this sunday i began my career as a jr. high sunday school co-leader. i slipped into the role unexpectedly when i was playing foursquare with some neighbor kids at our church’s vbs kick-off block party. the red ball had bounced into the gutter full of street-juice, so after i grabbed it i went to the gatorade cooler to wash the sewage stench off my hands with some ice water. that’s when our church’s christian ed director pulled me aside: “josh, i was just hoping to get a chance to talk to you…” turns out summertime is a break not just for school kids but also for the regular sunday school teachers. i was happy to get a chance to hang out with some of the coolest, if not a little adolescently awkward, people in the church.
but it’s a heavy responsibility. helping anyone follow Jesus is, but all the more so when the people are young and influence-able. but it’s not an accountability i share alone; i have a very cool and like-minded co-conspirator taking on this responsibility with me. i’ve been playing with how best to get the kids to buy-in to the group for the summer, despite all the seasonal distractions (vacations, nice weather, being twelve, etc.). whatever their finished, pithy form, i’ve settled on a few goals for what i’d like to see happen in the group: i want the kids to dig deeper into the spiritual side of following Jesus; i want them to explore their emerging, christian identities; i want them to talk with our church-community about what they’re learning; and i want them to live out what they’re learning in loving service and proclamation. basically, i want us together to become more like Jesus in how we think, feel, and act.
but this is far harder to accomplish in a forty-five minute class than on paper. take this week’s lesson for example: the assigned texts (for the whole church–we’re doing a churchwide curriculum to foster conversation around dinnertables; this summer’s curriculum is built around the theme “things that make for peace”) were leviticus 25.8-55 and luke 4.16-21, the laws instituting the jubilee year and Jesus’ proclamation of jubilee. after a quick walk to our local dunkin donuts (a great way to win the hearts of six pre-teens!), we sat down, me with my coffee, them with their donuts and cool-lattas and croissant, to explore the passage.
one of my latent commitments for the summer is to expose the kids to the bible more. our church contains a lot of burnt-out post-evangelicals who cringe at the words “bible study” or “quiet time.” i understand that; i’ve been there myself. but their kids have grown up with a greater familiarity with john howard yoder than with scripture, and their sense of what it means to follow Jesus reflects this: it’s mostly a list of responsibilities and duties mixed with a repulsion to any form of violence and the letters w, a, and r. i want to give their fair exposure to the other side of the coin (so at the very least they know what they are defining themselves against). all that to say we started out with reading pieces of the leviticus passage.
naturally, they were all confused. so i borrowed an idea from my wife (”josh,” she said, “they’re going to be really confused. make it simpler.”), jellybeans. i gave them each a few jellybeans, insisting they not eat them because they were my jelly beans. then i told a mock story about drought and bad jellybean crops, about selling your jellybeans for enough food to eat, about indentured servitude, and so forth. then we had a jubilee year, and everyone got their jellybeans back. then they could eat them (more sugar, another good bribe).
at this point one kid wondered aloud about when the next jubilee year would be, like it was something on the calendar for 2018 or 2035. so we turned to the Jesus passage. after one of them read the handful of verses, we highlighted the connections to jubilee. then i asked them how Jesus’ claim that “today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing” could be true. there were still lots of poor people, lots of blind people, lots of slaves and prisoner, weren’t there? they nodded, looking befuddled. “let me rephrase the question,” i said. “how do we follow Jesus when he makes this sort of proclamation?”
and i remained silent too. we all knew the easy, readily apparent answers–take care of people, help out your neighbors when they need some food or a place to stay, talk to the people other ignore, petition for fair housing, take people into your home, protest war, practice conflict resolution, etc., etc. this is the stuff these kids have lived from day one. but the question probes deeper than that, into areas i can’t answer for myself, let alone for a group of twelve and thirteen year-olds.
you see, all these answers work great from the subjective end. they’re things we can do. but they aren’t all that effective. when you live in rogers park, you quickly realize that no matter how many apples you give to the guy begging in front of the fruit market, he’ll still be back the next day. no matter how long you talk with the sometimes homeless, usually jobless man at church potlucks or over dinner, he’s still moving from shelter to shelter and passing from minimum wage job to minimum wage job. just like for Jesus, our proclamations of jubilee are fine as long as we are the ones in power. but it’s more problematic from the other end. i think jr. highers are especially attuned to the powerlessness; they’re used to the things they attempt failing. they didn’t volunteer any personal answers, and i’m not sure i could offer any either.
so maybe we need to be like Jesus in john 6. we could call what he does there practicing jubilee, feeding five thousand from a small lunch of a few loaves of bread and some fish. we could. but note what happens next. after the dramatic and interpretively important interlude of Jesus’ revelatory and messianic walking on the water (an event significant enough to be in all four gospels!), Jesus’ groupies catch up with him on the other side of the lake, hungry for more food. but Jesus doesn’t provide. instead he addresses them with a riddling discourse about eating his flesh. the crowd leaves puzzled. not quite the jubilee of leviticus. but it is something. Jesus offers the crowd eternal (agely? eschatological?) life, something that renders the other jubilee little more than a shadow.
but this is really just dodging the question. or maybe reposing the question, asking, “what is the life that Jesus offers? and how do we follow him in offering that?”
teaching jr. highers is a difficult, heavy responsibility. kyrie eleison.