Think of the Children! – Sermon on Psalm 78.1-8

Psalm 78.1-8

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open in my mouth a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should se this hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.

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I love when scripture is straight-forward. With the amount of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that remain ambiguous, it is remarkably refreshing to encounter a text that is so simple with its claims and expectations.

Listen up! Open your ears to what I’m about to say regarding the mighty acts of God. I will remember for us the forgotten sayings from the past, we will not hide them from the children, we will share with them all the wonders of God. The Lord commanded our ancestors to teach our children, so that they would indeed teach their children, so that none of us would forget what God has done. Above all, let us not fall back into the rhythms of our distant ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, nor was their spirit faithful to God.

What follows our reading from this morning is a record of history in song. The psalmist sets up his challenge: to remember the mighty acts of God for the future generations; and then declares the history of God with God’s creation. The tradition, the narrative, is so strong that the psalmist will not depart from it, since his purpose is to instruct rather than to entertain. That old old story has become so important to him, that he will tell it to the best of his ability for the sake of God’s people.

As I read the words to Psalm 78 this week, I couldn’t help but wonder about what we are teaching our children. If our desire to instruct the future generations regarding the mighty deeds of God is as strong as this Psalm claims, then how are we living that out today in our faith and in our church?

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On Tuesday morning, with the words from scripture percolating in my heart and soul, I made my way down to the Preschool to welcome our children into the building. I’ll admit that opening the door for our students is one of the things that I look forward to most during the week. The children are always so excited about entering the classrooms for the activities and learning that will enrich them. Whereas many parents have to drag their high-school students out of bed, banging pots and pans, even dumping water on them to wake them up, the Preschool students see school as something worth celebrating and waking up for!

It brings me so much joy to see their smiling faces every morning, to hear them shout “Pastor Taylor!” and run over to give me a hug as if they thought that they had lost me forever, to see them walking with their parents or guardians hand in hand hopeful for the day ahead. When I look at them in the morning I can’t help but think about the future generations of the church, and our community. In the basement of our building, we have the privilege of shaping, molding, and nurturing those who will one day take care of us.

Anyway, when the children arrived on Tuesday morning they came in with their normal excitement and made their way to their respective classes. I usually try to sneak back down around snack time for the selfish purpose of receiving some carrots with ranch dressing, or pretzel sticks, and I often ask each of the children what they had been learning about that morning.

“Pastor Taylor, I learned about the letter “G.” Goofy, Girl, Grass, and Grapes!”

“Pastor Taylor, I learned that spiders have eight legs and make a web to catch their food!”

“Pastor Taylor, I learned that we stole the land away from the Indians and forced them to move across the country!”

On Tuesday morning, every one of those children looked at me when I walked in, and shouted, “Pastor Taylor, we learned how to vote!” The teachers had set up a voting booth in the yellow room, and each child had the opportunity to vote on their snack for the day: Pringles Chips, or Oreo Cookies (obviously Oreos were victorious). Every child had the opportunity to go behind the curtain, place their vote in secrecy, and then received an “I Voted!” sticker.

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Downstairs in the basement we work on educating the future generation on the important things: Letters, Shapes, and Numbers; Animals, Plants, and Weather; Hygiene, Responsibility, and even Civic Duty. However, sometimes we get so caught up in the education of our youth, that we lose sight of what God has called us to do. Because right now I know that every child from our Preschool can tell you why we vote, and how we vote, but I know that only a few of them can tell you who Jesus is, and what he came to do. What does it say about our culture when more people now recognize the McDonald’s Golden Arches than they recognize the cross of Jesus Christ? What does it say that we train our children regarding voting procedures, but we do not teach them how to pray?

I have very fond memories of growing up in church. I loved the change in the liturgical seasons, and the different colors around the altar. I loved getting invited up to the front of the church once a month to receive communion. I loved getting to hear the choir sing with passion on a regular basis. I loved church because it was fun.

Yet, I can’t really remember what I learned. I know that when I was much younger, we, the kids, were only allowed to stay in the sanctuary until the “children’s sermon” and then we were escorted out of the sanctuary to the classrooms to work on arts and crafts as if whatever was happening in worship was for adult audiences only; Aldersgate UMC Rated PG-13

I remember learning about the big stories, the ones that everyone knows: Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, Jesus and his disciples. But there are so many things about church that I never learned. 

