“Behold: A Sower Went Forth” (God’s Work: Our Hands) “Behold, a Sower Went Forth…” What may come as a surprise to some of you what was a surprise…
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
In the book of Exodus, Chapter 1, verse 8, we read of a crisis amongst the Hebrew people, “Now a king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Joseph we know was a Hebrew the second youngest son to the great patriarch Jacob who was sold into slavery by his brothers but eventually rose to become the second highest ranking official in all of Egypt, the Pharaoh’s right hand man put in charge of all of Pharaoh’s grain.
But the Bible says, that in time, after Joseph’s death and with the rise and fall of many Pharaohs and succeeding generations there came to the throne of Egypt a Pharaoh, and a generation of Egyptians who knew not or no longer remembered Joseph who thus, mistreated the Hebrew people the descendants of Joseph who had long ago settled in Egypt.
There is another crisis; I believe that is taking place in the Church in the United States. There is a generation now growing up who knows not Jesus. Since the early 1980’s Church attendance in the United States has been on a steady decline and continues to decline at an alarming rate. By some estimates, just take note of the cars in your own neighborhood on a Sunday morning, less than 20% of professing Christians in America attend church on a regular basis on Sunday morning.
There are several reasons why people are choosing not to attend church. Some feel the Church is boring and irrelevant that it doesn’t address their needs or the needs of the world as they see it.
Many today believe that there are many paths that lead to the mountain top; Christianity being just one of them, the growing number who consider themselves Spiritual but not religious.
There are those who feel no need to follow any particular religious tradition or be part of a religious community, but choose to worship the God of their choosing alone in their own way.
There are some today who also have a general distrust of all institutions political, business or religious and shun them. There has also been the loss of Sabbath Keeping, many of us who no longer choose to set aside Sunday as a day for worship and rest. But, possibly the number one reason for declining church attendance in the US is the breakdown of marriages and the family unit especially when it comes to the role of a father as a spiritual leader. Men, particularly single and/or divorced men are the least represented population in church on Sunday morning in America.
Several years ago a study on church attendance revealed that irregardless of how faithfully a mother attends church with her children if a father does attend church on a regular or even irregular basis, only 1 in 50 children will become church attenders. But if a father goes to church regularly, even on an occasion 2/3 to ¾ of their children will become church attenders.
The number one reason that there is now a generation of children growing up “not knowing Jesus” is because of fathers.
Whatever the reason, because of declining Church attendance we have a crisis in the Church in America and I would offer as a society, a people.
There is whole generation of children who, by in large will be kept from “coming unto Jesus” and the kingdom of God to which they belong.
Why is it important that children are brought to Jesus? As Christians we have an obvious bias. We believe that in the person of Jesus is found real and eternal life of which none compare. But let me be more specific. There are three essential reasons why I believe it is important to help children come to Jesus and not to stop them.
The first is the necessity of a Master Story. You and I live our lives by story. Part of making meaning of our lives is to understand them as part of a larger ongoing narrative our birth, family of origin, school, marriage, work, children, relationships, human events and history.
One of the most important foundations for a child’s healthy self-identity is a Master story a frame of reference for understanding themselves, God, human nature and history, the world in which they live and the part they are called to play within it.
As a young boy, I was brought to Sunday school and church every Sunday by my parents. As early as primary Sunday school, 6 & 7 years of age, we were being taught to memorize the books of the Bible by song Genesis through to Revelations.
It was while in Sunday school that I learned the great formational stories of the Bible: the story of Creation, of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his multi-colored robe, Moses and the Exodus, 40 years wandering in the wilderness and the Giving of the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews entering into the promised land, Joshua and tumbling walls of Jericho, Samson and Delilah, Eli and Samuel, David and Goliath, Solomon and the Temple, the prophet Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, the calling of the first disciples, of fishermen, Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, the healing of a man with a withered hand, Lepers, the Gerasene Demoniac and the paralytic Zaccheus the tax collector, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Good Samaritan and prodigal Son, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, his trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, his crucifixion and death and resurrection on Easter morning followed by Pentecost, the birth and proliferation of the early church, Stephen, James, Barnabas and Saint Paul.
These were the formational stories that filled my head each with its own lesson revealing to me a sense of history of place of our human nature, the possibility of love, courage and virtue, the consequence of sin and of the God of second chances and new birth.
Every child needs a Master story a vital living narrative a frame of reference to understand themselves, God and their place in the world. To form core values, guiding principles and compassion by which to order and make meaning of their lives.
