The Whole Household of Faith

  • Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
  • June 25, 2006
  • Fox Valley Presbyterian Church

At 5:30pm, four weeks into my first year of being a teacher and a minister, Mrs. Bailey caught me on the phone just as I was about to lock my door and leave my classroom and go home to try to recover from another day. There was a problem with her daughter’s Scripture Survey homework, and she hoped I would understand. Kenisha wouldn’t be handing in the Psalms assignment I’d given that day. We were studying lament psalms, the ones where the writer gets really upset, angry even, with God, airs grievances, and maybe at the very end takes a little turn toward hope or trust. But most of these psalms are just the psalmists getting a whole lot of stuff off his chest.

For homework, I asked students to write their own lament. What would they say to God if they had permission to be a little angry? It was a perfect assignment, I thought. Most of my students’ lives were pretty tough. They needed to let off some steam, and I was sure that this could be a great moment of spiritual growth for them.

Kenisha, one of my best students, most interested in religion, great encouraging smile, deep sense of spirituality, would not writing this assignment, said Mrs. Bailey. “I am not raising my daughter to be mad at God,” she said.

Here’s my chance, I thought, teach the daughter, teach the mother, too. And so I tried to explain—we have permission to get a bit angry with God. The Psalmist does it. That means we can, too. These psalms are our model, example prayers we can adapt for our own use…Mrs. Bailey wasn’t buying it, and wondered who on earth I was to tell her this. She started listing her church credentials. Impressive…elder, leader, Bible study years, awards…and she didn’t care one bit if I’d been to seminary, or where I’d gone to college, or how much church credentialing I had. We were not supposed to get angry at God. If David did it, that was one thing. But Mrs. Bailey, Kenisha, me, we had no business being mad at God. (I was starting to think God was getting the best end of the deal, too, not to have deal with Mrs. Bailey’s anger directed heavenward…)

By the end of the conversation, we’d resolved two things. I’d be wise never to throw my own credentials around in front of Mrs. Bailey. And Kenisha was not completing that assignment.

My first taste (and my first great failure) of truly inter-generational ministry to the families of my students. I was little slow to learn it, but Mrs. Bailey was one of the people who began to teach me this: Ministry to children, to teenagers cannot happen in isolation from their families and their communities. What I did as a religion teacher rarely worked without parents, fellow teachers, ministers, friends, and community who blessed the lives of my students with wisdom, grace, testimony, and faithfulness. God’s expectation is that we do not walk our faith alone, but accompanied by family, friends, and community—a whole household of faith.

And while God knows each of us intimately, God interacts with us as a community, asks us to travel together and grow as community.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses is the midst of a LONG farewell speech to the people of Israel. So long that when we read this passage, we’ve lost sight of the setting (given several chapters back.) All of Israel, every man, woman, and child, every tribe, every household, is gathered to hear Moses, to review their story, to renew their covenant with God. There are things Israel promises to do, and there are things God promises to do. Israel will follow God’s ways, and God will lead Israel into the promised land. And what we read this morning is at the heart of those promises: the covenant is not just for the community assembled in front of Moses in the desert, but for the community yet to come—a covenant with the people, and their children, and their children’s children. This is a covenant, a walk of life, that must be transmitted, passed down, by faithfulness and on-going testimony, from family, friends, and community, by the whole household of faith.

At the center of the covenant is love of God that infiltrates every part of life—heart and soul, mind and strength—a love for God that affects everything we are and everything we do:
intellect and innovation,
art and athleticism,
spending and serving,
playing and performing,
relaxing and repairing.

It’s a heavy order to teach such a complete love of God to each generation, and it can only be done if it is done every minute of every day. From waking to sleeping, door to door, and every step in between.

And that is exactly why God calls on Israel to do this in the context of community. No parent, no teacher, no pastor, is present at every moment of every day. The continuity of the covenant will depend on the whole community.

