The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
God of the Generations
“Teach them to your children and to your children’s children.” “Let’s grow in every way into Christ who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does his part.” These words from the two Scripture passages we just heard make plain the work of the Christian teacher. We are to tell the story of God’s presence throughout human history and in our own lives in order to grow the faith of those given into our care, so that we can become the mature body of Christ acting in the world. Easy, right?
In the last century, Christian teachers adopted the public school model of education to be faithful to their call; classes segregated by age, lessons focused on teaching the Bible stories to children and youth through memorization, and any craft that could be made with popsicle sticks and a lot of Elmer’s glue. We came to know this as “Christian Education” and many of us sitting here today are products of that model.
Christian teachers have learned in the last few decades that this model is a good way of transferring information about things. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire calls this “the banking model of education.” The teacher deposits knowledge into the student and the student withdraws it as needed. It’s fine as far as it goes, but is it the best way to grow Christians? Christian teachers have realized it is not enough by itself to transmit the faith to the next generation. And so, we began to think of ourselves as faith “formers.”
When I came for my interview at Eliot, one of the questions I was asked was: what is the difference between Christian “Education” and Christian “Formation?” Here is my answer: Christian education teaches us about God, the Bible and the Church. Christian formation invites us to be in relationship with God, the Bible and the Church. Both education and formation take place in Christian community – and both rely on the same practices. Sharing the stories and wisdom of Scripture, Sunday worship and Christian rituals such as baptism and confirmation, potlucks and mission trips, classes for all ages and opportunities to learn and be together. Christian Formation understands these practices as opportunities to encounter the living Spirit of God so that it transforms us individually and collectively into the body of Christ. We don’t “form” others – the Holy Spirit does. The gift of God’s Spirit in baptism tells us that we are not -and do not - have to be how the world defines us. Baptism frees us from the agenda of living up to the false expectations of our culture, and like water on a stone over time, it gently forms us into the unique and gifted persons we are called to be individually and collectively for the sake of the world God loves.
You have called me to Eliot in the words of this morning’s scripture to “equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ” through the ministry of teaching. Teaching the faith is my vocation, but I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly decide this is what I would do with my life. It would have been nice – and saved me a great many bumps along the way – if this call had been sung by a choir of angels. It was – and continues to be – a deepening of my personal relationship with God in Jesus and my relationship with several Christian communities – that has shaped me into the teacher I have become. It is still shaping me into God’s vision for me as a teacher of the faith. This morning, I want to share some of my faith story with you because it is an example of one Christian’s formation and because my experience of it forms my understanding of what the ministry of Christian teaching is.
My earliest memory of experiencing God comes from a story my mother tells. I don’t know how much of this I actually remember or if it is vivid to me because of my mother’s telling, but the story goes like this: When I was about 4, my mother took me to worship at the Episcopal Church where we were living at the time. The minister there was very tall – and I am sure that to my small self, he must have seemed to be a giant. As the service ended, we got up to stand in line to shake hands with the minister at the door. As my mother reports it, I looked up at her and said, “But Mommy, I don’t want to shake hands with God.” As an adult, I have learned from that experience – when I speak with kids, I get down at their level. My own experience tells me that kids identify the person in the pulpit or the robe with God – so I really NEED to know them by name, just as God does.
I am not sure what happened after the scary minister, but I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t curious about God and trying to figure out who God was and why I mattered to God. When I was in the third grade, it was my grandmother and her UCC church who had a huge impact on my formation as a Christian. My grandparents lived at the end of a dirt road on the top of a hill in a very small town in Vermont. The surrounding area was so small that the protestant churches could only afford one pastor between them. Three churches of three denominations in three towns held Vacation Bible School together, rotating between the churches each summer. My grandmother taught the kindergarten class, and from the time I was in third grade until I graduated from high school, we taught together. I had two specific jobs – leading both the craft project of the day and the singing. As I got older, I told the Bible story of the day. It was only telling bible stories with children much later in my life that I realized I had been growing into my teaching vocation for years.
