A week ago I had dinner with a group of pre-school and elementary school girls. This was part of our usual Wednesday night supper at church, but for me, eating with them was an unusual experience. I was the adult at the table, and we had a mission – -to talk about the story of God calling Samuel and to hear what God was telling them about it. They are helping me write a sermon.
Our church is having our first Children’s Sabbath on October 17th. Worship that day, in all 3 services, will be led by the children of the congregation. The “itty-bittys” as we put it. One of the themes we are working with is our baptismal promises, and how at baptism, children are united to the family of Christ. That means that we are called to take them seriously as members of our church family. This is our day to listen to what they have to say to us about how they see God. Writing and preaching a sermon may be an advanced request for the early elementary set, so that is one of my jobs for the day. Which is how I found myself reading the story of Samuel to a table of girls while we ate chicken tacos and chocolate cake in the noisy Fellowship Hall last week.
In my preaching class, we explored the text in a lot of different ways. I remember reading for sermon prep in coffeeshops and the airport and on MARTA and at Turner Field and in the grocery store as I dislocated myself to explore the text in new contexts (I highly recommend Anna Carter Florence’s book, Preaching as Testimony, if you want to learn more about the practice). So, reading Samuel someplace I don’t normally do exegesis and asking a 5 year-old what she thought God’s voice sounds like did not really seem all that odd to me.
What I had not counted on was that they had some powerful insights. I hope those of you who worship with these children have contributed to the seminary endowment fund – -we’re going to need it to send some of these children to seminary one day! When I looked at this very familiar text through their eyes, I saw some things I do not normally see when I look at it through my own eyes. When you are 4, of course what God wanted to tell Samuel was that Jesus was born (because it’s all about Jesus). And then you wonder if Samuel missed his mommy, and why he had to go to “away” school. Each of them described Samuel as looking like they did – same hair color, same age. He might have been scared of the dark. And when asked about the priest… well… that was interesting. First, I had to explain that the priest was the Pastor. “Oh. Was it a boy pastor or a girl pastor? We have both you know…”
Me: “Well, in this story it was a boy pastor.”
Girl 1: “I think he was old. Maybe 30. Is that old?”
Me: “I’m 32 – do you think that’s old?”
Girl 2: “Yes. But not as old as my mommy. So the Pastor was old, but was he was nice, like you and Pastor Ted?”
Me: “Well, what do you think?”
Girl 1: “I want more cookies.”
By the time we got to dessert, they had actually said some really profound things – but those I’m saving for the sermon.
I also learned about upcoming birthday parties, how the school day had been, who had a good snack after school, which child’s brother now had a mohawk, and who does not like “salad” in their tacos. We read the story of Samuel twice “Read it again!!!” and they all got to be God, calling out “Samuel, Samuel!” Over Tacos and Scripture, I saw a side of these girls I don’t usually get to see – -children are not part of my job description here. I saw them ask questions and learn. Through their eyes I saw the independence that comes from sitting by themselves at the big girls table and the power of having an adult come and listen to what they think about God.
Our teachers and volunteers and parents made this meal possible. They have created an environment where the children are not afraid to ask questions or explore their faith. They knew the story backwards and forwards as soon as I had said the word “Samuel.” They felt safe to sit away from their families, and to talk with the Associate Pastor about God, and be taken seriously. Will all of what they said preach… probably not. But a lot of it will. A lot of that meal preaches volumes about church life and talking seriously the promises we make to our children.
Tonight, I get to find a table of boys. I wonder what the text looks like through their eyes…