A sermon preached on January 18, 2009 based upon 1Samuel 3:1 – 10, entitled “The Gift of Children and the Danger of Generational Segregation.”
To start off, a story about a kid: last fall our household was blessed to have the Cogan brothers, Eddie 8 and TJ 4 as overnight guests. Bobby had a big soccer game in Newark, and so we took the boys along with us. It ended pretty late. Sarah and I had driven two cars, so on the way back I had TJ and Eddie, which meant Bobby had to come along as well. On the ride back to Parsippany the boys fell asleep. To celebrate Bobby’s big game, I pulled into the parking lot of TCBY, the ice cream store, so that Bobby could hop out and get a treat with Sarah, who pulled in behind us. The plan was I would drive the sleeping boys home.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot, however, Eddie woke up, looked out his window, and said, “What were you thinking?”
Excuse me? I said.
“What were you thinking. You left Bobby back there.”
He thought I had abandoned Bobby.
The voice of the child reminds us that the pack never leaves anybody behind.
I am aware that despite the fact that I put in a whole lot more time preparing for my adult sermon, it’s the children’s sermon that is most peoples’ favorite spoken part of the service. And I understand why. In the unplanned chaos of the children’s reponses, there’s a good chance we will hear God speak through something the children.
Here’s a few things I remember kids saying in the children’s sermon time:
When I asked, “What is the holy spirit?” Mark answered, “Everybody knows what the holy spirit is.” I said, “O really? Tell me what it is.” Mark answered, “The holy spirit is God praying.” Never have I heard a more profound or intriguing definition.
Words I had reported to me that were said by Eddie to Sarah Jernstrom while I was babbling on: “Sometimes people die young. Sometimes people die old. We don’t know why. I’m sorry your husband died.” I cannot imagine a more truthful response to somebody’s grief.
The pure unbridled delight of Marissa who declared, “It’s my birthday and I’ve brought cupcakes!”
Every Sunday at the end of our time together, I ask the children, “And what do we always say?” and they respond, “There’s always room in the circle!” But recently when I asked the same old question, I got this heretofore unheard announcement: “My mother’s going to have a baby!”
Over time, is human society moving in the right direction, or not? This is a question that can be debated endlessly, with strong cases arguing yes, and strong cases arguing no. To some degree both are true.
There is a whole host of evidence that could be pointed to both positively and negatively, but I would like to point to just one on either side.
On the positive side, generally speaking, society has moved away from the point of view expressed in the old axiom: “Children should be seen but not heard,” which implied that obedience and conformity were the most important attributes — that children’s value lay exclusively in the fact that if they managed to survive, they would one day be able to contribute to the serious world of adult work and commerce.
Jesus was one of the great pioneers in turning back this notion. When his disciples, buying into this common assumption tried to turn away the children who were spontaneously drawn to Jesus, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
That’s the positive.
Here’s the negative. Even as we celebrate this weekend the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the lessening of the racial segregation that he fought against, triumphantly symbolized this coming week by the inauguration of Barack Obama as president, there is another kind of segregation that has grown in recent decades, by which I mean generational segregation.
Most children spend most of their time with other children, supervised by a token adult or two. Teenagers hang with teenagers, adults with adults, senior citizens with other senior citizens, and the truly old and the dying, confined with others who are in a similar stage in life.
This trend is related to the decline in influence of the extended, multi-generational family, which in the past meant daily contact by children with a variety of adults including elderly adults — grandparents, great uncles and aunts. Nowadays many children view the elderly like they do animals at the zoo — creatures you come in contact with only when you go out of your way to see them in their restricted habitats — not someone you share life with routinely.
These days when we speak of a “family” we’re generally referring to the nuclear family — at best two parents with children but oftentimes just one parent. Where once upon a time it was understood that “it takes a village to raise a child”, nowadays the responsibility too often falls exclusively on these one or two stressed out parents.
This trend is reflected in the direction that churches are moving. People who study congregational life tell us that small churches are dying out; that it is the big, “mega-church” that is flourishing in the modern age. One of the secrets to mega-churches is that they indulge this societal drift towards generational segregation: They offer great programs for children of every age, and programs for teenagers, and for young single adults, and young married adults, and middle aged folk and single again folk and retired folks, but the one thing that is often missing in these big, mega-churches is the opportunity for all the generations to be together, to find their place in the circle of Jesus’ love together. And that is unfortunate. And whereas our little church doesn’t have the resources to offer that great multitude of programs, what we do offer is the opportunity for a child to be a part of a loving, multi-generational family.
You may know that in the United Methodist liturgy of baptism there is no place given specifically for “god parents”, though I think it is fine for parents to designate godparents for their children. The reason we don’t have godparents per se is because when we baptize a child, the entire church family takes vows that make all of us in a sense godparents and uncles and aunts and cousins.
We all took a sacred vow this morning on behalf of baby Shane that states:
“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples what walk in the way that leads to life.”
Practiced faithfully, these vows do away with the practice of generational segregation. The child now belongs to all of us. Baby Shane has received this day a whole host of aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles.
You may have noticed that the story we heard from the Bible this morning involves an interaction between a child and an older person.
One thing to pay attention to is that this relationship between the boy Samuel and the aging priest Eli is that it is a two-way street. Eli along with the majority of adults of his day had lost contact with God, and Samuel helps him re-connect.
But the boy Samuel needs the old man Eli to help interpret the voice he is hearing. Without Eli’s guidance, Samuel might just disregard the voice he heard as merely an odd dream.
The same is true for us. Children need us to protect them and teach them and guide them, that part seems obvious. But we need children too more than we often admit, because the natural tendency for us adults is to become stuck — indeed, dead before our time — losing contact with our capacity for wonder and awe — our connection to the holy.
Last Sunday we held our bi-monthly Administrative Council meeting after worship. We met back in last classroom up the hallway, the far corner of the church. We had just gotten under way, focusing on the Treasurer’s Report, when suddenly little Maggie Letsch, age 3 burst into the room, followed by a couple of older girls. She hadn’t known we were back there, and when she took one look at the group of about ten adults sitting around the table, looking so serious, she laughed. “Wow!!!!!” she said. And then, “What are you guys doing here?”
We all chuckled, and a quick explanation was given to her that we were holding a meeting, and the bigger girls quickly ushered little Maggie out of the room so we could get on with the business of our meeting.
It was, however, one of the best moments we’ve ever had in Administrative Council. What a peculiar sight we must have been to 3 year old Maggie. If our eyes and ears and hearts were open like hers, we too just might respond with a big time “Wow!!” Like Jacob of old, awaking from his sleep in a barren place, and declaring, “this is truly the doorway to heaven, and I did not know it!”
And then the question that followed Maggie‘s simple expression of awe, which can be taken both on the mundane level: “What are you guys doing here?” but also, on a deeper level, a question asked to us by God through the lips of Maggie: “What are you guys doing here?” Alive. Now.