This week I’ve been thinking a lot about children. It started with the horrific picture of the 5 year old Syrian child, covered in blood from the bombing that has engulfed that tragic country. As always it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most. But it wasn’t only that picture. There are thousands of children in this country living in poverty, substandard housing, some left alone for hours while a single parent goes to work, but can’t afford child care. Children are too often the victims of random gunfire in their homes, their playgrounds, the streets where they live. With the school year startup approaching and we have been collecting school supplies, I have thought about the inexcusable gap between schools for children of wealthier parents and those for the poorest children.
Given the week’s scripture texts, I can’t help but feel that these words are meant for all of us, the Christian community and the leaders we elect to lead us in this country. Jeremiah’s prophetic message from God indicts the people of the covenant, Israel and Judah, and Jesus’ words indict all of us who claim faithful allegiance to that same God and covenant. One commentator describes the covenant as the bond between God and God’s people that is defined by mutual promises, much like the promises made between two people as they marry, or as the congregation makes at the time someone is baptized. God was anguished over God’s people who had more or less turned their backs on God and had forgotten their own foundational story of liberation from bondage accomplished by God on their behalf. Their worship was of other gods and they followed their own paths, relying on power politics and alliances with neighboring nations for protection and status.
They forgot that all life is a gift from God and that God is the One whom they can trust without fail. In our day we seem to have lost sight of that as well. In place of our foundational faith story we have our American story, of ‘discovery, possession, often by force, and self-reliance’, that has led us to an attitude of entitlement, characterized most arrogantly in the catchphrase, “American exceptionalism”. But what have been the consequences for our children, all of our children?
Depending on their individual circumstances, many have an uneven educational experience at best, and healthcare, job opportunities and safe housing and communities are likewise uneven.
Jesus, in the Luke passage, used the occasion of a dinner given by a leader of the Pharisees, to teach His listeners about covenant promises, ancient promises, to welcome the poor, the stranger, the most vulnerable and to care for all equally. In the midst of no doubt wealthier, more prominent guests, who were jockeying for the ‘best seat at the table’ in order to boost their own prestige, Jesus told them a parable about a wedding banquet. There He taught them to be humble and take the lowest seat so that the host, recognizing their humility, might invite them to a higher seat and thereby honor them.
It reminded me of having to sit at the children’s table on occasion, when a large family gathering precluded putting everyone around one table. There just wasn’t room. The older I got, the more I resented being shuffled off to sit with the younger ones because I wasn’t yet ‘an adult’ and thereby worthy to sit at the big table. Do we not do this with our children as a society? We may cloak it with lots of organized activities to give our children all the opportunities to advance and develop their gifts. We may tell ourselves that they all just want to be with their peers and not with adults, but maybe it’s the reverse. Maybe we don’t want to spend time with them. We don’t want to spend our time and resources teaching them about what life is all about.
It may be that we have forsaken the truth that all life is a gift from God and exchanged it for the false truth that all life depends on what you do for yourself. Your success, your achievements, your possessions, and so forth are the way you measure your worth. Isn’t this what we are teaching our children? They learn to compete, to measure themselves by their clothes, their toys, their electronic stuff, their grades, their friends, and so on. They learn from us, the adults, what is important. They learn our values, our life styles, our beliefs and our priorities and they imitate them, though of course they believe they can do it better.
Do we ever ask ourselves “What does God want to do in and through me for the sake of the world?” That is a telling question that bears repeating, probably daily, but not just to ourselves, it should be shared with our children, maybe around the dinner table, and certainly in our worship and Sunday School. In conversation with another session, another church, they were trying to reflect on their own Sunday School and how it was lacking in spiritual teaching. They had hired someone from outside the congregation to teach their children. It was a small group of children, much like ours, and they were hearing from parents that their children weren’t learning anything about the Bible, about church, about anything really. They were being given little crafts to do and a snack. Some parents were talking about taking their membership elsewhere.
The situation fostered a great discussion about what they wanted their children, the church’s children to learn. Stories of the elders own Sunday School days recalled lessons, stories of the Bible, learning prayers and songs, and helping the children learn how to worship and live as Christian people. They came to realize that they themselves had dropped the ball. They needed to lead more, participate in teaching both the adults and the children about Christian living and to remind everyone about the promises made at baptism.
It’s not easy being Christian and raising Christian children. It means loving others actively even to the point of sacrifice. It means teaching children actively, at home as well as taking turns at Sunday School. It means spending time with children introducing them to ministries like soup kitchens, shelters, mission trips, visiting the elderly and the sick, and engaging in justice work, so that they know these things are important and are what defines Christians living. This is how they will learn what determines their worth, not what they earn through competition or possessions, but what they do in love, compassion and service to others.
A commentator, Ronald P. Byars, made an interesting observation, in the Apostles’ Creed; it “jumps directly from ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ to ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. Jesus’ whole life is somehow hidden in the comma.” And perhaps that is how it is for us and why it is so hard for us to accept. Our lives mostly seem small, but every act of love and service to others makes the world a better place and is the greatest offering to our children and to our God. As we begin this new year, I hope we will all remember our baptismal vows and our children, all our children, and respond faithfully.