Children’s Religious Education Sunday

The homily below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the text below is a reading text; the actual homily contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Homily copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.


“Putting in the Seed”

You come to fetch me from my work tonight
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

From Mountain Interval, 1914, by Robert Frost.


The story was “Starry Time” from The Moral Intelligence of Children, Robert Coles, pp. 13-15. Due to copyright restrictions, it is not included here.

Homily — “The Children of This Church” — Dan

I’ll start by telling you a story. When Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian minister, was a little boy, not yet four years old, his father took him out somewhere on the family farm; then his father sent him home again. As little Theodore walked home, he passed a small pool of water, and there was a turtle sunning itself in the water. Little Theodore had a stick in his hand, and he raised it up to strike the turtle — but suddenly he heard a voice saying, “It is wrong.” Theodore went home, and told his mother what had happened. He asked her what was the voice he had heard, and she told him that some people call it your conscience, and some people call it the voice of God. Either way, the most important thing to do is to listen hard to that voice, for, she said, that voice will always tell you the correct thing to do; but if you neglect that voice, it will gradually fade away, leaving you with no guidance at all.

I told this story to some children this fall, and afterwards they wanted to talk about it. One child tentatively wondered aloud what “conscience” meant, but at almost the same time a girl asked about God. I said what I though Theodore Parker meant by God, and then she asked if we Unitarian Universalists believe in God. I said I did not believe God was supposed to be a man with long white hair and a beard sitting on a cloud; but if we meant something else by “God,” then some of us do believe in God. This answer obviously did not satisfy this girl; she wanted an answer! “How many of us believe in God?” I said. “Raise your hands if you do.” Less than half of us raised our hands. “How many of us don’t believe in God?” I said. Fewer of us raised our hands. “And now, how many people aren’t sure?” I said: still fewer, about of third of us.

The girl who asked the question still wasn’t entirely happy with my answer. “There’s another way to answer this question if you’re a kid,” I said. “You can ask your parents whether or not they believe in God, and then you can say, ‘I’m going to believe what you believe for now, and when I get old enough, I’ll make up my own mind.” This satisfied her, for the moment.

I remembered that someone had started to ask what “conscience” meant. Amy, our parish minister, was visiting class that day, so I asked Amy to define conscience for us, which she did. One boy had his own definition: Conscience is just plain old common sense. I said that many people think that conscience seems to come from inside, while for some people the voice of God would come from outside you; but for some of us, conscience also comes from outside, because conscience comes from other people. This made sense to the children. One child mentioned that we are influenced by what other people think of us, another child said we learn how to act from other people.

This kind of conversation is fairly common in this church, at least in my experience. The children in our church are quite thoughtful about moral issues, not just once in a while, but often. They may not always act on their values; of course, adults have the same problem. But they think and reflect, they wonder about things they’re not sure of, and they are willing to accept ambiguity.

One Sunday, I listened as Melissa van Arsdel told a Sunday school class the story of Queen Esther from the Bible, which is the story that underlies the Jewish holiday of Purim. It’s a long story, so I can’t retell it now — look it up on the Web if you’re curious.

Melissa told the story very well, and the children listened attentively. At the end of the story, Melissa asked the children what they thought of the story. One girl said she thought there might be a lesson to the story, and Melissa asked her what she thought that lesson might be. She gave her idea: that we should be nice to people. Other children said what they thought: that Haman got what he deserved, that you have to be careful whom you trust, and so on. Then one girl spoke up passionately, but not very articulately, saying the story meant we should stick up for our ideals. Melissa said the story could indeed mean all these things; in fact, it does mean all these things.

Then another girl asked if the story were true. When it comes to Bible stories, that’s the question we all ask, isn’t it? Some of the older children, two boys in particular, were quite certain it wasn’t a true story. The girl who had spoken so passionately earlier said decisively that it was a myth. The discussion grew a little chaotic, but the children understood that while this wasn’t factual history the way we know it today, nevertheless it contained truth — or as some of the children put it, there was a “lesson,” or a moral, in it. Even though we live in a world of binary oppositions, a world of black-and-white choices, our children can and do grasp subtleties of truth and meaning; they are willing to live with ambiguity, and to talk about the most difficult issues you can imagine, if we give them the space to do so. And looking back at my teaching notes from this past year, I see that I have had conversations with children on topics like death, and suicide, and how it’s scary to grow up, and what do you do when others betray you. Never once did we come to a final answer in any of these conversations.

Life, death, betrayal, growing older — I’m still struggling with these questions myself! — obviously I don’t have final answers to pass along to our kids. Instead of final answers, let me speak in metaphors. What I say might be truth, or a myth, or a fairy tale, or it might have a lesson in it.

All we can do — all any of us adults can do — is invite children to plant seeds with us. When we’re done putting in the seeds, we can stay there in the garden and watch as the seedlings shoulder their way up, shedding earth crumbs, always growing up towards the light. And if we stay in the garden long enough, the warm night will come, and the moon will rise, and one by one the stars will begin to shine above us, until the whole sky is a blaze of glory; and we will know that we are a part of it all.