I was 11 when we moved to Massachusetts, and my family joined a very small Episcopal Church that was the center of our family’s life. I sang in the senior choir and was the assistant to the director of the children’s choir. The first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church took place the year I turned 14. New roles opened to women and girls in worship, and I joined my brother as an acolyte, carrying the light of Christ or the cross into the Sanctuary. To this day, I am certain that heaven will smell the same as it does around the altar when the candles are extinguished. My Mother led the youth group and we roller skated, painted the chairs and tables for the weekday nursery school that met in the basement and every Christmas, we caroled at the local nursing home. I also remember the Christmas my junior year of high school. I had cut the top of a finger off on my left hand and was in a big, bulky bandage while sewing new choir robes. When it came time to turn the points of the collars, I could NOT make them properly pointy. I simply could not get my bandaged hand in there to work. While I sobbed and both of us cursed, my father faithfully worked away at those points and somehow, the robes were ready for Christmas Eve – however, they had no buttons - we had to pin the robes closed. I still hear the sound of ripping pantyhose as we knelt on the straight pins.
My church life growing up was not perfect. The minister was not emotionally healthy. The congregation was small and not always welcoming. My father was the Senior Warden – the equivalent of Leadership Council Chair – when the congregation decided it was time for the minister to go. I remember my father’s angst as the process went forward, the broken relationships it caused and the frustration with a minister who could not do his job.
I went to college at a Jesuit university and the community there invited me into yet another experience of being Church. A disciplined academic life supported by faith gave me space to ask questions about who I was called to be in the world. It was my history professor, a Jesuit priest, who first suggested to me that I might be called to ministry within my own protestant tradition, which some years later led me to seminary.
As I look back over my own life of faith, I realize how blessed I have been. My experience of God was literally passed through the generations of my family and generations of multiple church communities, just as our Scripture this morning says. And this has formed me into the teacher you have called me to be at Eliot.
As it is across denominations and faith traditions, our Sunday School is small. Families are pulled in so many directions in our time and place. It isn’t just sports that compete on Sunday morning; it is the pace of our society and its values that get in the way of keeping Sabbath. Christians – and every other community of religious practice are asking the same question John Westerhoff poses in a book entitled: Will Our Children Have Faith? An Episcopal priest and professor at Duke Divinity School, Westerhoff first published his book in the 1970, revised and re-published it in 2000, and it remains a classic in the Christian Formation field to this very minute.
Westerhoff begins framing his answer by remembering a much-loved and regularly quoted dictum of formation practitioners, “Faith is caught, not taught.” We can teach children and youth, or adults for that matter, the 10 Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer, but we cannot teach the grace of living them. We must experience them as lived by others, then imitate them and finally embody them in our own lives. Westerhoff writes, “We can nurture persons into institutional religion, but not into a mature Christian faith . . . . [if we are] to grow faith, [we must] be aided and encouraged to judge, inquire, question and even doubt that faith; to be given the opportunity to experiment with and reflect upon alternatives; and to learn what it means to commit [our] lives to persons and causes.” We do this best as the community of multiple generations.
The Christian community at worship, in service, and fellowship is the last inter-generational institution left in our society. We have been given a great gift in each other. There are wisdom and traditions to be passed on, old and new questions to be asked and new responses to discover. To be the whole body of Christ, we need each other.
At the core of my practice as a teacher of faith are two beliefs; first, the invitation to be in relationship with God must be rich in experience – some of us use our heads, some our hearts, some sing, some walk in the rain, some bake bread, some knit, some paint, some write, some work behind the scenes. I judge curricula by how many different ways of experiencing God are offered in a lesson. Second, each experience of God we have is deepened when we share it with others in community and when we allow ourselves to be invited into new ways of experiencing God by others.
I firmly believe that the growing of Christians is work we are called to do together – no matter our age. By sharing worship and learning and serving together as multiple generations, we are formed into Christ’s body together. Whether you are a newborn or 102, we all experience the love of God and we can all learn from each other’s experience. Westerhoff cautions us, “There is no way we can say for sure if our children will or will not have faith, but one thing we can be sure, they will never have faith unless there is a community of faith for them to live in and be influenced by.”
Practically, my approach might make programming this fall feel a bit different. Curriculum for children and young teens may have us doing things from making maps to baking bread. There will be opportunities to worship, learn and serve all ages together. And, just in case you were wondering, we do need Sunday School teachers! Be sure to see me after worship!
My faith was formed by experiencing God at work in my family and many different church communities. And it turns out that this is what all the folks who study religious formation recommend for forming a life-long, mature Christian faith. Over the coming months and during this interim period, please be in our worshipping and forming community on Sunday mornings. I encourage you to pray and think about how the Holy Spirit working at Eliot might invite our community to experience new ways of forming faith so that it is “caught” by the next generation and their families. When we do so, we embody the vision from the prophet Joel written on the front of the bulletin: I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men (and women) will dream dreams, and your young men (and women) will see visions. Amen.