October 4, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 22

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10: 2-16


Today is officially Episcopal School Sunday. This means people in Episcopal churches all over are celebrating the rich history of education in the Episcopal Church. Here are some fun facts to know and tell:

  • There are 577 Episcopal Early Childhood programs
  • Texas has 121 Episcopal Schools and Early Childhood Education programs in 6 dioceses
  • Episcopal Schools and Early Childhood education programs serve over 160,000 students from diverse religions, ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Trinity School, NYC, founded 1709, is the oldest continually operating Episcopal School
  • Our own school is starting it’s fifteenth year and thankfully we are at capacity and have a waiting list twice the size of our current enrollment
  • You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with the readings today?”. There is actually a direct reflection of today’s Gospel in our school here at St. Andrew’s

Let me explain:

In the Gospel story we just heard, the Pharisees were testing Jesus.  In modern Christian thinking, we tend to paint a picture of the Pharisees as bullies. In fact, we often demonize them. Other than Satan, they were the only ones who tested Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. The truth is, they were really devout, pious Jews who wanted to follow the law. In this case, their question to Jesus about divorce was to see if he could reconcile his message to the law.  The Pharisees were great rule followers, of course. Jesus’ answer is, as always, tremendous; tremendous because he points them away from rules, and directs them into their own hearts.  

In many ways, we really aren’t very different from the Pharisees. All parents want to know the right rules, the right formula to raise their children safely, to give them a secure environment and the opportunity to have a good life. We want to make sure they not only stay out of any kind of danger and have the essentials of food and shelter, but we also want them to be comfortable: to have joyful experiences, to laugh and play, a good education and ultimately to have someone to love and, someone who loves them.  Parenting is the hardest job in the world. We tend to want it to be a recipe that has rigid guidelines - - something with rules that we can follow - - so we can ensure a positive outcome.

Frequently good parenting is easier said than done.  The best parenting is accomplished when we opt for inspiration instead of coercion. We do this by discovering the child’s natural desires and unique abilities and by encouraging the behavior that will allow him or her to develop accordingly.  It starts at the infant stage when we work hard to encourage babies to sleep on their own, and as they develop, to eat on their own.

Think about long ago and the custom of a midwife using crushed dates in order to massage the palate and gums of a newborn. This encouraged the baby’s natural instinct so that nursing could begin as soon as possible. In other words, she stimulated the baby’s gums in order to encourage the kind of behavior that would benefit the child. She wisely and deftly utilized the baby’s natural instinct to guide him toward what is best.

This is not to say that as they grow up we should allow children to do as they please or that we should avoid correction. Think about the training of a horse. Imagine a horse’s bridle, which is used to subdue a horse for the purpose of directing its natural energies without breaking its spirit. In this image, note that the bridle isn’t a yoke; a yoke is for pulling heavy loads; a bridle is for guiding. Only a novice puts a bit in a horse’s mouth to dominate it. Experienced riders know that the horse’s bit is a point of contact in a relationship with the animal. Horses want to run because God gave them a desire to fulfill their created purpose. A wise, caring rider uses the bit and the reins to help the horse achieve its purpose safely and effectively.

Episcopal schooling and a Montessori environment both value the uniqueness and talents of each child.  The whole purpose behind Montessori philosophy is to:  

  • Foster each child’s individual identity
  • Encourage independent thinking and problem solving
  • Create a sense of community
  • Demonstrate compassion and kindness

If you walk into our classrooms you will see children:

  • Working independently on language or math skills
  • Problem solving
  • Using the democratic process to decide what to name the class pet
  • Being kind to one another, saying “please and thank you” without prompts
  • Inquiring and searching
  • Taking ownership of their work
  • Sorting to create a sense of order
  • Older children will be sharing work

Pedagogy, psychology, and theology all suggest that these qualities that make us who we are as human beings and are already in us. We don’t have to make or create these traits, we just have to recognize, nurture and support them.  

The real message of today's gospel isn’t about divorce or, defining the law. The real message is that God looks upon our hearts, not the ledgers of our wrongdoings.

Maybe we should think of rules as landmarks, helping us see the road; but the rules are not the road itself. The road is our day-to-day experience in the mystery. Our daily walk is jumbled with all our responsibilities:  getting to work on time, juggling carpool and errands, completing a project, interacting with our boss or, peers or, spouse, managing all the thoughts and emotions that go along with each interaction, much of which we is unconscious.  

We talk a lot about Mystery in the Episcopal Church. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mystery as “something that has not been or cannot be explained”. The reading from Genesis this morning is one of two stories in Genesis about the beginning of time and mankind.  In many ways, it is a mystery, too.  Children are much more comfortable with this notion than most adults. Children always ask “why”.  They might ask, “why is the door shut” or, “why are you wearing a dress today” or, “why does that lady have only one arm”.  It might seem easiest to try and answer the question.  But, instead of coming up with the answer yourself, try reflecting the question back, and ask “why do you think the door is shut?”, “why do you think I am wearing a tie today”, and “what do you think about the lady who has only one arm”? If you allow them enough time and space, children will typically come up with several ideas of “why” Some of the ideas will be outrageous and imaginary; some ideas will be very interesting; some will be truthful; all will be their wondering. The wondering isn’t about the right or wrong answer.

Unsatisfied with Jesus, the text says that the Pharisees ask Jesus AGAIN to answer the question about divorce and the law - they just won't let it go. He responds with:

"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Sometimes our adult rules and guidelines get in the way of our child-like understanding and our wondering. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have rules. Rules are what keep us together as a society, and they are important.  Sometimes the rules we live by can keep us from accepting the mystery. When the Holy Spirit enters into us, it doesn't come in as a rulebook. It comes in as Spirit. Grace. Mercy. Truth. Joy. Mystery.

Look at the way a child is perfectly at home in the Mystery. That's where Episcopal Schools and Montessori environments do more than teach - they preserve the mystery in the hearts of their students.