We pick up this week with Hebrews where we left off last week. The author of Hebrews is trying to inspire and encourage second generation Christians who are starting to question their faith.
He continues his greatest hits account of the Old Testament. His rhetoric is really ramping up, so he doesn’t get into a lot of details, he just starts rattling off names: Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.
Except for Samson and David, these are not the usual heroes of the Old Testament. Even those of you who spent your entire childhood in Sunday School may be drawing blanks when you try to remember their stories.
And when you do hear their stories, you may raise an eyebrow!
Rahab was a harlot who helped out some Israelite spies, Gideon was a warrior against the Midianites who took a lot of convincing to follow God, Barak was Deborah’s general who refused to fight unless she came with him, Samson was a strong warrior defeated by love of the wrong woman, Jephthah ended up killing his own daughter after making a foolish promise to God, and David wasn’t exactly a prince.
These people had faith, but most of them weren’t role models.
And maybe that is why the author of Hebrews chose them as examples. Because faith is not really about us. Faith is not some moral characteristic we exhibit. Faith is a gift from God. God’s power isn’t dependent on perfect people to act in the world. In fact, in the Gideon story, God commands Gideon to fire a bunch of his warriors so that the world would know that God, not military might, caused Israel’s military victories.
The author of Hebrews is writing to ordinary people. Ordinary, scared, discouraged people. They need to be reminded that the heroes of faith were also ordinary and often scared and discouraged!
And the new Christians needed to be reminded that often these heroes did not even see the end results of their faithfulness. Abraham and Sarah did not get to see the multiple generations born that would become Israel, Moses never got to enter the promised land, David did not get to see a temple built in Jerusalem.
As we turn towards kick off Sunday next week and the beginning of our Christian Education year let’s think about how these two ideas—that ordinary people can have extraordinary faith and that even the faithful may not see results they hope for—can give us courage to minister to our young people.
Those of you who do not have children or whose children are grown may be tempted to tune out now. Please don’t. Remember, the children of this parish belong to you. Every time you witness a baptism you make a vow to do all in your power to support that person in their life in Christ. So you’re on the hook here, too!
As you know, we have been searching for a youth minister all summer. We are very close now, but before this person joins our staff, I want to name something. When we hire a youth minister, we are going to run a risk of outsourcing our youth’s faith formation to that person. We are going to run a risk of forgetting that we have all made these promises to the youth in this room. We run that risk by having a children’s minister on staff, too!
Ministering to children and youth can feel really intimidating! Kenda Dean, in her book Almost Christian, argues that people avoid teaching junior high and high school Sunday School not because they don’t like teenagers, but they feel like their faith is inadequate to do the job. Potential volunteers are afraid they don’t know enough about the Bible, they don’t pray enough, that they aren’t faithful enough.
But children and youth learn how to be faithful by being around people who are faithful! And if everyone abdicates responsibility, we are in a lot of trouble! Parents are the strongest influence in a young person’s life of faith, but other faithful adults are important, too. Dean argues that a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be a great teacher or mentor to a young person, but they do need to be seeking a life with God. She writes,
What awakens faith is desire, not information, and what awakens desire is a person—and specifically, a person who accepts us unconditionally as God accepts us. We may question what we believe, but most of us are pretty clear about who we love, and who loves us. it is such a preposterous claim—God-with-us (oh please)—that young people are unlikely to believe it unless we give them opportunities to do some sacred eavesdropping on us as we seek, delight, and trust in God’s presence with us. . . .People are not called to make their children godly; teenagers are created in God’s image, no matter what we do to them, and no matter what they do to disguise it. The law called upon Jewish parents to show their children godliness—to teach them, talk to them, embody for them their own delight in the lord 24/7. Everything they needed for their children’s faith formation, God had already given them. In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do. (Dean p. 120)
The best thing you can do for your child’s life of faith is to seek to deepen your own relationship with God. It is just as important for you to go to a Bible Study or prayer group as it is for your child to go to Sunday School. And Sunday School teachers, it is just as important to show children that you understand you are loved unconditionally as it is for you to teach them the ten commandments.
And this is where Hebrews can help us. Because realizing that the children around us need us to model faithfulness can make those feelings of inadequacy rise up in us like bile. But God uses ordinary, flawed people. God’s faith grows in imperfect people. Are you selfish? Great, then people will be more impressed when they see God at work in your life. Are you really materialistic? Super. Then God’s power will be truly evident when you decide to pledge a little more to church or charity this year. Are you Biblically illiterate? Perfect, then you can demonstrate humility by learning Jesus’ parables right along with the second graders. Are you crazy busy? Maybe God can’t wait to teach you about the joys of Sabbath.
The other thing that can be frustrating about teaching Sunday School is the lack of obvious results. You show up week after week and sometimes kids are there and sometimes you have a faithful remnant staring at you blankly. Sometimes you feel like you are connecting and sometimes you feel like everyone is wasting their time.
But remember our message from last week—faith is the conviction of things not seen. There is always more going on than we can see. You may have a child in your class who says not a single word the entire year. But in twenty years, that child may remember your kindness to him and decide to come back to church. You just don’t know.
In fact, you kind of have to have faith.
As a church, I hope we will all take a leap of faith to support the children and youth in this place. I hope we will surround Audi and our youth minister with supportive, encouraging words and actions. I hope we will show up to teach, to chaperone, or just to give a parent wrestling with small kids in a pew an encouraging smile.
I hope we will, as the author of Hebrews writes, “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”