August 25 Sermon: Destiny's Child
On the Sunday we celebrate those who teach and those who learn it's fitting to overhear God's call to a young boy named Jeremiah. The first thing we learn about Jeremiah is that he is child of destiny. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” We Presbyterians might even say Jeremiah is predestined to be a prophet. In this context, predestination does not mean we’re robots built and programmed by the Almighty to execute a predetermined program. Predestination is the good news that you matter. You aren’t an accident. You aren’t a mistake. You aren’t a random assembly of molecules cursed with the task of conjuring up meaning for yourselves in a meaningless universe. God knows you. God has set you aside for a holy purpose. You have something to say because God has ordained you to speak, and you will be heard.
Predestination is good news for parents and teachers and all others who educate young people. The culture puts so much pressure on us with regards to our kids. Their high performance is our legacy in the world; they must achieve if we are to succeed; their destiny is the project that we must stand up and cannot let fail. But that’s not what Jeremiah 1 says. Jeremiah didn’t become a prophet because mom and dad drove him to prophet practice five nights a week and sent him to prophet camp every summer. Nor was it the case that they stood over him watching him do his homework so he’d major in propheting at some elite Israelite university. It wasn’t even a matter of Vitamin P-for-prophet supplements ground up and sprinkled onto his breakfast cereal every morning. Long before either nature or nurture worked their will on Jeremiah’s development, God’s eternal will shaped the particular form his vocation would take.
So relax, moms and dads, and relax Sunday school teachers and children and youth volunteers. The kids are alright. They’re in God’s hands.
I know you’re anxious. Out there, schools are getting shot up, and tuition is skyrocketing, and in here, filling these staff positions for Christian ed and youth ministry is starting to feel like filling the Defense Against the Dark Arts chair at Hogwarts, and if we don’t have staff in place then we won’t have great programs for children and youth, and if we don’t have great programs for children and youth then nobody’s going to drive by The Crossing or Woodcrest and come to church downtown where the parking is awful, and drunk college kids are lobbing beer bottles at sanctuaries. That’s what we’re worried about, right? Our kids are going to be poor and unhappy and dead, and our church is going to blow away like a tumbleweed, and in a generation Christianity is going to be all fundamentalism and bad music, amirite?
What we do when we worry is, we work harder. We double down. We put our nose to the grindstone to prevent our worst fears from coming true. But all that extra effort does is burn us out. And burnout practically guarantees that our worst fears will be realized.
So again I will say, relax moms and dads and educators. Hard work won’t make your worries go away. What will make your worries go away is to stop worrying. And you can stop worrying because you can trust God with your children and with the future. God has a plan for your offspring, and God has already called and claimed a whole new generation of believers. Can you trust your kids with the one who knew them before you conceived them? If you can, then you will give up the burdensome roles of project developer or destiny-maker for the easy yoke of steward. A steward is a person entrusted with what belongs to another. When Christian parents and educators are stewards, they faithfully discharge their obligations but without a whole lot of anxiety because, since their kids belong to God, not to them, they hold them loosely.
So, if you’re a parent, you don’t need to read the 51st book on parenting or follow the most popular mommy bloggers on Twitter. You already know enough to be a good parent. Feed them, clothe them, shelter them, give then a hug and a kiss, take them to church, and praise them when they do the right thing. Let them learn from their mistakes; let them deal with the consequences of their bad behavior; let go of the things that are out of your control, and they’ll probably be fine. A couple of caveats: not all moms and dads are willing or able to meet these minimum standards of parenting, which is why there is PCHAS; PCHAS stands in the gap when parents stumble. And we do live in a world of evils and absurdities. Trust in God isn’t a fool-proof means of inoculating our children against evils and absurdities. What is more, if we raise our children to be Christians, we are setting them on a course to suffer, because to be a Christian means to take up a cross and follow Jesus, but even if the worst-case scenario materializes, remember that the worst thing that could happen to our children is not the last thing that will happen to our children. The God who knew them before they existed will be there for them beyond the worst-case scenario with something better than “the best bliss that earth imparts.”
Speaking of not worrying, let us also as a congregation take a deep breath and stop worrying about our ministries with children and youth. First, what we’re going through is normal. According to Indeed.com the average tenure of a youth pastor is two to fours years. Even ordained ministers in the PC(USA) only average four years in one call. Nevertheless, children and youth can be nurtured in an environment of high staff turnover. After all, most kids have a different schoolteacher every year, and four to six different teachers in high school, and they still manage to grow and learn!
But at a deeper level, it’s time we stopped hanging our hopes and fears about church growth on our ministries with children and youth. Our paid staff, Sunday school teachers, VBS volunteers, and other lay volunteers have one job: to teach the faith in age-appropriate ways. When we expect them to grow the church for us (which is really what we mean when we say, we have to have great programs in order to grow) we set them up to fail because we are holding them accountable for something that’s not on their “job description.” That’s a surefire way to burn people out: make them responsible for something that’s out of their control.
Earlier this month, the Session wrapped up our congregational discernment process. The Session adopted five goals to strive for in the coming four years. You can read them in the @First, on the screen in the south hallway, and elsewhere. One of them is, “The congregation, staff, session and ministry teams will focus on evangelism and church growth.” Henceforth, the burden of growth will be a shared burden. And that’s the way it is, really. Think of Paul’s metaphor for the church as a body. Bodies don’t grow because one body part is forcing all the other parts to grow. No, bodies grow when each part functions well and grows in proportion to its inner capacity for growth.
Put differently, the church doesn’t need great programs to grow. The church needs you to grow. The church will grow when you grow. When you take a leap of faith, the church will grow. When the words “I’m sorry,” or “I forgive you” come to your lips just a little bit faster than you used to, the church will grow. When you live a little more generously, whether it’s increasing your pledge for 2020 or volunteering a little bit more of your time, the church will grow. When you pause and give thanks a little more frequently than you used to, feel a little more joy and a little less resentment than you used to, the church will grow. The church will grow because people will see the joy and the faith and the mercy that filling up in your heart and spilling over into the world, and they will ask you what your secret is, and you will say, “Christ and his Church.”
“Nope, not me!” you’re thinking. “I’m a Presbyterian. I know better than to talk about politics or religion in polite company.” That’s what Jeremiah said. “I’m just a boy! I can’t speak truth to power!” But God always calls unqualified people to God’s ministry tasks. God called a virgin named Mary to give birth to the Son of God. God called a murderer named Moses to be Israel’s great lawgiver. And God may yet call someone as unqualified as you, an introverted Presbyterian who would no more wear your faith on your sleeve than wear white after Labor Day to be the catalyst for a great revival in faith. And understand: God operates this way so that God, not proud human beings, get the glory. So when the church grows, we won’t look back and say, “Yeah, that four year plan was well-crafted!” We’ll look back and say, “That was a God thing.”
And people will start coming, and pretty soon, we will have a whole crop of kids who don’t know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and you’ll say, “Mercy, that can’t be!” And there will be more Christian education classes and events and more volunteers, but the programs, note well, will follow the growth, and are the effect of growth. They aren’t the cause. The God who has a pre-existing claim on our lives is the cause. So relax, First Presbyterian Church. Like the flowers you planted in the garden this spring, put down roots, turn your face to the Sun, and you and your offspring will grow into the being and doing for which God has destined you.