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Teach Your Children Well

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 21, 2017
Acts 2:37-42

The second chapter of Acts is a remarkable thing. When it opens, Christianity is a dinner party, with just a few straggling guests left at the table after Jesus’s death and ascension; by the time it ends, we’ve got a movement, surging across Jerusalem; what changes along the way isn’t just the fiery tongues of Pentecost morning but also this fiery sermon that Peter gives afterwards, just before this morning’s reading, all full of punditry and prophecy, this sermon where he convinces the skeptical crowd that the God whose display of power they just saw is also the God embodied in Jesus Christ whom they just crucified. It’s about as finger-waggy a sermon as you can get — you don’t know the half of what you’ve done, Peter says. It’s tragedy of the highest order, and it suggests dark days for the people of Jerusalem — Peter goes right to some of most fire-and-brimstone parts of the Old Testament, he’s deep into the prophet Joel, all about the last days, all about portents of blood and fire and smoky mist. And then he finishes, and our text begins.

Acts 2:37-42

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 

It is so good to be home and to be with you all here on this Rally Day Sunday, the first Sunday of our church program year. I am so excited to be in ministry with you all over the coming year, and I’m so excited to have a chance to kick it off alongside you on this fine morning. But I would be lying to you if I did not acknowledge the pall hanging over our proceedings. The events in Charlottesville last weekend — white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in to public view in 2017 and bringing with them the power of death — have cast a shadow over the entire week. On a personal note, many of you know already that Charlottesville has long been sacred space in my own life; if I’m honest, there’s not a sermon that I personally could preach this morning that doesn’t begin and end in my old hometown. Now, I don’t know where you are. Maybe going back-to-school is exactly what you need, a distraction from all the pundits and all the prophecy and all the endless recitations of our national trauma. But some of you, I suspect, are ready for action: maybe you’d rather hit the streets than hit the books, and our little Rally Day may not be the rally you’d prefer to be at this morning.

You in particular may therefore find this morning’s reading particularly frustrating; after all, what we have today is the story of a people gripped by trauma who do the very unlikely thing of hitting the books. Our text opens with the crowd “cut to the heart,”  — Peter’s sermon is not the sort of sermon anyone likes listening to — and Peter offers them repentance, but nobody really likes repentance. Repentance makes you feel responsible, and nobody wants to feel responsible, not for blood and fire and smoky mist, not for the end of the world. Nobody wants to own even the death of just one man, much less the son of God. It’s not hard to imagine a wide variety of ways in which this crowd might have responded poorly. Actually, I don’t even have to imagine it, because I think they’re all the responses on display in the week we’ve just had. Tragedy strikes and the righteous prophets emerge to talk about white supremacy and institutionalized racism and nobody likes listening, we’d much rather blame anybody else, we’d much rather turn on each other than attack our own shame, and likewise it’s so easy to imagine these first converts casting the blame around — well, Peter, you denied him yourself, right, and then, you know, Pilate is the one who really pulled the trigger, and of course the folks in Rome are really the big bad guys here, by all means, let’s blame the empire, very popular option, as long as, you know, it isn’t my fault, I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it, don’t look at me. You don’t need to have been in the crowd to know how they might have reacted that day. You can just go on Twitter.

But in fact this blame game is not the response that Luke records. Rather, upon hearing this news, and upon hearing Peter’s invitation to conversion and baptism, the text records that these new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Not just teaching, of course, there have always been more pieces to the Christian life, here “fellowship … the breaking of bread and the prayers.” But first on the to-do list of these new converts is the apostle’s teaching, a life of study, a life of books and letters. In some ways it feels like a stunning turn. Peter has convinced the crowd that they stand on the precipice of the end of all things. He has convinced them that God has died for them and at their hands and that in their conversion lies the fate of creation itself and I don’t know about you, but for me when blood and fire and smoky mist hang in the balance, I might panic in the streets or cling to my loved ones or write a particularly panicky Facebook status but these folks, they’ve got a different idea. They devote themselves to the teaching. They devote themselves to the learning. The world’s coming to an end, but these first disciples. They go to the library.

Of course some our best heroes go to the library on a regular basis. My personal favorite is the real hero of the Harry Potter universe, not of course Harry himself, despite his remarkable courage, nor even his friend Ron, who shows an admirable capacity for loyalty, but rather, on so many occasions, it is their friend Hermione Granger who consistently saves the day with a heroic tendency to go the library. The world of Harry Potter of course is full of all kinds of dangers, dangerous spells and death-defying creatures and potions that hinge on just the right mix of ingredients. In retrospect, the school that Harry, Ron, and Hermione attend is probably opening itself up to all kinds of liability by keeping so many potentially life-threatening objects around, but when something goes bump, or when something wakes up in the night, or when the actual powers of death come knocking, all full of blood and fire and smoky mist, even when Harry and Ron are running headlong into the fight or running headlong in the opposite direction, the first place that Hermione runs is to the library, and then with remarkable consistency she shows up with a plan. With knowledge. With ingredients. With directions. She devotes herself to the teaching.

