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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

The Rev. Sarah Reid Bird

October 20, 2019

Teach Your Children Well

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Hebrews 11

This morning we’re going to be focusing primarily on the text from Deuteronomy, but I wanted to make sure we heard from that long, poetic recounting of the great ancestors of the faith found in Hebrews chapter 11. I skipped around a bit, but you get the idea – we come from a long line of faithful disciples! And these stories would have been readily recalled by the Israelite people as they came from an oral tradition, a story-telling culture.  They knew where they came from and here, in Deuteronomy chapter 6, Moses is urging them not to forget.

You see, the Israelites are on the verge of crossing over the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

This is a pivotal moment in the life of God’s people. It is the culmination of years of wilderness wandering.  In many ways, it is to this moment that the story of Genesis onward has been building.  God’s promise of that land flowing with milk and honey lies just beyond the horizon – the people can see it, they can taste it.  And there stands Moses, their leader, his face shadowed with age, his wrinkled brow laden with years of responsibility, and his heart burdened with the knowledge that this is where his journey ends.

You see, Moses will not cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. So tonight, on the eve of his death and the Israelites’ new life, he gives this final sermon to God’s people.  It is his farewell address, his swan song, and it doesn’t disappoint.  His words are filled with the power of God’s word and it is these words that form the foundations of Jewish faith for years to come.  “Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.”

It is this first word “hear” that is so crucial. Hear not only with your ears, but with your heart.  The Hebrew word for “hear” is “shema” and contains a richer meaning extending beyond just listening.  It’s listening but also understanding, and ultimately obeying.  This verse, verse 4, is referred to as the Shema.  And these words would be as familiar to Jews as the words of the Lord’s Prayer are to Christians.  Before they fully understand its meaning, children would know these words by heart.

In the most devout Jewish households, these words would be repeated twice every day, once in the morning and once in the evening. I can just imagine the Israelite children rolling their eyes as again they hear their parents recite these words, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God the Lord alone ... Yeah, we get it Mom, we heard this yesterday!”

And it was then that Israelite parents could tell them why.  Tell them why they worship God and God alone, why they obey His commandments.  Well, it is because God is faithful.  God was the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt.  God was the one who parted the Red Sea.  God was the one who led them through the wilderness and gave them manna to eat.  God was the one who sustained their ancestors, and it is God who will sustain them.  That is their story.  And it is our story too.

What stories do you tell your children? What stories are in your family’s repertoire, in your collective memory?  In my family we always laugh about the time my brother got his head caught between the spindles in the staircase and my dad assessed the situation and declared, “We’re just gonna have to cut it off” (referring to the banister), and my sister shrieked in horror, “Not his head!!”  We still laugh every Thanksgiving about that story.

Or that time my dad had an aneurysm and was in the hospital for weeks. We didn’t have any family nearby, so our church family stepped up with meals and babysitting and rides for us kids from activity to activity – one lady even drove Mom up to be with Dad at the hospital in Richmond because she didn’t want to go alone.  That was a four-hour drive.

Stories like these are important as they shape a family’s identity. But are the stories of God’s faithfulness as readily recalled?  This is not just a nuclear family’s duty, but we the church family are tasked with telling our children the stories of God’s love.  And not just telling them with our lips, but telling them with our very lives.  So whether you have children or not, whether they are still in diapers or already out of the house, we all have a responsibility to the children of this church.  Those to whom, when they were baptized, we stood and promised to teach them and love them in Jesus’ name.  Exactly like we just did this morning for baby Louie (Ebbylou). And as any teacher of the Bible will tell you, teaching is not primarily a display of competence, but an act of love.  We demonstrate to them the love of God, they experience it and it becomes part of their story too.  They begin to internalize what it means to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Love here is not primarily an emotion, it is an action, it is a way of life. This was God’s command to the Israelites then, and it is His command to us now.

The Israelite people took this commandment very seriously and very literally. They put the Shema on their doorposts so they would see it whenever they came in or went out.  They wore small leather boxes containing the words of this Scripture fastened around their arms.  So every time they reached out to do something, they were reminded of God’s command to love and serve Him alone.  They kept these laws and repeated these practices daily.

