Teach the Children Well - A Sermon for Pentecost 24B (Psalm 78)
There is an old Graham Nash song that speaks of teaching the children well. It encourages fathers to “Feed them on your dreams. The one they’ll picks, the one you'll know by.” The song also encourages children to teach their parents well. The final word is this: “And know they love you.” Yes, know they love you! [Graham Nash, "Teach Your Children Well."]
Many family gatherings are being put on hold during the upcoming holidays, but these gatherings often including the telling of family stories. It’s a way to share some nostalgia, but also family dreams. What is true for our families, is true of our faith communities. So Passover provides an opportunity for Jewish children to ask questions about what it means to be Jewish. The answers to these questions help form the next generation in the faith. While the church plays an important role in this process, it starts with the family. Parents share their beliefs and religious practices with their children, so they can pass them onto the next generation.
This is the message of Psalm 78. It’s a rather lengthy song, so we’ve just heard the introductory paragraphs, which encourage parents to teach their children well. If you read further, you will encounter stories about how God was faithful to Israel during the exodus from Egypt, even though Israel wasn’t always faithful to God. The Psalm offers a simple warning to Israel: Don’t be like your ancestors, “whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (vs. 8).
The psalm begins with the words: “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.” These words come in the form of parables and “dark sayings from of old.” These are words that have been passed down from the ancestors so that the children might know about God’s glorious deeds as well as the Law God gave to Israel. The central message that parents were to teach their children is found in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). So, teach the children well, “so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God” (Ps. 78:7). Yes, teach the children well.
There are some who suggest that we shouldn’t impose our religious beliefs on our children. Just let them discover what they believe on their own. While I don’t believe we should be coercive in our efforts, I think it’s appropriate to share what we believe and why with our children and grandchildren. In a world that offers many religious choices, including having no religious affiliation at all, it’s helpful for children to know why we value our faith. In the end, they will decide for themselves, but we can prepare them for making that choice. Truth be told, there may come a time when they return the favor and share their faith traditions with us. And as Graham Nash reminds us, children can teach their parents well.
When it comes to the value of passing on the stories of our faith, I found this word from Larry Broling insightful:
The relationship we have with God depends on the faith that is passed on to us or the values we pass on to our children. This is an intangible treasure that far outstrips wealth or the ability to choose happiness. If we are faithful to God, we are compelled to imbue that fidelity in the next generation [Word-Sunday.com].
So teach the children well, so that the next generation might know and understand God’s decrees. Then, they’ll rise up and tell their children the stories of their faith so they might set their hope in God. As Clinton McCann points out “the Psalmist’s teaching is intended to inspire hope and obedience in the hearers and, indeed, all subsequent generations” [NIB, 4:989].
Like many of you, I was born into the church. I can’t remember the first time I went to church, because I was a baby. But by the time I was in third grade, I began to participate more fully in the life of the church. Since there weren’t many children in our little church in Dunsmuir, I got to serve at the altar assisting the priest with the Eucharist. That’s an honor normally given to older children, and not nine-year-olds. Nevertheless, that began a long journey of faith that started with the denominational tradition of my parents. Eventually, my journey took me to other places, and finally to my ordination in the Disciples. But, even though I’m not an Episcopalian today, that early introduction to the Episcopal Church has stayed with me. It was the foundation on which my other experiences have been built. That’s why Brett has called me a “high church Disciple.” I would add that I’m a “high church Disciple with a charismatic flair!”
I know I’ve shared this before, but when I was in Oxford and attended Evensong at the Cathedral, I felt my “inner Anglican” stir. I was strangely moved. That’s because, I believe, something was planted in me as a child that took hold in that moment.
So, when we teach our children, what we’re doing is planting seeds that may blossom at a later date. Here’s the thing, as the Graham Nash song reminds us, children can also plant seeds in the hearts and minds of their parents by teaching them well.
Therefore, as the hymn declares: “Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear; things I would ask him to tell me if he were here.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
November 15, 2020