(The following sermon was preached at a Child Dedication service. I have included the pastoral prayer, the communion meditation, and the commission.)
Our passage makes clear a fundamental truth about the home and the responsibility of parents regarding the religious training of their children. And that truth, expressed in the words of Christian educator John Westerhoff, is this: “Religious education begins in the home through the imitation of parents and through participation in family and community worship. All other forms of religious training are at best extensions or supplements to education received from parents in the home.”
Westerhoff’s observation is a truth recognized in the Hebrew Scriptures (as we have just heard), in the New Testament, and throughout the history of the church. But it is a truth not always appreciated and practiced by Christian parents. The last two decades have seen a marked tendency by parents to shift that responsibility from themselves to others.
To the church: Children today are often sent, not taken to Sunday school and church, and even then, only occasionally. And the thinking of the parents apparently is, “There they will learn about God and religion.” Or, “We don’t have the time in our busy schedules.” Or, “We don’t have the expertise. We don’t know what to say. Let the Sunday school teachers with their professionally prepared curriculum and the ministers with their seminary training do the work.” But lasting religious training and modeling happen only rarely that way. And we have to ask what such an attitude on the part of parents says to their kids. Perhaps it says, “Church is not important. When you become an adult, you need not go to church, talk about God and religious matters, pray, have devotions, etc.” As important as the church is, it cannot take the place of Christian parents.
To the schools: I believe that much of the rhetoric regarding the removal of the Ten Commandments and prayer from public schools is not a concern that religion has been taken out of the classroom. It is not out of authentic concern over the eclipse of religious values and teaching in the public schools. It is an attempt on the part of parents who have failed in the home to share the accountability of that failure with others. We simply cannot expect teachers in public school systems in a pluralistic society to teach our children about God and Christian responsibility when we have deemed such instruction unimportant in the home. That is a cop-out and not a very attractive one at that.
I’m not so sure there is much grace to be offered for those parents who have abandoned in the home their responsibility to bring up their children in the Christian faith. But what about those who do want to be good parents–who want to talk with their children about God and religious values–who want to set an example that can be a beacon for their kids in the stormy seas of our society and yet who feel so inadequate to the task and are puzzled as to what to do and how far to go. What about parents who want to be faithful but have such a host of forces working against them that they feel they do well to survive and simply make it through the day? And let there be no doubt as to the strength of those forces today. And what are they?
1) To begin with, we have no choice of which child will be born to us. We have no control over its sex, health, intelligence, or temperament. We are called to commit ourselves to another human being sight unseen. And as one frustrated parent said, “We often beget children whom under other circumstances we might not even choose as friends.” And this affects our parenting. There are personality clashes and differences in temperaments which color our ability to communicate, to pray with our children, to present an example worthy of emulation. And of course, the same may be said for the child. The child has no choice either. Jonas Salk, pediatrician and brother to Lee Salk said facetiously, “The wisest thing a child can do is to make a good selection of parents.”
2) We also experience the changing roles of men and women in our society as well as a transformation in the nature and definition of the family. Today we have single parent homes, daycare, lock-key kids, increased mobility, shared custody of children. All of these realities of our time complicate the provision of clear parental role models and the nurturing of Christian values. I’m not suggesting a return to “the good ole days.” Such a return is not possible, and if we are honest, those “good ole days” had their own problems, hurdles, and tragedies, most of which were simply swept under the carpet.
3) And if all this is not enough, every parent who can read or even hear, lives under the accusing finger of a multitude of experts who tell us what we are doing wrong, what we should be doing right, and how his or her book, video pack, or series of lectures can unveil for us the secret and the miracle of effective parenting. The problem is, which one do you listen to? The experts don’t always agree. And how could they? If they all said the same thing, no one could make a fortune peddling his or her unique approach to sound parenting. Of course, I’m being facetious. We need the advice of committed experts, but the reality is that parents today are bombarded with so many answers to the questions of parenting that we can easily throw up our hands in bewildered despair and wonder what’s the use.
4) And finally, there are the pressures facing us and our children from a society guided more by greed than compassion, by competition than cooperation, by the seeking of pleasure than the experience of joy, by self- serving than unselfish loving. We go out in such a society every day and work, cope, and succeed at times and fail at others. And we return to our homes whipped, tired, and influenced in ways we would rather not be. And then we look at our children and realize that they too go out into this world where much too early they learn about matters beyond their years. And we wonder what can we say, do, and be that could help them. But in spite of all these forces working against us, we do our best. We may we stumble and fall, but we get up again. We fail perhaps more than we succeed, but we faithfully try. Is there a word of grace for those of us who want to do and be better as parents and who perhaps act as faithfully as we can, given where we are on our own faith journey?
As a parent, nothing is more frustrating and useless than to hear all the criticisms from those who reared their children decades ago. I’m sure many of them were faithful in their day of parenting, but this day is very different from theirs. Rearing a child when drugs were what you got with a doctor’s prescription from a pharmacy, when AYDS was a dietary candy, when puberty didn’t hit on the average until children were 14 years old, and when the biggest moral crisis on the airways was whether Beaver Cleaver would “fess up” to taking a cookie from the cookie jar before dinner is a very different proposition from rearing a child today. We may well need insight and occasionally even advice from parents of years gone by, but we don’t need condemnation from those who have no earthly idea what it’s like to rear a child in our kind of society.
