Thursday, October 18, 2007

Shared Sermon: "Artifacts from Religious Education" (Delivered 9-30-07)

[This service was co-led by Sara Sautter, SMUUCh's Director of Religious Education, and I.]

Opening Words by Sara Sautter, Lead Archeologist
Today, as your lead archeologist, I would like to welcome you to our SMUUCh Archeological Dig: Exploring the Church Basement. My archeological colleague Thom Belote and I have assembled here for you this morning several artifacts exhumed from the depths of the church basement. These artifacts hold the stories of the thousands (yes I said thousands) of children and youth who have passed through our subterranean classroom hallways. These artifacts, some old, some new, some silly, some sacred, are windows into religious education and its vast importance to our faith.

Some of our SMUUCh children, now grown, like Kristin Leathers have come back to our religious education program with their own children. Others, like Brandon Jacobs are now teaching in our religious education program. Still other lifelong Unitarians are part of our adult religious education program. That’s because the story of our spiritual search does not end when childhood does. Our own personal Unitarian Universalist search is a lifelong one.

So in a moment, we will don our virtual pith helmets and armed with our virtual shovels and delicate brushes we will tenderly sweep aside the dust and dirt that may have settled on our treasures and look together at these artifacts from our basement. We will explore religious education and the stories they tell us…

And after we explore some artifacts here in Fellowship Hall we invite you down to the actual archeological dig where you can see first hand the many treasures of Religious education. Among them, our actual children and some real and actual teachers! Indeed, if you wish to drink from the sacred Urn of Caffeine, you will need to come to the basement – cuz that’s where the coffee hour is this Sunday!

Artifact #1: “Banner” – Rev. Thom
As you descend down the stairs into the children’s religious education level, you pass a banner that declares a bold slogan. This slogan is as powerful for what it proclaims as for what it does not proclaim. It does not say, in the words of The Gospel of John 8:32 “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” It doesn’t say, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And, no it does not utter Dante’s famous warning “Abandon Hope all Ye Who Enter Here.”

The banner simply says, “Never stop asking why.”

For someone who grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and perhaps for our children, it is easy to take a slogan like this for granted. But I am reminded of those adults in this congregation who I have met in the class for those exploring membership, or in my office, or in another UU class who tell stories that are often eerily similar. These adults tell the story of their first falling out with organized religion, and the story goes, “I asked my Sunday school teacher ‘why?’ and she told me not to ask ‘why.’” Or, “I asked my Catholic school teacher ‘why?’ and was told not to ask ‘why?’” Or, “I asked my minister ‘why?’ and he said, ‘You just need to have faith.’”

But, here in our church, we pass a banner that declares “Never stop asking why!”

This can, of course, be difficult advice. Many small children go through a “why?” phase. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is Grandpa’s nose so big?” “Why do I have to eat my broccoli?” Why can’t I have candy bars for breakfast?”

Asking why can pay dividends as we grow. “Why do children in Ethiopia not have enough to eat?” “Why does this ethnic group hate that ethnic group?” “Why am I treated differently because I am a girl?”

We also hope that children will internalize these whys, asking them not only of other peoples’ faiths, but more importantly of their own. In this way, questioning becomes reflexive. “Why do I believe what I believe?” “What has shaped my own faith?” “Why do I think the way that I do, and not some other why?”

Hooray for our banner! A great archeological discovery!

Artifact #2: “Weaving” – Sara Sautter
The artifact I will soon show you has hung in the hallway of the Clara Barton Wing for the past two years and was created in our Art Center by a class of nine year olds. The lesson was entitled “Weaving Our Lives Together”. The message of the lesson was to help the kids understand our third principle – acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, or the children’s version which says, “We believe that our churches are places where all people are accepted, and where we keep on learning together.” The children were told the how these Navajo weavings always told a story. You can imagine how the weaver, one day thinking of her first child with eyes so soft and deep and brown that she wove with the deepest softest brown yarns she could find. And on another day, feeling the weight of the coming winter’s sky on her soul and wove with the coldest grey and stiffest thread she could find. And so the stories of the weaver’s thoughts, feelings and personality became the story of the weaving itself.

