October 23, 2016 – “Being the Church: Welcoming All Ages”
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
This morning we continue to reflect on some of the wonderful qualities that are present in many congregations, including ours… acknowledging the gifts of “being the church” that we need to preserve so that we can continue to serve in the communities where we live. Today’s quality is “Welcoming All Ages” – a very appropriate one for this special day on which we have baptized baby Fraser, welcoming one of our youngest members to the church family, both of this congregation and of the whole church of which we are a part.
I want to acknowledge the Rev. Emily Bisset, who wrote the study guide on the theme of “Being the Church” and whose sermon on “Welcoming All Ages” I adapted for today.
Deuteronomy is a sort of guide for the Israelites as they finish their forty-year journey in the wilderness and get ready to inhabit the Promised Land. While they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to freedom, God was with them in visible and tangible ways. God provided manna to eat every morning and quails for their supper every evening. God went before the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Now that the people are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses tells them that there is a new way to remember God’s saving acts and also to sense God’s presence in their midst: that new way is the story itself.
First, God repeats the greatest commandment to the people: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then, God tells them to repeat this commandment and the story of God’s saving act over and over again.
Tell your children, God says, when you are at home and away from home. While you work and while you play, tell the story. While you travel and when you rest, tell the story. In this way, you will remember God’s mighty deeds and love for you, and your children will come to know this truth as well.
Rev. Emily explains that she and her husband, Alex, are both ministers, so that means that they are busy on Sunday mornings. Neither of them have family in Toronto, where they live and serve. And they serve separate congregations. Alex has a two-point charge, and Emily serves in an Ecumenical Shared Ministry.
That means that their daughter goes to church with one parent or the other. And that parent walks in the church door, and is immediately busy with people and preparation. And so, they have come to deeply appreciate the church as a place where the generations meet and interact.
Their daughter, Rachel, most often goes to Emily’s Church – Calvin. When they first came there, she was one and half and she sat with three single women, two middle aged and one senior. She adores them and they adore her.
About a year ago, the eldest woman in her circle suffered a stroke. Rachel didn’t understand it, but she felt it and asked about her, and missed her. Though Isobel comes to church rarely these days, Rachel still refers to her as “my Isobel.” And she looks forward to seeing her other friends, Joanne and Connie, every week.
One morning on the way to church, Rachel was hungry and wanted to eat the snack that her mother packed for her in the car. She was told that it was the only one they had, and that she would probably want to eat it during church. She didn’t miss a beat with her response, “Oh, Mom, Joanne will bring me goldfish and M&Ms anyway. She ALWAYS does!”
The church is one of the few places in our society in general, where the generations mix in loving, mutual-respecting ways. Outside of family groups, so much of our society is broken into fairly defined age-groups: school, university, seniors’ clubs and services, adult lifestyle communities, where no one has to worry about babies crying or teenagers playing hockey, mom and tot groups… And even when kids and adults do mix, so often it is with grown-ups as leaders and kids as learners, and it is clear who is teaching and who is to listen.
In the church, we have this gift of a gathering place where all are worshippers. Worshipping on a weekly basis, we have the gift of a common meeting ground, rich with potential for the development of friendships – real friendships – between people of different generations.
Tori Smit, who is a regional staff person for one of the Presbyterian synods in Ontario, focuses a lot of her work on congregations with 10 kids or fewer. She does a presentation on trends in Christian Education, in which she points to studies that show that one child needs 3 trusted, intentional adult relationships in their lives OUTSIDE of their parents, for healthy growth and development.
In a survey of high school students, 85-90% of the students could not identify ONE trusted adult with whom they have a significant, positive, trusting relationship, outside of their parents.
And so the church has an extraordinary opportunity to offer a place of safety, a place of trusted relationship, between children and adults, as well as between younger adults and older adults, and everyone in between.
In one study called Teen Voice, researchers report that “only about one in five 15-year-olds has the web of positive, sustained, and meaningful relationships in their lives that support, guide, encourage, and connect with them in positive ways.”
Those teens who have such a friend or mentor in their lives speak about how much they value the relationship. The things that teens value the most in these relationships include being listened to, being taken seriously, the gift of time and attention, and having someone in their lives who is both available and trustworthy.
The research shows that “teens’ relationships with adults play a critical role in their successful development and thriving. The absence of a broad and deep web of adult relationships beyond parents hampers their growth and makes it difficult for them to thrive” (pg. 19).
But when those relationships are in place, teenagers are much more likely to find their voice, discover their gifts and passion, and become thriving adults themselves with a hopeful future.
And there is the church – full of people capable and gifted to be such friends for growing young people. The church is a beautiful place where these kinds of relationships can be fostered. When a child grows up in the church, connections can begin when children are quite young, creating a foundation of relationship that can be built upon later. Parents often know the adults that their children are relating to, creating an ease of relationship, which can assist parents in giving their kids freedom to develop a relationship independently from the family circle.
Adults in the church can provide encouragement and inspiration from the perspective of faith. And the gifts adults can receive from youth and teenagers are abundant: insight, energy, fresh perspective, and friendship among them.
When I think about that gift of the generations together in the family of the church, building relationships and sharing gifts, I am so thankful for the church in which I grew up. As a child, I remember older adults who treated me like their own grandchildren. As a teen, I benefitted from the friendship of middle-aged and senior women and men with whom I sang in the church choir. And I think their lives were blessed by interacting with people my age as well.
Let’s take a moment to think about our church family… Aren’t you thankful for the sound of babies gurgling, and laughing, and even crying in church? And when those babies get passed around from one surrogate grandma to another while the parents get to talk to each other, isn’t that a beautiful thing?
It is a wonderful day when we get to celebrate a baptism and welcome a new child into our midst, but the baptism is just the beginning. It’s the day that the parents make the promises to tell the story of our faith and teach their child about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And it’s the day that we, as the church community, make those promises as well.
But we fulfill those promises every Sunday (and in between) when we gather with all the generations to worship together, to share fellowship and grow friendship, to tell the story of our faith, and care for one another in the family of the church.
One of the things that I have noticed in the last few years at St. Andrew’s is that coffee hour downstairs is a big affair. It’s not that we always have a lot of food, or that the coffee is the best in town. But many people like to stay, to talk, and to just BE together. And that is a beautiful and wonderful thing to see across the generations in our church.
Rev. Emily confides that, at first, she grieved the fact that as a minister, she could not sit with her daughter in worship regularly. But she came to believe that Rachel is having an experience that allows the church to truly be the church.
And when she sees her daughter using the offering envelopes as building blocks at the back of the sanctuary, with the fifty-year-old man who is the chair of the property committee, she gives thanks.
When she sees her daughter standing on the pew with a Living Faith book open as her hymnbook, for the opening hymn next to her grown up friends, she rejoices.
When she listens to Rachel taking turns in the pulpit, being the “pray-er” with a 24-year-old choir member after church, and as she watches her grow comfortable enough to connect with a young woman who just started attending their church and to offer to give her a tour of the church balcony, Emily is sure that God is smiling.
The church is called to be the place where the generations meet – this is a gift we can offer our society.
When we respect each one – no matter how young or how old – and their very real needs and joys, we are truly being the family of God.
When we teach our children that the church is a place where they can find trusted adults who love them and will listen to them, we are keeping the baptismal promises we made together.
When we show the world around us that all of us are healthier and happier when we share fully in each other’s lives, we fulfill the call of God.
May we be the church that God is calling us to be.