And when one of their children or their grandchildren or perhaps one of their neighbors’ children asked them that question. You know the one that is perched on the tip of every child’s tongue, “Why?  Why do we say these words?  Why do we worship this God?”  When that question was asked, adults would not answer with a “because I said so…” they would answer with a story.  Well, we were slaves.  We were freed.  We were fed.  We were saved.  We are loved.

One of my favorite ways to think of my job as a pastor is primarily as a storyteller-in-residence – a chief bard among all of you “lesser bards.” Our calling, all of us, each of us, is to tell the story over and over and over again.  To our children and to our children’s children – to the little ones who race up to the front of the church on Sundays for the children’s message, to those who lead us in worship on Youth Sunday, to the ones who without fail interrupt our adult conversations in Courtenay Hall.  Each of them is our child.  That’s so cool!

According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, “The best way for youth to become more serious about faith is for parents and adults to become more serious about faith.” We are translators of this ancient, precious story.  Entrusted with its passing down from generation to generation.  And if we don’t tell it, it will be forgotten.

And communal amnesia is terminal illness.

We must give young people the opportunity to do what Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean calls “sacred eaves-dropping.” Our kids are watching, make no mistake about that.  So what are they seeing?  What stories are they hearing?  And is it the same story that we are living each day?

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 love God.

Why would young people want to read the Bible if they’ve never seen their parents or other adults derive life and joy from reading Scripture? This is not just the job of the youth pastor or parents or Sunday School teachers, but it is our calling as a church.  We have a responsibility to our children.  How many children or teenagers do you greet on any Sunday morning?  How many names do you know?  What if that was our goal – each adult know the name of five young people in this church, greet them when you see them (by name) and pray for them regularly.  How might the Holy Spirit use us if we make ourselves open and attentive in this way?

Now we are not crossing any rivers, and our Promised Land doesn’t resemble much like that in our text today. But we at FPC are at a similar juncture in our journey.  Here we are with a new chapter on the horizon.  As we prepare to welcome a new senior pastor and his family, what stories and dreams and visions might God want to entrust to us?  It is an exciting time in the life of our church.

But it is only the beginning. God is far from finished with us.  And just as we had Christian mentors who showed us what it meant to follow Jesus, so too every young person here at FPC needs an extended family of Christian adults.  Adults who can be part of the Cloud of Witnesses that cheers him or her on.  So let’s start cheering — reminding our children and one another this is not just about a book (the Bible).  This is about a person – Jesus the Christ.  And the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives inside each of you.  And that Spirit enables us to teach, to love, and to live the life of faith.

Are we modeling passionate surrender to the Gospel or just ho-hum assent? And what are we passing down to our children?  Not just a good education, or a solid financial foundation, not just setting them up for success in all the ways our world values, but rooting them in the faith when those worldly accomplishments will inevitably slip away.

Alright Sarah, that sounds nice, but I just don’t know the story well enough. How can I even tell it?  Well, you’re in the right place.  Start now, start together.  Look at the list of incredible stories we just heard recounted from Hebrews 11.  Dive into our early family history with Abraham and Isaac and Moses.

We the church are here to help. You’re not alone.  There’s Sunday school, Communities of Belonging, Bible studies and mission opportunities, countless ways to become an active participant in this messy community of faith.  And be very sure it is messy here, but God chose us messy, broken human beings to continue the story and to share it with the world.  Ultimately, it’s simple – Christ died for us, Christ rose for us and Christ calls us to love God and one another as He has loved each of us.

St. Gregory once said, “It is impossible to find truth without being in love because love itself is knowledge. And the more one loves, the more one knows.”

So let’s lean into that love.

Let’s dive into this story together, learning it like the back of our hand and then telling it over and over again at home, and in the car, and at work, in Starbucks and at Kroger, and of course here at church, a place where we can practice worship and tell our story Sunday after Sunday confessing our sins, praying together, hearing God’s word and listening anew to the Truth of Christ’s unfailing, unfathomable, unparalleled love for us.

Thanks be to God whose death-defying power and love creates a story worth telling! In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



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