A Challenge to the Way We’ve Always Done Things

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It is one of my favorite images from the genuine imitation leather Bible I received on my seventh birthday — the image of Jesus with his “whip of cords” driving the merchants out of the Temple. I think it is because in all of the other illustrations Jesus was sitting or standing still, speaking in what I imagined was a gentle voice about being merciful and thirsting for righteousness. But, in this one, Jesus is an action figure: He is angry, actually knocking over furniture. My teachers told me this showed his “zeal”. Maybe so. That is, if “zeal” means “fed-up.”

But, as with so many childhood memories, I filed this one away, not thinking much about it until the first time I visited Jerusalem and learned about the stalls in and around the Temple precincts where Roman coinage featuring the image of Caesar — forbidden in Judaism — had to be exchanged for Temple coinage and the pens where doves and lambs and larger livestock could be purchased for offering the required Temple sacrifices associated with Temple worship. Now I was confused.

What was Jesus so upset about? Weren’t these tradespeople entitled to be where they were, doing what they were doing?

The gospel doesn’t give us their response to Jesus’ driving them out, but if it did, I believe it might actually be something that sounds pretty familiar to us:

“But Jesus, we’ve ALWAYS done it this way!”

I struggle with this dilemma in my own work as a priest. How do you know when it’s time to change from the way you’ve always done things to doing them another way?

I suppose there are some indices that we could use: Is the present practice effective? Are we measuring results in a way that simply reaffirms our practice or are there less self-serving ways to evaluate our effectiveness?

I’ve been thinking since Stuart’s sermon last week and his sense of urgency around having necessary conversations, being willing to face existing difficulties in our world despite the party lines and theological perspectives that often make those conversations difficult. For my part, I don’t have to go far to come up against a hot-button issue.

Yesterday, I joined with folks from around our diocese in a program about Bringing Faith Home, developing practices that extend what happens here on Sunday mornings to our homes. In particular, my interest was in how to do that for middle and high schoolers.

You may be surprised that I am concerned with the Youth. My close involvement with the program is only since August. According to legend, the ideal candidate for this position is a young male priest, who drives a jeep, and plays the guitar. I confess that this describes the youth minister that I had growing up. And, in my memory — which is not always trustworthy — it was this person who shaped my religious formation. I believe, however, that I may have confused religious formation with romantic infatuation.

In this new reflective light, I was interested by the research data that the speaker shared with us. Longitudinal studies over the past 30 years support a very different picture. By far — at 44% — the single greatest factor in determining whether our children continue to practice the faith of the Church after they leave home is their parents. And the most significant context for this formational influence is not on Sunday mornings from the pulpit or Wednesday nights with the youth group, but during the week in their homes at the kitchen table, during meals or doing homework.

The illustration he used was a grocery store. We may acquire all our food there, but we don’t eat it there. We bring it home and feed on it all week long, and we pack lunches at home from the leftovers that we then take with us to our schools and workplaces. We are well-stocked at church on Sunday, but whether we are well-fed is determined by what happens throughout every day at home. To put it bluntly, I have been so focused on being a grocer that I am dropping the ball on being a homemaker.

In trying to build an effective youth program I have allowed my focus to be on the level of participation on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, instead of a primary focus on youth formation as part of family formation. To extend the grocery store metaphor, the food supplies we make available here on Sunday are not nearly as effective as whether you share “meals” together at home made from this food, and very importantly have the opportunity to exchange recipes with each other for what works, especially ideas for that coveted “quick meal” that is tasty, filling, and nutritious; that is, the momentary crisis of lost homework or a bad hair day in which parents can either swear at the situation or use it as a teaching moment.

I learned that there are ways to do this that recognize that all families are very busy and that parents often feel that they cannot take on one more thing without exploding. One reason, frankly, that the women’s ministry here is so successful is that the leadership team listened when women said, “I don’t need one more thing to feel badly about not doing well. So, I’ll show up but not if I’m made to feel guilty because I didn’t read ahead or prepare.”

The Temple in which today’s gospel scene unfolds had been doing things that way for the past 500 years, ever since it had been rebuilt following its destruction in 536 BC.

The basis of Jesus’ rage cannot have been what was happening there. It has to have been that what was happening there had become disconnected somehow from the heart of the matter. Jesus must’ve witnessed a broken connection between acquiring the necessary accoutrements for worship and the deeply important aspect of worship that affirmed their belonging to God, just as I have failed to see the connection between building a youth program and providing the necessary support to parents that they need to support those youth in their homes.

Something about Jesus stirring things up after 500 years is echoed in our own tradition. For the past almost 500 years, every priest ordained into the Anglican Communion has been required to sign a pledge to adhere to the 39 articles of religion, a copy of which is included — yes, you guessed it — in the Book of Common Prayer. And, to this point of making adjustments where they are desperately needed and doing things differently, article 34, which is found in very small print on page 874, speaks directly:

“It is NOT necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places  one, or utterly alike; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and manners, as long as nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”

So, I think how we collaborate together — parents and teachers of teenagers — is one of those necessary conversations that I am ready to have, and I want to begin with an apology for not including parents sooner.  And I am prepared to consider “diverse” ideas that recognize the essential connection that must exist between what happens here on Sunday mornings and what happens in your homes the rest of the week.

It is so true that “If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults who practice the faith in every aspect of their lives.” (“Milestones Ministry Frame”). And for that to happen we must work together so that regardless of what our children bring home from school we are ready to respond to them in love, with patience, and offer sound wisdom.

I want to leave you with one final chilling piece of data to take away from this research. The second highest percentage of influence over whether our children continue in the faith of the Church when they leave home, after the family at 44%, comes from an unedited and un-narrated experience of whatever they pick up from their social context. I am here to tell you that that is not a competition that I am prepared to lose.

 

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
March 4, 2018
Lent 3 Year B

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