There are of course alternative narratives by which children can orient themselves like the narratives found today on television and on movie screens, video games and books about wizards, warlord and vampires.
But I would offer that there is none more vital, more life –giving than our own biblical narrative.
The second thing children need to come to Jesus is community. Some years ago now, Hillary Clinton brought attention to an old African proverb. “It takes a village to raise a child.” I would offer the local church in America is that village.
There was a time when the local church was more central to most families. Listening to my mother growing up in a small town in southern New Jersey, her whole life revolved around the church from Sunday school and worship on Sunday morning to Youth Group on Wednesday and Sunday evenings to other church events held throughout the week.
For us as Believers the Church is the community of Faith where our Master Story the ongoing narrative of followers of Christ is made flesh, lived out.
One of my earliest childhood memories was being left in a play pen in the nursery of the church where I grew up (I was only 16 years old). It was at Union United Methodist Church in Havertown, just outside Philadelphia, that I witnessed the faith of Christians lived out.
Here I was taken in, brought to Jesus and cared for. Here I learned about the variety of God’s children like Mr. Parsons who taught the Men’s Sunday School Class along with my father. A human bowling ball of a man no more than 5’6” and I imagine close to 300 pounds who laughed and spoke with a deep bass voice, wore coke bottle thick glasses and open toed sandals 356 days of the year even in 12 inches of snow who I recall telling the story one day of having climbed into a tree to cut down a limb, a feat I recall finding hard to imagine who, when I was older learned worked as a teacher at a school for children with severe learning disabilities.
I remember Jay Davis who, even from a young age I knew there was something special about him. Jay lived with his aging parents, never drove a car and worked in a greenhouse and garden at the home of one of the Campbell’s of Campbell Soup fame. Jay worked at all of the United Methodist Men’s breakfasts washing the dishes. I was often his helper. He was one of the gentlest and kindest souls I have ever met.
Then there was also Mr. Campbell at our Methodist Men’s breakfasts. A retired school teacher who mentored me in the fine art of making and cooking blueberry pancakes. Who used to ride his bike for great distances well into his early eighties. Who I remember one day as a boy watching out my car window parade back and forth in a small park alongside the road in his kilt playing his bagpipes as we passed by.
Then there were my Sunday school teachers Mrs. Gilbert whose daughter I dated in the 10th grade, Mrs. Kohberger, 93, living at the Highlands, Mrs. Heart and Mrs. Keller who loved us and showed us how to make Bible scene dioramas from a shoe box with clay figures popsicle sticks and straw.
And Mr. MacMillan my senior high Sunday school teacher who would cut articles out of the sports page and relate it somehow to a story from the Bible.
It was within this community of faith that I grew was formed from the Bible and worship through relationships with other children and adults Proceeding through the rites of passage from baptism to confirmation later to serve there as the associate pastor for a short period of time while finishing my seminary education.
Where else, today, can children find this kind of community. Children need a loving, nurturing community where they can feel safe, where they are accepted, loved, can grow in self-confidence and self-esteem.
This leads me to my third reason why it is important for children to come to Jesus and for us not to stop them. In order for children to be whole to grow and thrive they will need a sense of purpose. For a time it is enough for a child’s number one priority to be to get themselves into trouble, to play, and have fun.
But it’s not too long before they are looking for the opportunity to contribute to reach out beyond themselves, or as someone has said “to outlive themselves”.
Jesus calls all children to come unto him for a purpose. To bless them, yes but ultimately to make them to make us “fishers of men.”
The fruit of the Christian life of being followers of Jesus is service whether it’s in our home our workplace, in our neighborhoods, in the church, each of us have been given gifts and talents for the purpose of serving.
As a youth growing up at Union United Methodist Church, we were given regular opportunities to serve at our monthly breakfasts and dinners, in Vacation Bible school with the younger children, in driving into Philadelphia on Wednesday evenings to help Hispanic youth learn to speak English and to help them with their homework.
Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” Jesus knows that to be whole to be well is to give ourselves away for others. And this process, this training gives children a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, compassion and life.
Is coming to Jesus only about embracing a Master Story being a part of a vital local church and learning to become a fisher of men to serve others? Well, not necessarily, coming to Jesus is also about personal surrender and trust, a personal vital ongoing life changing relationship with the living God through prayer and worship. But, it’s a good start.
As the saying goes we can lead our children to water but we can’t make them drink. But if we stop them if we hinder them we can be assured they will forever thirst?
Are you and I being faithful to our children? Is our church being faithful to children our own and others? Are we helping or hindering them? “Let the children come unto me. Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”