My grandmother remembers her mother placing a coin in her hand every Sunday so that she would place it in the offering plate. From a young age she was habituated into the practice of giving back to God out of the abundance that she had. But by the time my mother came around this was not something that was instilled in her, and therefore it was not instilled in me. I have no idea whether or not my parents ever gave money to the church because it was not something we ever talked about.

What I do remember is a story that one of my pastors told about receiving a letter from a young boy in the congregation. The boy had been mowing lawns in the community and his parents had talked to him about the importance of tithing so that boy collected 10% of his lawn-mowing earnings, and placed them in the offering plate inside of a ziplock bag. The way my pastor told the story was so powerful that it got many of the adults crying. Look at the faith of this young boy and his willingness to give back to God!

Photo of a Collection Plate

But when I think about that now, I don’t see it as something special, in fact I see it as something rather ordinary. The fact that it was something so deeply celebrated as a rarity is another testament to the fact that we have neglected to tell the story of God’s mighty acts to the coming generation. They recently did a study at my home church and they discovered that only 25% of the people who attend worship give money to the church. That means that 3/4 people in the pews let the offering plate pass right over them. What are we instilling in the future generations that allows them to witness the incredible acts of God in the world today? How are we sharing the story with others so that we remember who we are and whose we are?

Instead, we hope and expect that others will just figure it out on their own and that they will know to give 10%, that they will know how and when to pray for their enemies, that they will place their hope in the resurrection in the midst of death. We so desperately want to privatize everything in our lives that we don’t want to talk about our prayers, we don’t want to talk about how much we give to church, and we don’t walk to talk about when and how we doubt.

When I was in seminary we were required to take a class on preaching. For weeks we gathered in the basement of the Divinity School listening to our professor lecture on the importance of proclaiming the Word, and then we were asked to preach in front of our peers on assigned texts so that they could critique our style and form. One day however, our preaching class went on a field trip to one of the local funeral homes in Durham, NC. The point of the visit was to help prepare us for the sermons that we would be preaching at funerals, offer advice on how to interact with funeral home directors, and talk about the theology behind death.

We walked through the facility from the basement where they did the embalming to the chapel where they held smaller services. And when we passed through one of the rooms, I noticed that a coffin had been prepared and opened for a viewing that would happen that afternoon. I stopped to pay my respect and offer up a brief prayer when I saw one of my friends frozen in place with her gaze locked on the casket. At 27 years old, she had never seen a dead body. Even with all the training and reading, the practice and focus, she was completely shocked by the sight, and I had to physically help her out of the room to continue the tour. I can remember her muttering under her breath as if she was unaware that she was actually speaking “death is so real.” I learned later that she had never been to a funeral and seeing that embodiment of death for the first time came as a frightening and almost overwhelming dose of reality.

What does it say when we keep our young people from experiencing death through funerals? Are we so afraid of death that it blinds us from the hope of the resurrection? Are we so concerned about how it might affect the coming generation that we neglect to instill in them the story about how God conquered death through Christ on the cross?

Of course, this isn’t just about teaching children the stories. It’s about all of us, whether we’re nine or ninety. We gather here in this space to remember, over and over, the great acts of God in the world. We move from creation, to redemption, back and forth, to remind one another what God did for us, and what God continues to do through us.

The psalmist, so long ago, believed in retelling the story to help shape the people of God. The psalmist believed that in going back to their origins, by remembering who they are and whose they are, they would always find the living God. When we retell the story we become a people of habit and pattern, we become shaped by the Word to be Christ’s body in the world today. 

We tell the story to open our eyes to how God has provided us with so many blessings that we respond by giving back to God our tithes and offerings. We tell the story so that we can open our hearts to the ways that we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. We tell the story so that we can open our souls to the great cosmic victory over death and remember that we have the hope of the resurrection.

If we want the coming generations to be steeped in the Word of the Lord, if we want them to remember the glorious deeds of God, and his might, and the wonders that he has done, if we want them to be a people of hope, then its up to us to share the story with them.

Amen.

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