I believe there is a word of grace a word to be found in the familiar story of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus said to the disciples, “Feed the people.” They replied, “We and they are exhausted. And all we have is this boy’s sack lunch.” But Jesus said, “Give them the little you have and it will be enough.” And they did, and it was enough–in fact, enough with some to spare.
John Westeroff tells of what happened to a friend of his who also was a minister. This minister had a young couple in his church. They wanted a child, but they seemed physically unable to conceive a child. Finally, after years of waiting and medical care, they had a son. They named the child after the minister. One day the mother was playing with her son on the front lawn when their dog broke loose from a chain. While the mother was chasing the dog, the child crawled under the family car. The father, late for work and unaware that his son was under the car, drove over and killed his own child. When the minister arrived, he found the couple sitting huddled together on their bed. For an hour he prayed and wept with them. After the funeral, he returned for a visit feeling he had done so little for them in their time of need. When he arrived, the wife greeted him with these words, “I’m glad you came. We want so much to thank you for all you did for us.” The minister, filled with feelings of inadequacy, mumbled, “But I didn’t do anything but sit with you and cry.” To which the woman answered, “But you gave us all you had, and it was enough.” As parents, and as a church family, we need to believe in that miracle occurring again and again.
Perhaps you are like I am. I would like to start over with my parenting. I believe I would now be a much better husband and father than I was in those early years. But I can’t, and neither can you. Now and tomorrow are the times of our lives, not yesterday. But what I can say is that I believe on the whole I acted faithfully, if not always wisely. And what God asks of me and all God asks of any of us is that we be faithful. And what I must realize is that to be faithful is not necessarily to be right or perfect. I can do my best with what I have and still make mistakes in parenting.
What difference will any of this make in my child’s life and faith? I don’t know, but I must believe God can take my five loaves and two fish and make do. Based on where I was in my own faith journey and struggles, I acted faithfully, and I’m sure you did too. That’s all any of us can do, and that’s all God expects of us.
So before we ask the hard questions and place our parenting under the microscope of integrity and effectiveness, let us first hear that word of grace. Let us hear it in the marrow of our bones and in all the anxious places of our hearts—God can take our five loaves and two fish and make do.
Gracious and Loving God, on this special day, some of us are caressed by sweet memories–others of us rejoice in the dynamics of family relationships which are still ours–others feel the sharp pain of loss and absence, while others because of circumstances not of their own choosing feel a void–an emptiness because they never had the privilege and good fortune of beginning life in the arms of one who cared for and loved them as a precious gift entrusted by a good God.
We pray that you will take unto yourself all the multiplicity of feelings, memories and expectations present in this place. Where we have reason to be thankful for those who have nurtured and given us the priceless treasure of love, help us to know how fortunate we are and impress upon us our responsibility to pass on to others what has nourished our existence. Where we feel loss and absence, comfort and embrace us with the realization that with you there is no loss–with you there is no one absent from your love and care. Where we live our lives with painful reminders of what might have been and of what was, help us to see that in you, we have a Parent who can be trusted, who loves unconditionally, who, with an eye even on the sparrow, cares deeply about our goings and comings day by day. And where we have little ones entrusted to us, may we celebrate their presence in our midst–may we seek to reflect in our parenting the love, patience, and attention you have for all your children. And may we accompany our children into their knowledge and their experience of who you are and who you call them to be. And where some of us feel alone and where we see others bereft and solitary, make the fellowship of the this church family come alive so that all will know they belong to a Heavenly Parent who cares and to brothers and sisters who are one with them in their struggles and pain, in their dreams and joys. Hear our prayer in the name of Jesus, who became our elder brother so that we might call upon you in joy and expectation. Amen.
In the Book of Isaiah, we find these words: “Can a mother forget her nursing baby, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even if these forget, I will never forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.”
The prophet understands the power of analogy. The greatest sacrificial love we know in the human family is the love a mother has for her child. It is unthinkable for a mother to forsake her child–the one she has held, nurtured, and loved. But Isaiah says even if this may happen–even if our mothers should forget and forsake us, God will still be faithful. God will never forget. On the hands of the Lord are graven our names–alongside the scars of crucified love is your name. And in these scarred and graven hands, we are held both now and forever.
Your name and my name are graven eternally upon God’s hand. God will never forget us. But whose name is not engraved upon the Almighty’s hand? Who is not loved by God? Who can be forgotten by this One whose love exceeds in exponential proportions even the love a mother has for her child? Is there a person on earth that is not loved by God and who is expendable, disposable, forgettable?
There is not one person outside the love of God. No one can be forgotten by the Almighty. That is the Good News to which we are called to witness. And that is the Good News all the spiritual orphans of this world need to hear in the depths of their hearts. So, let us show the world a love that will never let go. Amen.