Sermon by Mary Moore
My son whispered to me, ‘when are we going to lay off Jesse—poor guy?’ We can’t help it. I’ve been looking forward all summer to Jesse’s baptism. Am I the only one who had an impulse to elbow my children and say, “Look at Jesse. Be like him and choose baptism when you grow up.” There can be a fine line between indicating our hope that another person will choose baptism and pressuring them to do so. Apparently, it is tempting for some to stay well away from that line by not sharing their own beliefs about God with their children. Several families indicated as much recently in an interview for a local parenting magazine. While I recognize the value of questioning what we tell our children, or anyone else we care about who has not accepted God’s gift of life, I will never believe in silence out of some misguided desire not to influence somebody.
For one thing, the youngest children already know God. Sofia Cavaletti, who wrote The Religious Potential of the Child, tells many stories of young children with no prior religious education who proclaimed God with great joy. Telling children what the Bible says or about the invitation of Jesus to remain with him encourages what is there already. Not providing that information, and not showing our own commitment to God, actively discourages a relationship with God.
I’ve thought a lot about what we should say to children because I’ve spent the last several years working with children in the atrium—first with 3-6 year olds and then with the 6-12 year olds. I have taken four weeks of training so far, not because I am a slow learner or a glutton for punishment, but because God is teaching me. Like Jonah, I went the other way first. I thought I was pretty discerning after serving on the discernment committee, and I felt sure God wanted me to work with adults for awhile.
Just then, Emily and Juli began talking about starting the atrium program, which is Montessori-based. I am a Montessori teacher. Hmm. Then I thought we’d try it without training. That quickly became impractical. So I invested all this time and effort, knowing that the church may not continue the atrium program for very many years.
I have not regretted the training or the time spent in the atrium because God is teaching me through this process. I do not like missing most of church, but what is happening in the two atria is important. It is important for our children and for me, but it is also important for our church community as a whole. It has to do with how we learn to relate to God by struggling to understand together, while also recognizing that each of us must make our own decisions about it.
It has to do with how we treat those who are on the margins of our community. The children are definitely on the margin—they have not chosen to be part of this group, their parents have. Our church is a center-set church and not a bounded-set one. With a bounded-set church, there are certain criteria which determine very clearly whether you are in or out of the church. With a center-set church, there is a central core of beliefs that the group is heading towards, but an individual may be in any number of places on the way towards that core. This means that you cannot count on any given person at our church believing in God, but only that they have a commitment to the ideal of believing in God. This is the very essence of not pressuring someone, wouldn’t you say?
If we are going to be center-set, however, it is critical that we make sure everyone knows what those core beliefs are that we are heading towards. That is where atrium comes in for our children. We introduce Jesus as the center of our church’s theology. We read scripture passages and ask the children and ourselves what it tells us about Jesus. We ask questions like, “What did you notice?” “What do you hear?” If it is a parable, we might ask, “Who is God in this parable?” “Who are we?” or we might ask it the other way—’who is the good shepherd really?’
We often return to a passage that we read before and get something different out of it. This year, the parable of the sower has caught my attention particularly. It has helped me see my role in walking the line between hope and pressure. Listen to it again,
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
I have always looked at the parable of the sower with the interpretation included. This caused me to focus on how we are supposed to behave, and I felt a vague pressure to work hard to ‘be the good soil.’ During training for atrium, we learned to end the passage prior to the interpretation. I was struck for the first time by how odd the sower is. What kind of person plants seeds on a path, on rocky ground, or among thorns? Is he wasteful, ignorant, or careless? The people of Jesus’ time probably saw this at once and many must have dismissed his stories as crazy. But, as we tell the children in the atrium, parables are puzzles for us to work out. Usually parables tell us something about God or about how we should behave.
I was amazed when I finally focused on what this parable tells me about God. If God is the sower, and the seeds are the gifts of God, then how wonderfully extravagant God is! God generously spreads these gifts everywhere, regardless of where they are most likely to be accepted and bear fruit. Hey, that means God’s gifts are available to me even if I’m not the fertile soil!
God must have prodigious gifts in order to be so little concerned about the percentage that sprout. I guess God doesn’t work on the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. Pareto was an Italian who noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. 20% of his pea plants produced 80% of his peas. It is apparently fashionable now in management circles to apply these proportions to practically everything. 20% of employees do 80% of the work. 20% of customers cause 80% of the problems. 80% of a manager’s time should be spent on the 20% of his work that is most important. According to this rule, God is scattering those seeds all wrong! Unless God gets some outside help, not much is going to grow.
Let’s look again at where those seeds are going to land. Is it all over when a seed falls on the path? We know what happens to seeds that birds carry away: birds are a major source of seed dispersal. Is there no hope for the seeds that are sown among the thorns? If someone weeds out the thorns, then the seeds planted among them have a chance to grow. If someone amends the soil in the rocky ground, those seeds might live. I wonder who that someone might be.
Perhaps this is something you have already discovered about the parable of the sower. But that is another thing I’ve learned in the atrium. Until we have ears to hear, we won’t hear it. One of the great discoveries children make in the first atrium is that we represent the sheep in the good shepherd parable. I was concerned the first time a child shouted it out: I thought the other children had been deprived of the joy they could have had in discovering it for themselves. I didn’t have to worry—it did not compute for the ones who weren’t ready to hear it. Several weeks later, another child discovered that we are the sheep as if it was the first time anyone realized it. Eleanor Duckworth, a student of Piaget, explained it this way, “All the rest of the world passes us by unless we think of thinking about it in that way.” She goes on to say that the pressure of data doesn’t convince, either. Until each of us tries to make sense of the data, we do not understand.
Until we have ears to hear, we won’t hear. One day in the atrium, I dutifully presented the parable of the hidden treasure. I had presented it to other children before and I really didn’t know what we were going to get out of it, because it still puzzled me. The text is this, from Matthew 13:44:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
I asked the children, “Why would he hide the treasure and buy the field?” One of them answered, “So other people could find it.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus was doing when he taught in parables? He was hiding the treasure and buying the field. I wonder if each of us is called to hide the treasure and buy the field. Is that pressure, or is that hope?
The Bible is not like a crossword puzzle book that loses its value when you’ve filled in all the answers. It reveals different meanings for us at different times in our lives and in different contexts. Our interpretations of scripture are not like answers on a test, either. We can’t just give our children the answers and they’ll pass. We are called to search alongside the children, to offer our thoughts sometimes but to also be aware of how dominating we adults can be. Sometimes we should simply listen to what the children have to say.
Some of my favorite materials the older children use lay out God’s entire plan from creation, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to the day when all creation is together with God. There are many interesting cards and labels, and the very complexity of the work highlights the starkness of the blank page that is also included. What’s this? Oh, it’s a blank page. That’s where we get to write the story.
It’s as if God is saying to us, “Are you just gonna stand there watching the sower waste the seed, or are you gonna do something?” I no longer feel this vague generalized guilt about somehow being the fertile ground. I’m not expected to put 80% of my effort into the 20% of tasks that are most important. I don’t need to claim that I ‘saved 20 souls’ in the past year. Claims like that are given to none of us. I am expected to watch God, move a few weeds when I see them or add some soil. And, lest I begin to think I am the teacher, God graciously added some instructions about that: be like the little children.
Jesse, I am filled with joy that you have accepted God’s gift of life. I hope that you will keep your eyes on God, and share your journey of faith with others all along the way. In that sharing, you will not be deciding for someone else. You will simply be hiding the treasure again, or giving some seeds a better chance.