CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SERMON – September 20, 2020 – Susan Thompson
Good morning. My name is Susan Thompson and I’m honored to be one of your Christian Education co-directors. Today is Christian Education Sunday and, following tradition, I’ll be sharing some thoughts with you on our volunteer, lay-led Christian Education Program at St. Mark’s Church.
Greg Niblett is your other co-director of Christian Education – and what a privilege and gift it has been for me to work with Greg. Greg gives his ALL to this work because he believes, as I do, that it is critically important to the health of our church that high quality programs are continuously available to children, youth and adults. Greg is creative and innovative — and anyone who witnessed what he did when he was Canvas Chair several years back knows his ability to network and get a job done with excellence. So great thanks go to Greg and great gratitude for our friendship, formed here at St. Mark’s.
I’d like to turn now to this morning’s reading from the New Testament. In it, Paul speaks to the Philippians saying, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” What this means to me is that as long as one is human and alive, productive work is necessary to living fully. Paul reflects on how much easier it would be to just hang it all up, to end his trials and tribulations, and vanish from his mission to spread the good word. But, instead, he assures his community by saying, “I know that I will remain and continue with all of you.”
How much these words speak to me this morning. When Greg and I began talking about this Christian Education year of 2020 through 2021, we knew how COVID could impact on our valuable programs for children, youth and adults. We had a moment, as you all might have, of asking if we are nuts to think about going ahead with a new Christian Ed year. But we started talking with teachers, asking for their input. And they overwhelmingly bought in with that adventurous spirit that makes them great and ensures that our program continues. So with their leadership and commitment, coupled with the tremendous support of Michele, here we are today going forward with Christian Education with every part of our beings, to do fruitful labor.
In the past, we gathered in a circle at St. Mark’s for our group classes — a practice that unified us and reinforced the image of our connectedness. Now, we will be using Zoom to bring us together. Our circle is flattened into a gallery view, where we can see all the faces of participants with a quick scan of the screen. We are in a rectangular frame – no longer a circle – but the perimeter of that frame keeps us together. In making this change, we are being asked to do what distinguished homo sapiens from early man. We need to use adversity to change. If we are going to thrive in this challenging time, we need to create new skills to face new challenges. We need to change. Modify. Adapt. Once we change, we create a new environment for ourselves. And this new environment creates change in us. When early Christians talked about the concept of metanoia, they meant a change of the heart and of the mind. So that’s what we will be doing. Changing the way we see each other; letting the change, change us; and allowing a change of heart and of mind. This new practice will bring us together, and keep us together, in a new way.
So this is how Christian Ed is going to work this year.
Catechesis 2 for Grades 1 through 3 — and Catechesis 3 for Grades 4 through 5 – Middle School for Grades 6 through 8 and High school for Grades 9 through 12 WILL ALL BE ON ZOOM.
Let me repeat that. Catechesis 2 and Catechesis 3 – Middle School and High School WILL ALL BE ON ZOOM.
Catechesis 1 for kids age three through Kindergarten – will NOT be on Zoom. Instead, once parents register, Christy Rumpf and her team will provide parents with access to videos and other materials that can be used in the home at a time convenient to parents.
All of our Adult Christian Ed programs will ALSO be on Zoom.
Now….. we know not everyone is going to be happy with having classes over Zoom. But our goal is to keep everyone safe so that when it’s time for us to regather in person, we will all be here. So we need to bind together and make this work.
All teachers know that using Zoom comes with its own fits and starts — and as future users, you need to know this too. This will not always be smooth going, but miraculously, as we have tested this medium out in classes offered over this last spring and summer, it works the overwhelming majority of the time.
This time of COVID has challenged us in ways we could never have anticipated. COVID is asking us to face into and get acquainted with the BEST in ourselves. Yes, we do feel a sense of isolation. We have deep concerns on whether we are protecting ourselves and our families sufficiently. And, we have fears for our friends and the entire global community. We know about sickness and death in this country and beyond our borders in a way that we haven’t ever known before.
