Teaching God’s word

Matthew 4:1-11
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

4:3 The tempter came and said to him, «If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.»

4:4 But he answered, «It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'»

4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,

4:6 saying to him, «If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'»

4:7 Jesus said to him, «Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'»

4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;

4:9 and he said to him, «All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.»

4:10 Jesus said to him, «Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'»

4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him

At our annual meeting three weeks ago, our outgoing president, Kurt Shultz, expressed his hope that 2014 would be the year of Membership for us, where we would focus on bringing in new people and creating an ever more-inclusive worship and fellowship. That same Sunday, I suggested in my sermon that we might start talking about going to a fully-bilingual service, and I talked about how Joel is exploring a number of ideas for bringing more (and bigger) music into this space on Sunday mornings.

This is the first Sunday in Lent, when we begin six weeks of disciplined examination of our lives, our families, our relationships, and our church. Our new president, Beth Anne, along with Gerry and Grace Lindner, Elisa, Kendra, David and Ally, and well, a number of us have committed ourselves and our ministries this year to building our membership, it came to me that our Lenten discipline this year should begin with a conversation of how to do that.

The Internet is so cool. In the words of Robert Frost, “way leads upon way…” In the course of my search for the proper words to say about growing our faith and growing our membership here at the Balboa Union Church, I stumbled upon the words of the minister of Gray’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church in Florence, Alabama. The Reverend T. Michael Crews writes: It is easier to draw a crowd than to build a church. As a general rule, the way you reach people is the way you must keep them. If you reach them through big events and powerful personalities, you are always struggling to produce bigger and bigger events. If a church across town produces a more spectacular event, those you attracted with spectacular events will leave you for the church across town. A church built on the small-group structure is founded on the solid rock of relationships, not on personalities or events.

That sounded really good to me. That’s what we want; right? A church built on the solid rock of relationships – our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. That’s good stuff.

On building that solid rock of relationships, a number of adults and young adults in this congregation have expressed great interest in – and, indeed, are regular attenders when we hold seminars and when we offer regular Sunday morning adult Bible studies and Sunday school. We adults LOVE to sit in a room with our Christian friends and examine our faith in the light of the Holy Scriptures, in the light of our culture, and in the light of the people we love. Talking about it helps us to make sense of God’s plan is for us and for our community of faith. With each other and in environment of safe relationship, we are built up and supported in small-group Sunday school, Bible study and seminars, and everybody agrees that we need more of those here at Balboa Union Church.

Everybody agrees. Conversation about this happens all the time. And then somebody – very often it will be a parent or it will be me – says, “So what about the kids?” What can we offer our children?”

Two weeks ago, after the annual meeting was adjourned, I walked around the church with some of the folks who are interested in helping us build a more bilingual worship and bilingual church. At one point, I was standing in a circle of young people – the oldest (besides me) was 40 — and virtually all of them had had some kind of higher education in church work, in church mission, in theology, in church music and ministry. I asked them – in my dreadful Spanish – “Who here is passionate about children? Who in this group is excited about the possibilities of Christian Education?” Silence. Now, I don’t think any of them actually moved, but it was as if every one of them had metaphorically stepped back.

Samuel, who is, as we’ve seen this morning, a gifted bass player, said that he had worked with older teens and youth. So that was good. But the rest just shook their heads and, I suspect, hoped I’d take their silence as the end of the conversation.

I said, “Do you guys know anybody who is passionate about mentoring and teaching young children in the church?” One of the gals said, “Yeah, when I was growing up, my Sunday school teacher was passionate.” I said, quickly and hopefully, “Does she still work in the church?” No. I said, “Do any of you know anybody who is alive and working in the church today who is passionate about mentoring and teaching young children?” None of them did. Seven church people standing there in a circle, and nobody could even give me a name.

I don’t know anybody either. Beginning last October, we ran an ad in our newsletter and put the word out that there would be funds to hire a Christian Education Director here at BUC in 2014. The ad went to a couple of the private schools here in Panama, it went to Gamboa Union Church, it went to Crossroads, it went out to our extensive e-mail list. We never had the first person express an interest in the job or even offer a name. Not one.

For those of us who work in Christian Education, here’s what you typically get when you ask for volunteers:

Young adults: “I don’t really have any experience working with kids. I’d prefer to work on a different committee.”

Young parents: “I spend all week with little kids. I come to church to get a break.”

Older parents: “I spend all week with teenagers. I come to church to get a break!”

Parents whose kids are out of the house: “I did my bit with the kids. I’ll do any other job in the church, but not that.”

Older people: “I just don’t have the energy for that anymore.”


I would stand up here in self-righteous indignation, except I myself have said every one of those things at some point.

For me, there’s also something a little scary about working with kids. They’re used to a lot of stimulation, and it’s sometimes hard to find something that will engage them.

As I said to Grace and Gerry, yesterday, I’m starting to sound like my grandmother… “Kids today…” Tsk, Tsk.

Reading our lectionary lesson this morning, “The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

God, as it happens, we already have “the bread.” If you really want us to have a children’s Sunday school and a youth group, please send us the perfect person to lead it. Better yet – put a little jelly on the bread — send us somebody who will do it all FOR us and all we have to do is pay them!

“But he answered, It is written, one does not live by bread alone.”

For what it’s worth, our ennui is not unusual, nor are we alone in our sense that the old Sunday school model needs a strong reworking. Ken Hemphill writes in his book, “Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur” – yes, he’s referring to Sunday School when he says The Sunday Morning Dinosaur – Mr. Hempill says that the problem is we all have this image that Sunday School is like, well, school when the kids get together – fellowship – and learn about the Bible. On a typical Sunday in typical Sunday school, we get the kids together, and we get out the Bible. We read the stories, we do a craft, and maybe sing a song…say a prayer or two… (snore softly)   Yeah, no wonder nobody’s really passionate about children’s Sunday school.

Ken Hemphill says that craft activities and memorizing Bible verses and the kids making friends is not the point of Sunday school.   We’ve forgotten the point of Sunday school that our passionate teachers growing up knew deep down. He says the point of Sunday school comes down to an old word, heavily ladened: evangelism. Evangelism: The winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ; a militant or crusading zeal.”

The point of Sunday school – I am so on board with this — is the chance it gives Christian adults to show their love of their children by giving to them – not TEACHING them, but giving to them, bequeathing to them The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good News that they are not alone in this world, the Good News that God loves them, that God sees each of them as precious and gifted. We adults are uniquely qualified to show them – again, not teach, but model to them – the beloved community and its tradition of commitment to the mission and gospel of our lord Jesus Christ.   Our children don’t need curriculum and crafts. They NEED our zeal. They NEED this gift from us, and only we can give it to them. Nobody out there is going to do it. It’s OUR gift – and our gift alone — to give.

And the devil said to him, “All these I give you, if you fall down and worship me.” And Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”

“Away with you, Satan.” In the course of a week, our children see a lot of Satan-like stuff out there beyond these walls. We, the adult Christians in their lives, have the faith and, yes, the zeal to show them the better way, the good way, the Kingdom of God. Evangelism. It changes the dinosaur Sunday school into a transformative experience for all of us. Somewhere along the line every person in this room had knew an evangelist who changed our lives, who was zealous for us and who brought us to Christ. In their names, and in the name of our lord, and for the love of our children, it’s what God is calling us to do.