A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday in Easter

Children and Youth Sunday

By: Amelia McDaniel, Director of Children’s Ministries

Acts 10:44-48
John 15:9-17

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
I speak to you in the name of the Good Shepherd by whom we are known and loved and to whom we belong.

This year is a milestone year for me. I’ve been at professional ministry for exactly one whole half of my life now. 23 years. I giggle when I think of the 23 year old me setting up an office at St. James’s church. I had been hired to do youth ministry and I was enrolled as a student at the now closed Presbyterian School of Christian Education to get my masters in Christian Ed. As part of my studies I was to create my own theory of Christian Education. I’ve searched in vain for this paper over the years. It’s most likely on a floppy disk somewhere in a landfill, which is it’s best location.
I do remember the main concept. Christian education was about making meaning and meaning making. There were thousands of words in the word salad I created to flesh that out. I do still believe some of it today. The idea goes something like this… Children come to us already with an innate relationship with and understanding of God. It’s our job to help them make meaning of what they already feel and know. And then it is our job to provide them with the stories of our faith, relationships and experiences in the life of the church to continue to live into that meaning, to help them make more meaning of their understanding of God. It wasn’t all bad.

As time went on I went into my Martha Stewart phase of Christian Ed. I would speak about stocking our children’s pantries with all these things they needed in life…knowledge of scripture, worship, outreach, community, and just insert some more word salad stuff in there. In my mind you really could just stock this gorgeous looking pantry of life in the church and the outcome would be neat and orderly and wonderful, just as picture perfect as anything Martha could make. This pantry would sustain our children as they grew and they would be able to reach in there and pull out what they needed to address whatever life challenge they were facing.

Then I had my own children. And basically they set to fire bombing that stupid pantry from the moment of their births. It’s laughable and probably predictable that I had gotten so much wrong no matter how well intentioned I was.

But, until I had to sit through a service with my own children misbehaving I had not really understood the profound spiritual agony and discipline of not completely loosing it in church with your own children. I remember thinking that NO ONE’s children EVER behaved as badly as mine did. My children will readily tell you that some of the worst “talking to’s”, ok “yelling ats”, that they have ever experienced with me were on car rides home from church some Sundays when they were younger. Ok maybe last week too.

I’m a bit older now and wear some different perspectacles. Now I want to just pat the shoulder of the momma who is trying to get her little one to be still and talking without unclenching her teeth. And bless the daddies who I find outside whose little ones have just fallen out on the bricks into a tantrum. They look so shell shocked and worried.

Now my model of Christian Education is stated in just three words. Known. Loved. Belong. That’s it. We are known by God, loved by God and belong to God. My hope is that our children feel known to us in this community, loved by this community and that they belong to this community. It’s pretty simple. All the wonderful things I had envisioned in my Martha Stewart pantry are good ways of helping our children understand these truths. Learning the stories of our faith in scripture, understanding our worship practices, serving others in need. There are many ways we offer them a taste of life being known and loved and counted as a child of God. But to try to impose a rigid order or structure on these wonderfully mysterious expressions of love is wasted energy.

My mother loves to tell this story about me as a little one in church. I must have been around 2 when this story happened. We worshipped in the summers at St. Peter’s in Gilbertsville, KY by Kentucky Lake where my grandmother had a home. It was a tiny mission church. And the chairs were those old fold up chairs that also had kneelers attached. Somehow, I managed to get my little body stuck, my little gangly legs and arms wrapped around and kneeler and the bottom legs of the chair. Mother says it took forever to extract me and I am sure she was undone. She scooped me up once I was freed and headed out of the little sanctuary to check me out and also I am sure regain her composure. The priest was in the middle of the consecrating the Eucharist so it was silent in the church. Just as she got to the door she says that I loudly announced, “I’s OK. I’s be right back” and waved to the little congregation.

If I could I would hug every single member of that tiny congregation present that day around the neck. Whatever they had done. Whatever spirit they had imparted to my little two year old self, I was clearly certain I belonged there. And that feeling has stuck with me throughout my whole life.

In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is astonished by the fact that EVEN the Gentiles seemed to get this thing about Jesus. He asks “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” I wonder where Peter’s feelings about children and youth fell. Some may argue that they are too little, too young to understand God or they do not have enough knowledge or experience of this world to truly get it. But how and why would we ever hold anything back from our children? Why would we ever try to diminish their belovedness in the Kingdom of God? How could our eyes be so blind as not to recognize the work that God is already doing in them and through them?

