All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Sunday School

Jesus came to take away your sins, not your brain. The title of this morning’s sermon is lovingly borrowed from Robert Fulghum’s popular book from 1986, which shared the thought that all we really need to know we learned in kindergarten. The lessons were simple ones, helpful ones:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Live a balanced life: learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

That’s not at all a bad place to start. Regardless of the situation, we would do well internalize these lessons. It also seems that our Congress would do well to revisit these little maxims today, especially the one about taking afternoon naps.

But I digress…

As we have been looking back at the history of our congregation, we have already touched on some important strands of our DNA. Those who first started Oglethorpe Presbyterian back in 1949 did so with a strong combination of faith and effort, speaking honestly and transparently about our financial challenges through the years. In the 1960s, our elders tackled the social issues of their day with a refreshing openness and welcome that has shaped who we continue to be today.

One of the other threads that has been there since the earliest days is a focus on education. That’s somewhat obvious for a congregation that was birthed on a college campus, and that fact has a lot to do with our sixty-five year commitment to being a community of thinking Christians. That also tends to be true of Presbyterians of our stripe, with a commitment to education that marks us internationally. The American Universities of Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul, all leading intellectual institutions in their societies, were started by Presbyterians. After all, as the cheeky bumper sticker puts it, “Jesus came to take away your sins, not your brain.”

There were moments throughout those early days of our history that stand as indicators of education’s importance. After the chapel was built, the next building to go up was the Education building. It was not long after that it housed our Kindergarten program, which has evolved into our thriving Preschool program. When the Georgia legislature threatened to shut down schools rather than comply with school integration, Oglethorpe Presbyterian was one of many institutions that had back-up plans in place to circumvent the legislative stonewalling so that children would still have opportunities to learn and grow.

The first full-time staff person hired, after a pastor, was a Director of Christian Education. Mary Ann Fowlkes was one of the first ot serve in that position, and the program thrived under her leadership. By the way, she eventually became professor of early childhood education at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, which is the pre-eminent graduate program in the discipline. Throughout the years, our membership has included many, many professors and schoolteachers, and our music staff has included faculty from both Oglethorpe University and Georgia Tech.

One hot topic of our early days was a debate between using the Westminster or the John Knox Sunday School curricula. It was referred to a study committee, who returned after several months with a recommendation, only for it to be referred back to them for further discussion with the Sunday School teachers. All in all, the process took six months, and the reason it took so long is now mostly lost to the mists of time. Even though we might see this as a cause to laugh at ourselves, the important principle stands: we take our time, and we both think and pray through the consequences of our decisions.

That same care and attention is what Jesus encourages in his disciples in our lesson from Matthew. The twelve are being sent out into the villages of the Galilee, bringing with them the message and ministry of Jesus. Those whom they meet will, by turns, embrace and reject them. They will depend on the kindness of strangers, and they won’t waste a whole lot of time on those who won’t spend time on them. And right there in the middle of it all of it is this caution, to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

That brief phrase right there contains all of the simplicity and complexity of the thinking person’s faith. There are times when we are supposed to lean into trust, to stop overanalyzing, and just do what is faithful. And there are times when we are supposed to think about the consequences of our actions, recognizing that what faith calls us to do is more nuanced than first glance might indicate. The life of faith is a balanced life between these two poles. While the foundation of our moral life might be laid out in childhood Sunday School lessons, to leave it there sells short the fact that we should never stop striving for knowledge of God.

I’m reminded of the Jesuit priest I once met at a supper celebration. A mutual friend provided an intriguing introduction: Fr. Daniel had been born to a Jewish family in South Africa, and was now teaching theology to young Palestinian men training to be Roman Catholic priests. The narrative left quite a gap in the middle, and it was the journey in between that fascinated me. I struggled to formulate an intelligent question that would get to the heart of his life’s story. After all, part of becoming a Jesuit is an attention to study that puts most PhD programs to shame. After stumbling over a few words, I finally managed to blurt out, “So what made you become a Christian?”

After a brief pause, Fr. Daniel replied, “Jesus.” It was an answer that managed to tell me both everything and nothing at the same time. It was answer filled with both the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. And I knew that it was an answer rooted in a lifelong, ongoing search for the knowledge of God.

What if someone asked you that question? What made you become a Christian? What would your answer be?

Here’s the thing: we have always done very well at being a community that gives priority to education for all ages. We staff for it, we make space for it, we provide it and resource it. And yet, do we make room for it in our own lives? Let me put the question to you this way: when was the last time you read a book, or skimmed an article, or engaged in a thoughtful conversation that stretched, changed, expanded your mind and heart when it comes to matters of faith in Christ?

It is one thing, and a very noble thing, to advocate and provide for the education of others. It is another thing to seek that education for yourself. After all, you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you even think of putting it on your neighbor. Or to put it another way, those who truly teach are those who never stop learning.

Here’s the problem, and it’s one that completely baffles me. Its roots are right there in our lesson from Deuteronomy, where the people are told never to stop meditating on the Lord their God. We should do so when we are awake, and when we are asleep. I’m pretty sure that covers all the bases. We are also to teach the faith to those who come after us, which means we need to learn it for ourselves first. Now, I can get my mind around all of that.

What stumps me is this: for just over a century, the church’s model for passing on the faith has been Sunday School. And the more I look around, the more I’m becoming convinced that the era of Sunday School is coming to an end. That said, I have no idea what comes next. We are living somewhere in the middle, not quite finished with what was, and not quite knowing what comes next.

We provide a Sunday School program at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, but let’s be honest: as a community, our attendance is mediocre at best. We say that Christian Education for all ages is a priority, and the congregational surveys we have done repeatedly bear that out. And yet, somehow, we don’t live out that commitment as a community. It reminds me of what the comedian Louis C.K. says about himself, “I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them.”

So…what do we do?

Our church’s history makes it clear that we think it’s important to be thoughtful Christians. And I know you all well enough to know that you are smart, curious, engaged. Our values have remained strong – very strong, in fact. So what is it?

This is where you come in. Leave a comment below with your thoughts about Christian Education.

Here are a couple of questions to get the thoughts flowing:

  •  What can we do to help you become a thoughtful Christian?
  •  If we were to offer something that you would move heaven and earth to be a part of, what, when and where would it be?

And most importantly, be honest. Don’t put  what you think I think is the right answer. That does us no good. If your answer is “nothing”, put that, too.

If I know us like I do, this is just the beginning of the conversation and reflection. Who knows? We might, in good Presbyterian fashion, even appoint a sub-committee to study the issue.

After all, Jesus came to take away your sins, not your brain.