When I was six years old, my dad became pastor of a church outside Johnstown, PA called Summit Chapel. My dad was in the pulpit each week and my mom loved to sing in the choir. She was a stay-at-home mom so singing in the choir offered a rare treat to get out and engage with adults. But, everyone watches the preacher’s kids and so I imagine it was a great delight to my parents when a woman in the church named Dot Miller took me under her wing. Dot’s husband Bill sang in the choir. Dot had been in an accident when she was pregnant with her first child. They lost the child and never were able to conceive again. Dot was a teacher; she loved children and so she and I became Sunday pew pals. Each Sunday Dot filled her purse with all the things parents bring to church to keep their children occupied – candy, crayons, little pocket games. But the best part of sitting with Dot wasn’t the candy or the crayons. It was the time we spent before the service started when I got to tell Dot all about my week – what I’d been doing in school and what had been going on in my life. As an adult, I now imagine that Dot must have been a master at discretion because I’m sure I had no filter in reporting to her everything that my big brother and sister – also the preacher’s kids – had gotten into trouble for. Dot Miller made an enormous different in my life and in my faith. She was the first person to model for me what church family really meant.
One of the most important and most biblical missions entrusted to the church is that of bringing children into relationship with Christ. If we want to know what makes that mission so critical for Jesus’ followers, we need look no farther than the Jesus of our gospels.
When Jesus welcomes children and allows them to consume his time and energy, it is a radical, downright scandalous, decision. You see, children in ancient times were not highly valued. They were not viewed as sweet and innocent as we view them today. One ancient philosopher wrote that children were “bundles of chaos that needed to be beaten into submission” – and that, my friends, was likely not intended to be hyperbole or expressed in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. According to the ancients, children did have value; but only in one regard, that being their potential to become adults who then became their parents’ retirement plan, the social security system of antiquity. When Jesus scolds his disciples for trying to dismiss children from his presence, people in Jesus’ culture would have found that shocking. Yet Jesus clearly finds inherent value in children; Jesus welcomes them just as they are. So Jesus’ love for children is something we need to take very seriously. Furthermore, Jesus’ unique and distinctive way of thinking about children is reflected in the ministry of the early church. The early Christians were also considered radical and scandalous because they would rescue children who'd been abandoned by their parents to die of exposure. They would rescue them and bring them into their homes and raise them like their own children.
Now, all that I’ve just shared is a somewhat lengthy introduction to this morning’s Old Testament scripture about the birth of the prophet Samuel. The story of Samuel begins with his mother, Hannah. Hannah's husband, Elkanah, has two wives – not an uncommon occurrence in that time period. Elkanah's other wife bears him many sons and daughters. But Hannah is barren, unable to conceive, and her barrenness causes her shame. On one occasion, she's praying fervently in the house of the Lord, beseeching God to open her womb. The priest, Eli, when he first sees her, thinks she's drunk because she's in such an emotionally charged state. When he learns what's really going on, he intercedes with the Almighty on her behalf. And, sure enough, Hannah soon conceives.
Now this is where the story takes an important turn. Hannah, you see, was so passionate in her desire to bear a child that she promised God she would return that child to him. So, once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she returns him to the Lord's house to be dedicated to God's service for the remainder of his life. From our perspective today, it seems incomprehensible that a parent who desperately longed to conceive a child would subsequently give him up. But, once again, this conception and birth was about Hannah’s honor more than an emotional attachment to the child. And so Hannah leaves her son in the care of Eli. I suppose you might say Eli was an ancient precedent for my own Dot Miller. From that point forward, the house of the Lord is Samuel's home. He resides there. He becomes Eli's assistant, helping him with his priestly duties, and, no doubt, being shaped and formed spiritually through that process. Later, while still an adolescent, God speaks to Samuel in the night. He will, in time, become one of the mightiest prophets of Old Testament fame. But not before Eli, his father in the faith helps him to identify and recognize that voice he hears in the night as the voice of God. It is Eli who will help Samuel recognize and respond to God’s mighty call upon his life.
The story of Samuel and his mother, Hannah, is an ancient one. But it can shed some theological light on the practice of infant baptism in the Christian Church today. In baptism, we acknowledge, among other things, that the child we bring to the baptismal font belongs, first and foremost, to God. Each precious child is on loan to us. Each precious child is a blessing and a responsibility God entrusts to us. To believe a child is solely ours would be a sort of heresy. Furthermore, since each child belongs to God, their care and nurture is the responsibility of all of God's people. Their care and nurture is the responsibility of all of us who identify ourselves as part of the family of God. That is why, in the early Church, children were taken into Christian homes regardless of their ancestral lineage. The sharing of genetic material was insignificant. The only "family" of any distinction was the one which addressed God as "Father" and Jesus as "brother" – the family of the Church. That is why today, in baptism, the entire congregation takes a vow each time a child gets baptized. Mom and dad aren’t left to tough it out on their own. Every person who joins this congregation automatically accepts responsibility for every child here – it goes right along with your membership vows. We hear a lot of talk today about the challenges of parenting. It seems the parenting task, like so much else in our world, grows increasingly complex. So it’s a good thing that no mom and dad are left to do it on their own. It’s the job of all of us. Now, not all of us are physically able any longer to run around and chase after small children or hoist them up for piggy-back rides. But all of us, in some way, can and must care for the children here because we promised God we would. To say we will no longer volunteer with the children or help out with the youth because "OUR children are all grown" is about as un-Christian a statement as can ever be made. As long as there's even one child in this church, then each one of us, if we profess to be disciples of Jesus, have a child for whom we're responsible.
Friends, our church, like churches all across America, struggles to attract, even to retain, our young adults. And so a lot of research has been done in recent years to determine what impacts the faith development of a young person. What will cultivate a faith that sticks? And here’s what the research reveals: one of the key factors in young people developing a faith that sticks is intergenerational ministry and relationships. Research now reveals that young people who spend their adolescent years in worship services and other ministry contexts that are age specific, age-segregated, often leave the church in adulthood. And why? Because they don’t know how to be adult Christians. Theology, you see friends, is not so much taught as it is caught. “If age specific environments are the only experiences churches offer, students grow up spiritually and relationally impoverished.”[i] Research shows our young people don’t need us to do physical activities with them so much as they simply need us to talk to them. And if you’re concerned that they might ask some religious question you don’t know the answer to, well, guess what else: Young people are more likely to maintain their relationship with Jesus into adulthood if they learn from adults that questions and even doubts are normal and natural.
Friends, earlier in our service, we sang the children's song, "Jesus Loves Me." We all know the words. "Jesus loves me, this I know. For the bible tells me so." But, people of God, long before a child is able to sit and read the pages of their bible... Long before that day, the children here at Trinity ought to know that because of us. They ought to know that Jesus loves them for we, here in this place, have told them and shown them it is so. Amen.
[i] Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow by Carey Nieuwhof. Published by the ReThink Group; 2015; p. 89.
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