Isaiah 41: 8 “But you, Israel, my servant,Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9 I took you from the ends of the earth,from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’;I have chosen you and have not rejected you. 10 So do not fear, for I am with you;do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you;I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.11 “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you
will be as nothing and perish. 12 Though you search for your enemies,you will not find them.Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all. 13 For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
“What did you learn in Sunday School, Thomas?” Judge Harper asked Tom Sawyer. Judge Harper showed up in a Sunday School classroom in Hannibal, MO., as recounted by Mark Twain in his novel, Tom Sawyer. The judge was there to check up on the Sunday School teacher, to see how well he was teaching. And how well the children were learning.
Tom Sawyer was not the model Christian Education student; he was a lot more interested in fishing for catfish with his friend, Huck Finn, or yanking the hair of students who sat in front of him in class, than in sitting in any classroom. But somehow, Tom was in possession of enough tickets for Bible memorization to earn a whole spanking new Bible. Now Tom had not really memorized much of anything from the Bible. Unbeknown to Judge Harper, Tom had only traded for those tickets with students who had earned them the right way, by actually memorizing Bible verses. A fish hook here, a stick of licorice there, a dead cat, or a half-eaten apple got him the novelty of all those Sunday School tickets of different values and bright hues, green, yellow, red and blue. So when Judge Harper showed up in the Sunday School classroom and asked if anyone had earned enough tickets for a whole Bible, Tom came forward, much to the amazement, fear and dread of the Sunday School teacher. All he knew was that he had given Tom none of those tickets.
Judge Harper leaned toward young Tom and said, “Let’s hear some of the many Bible verses you have memorized.” At which point, the teacher was wishing he were anywhere else but there.
Nothing came out of Tom’s mouth but stuttering. Then Judge Harper asked, “Can you at least name for me the twelve disciples of Jesus? Who were the first two whom he appointed?”
Tom thought a minute and finally blurted out, “David and Goliath?”
What have you learned so far in Christian Education? When I think about that question, naturally I think of Bible facts, Bible places, Bible people, Bible verses, and Bible events. Christian education is effectively biblical education. Even if we’re talking about church history, or the lives of saints, or the testimony of some ministry, or spiritual direction, even those things hearken us back to the Bible one way or another.
But its not enough just to be able to distinguish Joshua from Jehoshaphat or Isaiah from Isaac. For the longest distance in the world can be those few inches from our heads to our hearts, the distance that it takes for knowledge to become wisdom, and facts to form actions. From both experience and the Bible I see that knowledge in the head becomes wisdom in the heart, and action in the body, mostly and only as we confront our fears, and deal with them, with the guidance of God’s commandments, and the help of God’s promises. It takes courage to make the journey from head knowledge to heart wisdom. Facing our fears is the workshop in which we don’t just learn about the Bible: we learn and live the Bible. Its the difference between knowing about God, and knowing God.
So if someone were to ask me the question, What have you been learning in Sunday School—I prefer the words, “Christian Education,” or even “Discipleship Education”–I would hopefully be able to say that I am learning to manage fear, by the grace of God, lest fear should manage me. And that makes of Christian Education, peacemaking education. Because the first work, and the hardest work of making peace always begins within ourselves. And that work involves learning to manage our fears, lest our fears should manage us.
The most often-repeated command in the Bible is, “Fear not.” We hear it twice in today’s Bible passage. Those two words are the focus of today’s message. They are addressed to a people who have every reason to fear. Looking down a long, lonely road of exile and captivity in Babylon, at the possibility of extinction as a people, under constant threat for their own lives as well in what is still one of the world’s most brutal neighborhoods, our ancient Hebrew spiritual ancestors in exile would grieve and lament and ask, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land,” in Psalm 137. Even, “Where is our God?” and “How can He allow pagan idols and deities to defeat his people, and therefore, it seems, himself?”
God doesn’t answer all those questions directly in today’s text. But twice he says, “Fear not.” Long ago I would have understood that command to mean, “Don’t feel any fear,” or “Stop yourself from feeling fear.” But now I know of only two fool-proof ways to guarantee that you and I will never ever feel fear again while we live: if we just spend the rest of our lives hooked up to anesthesia, or if we go to a surgeon and he or she removes our adrenal glands. No more adrenaline would pump through our bodies. Then one day you would be driving along and someone suddenly pulls out in front of you, making you stand on your brakes to keep from hitting him, and all you can think is, “Good thing I just saved my $500 deductible.”
Without our adrenal glands, we’d be stepping out in front of oncoming buses or leaning too far out of upper story windows to wash them, because we had forgotten what fear was. Or we were trying to make life interesting again. That little, subtle, manageable level of fear that keeps us alert and focused is a gift of God. At its simplest, fear is just that built-in detector we have that tells us whenever something or someone sacred to us is being threatened, like ourselves. As Julian of Norwich put it, “Fear and love are brothers.” We fear because we love. We fear losing anything or anyone we love, including our own lives.
But fear doesn’t tell us quite as reliably what to do. The usual adrenaline-inspired fight or flight responses aren’t all that helpful whenever your spouse says, “Honey, we need to talk about something important now.” That’s why we have to manage our fear responses lest they manage us, same as with any other gift of God, like food or sex. And that’s why we have Christian education, in whatever form it takes.
Christian Education is peacemaking education because it teaches us how to manage our fears first of all by telling us who God is and what God does. For God is infinitely bigger and greater than anything or anyone we fear. To demonstrate this, let me ask you, what Bible verses or passages have you memorized in your history of Christian Education? Let’s hear…….