And what’s more, in Hermione’s hands, the library isn’t just a recipe book, it’s a place of moral formation.  In the fourth volume in the series, Hermione begins to wonder about the treatment of the elves living in the wizard universe, who often function as forced unpaid labor. But it’s not until she hits the books that Hermione decides to devote her own self to the cause. As she recruits Harry and Ron into her new movement — the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare, SPEW — she lays it out, “I’ve been researching [the issue] thoroughly in the library. Elf enslavement goes back centuries. I can’t believe no one’s done anything about it before now.” And so the usually bookish Hermione becomes a crusader for liberation, an advocate for justice, someone who now emerges with the capacity to hear the voices of the silenced and see the plight of the invisible, not only because she has a good head on her shoulders and not only because she has a good heart in her chest, but also and especially because she has been formed for the work of moral courage by the routine practice of going to the library. She devotes herself to the teaching. To the work of curiosity. To the work of examination. To the work of discovery. “Because that’s what Hermione does,” Ron says at one point. “When in doubt, go to the library.”

This seems like sturdy advice for all of us with backpacks blessed at the start of another school year — when in doubt, go to the library. Surely it’s sturdy advice for all of us gathered around the sanctuary to rally ourselves into a new church program year, a reminder that the work of Christian moral formation isn’t just fellowship and prayer and the breaking of bread, it doesn’t just happen when we sit here and listen to me talk, it happens when we devote ourselves to the teaching, it happens in Sunday school classrooms and adult education classrooms and choir classrooms and, yes, even in the library. But our record isn’t perfect. And, to be honest, in light of the week just passed, we can’t go to the library without remembering that too many church libraries and too many Sunday school classrooms have been breeding grounds for just the kind of racism and hatred that were so vividly on display in Charlottesville. That’s not the fun part. But after a week portending of fire and blood and smoky mist, it’s the urgent part.

You know the stories, and they go way back. Slavery was justified from the pulpit, from the beginning. The KKK was founded as a movement of white protestants and sustained by the work of white protestants. Even today. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports of a Sunday school class where the teacher brought in a bucket of clear water and a bottle of black food coloring. After putting a single drop in the bucket, she invited the class of 12-year-olds to watch the blackness spread through the water. One of her alumna recalls this moment as lesson on the dangers of racial mixing, quote: “[She] was like, ‘You can never get that out.” And I know you would never teach that class, and I hope you know I would never teach that class, but at the same time it’s too easy to recognize its effects marching through downtown Charlottesville. All of which means that last week’s tragedy, among other things, is also a failure of Christian formation. It’s a failure of the one church, the body of Jesus Christ, to teach our children well. And I’m not saying that to make those of us gathered here this morning feel bad or to make us feel guilty; I’m saying it to remind us of the singular importance of what we do for the work of raising moral disciples. The library is a consequential place.

So maybe this Day is exactly the Rally that we need to be at. Maybe this Rally Day is exactly how God helps us get off the mat. After all, if you have been with us all morning, you know that we are starting this new program year with a whole slate of classes for young and old. Starting next Sunday at 9:15, every square inch of this building will be crawling with lesson plans and activity books and Sunday School curricula. Starting next Sunday at 9:15, we will set ourselves to the task of Christian moral formation, which begins as it has always begun, in the library. But there will be no buckets of water and drops of black food coloring. Instead, we will endeavor to teach something about the radical love of God for all creatures great and small. Instead, we will hope to learn something about the radical hospitality of Jesus Christ who sat with sinners and outcasts and served the broken people with compassion. Instead, we will open ourselves to the radical work of the Holy Spirit that breaks down every one of our divisions over and over and over again. Instead, we will set ourselves one more time to the long slow unfolding of the peace that passes all understanding.

I hope you will join us. After all, we need teachers. We don’t need teachers who know all the facts or teachers who know all the ingredients; we need teachers devoted to hearing the voices of the silent and seeing the plight of the invisible. And we need students. But we don’t need students who know all the answers or know all the directions; we need students who can become crusaders for liberation and advocates for justice. So, if you want to join this rally, sign up to teach Sunday school. It sounds pithy, but I could not be more serious. Make a meal for the UKirk Sunday evening worship service. Lend your voice to one of our adult education classes. Those jobs aren’t just blanks on a piece of paper on a clipboard on a table in the courtyard after worship. They’re opportunities to participate in the moral formation of the next generation of the church. They’re opportunities to join in the long arc of history that bends towards justice. They’re opportunities to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in this time and place. From 9:15 to 10:40 every Sunday morning, we will join in that ancient and sacred Christian work of studying, of studying who it is we are called to be and how it is we are called to get there, with courage, and with love, and with hope.

And then, after class, we’ll move towards worship. Most of you head to sanctuary. But every Sunday, the pastors and the communion servers and the vestry meet up to check in and say a prayer and center ourselves. If you want to join us, you’re always welcome. We gather around 10:45. In the library.