My dad is a pastor, and perhaps I should not tell all of you this because I hope you will meet him some day. (On the other hand, this could be seen as payback for the occasions when I was one of his sermon examples…) As I contemplated going into ministry, he said to me: be careful about a youth or children’s ministry positions. People want you to fix their kids. That’s an impossible job.

The perfect pastor for youth and children cannot fix kids. No matter how many programs and gimmicks and wacky water balloon fights and great snacks we hand out at church, every body goes home eventually. The greatest influence on any child is her family. The greatest influence on any teenager is his family (yep—I know you‘re not always ready to admit this as a teenager, but you are both doomed and blessed to grow up to be your parents’ child!).

Moses says to Israel—teach these things to you children, when you are at home, and when you are away. When you wake and when you rise. In the rhythm of daily living. Add this to the pressure of being the perfect nuclear family today, and you can count on not being able to pull it off.

One expert on churches and families commented, already 20 years ago, that the expectations placed on today’s marriages and families for emotional fulfillment, with virtually no support expected from the broader community, these expectations are surely many many times higher than they were in previous generations. It is not possible for families to carry all the weight of expectation—from society and culture, even from church—to raise the perfect child, to be the best source of wholeness for every person.

But remember—what God asks of families is addressed all of Israel. Families are not alone. Moses says this just to households isolated from each other, but to families connected in tribes connected into a whole called nation of people interwoven together—not just to households of faith, but the whole household of faith.

And so the whole household of faith, woven together in this community, is responsible for passing on the covenant. As far as I can tell, this means that youth ministers and children’s minister are not called just to teach the children, run the programs, be the accessible, with-it confidant for a church’s teens. They are called to equip the whole community to follow through on the promise to pass the covenant on to the next generation.

I could not contemplate being a pastor for youth and children if it didn’t mean the vision and support of the whole community. And as I have come to know this church, what I have heard about is a community that has great programs, but is just as interested in creating webs of relationships for its children, a network of extended family for its teens. From what I have heard, this a community that is not looking for one person to fix its kids, but rather someone to walk alongside them, and to better equip each member to fulfill the promises they made when a child was baptized.

And that promise does mean teaching and programming, water balloon fights and great snacks.
But that alone will not do it.

One of my ministry mentors reminded me to read the letters to Timothy every once in a while, especially when I need a refresher course on being a minister. I don’t do it nearly often enough. But when I do, I am always struck by all of the images of growth, connection, and family that Paul uses when he talks to this young pastor. He reminds Timothy to treat everyone on the church as if they were dearly loved family members—the younger ones little sisters and brothers, the older ones parents. And he reminds Timothy that this very network has supported him, and shaped him for the things God calls him to do. From babyhood on, Timothy was nurtured by a mother, a grandmother, a whole community, and from them he has learned everything he needs to know to follow God.

From what I can tell, this is a community that wants to equip its children to be like Timothy. To know scripture, to know and love God in every possible way. This is a community that can have the imagination to look beyond programs to relationships.

At 10:40am, ten weeks into my first year of being a teacher and a minister, I was standing in front of my classroom, giving God the most sincere thanks for the faithful witness of Mrs. Bailey. My fourth period Scripture Survey class had all but ejected me from the room as a heretic when I tried to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Hands were flying up around the room, and comments went along these lines:
“That makes no sense.”
“How can Jesus call God Father if they’re the same thing?”
“Who taught you that?”
“What kind of church do you come from?”
“That’s not what we teach at my church.”

Except Kenisha who sat there looking steadily at me, nodding at what I said, and thinking, “All right…That’s what my mama taught me.” She was my only ally in the room. And I blessed God for her wonderful, faithful mother. This whole “Trinity” thing that I clumsily explained, Kenisha already knew and believed by on-going testimony from her mother.

Thanks be to God—
for the faithful witness of parents, and teachers, pastors and friends,
for the gift of a covenant and a community, and for a new generation.