With the threat of Babylon breathing down his people’s back, the prophet Jeremiah comes out swinging:
For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil and they do no good.
Yes, he really says stupid children. Hitting them over the head with a two-by-four to get their attention.
And the poet, who penned the 14thPsalm, is no less upset:
The fool said in his heart, “There is no God.” All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good. Everyone has proven faithless, all alike turned bad, there is none that is good, not one.
Yes, there is none that does any good; the writer writes twice for good measure.
So much for the words of the prophet. So much for the wisdom of the psalms.
It seems we are all incorrigible, unreachable and unteachable fools.
Welcome back to Sunday School!
Once upon a time, there came the earthly Jesus to reach and teach the lost: that rowdy crowd of tax collectors and sinners who listened at his feet. And as he often does, Jesus tells a parable to help them understand. The double parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. While, all the while, the powers-that-be grumble and grouse behind his back.
And after he was dead and gone and risen from the tomb, the job of reaching these lost sheep – fell to his followers. In the synagogues, in peoples’ homes, in the marketplaces, the disciples told the stories of Jesus. And Jesus’ words spread by word of mouth from parent to child, from village to village, and town to town.
But before the stories were forgotten, Jesus’ disciples decided we better write this stuff down! So, a generation after Jesus, the writers we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John penned their four versions of the Gospel (a brand-new word that meant Good News).
But even before the Gospels, there was the apostle Paul. A lost sheep of God, he writes to Timothy.
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
His letters reach and teach the earliest Christians of the ancient world.
And kind of like seminary, it took three years in the Catechumenate to become a full-fledged Christian – before you could be baptized on Easter Eve.
And if you could not read – the mosaics on the walls, holy icons on wood, the stained glass in the church windows — would be your teachers. Art and faith have long been intertwined in the catholic (lower case “c”) tradition.
Centuries on, we fast forward to the Protestant Reformations (plural) in the West. With the invention of the printing press, scripture was translated into native tongues. Catechisms came to be. And hymns were published, set to pub tunes and drinking songs. Brand new ways to reach God’s lost sheep.
So, please be seated! (A phrase not heard in church before!)
Another revolutionary breakthrough was the invention of pews. Yes, pews! Now, you could sit to hear the Word of God preached in your own language. Now you could stay after the service to learn a thing or two — the 16th Century version of a Sunday morning forum.
The root word of Protestant is protest. It was an affirmation that faith had become a personal quest. Catechisms of all kinds were compiled to answer Christians’ questions.
When I was in high school, I did protest too much! Encouraged by my Jesuit educated father to question absolutely everything, I was discouraged from asking questions in religion class at Immaculata Prep. Sister Mary Clare told me in no uncertain words to stop. And I quote:
“Joani, you have to stop asking questions. You are confusing the other girls. And this is why: You are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded.”
Yes, a direct quote!
My questions led me away from my childhood faith. While quite ironically, these same questions gained me early admission to Catholic U. There I became a philosophy major where I could ask all the questions I wanted — the answers be damned.
And I did not darken the door of a church again for a very long time.
Until, as the story goes, I was led by a little child, or really two. Good friends of ours invited our little family; my ex, our toddler and baby to attend Advent services at Immanuel-on-the-Hill.
(Yes, the other Immanuel is my home parish!)
A few weeks in, the rector asked me, “Would you like to teach Sunday School?”
“No”, I said, “that would be crazy! I am just figuring this new church thing out for myself.”
“No experience necessary!” the rector says, “You can do it!”
“Alright.” I reluctantly reply.
So, I enrolled my three-year-old and myself in the preschool class. It was pretty loosie-goosey. There was no set curriculum. So, I used the only children’s bible that I knew: the stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. The tales of two good and faithful friends. Little parables of comfort, encouragement, joy and forgiveness. With lots of pictures and simple text.
But as my children grew, so did my Sunday School repertoire. I began to read the Bible (the actual Bible) seriously for the first time in my life. No pictures, complicated texts and compelling stories of all kinds.
I was filled with wonder, yes. Wonder that took the form of questions. Lots of questions.
Blessedly I was at Immanuel on-the-Hill, an Episcopal community, that welcomed my questions. It was a fertile place for inquisitive souls. They actually had a thing called School for the Spirit. In small groups we wrestled angels together, seeking after God.
And I got to this faithful place simply by signing up for Sunday School!
How has God sought you out? What person, place or thing led you here? Just how did you get to church, really?
Maybe following in the footsteps of your parents. Maybe a friend. A pastor from your past. The author of a book you could not put down. A moving speaker. An encouraging teacher. A camp counselor. A youth group leader. Maybe even a Sunday school teacher.
Sunday, September 15th, Emmanuel will celebrate all of the above. Thanks to the awesome ministry of Toni Buranen, we will commission six-teams-of-four Sunday School teachers and a quartet of God & Donuts’ leaders. Prayers will rise, like incense to the skies, for this new year of learning. For all the inquisitive minds and inquiring hearts and for all their questions, we’ll ask God’s blessings upon them all.
And after church, there is an Open House. Take a tour of the classrooms. Meet the teachers. Register your young ones. And maybe even volunteer yourself to go on the quest. No experience necessary!
(And remember, if I could do this once upon a time, surely so can you!)
Grownup questions, of course, are also welcome! Adult Spiritual Formation has forums and films and plenty more exciting things planned for the coming year.
(And if you’re new to Emmanuel, we’d love to have you visit! Services are at 8:00 & 10:30 AM. We’re located in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, VA at 1608 Russell Road.)