The children were then asked to share important things that had recently happened in their lives – a book recently read, a two wheel bicycle finally conquered, a new sister born. Then our children were given a pile of “stuff” – ribbons and beads and feathers and sticks, pipe cleaners, yarn and rolled up fabric. They were invited to find the threads or objects that most represented how them – strips of newspaper to symbolize the new skill of reading, a fuzzy brown yarn for the loss of a dog, a blue ribbon for the color of a baby sister’s eyes. Each child – one at a time – spoke their story and then wove a chosen item into the weaving. They spent some time weaving their lives together.

There are four more weavings just like this hanging on the wall in the Clara Barton Wing. This weaving represents the stories of a group of children one day in the winter of 2006. A group of children, who shared with each other, accepted, celebrated and mourned with each other. A group of children who formed a small – and very beautiful – little community.

Artifact #3: “Thoreau Plaque” – Rev. Thom
Before I arrived as the minister of SMUUCh, before many of you arrived as members of SMUUCh, the congregation was invited to name the classrooms downstairs. A list of dozens of Unitarians and Universalists was proposed and the members got to cast votes for their favorites. And the top finishers got their own rooms named after them. The rooms run from A to almost Z, from Louisa May Alcott, the feminist and author of little women, to Whitney Young, the African American civil rights leader.

There is an interesting method to the naming. For example, the newer and much more sterile wing that was added with the 1997 building expansion is named for Universalist Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross and one who dedicated much of her work to improving the sanitation of soldier’s conditions during the civil war. Meanwhile, the older wing which consists of refurbished animal stalls is named for Charles Darwin. If he hadn’t composed the Origin of Species aboard his boat The Beagle, he might have done so under the barn chapel.

The nursery is named, fittingly, for Beatrix Potter. The teen room is named, also fittingly, for the Universalist circus promoter P.T. Barnum. The congregation even saw it fit to name two of the rooms for men with no Unitarian connections whatsoever – Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton.

But, the artifact I want to show you is the plaque of Henry David Thoreau, a Unitarian naturalist, writer, and philosopher. (I originally planned to show the Susan B. Anthony plaque, but she was screwed in too tight.) Next week I will be preaching about Gandhi. Gandhi originally learned about the doctrines of non-violence from Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy learned about the idea of non-violent civil disobedience from Thoreau. And Gandhi would later inform Martin Luther King.

What a great thing it is that we should lift up so many of these strong, principled, brave women and (mostly) principled and brave men! What a way to reinforce for our children our hopes and dreams for them: That they could stand up injustice like Susan B. or Whitney Young, that they could work for the betterment of human kind like Clara Barton, that they could advance human knowledge like Darwin, or human liberty like Jefferson.

Artifact #4: “Buddha Statue” – Sara Sautter
Here sits Buddha! OK, he IS the happy jolly, fat Buddha that is probably less historically accurate but the version most beloved by children and by many adults. This jolly Buddha was used to help our children understand that Buddhism, along with many other great religions of the world, has many lessons to teach us as Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, as UUs we hold up “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life” as one of our great sources.

Several years ago I wrote a curriculum called “A World of New Friends” which introduced our children to world religions by helping them meet virtual friends from most of the world’s larger religions. For the lesson on Buddhism, the children met an imaginary student named Sumalee whose family was from Thailand. Sumalee was actually a large doll and made by the children – a sort of scare crow girl with a paper sack for a head and wearing clothing stuffed with newspaper but, none the less, Sumlalee became the classroom star for the day.

As the classroom star, the children learned all about her as she showed her All About Me Poster for show and tell. Remember this? A time when YOU got to tell everyone in the class all about your self – your favorite foods, your pets, what sports you liked. When YOU were the classroom star you had an actual REASON to dominate the classroom for a very short time.