SO, if there was ever a time, this is the time to strengthen ourselves and those of our children by remaining together in our classes and maintaining a sense of regularity. This is a time to clarify our beliefs and hold them close, to identify and acknowledge what is important in our lives, and to feel a sense of belonging and unity with each other and our spiritual life, however we experience that.
Christian Ed Sunday School and Adult classes can guide us to those understandings. CE provides a community for us and a sense of interconnectedness with each other. Together, we experience curiosity and excitement, hope and love and gratitude – but, together, we also experience our griefs, our frustrations, our anxieties, and our moments of sadness and anger. Life will continue to happen right here and now and not one of us can escape that. So we come together in our classes to make sense of this new existence. Whatever age we are, our CE teachers will guide us into deeper conversations about ourselves and others – and move us toward exploring our own deepest truths.
Because each of our classes is spiritual in nature, we are offered the opportunity to feel the silent companionship of the divine spark. Whether intentionally called or not, we can know that sense of a greater good, an unnameable force that is WITH us, that is WITHIN us. We are not alone. In the safe frame of our classes, we are listened to and understood and supported as we move throughout these days.
I’d like to give an example of how this works in our Christian Ed program from Catechesis through our Adult programs.
Our Gospel today is often called The Parable of the Vineyard Workers. I’d like to take another parable that is better known, and commonly called The Parable of the Prodigal Son – or if we are in Catechesis the same parable is called The Parable of the Forgiving Father.
Jesus used parables to wake up his apostles and those who came to hear him to new ways of seeing and thinking about common problems. As Richard Rohr says, a parable calls us into thinking AGAINST common sense. The conclusion, the take-away, of each of Jesus’s parables is often unexpected and we are jarred into thinking differently, of allowing change within us so we can consider a new way to experience our lives.
I want to explore this Parable of the Prodigal Son to show how this one teaching of Jesus is used at all of our levels of instruction.
In recapping the parable, this is a story about a restless farmer’s son who asks for his inheritance early so that he can leave the farm and explore the world. The father consents. The Son leaves, over time spends his inheritance, and becomes destitute. He humbles himself and asks to come back to the farm, which his brother meanwhile has been working during the years of his absence. He returns and is celebrated by the father. His brother reacts less charitably.
When we explore this parable in Catechesis, we ask young children, “Did the father know his son would come back to him?” Even though the father might not have known his son would return –he was always ready to welcome his son home. He had an open heart for the return of his son – regardless of what his son had done. His father never forgot him. Teachers then ask, “What does this tell us about what we can do when we are hurt by someone we love?” – for surely, at some level, his father was hurt by his son’s actions. Those are good thoughts to mull over if you’re a young child – thoughts of forgiveness and compassion and, above all, love.
Let’s take this story up to the Middle School level and see how the Parable of The Prodigal Son is treated there. Middle school kids are concerned with fairness. Teachers can ask: “Is it fair that the son who went out to explore the world, and who spent all of his inheritance should be welcomed home with such gladness by his father – while the other son who stayed home and worked the farm by himself morning till night, day after day, wasn’t celebrated?” “When deciding what is fair, what needs to be considered?”
Let’s take the parable up to the High School level. High schoolers can engage in higher order thinking and are focused on developing socialization skills. Teachers ask their students: “Why was the son whose actions seemed so irresponsible, celebrated by his father when he returned home?” “If you were the father, what would you have done when the Prodigal Son came home, penniless, to you?” “ Suppose you were the son who remained home to make sure the work of the farm continued – how might you have greeted your brother?”
When this story is examined in our Adult Bible classes, background information is provided on aspects of the parable and questions are provided to engage adults in analyzing content and meaning.