We promise at the baptism of each and every child that we will support them in their life in Christ. We welcome them into our fold by saying “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” That’s no small promise.

A life lived in a community where children are lifted up and valued for what they bring to the whole is so much richer and full. I promise you that my faith has been deepened by the questions and insights and experiences I have had with my children and the children and youth I have had the privilege to learn alongside. I am sure that our Sunday School teachers and youth leaders would say the same. I cannot imagine a church without them and certainly no Kingdom of God without them. And if we fail to live into our baptismal vows, if we “hold back” we risk missing the opportunity we have been given to carry on the story and the way of life that generations before us have handed down since the time of Peter.

As a mother, I live most days in some sort of a panic. It could be worry over my children’s school work or friendships. I worry about college and what comes next for them. But these are things that I have some influence over, however small that influence may be. What I worry more about are the hidden dangers. The surprises. The unforeseen circumstances that could rock their world. Shake them to their core. I’ve lived long enough to watch these earthshattering events play out in real time in my life and the lives of those I know and love.

Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian pastor and Chaplain to the Maine Warden service has said…the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.

We receive you into the household of God. Share it with us. We promise these children that no matter what they belong. There is nothing, nothing in this life that they will have to do alone. They belong with us.

I bring my children here because I want them to know that whatever comes at them they are known and loved and belong in this household of God. I know that my love is not enough to sustain them in this life, as painful as that truth is. But here, here they have the chance to know and grow into a love which is inexplicable, beyond measure. You bear that witness to them. You show them the Kingdom. You love them as you are loved as called to in today’s Gospel. You do this in small and large ways. Andrew and Bob, Matt, their Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders are often at the front of the charge. But the gentle hands who button the back of a dress in the middle of a service. The one who takes notice of an interest in hunting and stops to talk. The one who stops to share a happy experience with one of my babies. This is it. This is the promise being lived out in our very midst. Nothing is held back.

And I watch it play out over and over again. The exchanges between adults and youth and children. Adult volunteers connect to children and youth each Sunday here. Children smile and share stories and laughter and their own brand of wisdom with one another and the grown ups around them. This place is a buzz with Jesus’ commandment to love one another. It is an extraordinary and humbling thing to witness.

So today we celebrate the children and youth of St. Mary’s. They are already a part of the foundations of this place. We claim them as fully incorporate members of this sacred community we are all blessed to live in. Someday all too soon the children and youth in our midst today will be grown and heading out on their own. Some we may see at holidays while they are home from school. Some may return to us in their 20’s ready to serve and participate. Others will find their way here for weddings and baptisms and find their spots as Sunday School teachers, leaders, vestry members. Some of our kids will choose different faith paths to follow, other ways of expressing love for the divine. Some may return when the bottom has dropped out and they thankfully remembered our promise that they were never alone. No matter what path our children take, my prayer for them is that they walk out our doors with a deep sense of being known and loved here. That they belong here. And maybe too they will say as they head out that door…I’m ok. I’ll be right back. May it be so.

I speak to you in the name of the Good Shepherd by whom we are known and loved and to whom we belong.

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Children-Youth Sunday-12By: Amelia McDaniel, Director of Children’s Ministries

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  I speak to you in the name the Good Shepherd.  Amen.

I have to confess, the people I normally stand in front of rarely have grown all their permanent teeth.  But I am thrilled to be here with you this morning to celebrate the children and youth of St. Mary’s.

I have been a part of this community for a little over a year now.  It is a privilege of to learn alongside our children and youth.  They are a remarkable lot of people.  A fine flock of sheep.

15 years ago I became a parent.  It was a moment I felt like I had waited for my whole life.  I was sure I was prepared.  I knew about taking care of infants from years of babysitting.  The firemen had installed the car seat.  There was a beautiful nursery.  The house was stuffed with every infant contraption I could put my hands on.  I was ready.

And then there she was.  They put this perfect creature in my arms and my very first words to her were, “I am so sorry.  I am your mother.”

Despite everything I thought I knew suddenly I was responsible for a living breathing human being, a child of God in her own right, and I was confronted with the reality of my own humanness.  I would fail her at times.  I would fall far short of what she needed.  How on earth was I going to raise up this child?