Anyway, Sumalee was our Classroom Star but instead of talking about her favorite foods and games, her Star Poster explained her religious traditions and favorite holidays. She explained that her name Sumalee meant beautiful flower and that her family was Buddhist. Her family’s religious tradition was to meditate every day. Sumalee explained that her favorite holiday was Vesak, a time when she would clean the family’s shrine, decorate the old fat Buddha and then bring flowers to her temple.

The lesson was in Sumalee’s name; it was in the flowers. These temporary flower offerings reminded Sumalee and her family that just as beautiful flowers wither away after a short while, so TOO is life both beautiful and temporary. On Vesak, Sumalee was reminded of the first of the three universal truths on Buddhism – that life is impermanent and always changing. Through the traditions of the holiday she was encouraged to understand the second universal truth – because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or other people doesn’t make you happy. And next, the customs of the holiday helped her understand the final truth: that our “self” is simply a collection of constantly changing personal characteristics. Sumalee explained to the class how birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands as a symbolic act of giving freedom and of transience.

Is there a lesson for Unitarian Universalist youth here in the wisdom of our fat Buddha and in the stories of a scarecrow girl named Sumalee? As growing, changing children fitting into clothes one day and not the next, loving Teddies one day and discarding them the next perhaps they already understood the qualities of our changing selves better than we do.

Artifact #5: “Sauerbrei Chalice” – Rev. Thom
We have many chalices at SMUUCh. We have the one that sits in front of us, dedicated in honor of our 40th anniversary last May. We have the Anderson Memorial Chalice that we use on special occasions – like the memorial services for beloved members and other rites of passage. Our classrooms have chalices: from felt ones that the youngest get to Velcro a felt flame to, to children’s chalices made out of clay pots. We have chalices on our orders of service, some of us wear chalice jewelry, and I have a chalice tattoo.

But the chalice I want to show you here was created by Donna Sauerbrei, a member of our church with immense talents at pottery. I purchased this chalice at last year’s Auction – in a month you may be lucky enough to get your own! – and it has been used in our Adult Religious Classes, from our Exploring Membership class to my current class on Questions for the Religious Journey. Many families have their own chalices in their homes which they light before a family meal.

The chalice’s history and origins are a great story. The concept was developed for a purely utilitarian purpose – to look official on stationery when the Unitarian Service Committee (for whom we will be taking up a collection next month) was busy helping to rescue Jews and other enemies of Hitler from Nazi occupied Europe. Two years ago, service committee leaders Waitsill and Martha Sharp, both Unitarians, became only the second and third Americans honored by the State of Israel as “Righteous among the nations” for their human rights work during the Holocaust. The design combined Christian and Greek imagery – cross and flame – into a chalice. I like to say that the chalice symbolizes that the flame of truth, of passion, of justice, of compassion always needs to be held within the cup of community. Our own lights are delicate – and it is the church with its classes and teachers and groups and friendships that help us each to sustain those tender, precious flames.

Artifact #6: “The Machine” – Sara Sautter
This artifact is from our classroom for our youngest Unitarian Universalists – The Flower Garden. While these very tiny Unitarian Universalists are often too young to understand concepts like truth and wisdom, they are not too young to understand faith, belonging and the joy of wonder. And this artifact is a tool for producing awe and wonder.

Our 18-month olds learn trust and faith simply by having faith that when their parents drop them off that they will, indeed return for them! Now this lesson is easier on some days than on others. But after time when they are placed in our cheerful classroom attended by the same happy staff face each week – Susan Culey’s – they develop faith that their parents will return for them. Perhaps some Sundays a little less faith than others, but as time goes by the faith grows.

And these Flower Garden two year olds do learn to feel a part of something special as together they learn to make the letter U with their fingers, and together they sing the same song as a group and see special friends together each week.

This AA battery operated, 100% plastic, made in China machine is used to help our children experience awe. Yep – this little machine creates an awe inspiring wonder. The wonder of something that a three year old can dance under – an effluent cascade of delightful bubbles. Something that is here one moment and gone the next. Something that makes us smile. Behold our wonder machine!