And when the parable is studied in our Adult experiential classes – in our Guild for Transformational Studies and Functional Education classes — leaders ask class members to see themselves in all three characters, as if this parable were a dream. They ask, “In your life, how are you like THE PRODIGAL SON who left the family, who squandered all his inheritance, and then wanted to come back to life as it was before he left? How are you like the other SON WHO STAYED HOME and worked the farm day after day for his father while another sibling who seemed irresponsible comes back and gets celebrated?” And finally, “How are you like the FATHER who welcomes the Prodigal Son home with great love and forgiveness, regardless of what the Prodigal Son has done?”
We all know what it is to be the son or daughter who wants out. We know what it is to agree to remain behind, to put our life on hold, in order to help out our father or mother. And we know what it means to be the person who forgives and welcomes back what has been lost with great happiness.
So, as you can see, our Christian Education Program does not TELL children, youth or adults what to think. But rather we see our goal as guiding participants in becoming EXPLORERS OF QUESTIONS. To become SEEKERS of what wants to be sought. To stay in the ambiguity that exists when a choice needs to be made – of not rushing to say this is right and that’s wrong, but rather to recognize that most of our life choices are not always clear cut. Questions give us an opening for change.
No matter what age you are, we ask each of our students to go into foreign places in their hearts and minds — to take reasonable risks to explore new ways of seeing and new ways of being and step into a world that is full of foreign places. This world that we have experienced in 2020 and are living now can feel very much like a foreign land and we need a map, an internal map, by which we can guide our decisions and actions. Over a lifetime, that map changes and we change too. We are not static beings. So our need for provocative courses that are embedded in the process of continuously asking us to question, opens the possibility to change and grow — guides us to wonder, to unearth, to clarify, and to traverse the unknown for a deeper truth. Each question takes us on an inner journey, a spiritual journey toward greater understanding, greater strength, and, hopefully, greater peace.
So, I leave you with these questions:
If you are a parent, what values do you want your CHILD’S HEART to live by? What do you want your CHILD’S MIND to think about to guide their decisions – not just this year, but possibly for a lifetime?
What do you want in YOUR own heart and head?
Our hearts and heads need special attention right now. And, there is a lot of room in both for a stronger inner core, a greater connection to that divine spark within, for new ideas, new knowledge, meaningful actions like compassion and kindness, and for solidifying friendships and making new friends for a greater, sustained sense of belonging.
Greg and I encourage you and your family to become explorers of questions and enrich your hearts and your heads — by signing up for Adult Ed classes and by signing up your child for CE Sunday School. For Sunday School, parents fill out a registration form that is available on our web site. For Adult classes, you register for each class by sending an email to the lead teacher. It’s that simple.
I’d ask you to join Greg and myself in honoring our lay, volunteer teachers for this year. They are our true heroes and heroines as they brave the unexplored land of teaching over Zoom:
Our Sunday School teachers are Stephanie Deutsch, Suzanne Wells, Christy Rumpf, Matt Dodge, Belinda Sims, Paul Albergo, David Trissell, Mary Thuell, Katherine Rogers, Andrew Schmidt, Kevin Flood, Tracy Councill and Ashley Hubbard.
And our CE Adult Teachers and coordinators this year are Michele Morgan, Patricia Catalano, Cindy Dopp, Bob Ewald, Andrew Stafford, Peter Mosley, Raiford Gaffney, Elin Whitney-Smith, Chris Berendes, John Edwards, Kris Humphrey, and Steve and Jennifer Dalzell.
Great thanks go to each of you for the volunteer time you put into bringing us these wonderful classes!
Finally, Greg and I wish all our teachers and each of you a sense of happiness in the coming year. Happiness, you say? During THIS time?
Consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There were great losses for all of the figures in that parable, but the parable ends with compassion, forgiveness, love and finally great happiness –that which seemed to be lost was always a possibility to be found.
May our classes help you all to find moments of happiness in our time of great loss. Seek that happiness, secure it to your hearts and then send it out into the world for a greater good.