Text: Mark 1:14-20
Several years ago, I had a conversation with Tom, as he was considering taking the position of Christian Education director of the church. I said to him that, while I find the job of Christian education to young children terribly important, I did not know how to do it. The problem was not that where I went to school we did not do that stuff, indeed we didn’t. The problem was not that I hadn’t read on what people where writing about teaching the faith to young children. It was something more fundamental.
Faith is not simply something that you have – and when you have it, that’s all there is to it – you have it. Faith is a much more dynamic response to God in each moment of our lives that stretch on as far as the mind’s eye can contemplate. For to be truly as we are to be requires we ask and answer of ourselves, on a continual basis, will I live in the way I know to be the way of love, or will I follow, right now, a different path?
That question can never be answered the same way for all time – which means that the teaching of stories as though they were something other than the struggles of people to answer these questions for themselves in their own day, is to miss the boat of faith.
Thankfully Tom did not say, “Well, I know how to teach the answers to these questions, just hire me.” Because I don’t think we would have hired him. But then again, I don’t think he would have found himself in the position of looking to be Christian Ed Director here if he thought he had all the answers or if he thought that teaching children about faith, the very faith that he claims as deeply important in his life, was simply about giving them stories to memorize and illustrate with arts and crafts.
Making bible stories memorable is easy. But we’re also asking that these stories become foundational for children’s lives. Sure we could thrill them now with stories of burning bushes and dead people coming back to life, but when they’re 18 or 25, then what happens? What happens when our children say to themselves, “These are supposed to be foundations of faith, but I can no longer believe them?” Telling bible stories is not all there is to it. They must be engaged as modern stories, so that we are free to ask questions, to experience the same doubts and fears and make our own mistakes – answering for God in some cases and against God, sadly, in others.
I learned the story of Jonah and the whale when I was a child. But why? All I remembered from it was that Jonah was a human who was swallowed by a whale, and that was a tale quite hard to swallow. But we did. For awhile. But not for long.
How about the story of Noah and the flood? With flood waters lapping at our own back doors, do we really want to tell that story without the caveat that I never got, “this is not true!”? (To be honest, we should have been taught that the story never happened, and that it is true. That certainly never happened.)
Take our story from this gospel of Mark this morning. There are excellent reasons to teach this story to children. My suspicion is that children are more moved by it than adults are. That children are more likely to appreciate its radical call and are more moved by its great question than adults are.
In the Seasons of the Spirit, a curriculum we used to use here at Waterbury Congregational Church, its writers counsel teachers to downplay this story. “It might be disturbing to some,” they say, “especially for those who have experienced abandonment in any way.” It is, of course, necessary to be sensitive to conditions that may cause unintentional hurt. But there is more going on in the Seasons of the Spirit in its implicit advocacy of the middle class search for comfort through more work, and better work. Jesus is good, so long as we may continue in our comfortable routines, and not so good when we are called to question whether what we do is indeed what we should be doing.
Let’s look closer at the story from Mark, fo rit illustrates well the challenge of Christian Education.
The first thing to understand is that Mark and Jesus have completely reversed what people expected to hear. People expected to hear ‘the kingdom of God will be coming soon, so repent to get ready for it.’ This was what John the Baptist and the rabbis had been teaching. And it is what we still sometimes hear. It was the message of those I have taken to calling the May 21sters. They even took out ads on the tv and the internet to warn people to prepare.
This approach is just what Mark and Jesus reverse. The kingdom of God is upon us now. There is no time to prepare, there is only time to act – to commit yourself to the way of love. Their message is use it or lose it.
The point is that the gospel is a message about an event, and this event is encountering God’s call to turn oneself around immediately, right now, and canned liberal curricula and canned conservative curricula alike, miss this.
Here’s how it happens: Simon and Andrew encounter Jesus. The time is right now. Are they willing to ‘fish for people’? Yes or no? They say ‘yes,’ and go at once. Then Jesus meets the brothers James and John. Again, it is “fish or cut bait.” They make their decision; they go to follow him and his gospel that the kingdom of God is upon them. It is now or nothing. “Faith” is an event; it is a decision, an impact—to trust or not, to live from the promise of a new future or to stay in the old past.
The challenge of Christian Education, is the challenge of the Christian call. And it cannot be put any other way. It is challenging. I don’t live it like I want to. But I know how it is that I would like to live, and how it is that I do sometimes live. And make now mistake about it – our children know this too. Christianity is straightforward this way.
Let me conclude what I am trying to say by relating something that happened to me last week.
With a few others of us from here, I attended last week’s interfaith dialogue at the Islamic Society in Colchester. The topic of conversation was the Arab Spring. There was a young man present, with his wife and two children, who had come to Vermont to study just over a year ago. He told about his and his wife’s desire to keep up with the news in Egypt because when they returned, they wanted to be a helpful part of society. And about how they both had a sudden conviction about one month before the events in Tahrir Square unfolded, that a revolution was required.
One of the Christians in the group asked whether he thought that what did eventually happen was because of religious impulses or whether it was out of the basic human drive for freedom.
It is good to ask questions. But the question that did not get asked because it is off limits to many Christians, is: “Is not the fundamental drive for freedom, just what is the religious impulse?”
Jesus’ call back then on the shore of Galilee (and still today) is not a call to worship properly, not a call to memorize stories, not a call even to be better Christians, but a call to turn about and discover real, deep down freedom. It is a religious call simply because it is a call to a decision. Will you be free of those things that slowly grind you into the mold?
When Jesus invited the children to join him in conversation, he was acting completely outside the norm of civilized society. Children were not to be seen conversing with adults. Children were not merely “not to be heard,” as in the Victorian adage, they were to be at work. Children were slaves and to engage them in conversation was to break the mold.
The question we ask our children will be no different than the question we ask ourselves, when we gather for worship. Will you be free to reach out a loving hand to a neighbor in need? No matter who they are, no matter where they are on their life’s journey? Amen.