Monday, June 8, 2015

Sermon: "Children's Church"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
June 7, 2015 – Second Sunday of Pentecost
Children’s Sunday
Isaiah 11:6-9; Mark 10:13-16

“Children’s Church”

In the summer of 1948, my parents, Ruth and Gus, decided they needed to escape the heat of NY’s Long Island and travel to some place exotic.
So they got in the car and drove to Ohio.
My mother’s sister, Alice, lived in Ohio, in farm country, and my mom and dad were hoping the fresh air and wide open space would do them good.
My dad was 26 and my mom was 22.
They’d been married for just over a year and as my Catholic grandmother would say, the Lord had yet to bless them with children.
They were starting to worry that something was wrong.

My mom was one of eight children herself, and her older sister Alice had already started a family of her own.
So with concern and apprehension in their hearts, my mom and dad spent a week in the Ohio country air, giving themselves space to breathe and pray.
Nine months later my sister Mary was born.
And then along came Ruthie, Nicholas, Virginia, June, Robert, Brian, Suzanne, Maureen, and Lawrence. 
My mom had her 10th child at the age of 41.
By that time she was praying to NOT have any more children.
In fact, when she was carrying my younger brother she was in denial that she was expecting yet again.
My older sisters like to tell the story of how mom wore my dad’s shirts for months to conceal her condition, claiming that she was just putting on a few extra pounds. When she finally went to the doctor who confirmed the obvious, she came home that afternoon, slammed the door and shouted for all to hear, “From now on, your father is sleeping on the couch!”

My mom may not have been ready for child number 10, but the truth is she loved every single one of us….and my father loved saddling up to strangers with a big grin on his face and saying, “Guess how many kids I have?”

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to these children that the kingdom of God belongs.”

Our children are precious….every single one of them.
Whether they are our own, our neighbors, or born to an enemy on the other side of the world.
Which is why we give so much of ourselves to ensure all children are well cared for, nurtured, and loved. 
We send them to school, we mentor and coach them, we welcome them in our religious communities - in the hope that they will become well-formed and well-rounded human beings - emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually.
We do this in the knowledge that everything we do today will shape our children’s tomorrow.

We ALL were children once. 
We all know how much of an effect a word of encouragement, an imparted bit of wisdom, or a much needed hug had on us when we felt small and vulnerable.
We carry these tiny moments in time with us wherever we go, and remember them for the rest of our lives.
As we do the harsher moments - words said in anger or criticism, a withheld or unwanted touch, the sting of being forgotten, neglected, or ignored.
As we rightly concern ourselves with the condition of the world that we are leaving for our children, we also need to concern ourselves with the condition of the children we are leaving for our world.

Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God belongs to children.”  
To live in God’s world we must be as trusting and as loving as children, but this was also Jesus’ way of saying this hurting world is not going to heal itself overnight.
This Kingdom of God here on earth that we keep talking about – this utopian existence where all will share equally in the bounty of creation, where death and suffering will be no more – this is not something that we can expect to experience in our lifetime.
This is a long-term planning project if there ever was one.
The Kingdom belongs to the children.
The children who will live in this world long after we’ve gone.
And these children of our children of our children will carry the impression that we impart upon them today.

If we want to leave our children a world that is compassionate, kind, and just, then we must raise our children to be compassionate, kind, and just people.
To do that we must be compassionate, kind, and just people ourselves.

When we speak negatively about our neighbor or our enemy,
when we seek to hurt or demean those whom we think have done wrong, when we look down on those who ask for help and call them moochers and drains on society, our children are listening and learning.

If we carry judgment, fear, and hate in our hearts it’s likely that our children will as well.
If we see the world as a scary place full of people who wish to harm us or take what we have, our children will see the world that way as well.

Likewise, if we see the church as a place to hide away from the world,
where time and tradition stand still and the messiness of conflict, social issues, and human fallibility have no place, then our children will see the church this way as well.
And more often then not, we’re noticing that the stagnant and detached church is not the church our children wish to be a part of.  

This Kingdom that Jesus is asking us to build with the help of God, has nothing to do with avoiding the messiness of the world and everything to do with digging our hands into that mess and doing what we can to make it less hurtful, less harmful, and less prevalent.
All while keeping in mind that sometimes the most treasured and beautiful things are found in the midst of mess.

I’ve been spending some time these past few months traveling back and forth to my parent’s home on Long Island. As many of you know, my mom passed away last July, and my father preceded her in death 13 years before that. 
So my siblings and I – all 10 of us - have been hard at work renovating our childhood home in preparation for putting it on the market to sell.
As those of you who have done the same know, this is NOT an easy undertaking.
There are boxes to pack, clothes to donate, furniture to clear out, walls to paint, and carpets to replace.
In my parent’s case, there’s 65 years of accumulated treasures, personal items, and sentimental knick knacks to sort through and parse out amongst the children, grand children, and great grandchildren.
This in itself can be an overwhelming task.
Suddenly the dusty angel figurines and chipped tea cups in the china cabinet take on new meaning when you hold them in your hand and contemplate whether to keep it, donate it, or throw it away.
With each item that passes through your hands – treasured or not - it’s hard not to feel like you’re letting go of a piece of your mother or your father, a piece of your past, a piece of yourself.

It’s also hard not to think that the things your parents lovingly collected for years will somehow turn out to have value to someone else.
As you look at the antique vase your dad kept his spare change in or the mid-century modern end table your mom coated in Pledge, and imagine them fetching top dollar in an estate sale.
But more often than not those perceived treasures will end up being donated to Goodwill or the church rummage sale, and hopefully someone else will treasure them for years to come.

But the most treasured items my siblings and I found after each of my parents died had value only to us children.
For my dad it was a piece of worn and yellowed paper he kept in his wallet where he kept track of the money he lent to the men he supervised at work. 
Many of them were immigrants or unskilled laborers who came to my dad when they were behind in rent or needed a few extra bucks to put food on the table for their families.
My dad always obliged, even though he had 12 mouths to feed of his own at home. He never asked to be repaid but the men insisted he keep track of their debts and he diligently marked down the amounts they repaid, no matter how small.
The men used to call him "The Bank of Gus". Of course the main branch was located in our house, but to us it was known as the "Bank of Dad".
My father did the same with all of his children.
Giving generously when we asked and recording whatever we could give back in return without ever asking us to do so.    Mercy and grace.
That piece of paper my dad kept in his wallet speaks to me of the Kingdom of God. And the impression it left on us children will continue to ripple through the generations to come.

Similarly, after my mom passed last July, while cleaning out her dresser drawers I found an envelope that she had obviously tucked away for safe keeping. In it were several hand written pages of lyrics to popular songs.
My mom didn’t own a computer so she obviously transcribed the lyrics herself after listening to the songs on her cassette player.
Many were modern pop tunes that I never dreamed would have been of interest to my straight laced 88-year-old Irish Catholic mom.
One of the songs was “Imagine” by John Lennon.
In her shaky cursive penmanship, my mother wrote:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

If that is not a description of the Kingdom of God, I don’t know what is.
And the fact that my mom took the time to write it out and tuck it away for safe keeping says a lot about the hope she carried in her heart and the dream of a better world that she impressed upon her children.

The world we leave for our children tomorrow will be shaped by how we choose to see and live in the world today.
The church we leave for our children tomorrow will be shaped by how we choose to envision and BE the church today.

If we welcome our children in worship,
nurture them in the faith, love and accept them just as they are,
and inspire them to not shut out the world but to go INTO the world and live as Jesus did, then regardless of what form this changing church will take in the future, we will know the seeds we’re planting now will blossom
…for many years to come.

Thanks be to God.