Wendy Mogel, a noted child psychologist and woman of great faith, when speaking about parenting says… Our children “are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God.  Our job is to help them find out what that is.

I have this quote framed on my bedside table.  It is my daily reminder to keep myself in check.

Our job as parents, as leaders and members in the church is no more or less than to help these children find their path serve God.  Each child of God, whether they are 3 or 33 or 93 has a unique path.  And each of us spend our entire lives figuring out exactly how to live that out.  It is near impossible to do that in isolation.

That’s why the early believers we hear about in Acts gathered together again and again.  That is precisely why we are here this morning.  Coming together to worship, to hear the Good news, to practice how we are to act in the world is an integral part of finding and staying on that path of service.

There are so many places that our children figure out their paths.  At school.  Amongst their peers.  On sports fields and in dance and theater studios.  Learning to play musical instruments.  And indeed just at play.

All of these tasks are important.  But, I believe that being a part of a faith community is different, set apart, vital.

Resilience, the ability to adapt and grow in the face of adversity, is a character trait often discussed in child development.   Most certainly our children are able to develop resilience as they master their academic studies, hone athletic skills, try and fail at endeavors and learn to try again.   They can work hard enough to feel completely prepared.

But, those of us who have grown all our permanent teeth know through experience that even when we feel our most prepared, there will be road blocks, failures, or realizations of our own human inabilities.  I am so sorry.  I am your mother.

But in the fold of the Good Shepherd no matter what, we are given the grace to assure our children, to assure ourselves, that they are enough, that we are enough, just as they are, just as we are.  There are no grades.  No victors or losers on the playing field.  No audience to impress.  They get to show up here and just be who they are.

We come to fold of the Good Shepherd to work out what it means to be grateful for all we have been given.  This is a place to come to face the fears and failures that feel an awful like the Valley of the Shadow of death.  There is a table here always prepared for us with a cup that is overflowing with a love that passes all understanding.

The kind of resilience built in a life of service to Christ relies not on our own individual abilities, but on the grace of God.  Here at church we can give our children and ourselves the opportunity to learn just how to make such a life of service work.

I’d like to share with you some of the ways our children and youth have been going about this work. Each Sunday of the academic year the children and youth are busy learning the stories of our faith.  Each Sunday there are youth who show up to serve as acolytes to help lead our worship.  Last summer during Vacation Bible School the kids, along with their parents, donated over 300 pounds of food to Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services.  They sing in the children’s choir and beside us in the pews, help carry up the oblations and usher with their parents.  Our youth have served others this year, gleaned crops to feed our neighbors in need, and come together for worship and fellowship and learning.  Our confirmands have committed to months of study and service.

In a few months, we will again gather for Vacation Bible School and learn that Christ is our light.  The following week our Senior High students will travel all the way to South Dakota and share and receive that same light.  And just the week after that our Junior High students will head to West Virginia on the same mission.

These children and youth are just fantastic evangelists, all around fearfully and wonderfully made sheep of this fold.  They are finding their path of service to God alongside us.

I’d also like to take a moment to recognize that almost none of these kids drive.  So, if you are sitting out there and your car has a sticky car seat or two.  And there are some inexplicable stickers on your back windows.  And possibly there is a smell coming from the far back of the car that is vaguely wrong.  Thank you.  Thank you for bringing these young people here to live out their faith.

Thank you to the teachers and volunteers who show up week after week to lead Sunday School and events.  You field questions that seminary professors may be stumped by.  Thank you for being shepherds to your classes.  You are treasures.

Thank you to those of you who might be past the sticky car seat stage and show up each week and greet our kids and pat our bleary eyed parents on the shoulder.  Thank you to all of you who smile at the kid squirreling behind you in the pew.  Thank you to those of you who donated to the garage sale, or bring snacks for VBS or look the other way when the kids get that extra dessert on Wednesday nights.

And day by day their number increased.  And so it is with us.  Day by day our number is increased with precious loans from God.   Together let us continue to become resilient sheep of the Good Shepherd.

May we all continue to find our path toward serving God, in the pastures and by the still waters, in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and even in the presence of our enemies.  May we come to the table prepared for us by the Good Shepherd knowing that surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.