(Occupied with other matters, I have not posted on this blog in a long time. The following is a sermon I preached recently in the chapel at Perkins School of Theology for the Course of Study School. I occasionally say that we preachers are all “Johnny One Note.” We typically have a dominant theme in our messages, even though we cover many topics. The following is one of mine. Even though not my usual mode of communication via this blog, the topic I address in the sermon is one I care about very much and is one of the abiding passions of my adult life. Maybe it will edify some readers.)
“Show Them, Teach Them, Walk with Them”
Deut. 6:4-9; 2 Timothy 2:1-2
The Shema, the Greatest Commandment, is not only the centerpiece of the Biblical Law, it is the anchor of identity for the people of God. It shows that, however else we may think about identity, identity is tied to purpose and purpose to mission.
You may have heard the adage from leadership gurus: “Begin with the end in mind.” If you want to lead well, you need to have clearly in mind what the goal or target is and then you develop action steps toward the goal. You start by thinking about the purpose, then the mission (the action steps) aims at that purpose.
That was certainly true for the people of Israel. As we follow the narrative in the Pentateuch, we see this leadership principle embodied. When Moses returned to Mt. Sinai, having by the power of God led Israel in escaping Pharaoh’s clutches, the Lord tells Moses to tell the people:
“Now therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
We see in these words the purpose of the people of Israel – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. There is the purpose. What is the goal? We find the answer in places like:
Isa. 11:9, “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” That same vision appears in Habakkuk 2.
And Psalm 67 sings, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.”
As a priestly kingdom, the purpose of the people of Israel was to live so that the whole earth would recognize and worship its Creator and Sustainer. Identity is tied to purpose and purpose to mission. The purpose of Israel was to bear witness to the nations of the goodness and mercy of the living God, to invite them to the Lord’s holy mountain, as Isaiah 2 envisions.
As Moses reports to the people what the Lord had told him, the Israelites respond as one (Ex. 19:8), “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” They’re in. They commit, though it is a mighty struggle to keep the covenant.
Jesus Christ, God-with-us, embodies, fulfills and extends that covenant made with Israel in Exodus 19. He came to fulfill all the law and prophets (Mt. 5), therefore in his own life, death and resurrection the Shema, the Greatest Commandment, is made perfectly visible in him.
And by the Spirit he is forming a new humanity of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, saints from every tribe and tongue, people and nation (Ephesians 2:15; Gal. 3). 1 Peter 2 uses exactly the language of Exodus 19 and applies it to the church, the Body of Christ:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
This is what YOU are! Where you live and where you serve, you are the people of God called to lead others in loving God wholeheartedly and serving God without reservation.
But how? How do we live and how do we help our people live so that this vision becomes real in us?
Deut. 6 – “Keep these words…in your heart.”
Deut. 6 – “Recite them to your children” at home, when you are away, when you lie down, when you rise. In other words, make the Great Commandment an organic part of daily life.
This same instruction comes through 2 Timothy 2:1-2:
“And what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”
Notice the sequence of those passing on the faith: from Paul, through other witnesses, to Timothy, who is to entrust the word to faithful people who can teach others as well. If we think of this sequence as something like “generations” of passing on the faith, count them. Five generations: Paul, witnesses, Timothy, faithful people and the ones the faithful people teach.
Now that’s vision. What if we were to look at the babies in our nurseries and imagine their grandchildren as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, loving God supremely and passing on the faith to the next generation, because of the faithful witness of your congregation? Can you imagine it?
The news on this front is not so good, is it? The research organizations who follow trends in the church and help us understand what is happening in society – Pew, Gallup, Barna – all have shown that mainline Protestant denominations like The United Methodist Church are generally failing to disciple their young people into active, adult versions of the Christian faith. Many of the young people who go through our confirmation classes do not remain faithful United Methodist Christians. Praise God, some of them become faithful members in other traditions. Sadly, many of them drift away from the faith altogether.
Let us confess: We are not obeying the scripture to pass on the faith to subsequent generations. We do not keep the words of the Lord in our hearts. We do not recite them to our children. We do not take what has been given to us and pass it on to faithful people who can teach others as well.
But we can. And by God’s grace, we will. If you are not now passing on the faith to the next generation, you will.
How? How do we help the rising generations become mature, active, committed disciples of Jesus Christ?
Foremost, they need to see discipleship in us. We need to show them. And if they see Christ in us, we will have standing to teach them as well.
How did you come to faith in Christ, grow in your faith and hear your call to ministry? I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of us, in answer to this question, would tell a story – or maybe stories – of someone one who modeled the Christian faith for us. They lived the life, they walked the walk, in front of us.
I will tell you one such story from my own experience. When I was a senior in high school, a woman from a nearby town (I lived in rural KS – many very small towns), Betty Jo Banks, wanted to gather some high school students to form a Christian singing group. We started with about fifteen kids and it eventually grew to around thirty-five. She taught us songs of the faith – old and new, hymns and “contemporary songs” (like those written by Bill Gaither, yes I am that old) – and took us to churches in the area to sing and share our faith.
We’d gather once a week in the Downs United Methodist Church to practice and pray. We always prayed. Teenagers kneeling at the kneeling rail to pray.
And Betty Jo would talk to us. She would give us tasks to do. All of us, at some point, would have opportunity to share a brief testimony as part of one of the concerts. Some of us were tapped to take turns giving brief messages. Yup, I was one of those…
We called Betty Jo, very affectionately, “Big Mama.” She called herself, “Big Mama.” We loved her like she was our mother. She was our mother, like the scriptural mother in Israel. (See Judges 5:7) She loved us. She taught us. She prayed with us. We read scripture together. In her manner, in the way she led us, in the way she handled adversity (and she had plenty), we saw that she knew Jesus personally. Because Jesus mattered to her, he mattered to us.
Betty Jo is not a highly trained musician, though she does have a beautiful singing voice. She is not a trained pastor or theologian. She did not have a conventional career in the church or in the world, as we think of careers. Her last job before retiring was as administrator of a nursing home, but that job, though she loved it, was not a lifelong career.
I will never be able fully to convey the impact Betty Jo Banks has had on my life. Because of her and many others like her, including my parents, I came to faith in Christ and heard my own calling. As a chaplain and teacher, in truth all I am trying to do is to replicate what Betty Jo did in me and in many kids of my generation.
Though skill is important, it is not polished skill that passes on the faith. It is you, your life, your life shared with others for Christ’s Kingdom. It’s doing what the scriptures show us to do:
We keep God’s Word in our hearts.
We recite God’s Word to the rising generations and walk with them as they learn.
Look on the horizon in your community and see the rising generations. Think about the generations they will reach. Today, someone yet unborn will encounter Christ through the faithful witness of people who see Christ in you.
I hope and pray someone is watching you! Show them the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let them see your love for God. Let them feel your heart and hear your prayer. Walk with them. Sit with them. Teach them. Impart to them a vision for the rising generations.
And in so doing, you will have fulfilled the Great Commandment. May God bless you and empower you and give you everything you need to finish the work God has begun in you. Amen.