Did anyone memorize Psalm 23 in Christian Education? Let’s recite it together……
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, 3he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right pathsfor his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley [or “the valley of the shadow of death], I will fear no evil,for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Now, let’s just go through some of those qualities and promises of God in that Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd”.….The guidance of God addresses the normal human fear of chaos. Or change. Change like the beginning of a new school year…..”I shall not want…” There we have faced the fear of scarcity with the promise of God’s providence. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley [or “the valley of the shadow of death…..” There we have faced the fear of death…..”I will fear no evil….” With that we just neutralized half the films coming out of Hollywood…..”You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies….” Am I the only person with a fear of adversaries, opposition, dishonor and disapproval? “You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows….” Those are images of hospitality that address the very human fear of rejection, alienation and isolation……”I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I’ve seen those last words on the covers of so many bulletins for memorial services, I must not be alone in seeing comfort for my fear of mortality.
Its not that all the Bible presents God as sweet, comforting and cuddly. “Our God is a consuming fire,” the scriptures also say. But even that is comforting, because it tells me that nothing else and no one else can stand up for long to the God who rules the universe. That puts every other scary thing, every other scary person, in perspective.
But its not just God whom we learn about in the Bible. The Word of God is described as a “mirror” in which we see ourselves, good and bad. The second way in which Christian Education helps us manage and tame our fears is by telling us who we are, as humans, and as part of God’s Creation. Think back to when you first read or studied the Creation Account in Genesis. If you were a child at the time, in a Christian education classroom, you might have drawn pictures of animals for this Bible story. And then the last thing created in order of events was people, as the caretakers of creation, and the bearers of God’s image. We can even be God’s friends. Then and there we got an image of being human that is full of dignity, honor and responsibility. Even kids as young as three would have intuited that this is a pretty cool planet and we have a pretty cool place in it.
We’re never too young to learn that, and we’re never too old to be reminded of it. At two to three years of age, children sre starting to fall in love with this amazing, wonderful world. And also to be frightened by it. That’s also about when little children start having nightmares about tigers at the window, or monsters in the closet. (Kids, if you’re listening, they aren’t there, by the way) So all the more reason to hear and learn that with every stage of creation, God looked at the world he was making and saw that “it was good.” Even the tigers. That’s how Christian Education helps us manage our fears of the world: it tells us who we are; it shows us the dignity and power of being human, and plants trust right next to fear in our normal human development.
But Christian Education also helps us put the difficult, unsavory and distressing parts of being human in some perspective. We may not remember when we first lost innocence. But if we’ve been parents of little children, or have had younger siblings, or have worked with little children, we may remember when they did. When it first was that saying No! back to Mom and Dad, or lying to them, gave this rush of rebellious power, followed by a hangover of guilt, insecurity and shame. You can almost see it in their faces when it happens. Its not a pretty sight. And at some point we all have to come to terms with our bent toward rebellion, shame and blame. Its so scary that some people remain in denial about it all their lives and go through life in an accusatory posture, pointing their fingers at other people.
But after we learned about the creation, we probably learned about Adam and Eve getting expelled from the garden. Or about Cain killing Abel. Or the Prodigal Son who ran away, and the big brother who didn’t want him back. Even those stories, as sad as they are, can also give us courage. Because then we know we’re not alone with our rebellion, blame and shame. And that God has already addressed it. We learn that we may run from God all we like, but wherever we turn, we’ll keep running into his open, welcoming arms.
That’s the lesson I hope that our daughter got from the Christian Education class she came home from, with a piece of construction paper and some cotton balls pasted on to it, when she was about four. I asked what that was and she told me, like I was the dumbest, most obtuse person around, “That’s the Practical Son, and that’s his Father, welcoming him home.”
“Oh,” I said. “You mean, The Prodigal Son.” Whatever. Hopefully she got the message at some really deep level that, in her time of need, even when she has wandered off to some far away spiritual country, that her heavenly father could be counted on to always do the right thing by her, even if her earthly father could be so clueless at times. So Christian Education helps us with our fear by teaching us about ourselves, good and not-so-good, that we are not alone with the things that scare us, even about ourselves.
Finally, Christian Education helps us manage our fears by teaching us virtues and values for dealing with our fears. One of the most important of those virtues and values is courage. In fact, we could say that all virtues require courage, because of all the people and all the forces that stand ready to punish or oppose us for exercising them. Because obeying the commands of God often comes with a price tag up front. Take the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Or the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three who were told to worship the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, or get thrown into the blazing furnace. Hopefully we didn’t learn that lions or fire were anything to play with. Hopefully, from both stories we learned that when we come through for God, God comes through for us, that God honors those who honor him, even if we have to walk all the way through the valley of the shadow of death to discover that. And that requires courage.
Again, courage is how we cover the space from our heads to our hearts, obeying God’s commandments, whatever the cost, and trusting in God’s promises. But for that we have to know God’s character, God’s commandments, and God’s promises. And that again is how Christian Education helps us manage our fears, lest they manage us: by telling us about the God who is bigger than all the things we fear, and all of them put together. Furthermore, Christian Education teaches us about the world and ourselves in the perspective of our fear-conquering God, both the good things, and the bad.
Thanks be to God then for our Christian Education volunteers, and Thanks be to God for our life-long journey of Christian Education. Or discipleship education. Or peacemaking education. For we shall need both the studies and the teachers for as long as we are human, in these bodies with these adrenal glands, as long as we know fear and conflict, until the day when there is no more fear, and nothing left to fear, when, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be love.”