The last two Sundays this church has had the privilege of being  led in worship first by the children of the congregation, then by the youth.  I don’t think it is possible to overstress the importance of this.  A very familiar church comment is for people to say that children are the future of the church.  That is true in a way, but a more important truth is that children are the present of the church.  I want to talk about both perspectives this morning.

          Also last Sunday Dick Christopher very graciously acknowledged my 17th anniversary as pastor of this congregation.  In his remarks he mentioned the number of children and youth now as compared with when I arrived as evidence of the effectiveness of these years.  I agree with him about that, but I want to spend some time giving credit where credit is due.

          A decision we made early in my time here was that we would depart from the practice of having an Associate Pastor here and would call a Christian educator instead.  Our ability to provide leadership and programming for children’s and youth ministry was critical for our ability to attract young families.  Anna Johnson was called to that position and quickly made a very positive impact and momentum was built.  As her family grew she needed to step back in her commitment of time to work, so Nancy Dykes was hired to a part time position to work with children’s ministries while Anna continued to focus on youth.  Over time both positions have become full time due to growth in numbers and programs, and we have continued to have excellent leadership provided by people like Catherine Neelly and Rebecca Roser and Carrie Pannell and Laura Neely and Amy Rawlings.  Our through the week preschool program has provided nurture for children both within and outside the church, and has been a conduit for some to become members here, led by Nancy Cochran and Shirley Stayanoff and Lisa Moorhead.  Children have been nurtured in their musical gifts by people like Deedy Francis and Tim Hill and John Warren and that reached fruition with the calling of a full time music director eight years ago, Mandy Keathley, under whose direction musicians of all ages have flourished.

          For all of this to be possible has required several things from you.  A critical one is financial support.  Our country went through a major economic crisis over the last few years.  Many churches had to cut staff due to decreases in giving.  We never had to do that, which is a great credit to your faith and commitment.  A second critical need was volunteer support.  We have the greatest volunteers in the world, and without those the programs we have simply can’t function the way they need to.  The third critical need is participation.  The children and youth who make their church activities a priority, and whose parents and grandparents make it a high priority to have their children involved, make all the work pay off.

          This morning we have had the privilege of receiving a new family into our fellowship.  It is a family which includes three young girls, the youngest of whom was baptized this morning.  Her parents made baptismal promises about her Christian nurture, and so did we.  Her parents are looking to us to be covenant partners in nurturing their children in the Christian faith.

          One of the metaphors of baptism is particularly meaningful to this discussion, and that is the image Jesus uses in today’s Gospel reading about being grafted into the vine.  “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he tells us.  “Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.”  What a wonderful image and promise for Christians, to be “in Christ” in such a full and complete way as branches growing from the vine.

          Hence this metaphor of grafting for baptism.  Symbolically this morning we have grafted a new branch into the body of Christ through baptism, Clara Ann Marr.  She is a shoot growing from older branches – her parents – alongside her two sisters.  We also have previous generations here today, and extended family from various congregations in various places.  When you stand back and look at the broad scope of it , it is like Jesus told us about the kingdom of God: it is like a tiny mustard seed which grows into a tree large enough for birds to nest in.  It is miraculous, and I’m sure that if we listened to the stories of faith developing, changing, dying, being reborn, and maturing among these generations, these branches, it would truly strike us as beyond miraculous.

          We are also grafting this whole family into this branch of the body of Christ and they become part of who we are immediately.  The process of grafting a branch from one tree to another is a delicate matter.  It must be done carefully, lovingly, and patiently.  It must be done at the right time.  It must be nurtured and cared for on a continual basis to make sure that the new branch really becomes one with its new tree.

          We church gardeners need to be equally careful when grafting.  Certainly the main work is done by God, who cause our efforts to grow and bear fruit.  But we all need to do our part with care and love.

          What do we need to do?  We need to love these children as they grow up.  We love them by learning their names; by giving them our attention and affection; by working with them in children’s church and Sunday School and choirs; by being patient with them; by having fun with them; by showing them good examples by the way we live our lives; by letting them know we expect them to do the best they can; by being willing to correct and reprove when needed.  We need to show up when they lead worship, encourage them when they lead in mission, enable them to participate in retreats and conferences and mission trips.

          While we are thinking about grafting from a church and body of Christ perspective primarily, I want to address a few words to those of you who are currently doing the hard but fulfilling work of parenting children and youth.  If you want the grafting of your children into the body of Christ to take and to last, it requires your constant attention and tending and nurturing.  Here are a few things to keep in mind.

          First, you need to show your children constantly that the church is an important priority in your life, and that it is so because you want it to be.  You don’t drop your children off at church for the church to make them into good people.  You come with your children because we have all been grafted into this body and all need nurture, all need each other to grow and be healthy.  If you do not communicate to your child that you were glad when they said unto you, “Let us go to the house of the Lord,” why would you expect your children to grow up feeling that way?  So set an example for them by attending Sunday School while they do, singing in a choir, working on a committee, helping with BibleSchool.

          Secondly, be a positive person.  Help your children learn to get along with and appreciate people who are different from them.  Help them learn that if something doesn’t meet your expectations the thing to do is get involved and help it improve rather than just complaining about it.  Express your appreciation regularly to staff and volunteers who work with your children.  A little bit of encouragement goes a long way.  A little bit of negativism goes a longer way.

          Thirdly, and most importantly, help your child’s faith to develop at home.  Character and faith cannot be built in one or two hours a week spent at church.  Church provides a community affirmation and support for what you teach at home.

          You can do this in lots of different ways: with family devotions, with reading to younger children out of a children’s Bible, with relating faith and Jesus to things that happen in your child’s day or major events in the community or world that they might pay attention to, using a nativity scene to teach the Christmas story or an Advent wreath or calendar.  Also, they are paying attention to every aspect of how you live your life.  How you treat them and talk to them; how you treat your spouse; how you treat your parents; how you treat your neighbors.  Taking canned goods as a family to AIM.  Writing the check for your tithe to the church and helping them understand.  Taking a meal to someone who is sick.

          One of the things which impresses me year in and year out is the quality of the young people who come out of this congregation.  Lots of people grumble about what’s going wrong with the youth, but I am quite content to turn the future of the church and the world to the young people I have seen come out of Central Presbyterian Church.

          I don’t know what you pray for, but I have always prayed for my children not that they would grow up to be power brokers or rich and famous, but that they would grow up trusting in the Lord with a sense of humility, high morals and human decency, compassion for others and a feeling of fundamental self-worth.

          The church and the world desperately need us to grow such branches from the tree.  It doesn’t just happen.  It requires work, love, and patience.  But it is a labor of love which can bring much joy and fulfillment.  And the success of it does not depend upon us alone, or even primarily.  God is involved, too.  Their future, and the future of the church and of the world, are ultimately in God’s hands.    That’s a lot to be thankful for!

          In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

                   David J. Bailey

                   May 3, 2015

                   Central Presbyterian Church

                   Anderson, SC