm nuts about his mother . . . I thought, That's the sort of thing we'll teach.
We read the kids Scripture every week, even though they squirmed and yawned - we had concluded that people who made farting noises, and weapons out of Doritos, should not determine what we did and didn't do in class. There's a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, ‘Why on our hearts, and not in them?' The rabbi answered, ‘Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside."
Let me tell you some of my hopes for our children, as we re-imagine our Sunday School and youth program.
I pray we would give half the time and effort to our children's spiritual and religious education, that our Jewish brothers and sisters do to the religious and spiritual education of their children. Education is such a priority for them, and essential to their not losing their faith identity. They take the words of Moses and the rabbi in that story seriously, and place the words of scripture on the heart of each and every Jewish child.
I pray that we paid half the time and effort getting our children to engage their religious and spiritual education, that we pay to getting them to engage their soccer & softball games, or their music and dance lessons, or whatever other activities they are involved in. I am a strong advocate of developing the athletic and artistic gifts of our children. It is our responsibility to nurture them to be all God created them to be. But I do not believe we should do this to the diminishment, or worse yet, to the exclusion of their spiritual lives.
I pray that we would give 100% more attention to our children's religious and spiritual development, than deferring judgement to our kids to determine whether they will even come to Church at all on Sunday. Instead abandoning them, so that they can engage in unlimited time of watching television, surfing the internet, playing computer games, or listening to their iPODS. Do we let our kids determine if they are going to attend school on any given morning? Do we let them determine that they will only eat dessert and candy at every meal? Our children - like all human persons - are comprised of body, mind and spirit. Why are we so focused on developing 2/3's of who they are, and so unconcerned about nurturing the other 1/3?
Our children deserve our commitment to these hopes.
In today's Gospel Jesus tells a parable of a wise man who built his house on bedrock, and a foolish man who built his house on sand. When the rains and floods and winds of life fell upon those two houses, one stood and one didn't. The man who built his house on rock stands for those people who hear Jesus' teachings: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them . . . he says, will be like the man who built his house on rock.
The man who built his house on sand stands for those who claim to listen to Jesus' teachings, but then fail to put them into practice.
It's the same blessing and curse choice that God always puts before us. Are we building our houses on the blessing of rock, or the curse of sand? Those who do not nurture the life of the spirit are building their house on sand. Those who do nurture the spirit build on rock.
Does this really matter? You bet is does! What we do, or don't do, about the care and nurture of our souls and our children's spirits matters to God. It matters a lot. It matters enough that Jesus calls us not only to say we believe in his words, but that we actually do them.
Our parish mission statement proclaims that, " we bring children to know the ways of the Lord." Will we end up just saying those words, allowing them to become just one more empty, hollow slogan in a world rife with them? Or will we actually do them? Will we really bring children to know the ways of the Lord?
The bottom line question is this: Where are we going to build the house of nurture and the Christian education of our children, in this parish: on rock or on sand? The two choices to answer that question are set before you this day.