Sunday School lessons
In a week when presidential candidates focused on racial divides, I joined a study group based on Jim Wallis’ book about racism in America. The book is called America’s Original Sin. As I read and reflected, I came away with the feeling that we’re all implicated in the complex of racial division. Said another way, we all have a story to tell. Jim Wallis invites readers to reflect on those stories. I found that the news of the day, the call of our Presiding Bishop to focus on racial reconciliation, and this challenge by Jim Wallis combined to cause me to reflect on early memories of Sunday School, of all things. No offense to my Sunday School teachers, but there’s not a lot I remember from those classes, except watching the clock. I do remember this:
I was about 12 years old. Each person in our Sunday School class, meeting at a church in a New York suburb, got a magazine, a small aspiring-to-be-hip publication for young teens. I remember one particular issue. It included an article by J. Edgar Hoover of all people. It made such an impact that long before I got into graphic design for a living, and many decades hence, I can still picture the layout of that 2 page spread.
In that article, Hoover wrote to this church audience, which I presume was assumed to be predominantly receptive to his message, about the danger Martin Luther King, Jr. posed to our nation. (This article was published before Dr. King made his fateful trip to Memphis.) I remember the claim, not uniquely held by the former Director of the FBI, that Dr. King was a tool of communists, that his Christianity was a front for something sinister and unpatriotic, that he was a person devoid of moral fiber. I remember the vitriolic tone, which might make current candidates blush (or not).
Even at that young clueless age (as opposed to my present older clueless age), I thought if I had to pick between J. Edgar Hoover and Dr. King, I’d go with Dr. King. I wondered what editorial staff called Hoover and said: We need help with Christian formation. I was confused as to why we were reading this in Sunday School. That article shifted something for me, sending early warning signals that I might not belong in that church. I regard it as a milestone in my migration to another tradition, since that article seemed to have little to do with the Jesus movement (to use a phrase floating around the Episcopal Church these days). As I’ve reflected on that article, and the fact that I remember it after all these years, I thought about what a mentor told me. He said: When working with young people in formation of faith, the first and foremost duty is to fulfill the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.
We’ve come distance from the publication of that article. We’ve learned more about Mr. Hoover, now diminished in public perception. We’ve come to regard Martin Luther King as one of the great figures of the last century. Not a perfect human being (who is?) but one worthy of honor, maybe reverence as his work in the world was shaped by the Sermon on the Mount. I’m struck that in most towns of any size around the country, north and south, you now find a Martin Luther King Boulevard, in communities where in another time he might have been arrested for walking on that street. I also recognize as I read this book, and watch the news, and examine my heart, that there is distance to go.
Yesterday, in church, we began our liturgy by praying that we come to know true religion. What do you think true religion is? That prayer is below, along with excerpts from scripture we read yesterday. Those scriptures call us to new ways to think about our life in the world. True to the spirit of Jesus, they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
I believe we are called as disciples as part of our spiritual practice to pastor the community. That begins with introspection, as we consider where we can grow in love of God and neighbor, those two things inseparable. That becomes a broader view, where we explore the brokenness of our world and ask how we may have participated in it. And then we ask, we hope and we pray about how we might contribute to the healing of the world, and of course, how we might teach our children well. It’s amazing what they will remember.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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