Beth Hoffman Faeth July 28, 2019
Scripture Acts 20:22–32
Ninth-Grade Health Class.
I am just going to let that settle over you a bit, so you have a moment to conjure up a variety of awkward memories.
Perhaps I need to specify: Ninth-Grade Health Class—Sex Education Unit.
Are you with me now?
Maybe you all had a benign experience with sex ed—or maybe no experience at all? While I do know it varies within each school district, and within each generation, I have heard enough stories to know that I was not the only one for whom this particular segment of my educational journey was less than exemplary. Each year, beginning in about 5th grade, I had some semblance of classroom instruction meant to either confuse an already confounding time of development or to implant only negative outcomes so that one would never choose to engage in any activity based on an attraction to another person. Perhaps for some of you there is a time in that arc of perceived education that particularly stands out. For me, it was ninth-grade health class.
My teacher did not like me. Actually, that is being kind. He really disliked me. And I can blame my sweet mother for that. You see, my mom had been a long-time volunteer at Planned Parenthood. (Yay, Mom!) Not only did she volunteer in our city’s clinic each week, my mom also served on the Advisory Board for our county and was then elected to the statewide board of directors for Planned Parenthood. (Yay, Mom!) My mom knew that educated counseling on options of birth control and good sexual health really mattered. So, we talked about it a lot in my house. I knew stuff . . . a lot of stuff. And my friends knew that I knew stuff, so I became the resident expert. And if I did not know the answer to their myriad of questions, I could be assured this is what they would say: “Would you just ask your mom?” And so, I did. Because it mattered to me that my friends felt equipped and supported in this area of their life.
While my friends and I thought my mom was a rock star, my ninth-grade health teacher did not. He was not a fan of Planned Parenthood, and somehow conflict arose between my mom and him that had nothing to do with his high-school health classes. Except that he decided the best way to get back at my mom was to humiliate me. So during the most awkward unit of the year—sex ed—when all of us would have rather thrown ourselves out the window rather than listen to our big, burly, monotone teacher recite “facts and figures” from his self-produced manual, he entered the classroom one day in a particularly lousy mood, slammed his books down on his desk, yanked down the rolled up pictograph of the male anatomy and ordered me to stand and recite each “part” while he pointed at it with his stick.
I had chosen a back seat purposefully, and everyone in the class turned to look at me. My girlfriends looked at me with both mortification and amusement. It was one thing to talk about sex at school in whispered tones standing near our lockers or in the cafeteria over lunch, but in the classroom . . . out loud? The boys began to blush and snicker, and I could feel every vessel on my face turn crimson. I used to have a poster that hung on several office walls that read, “You have to stand up for what is right, even when you are standing alone.” I was really feeling those words that day. And I knew, in this showdown with my teacher, that what I did next really mattered. So, I stood up, took a deep breath and began . . . and, as he slammed his stick against the board, I boldly named the body part. The class dissolved into a fit of embarrassed giggles. I was saying words out loud that no 14-year-old wants to, that most of us struggle to say with a straight face today. But I got every. Single. One. Correct. Thanks, Mom.
We all have past experiences that become formative to our character . . . those times when we stepped outside of our comfort zone, were faced with an ethical dilemma, did something bold and daring on behalf of another, boasted a yard sign supporting a particular cause, demonstrated publicly to speak truth to power, stood up during a meeting and demanded clarification, or were moved in a different direction because of personal reflection. What we say, what we do, how we act, how we relate all displays what matters to us, even if we aren’t always explicit about our priorities because, frankly, we are unsure of them ourselves.
My conflict with the health teacher was never resolved, although I did get an A in his class. But that day is engraved in my memory and shaped a new narrative in my life. I could have refused to do what he demanded, put my head down on my desk in embarrassed despair, run from the room in protest. The last thing I wanted to do was to get up and recite the male anatomy to my classmates, but sometimes we must do hard things, and in doing them we open ourselves to discovery—that some things aren’t as hard as we think they might be, and doing hard things defines what really matters to us. And knowing what really matters is crucial to living a life with purpose.
But, what matters most?
Kate Braestrup is a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service and describes her work as “joining the wardens as they search the wild lands and fresh waters of Maine for those who have lost their way, and offering comfort to those who wait for the ones they love to be rescued, or for their bodies to be recovered.” Kate is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, entering seminary after her state trooper husband was killed in a car accident while on duty, leaving her a widowed mother of four children between the ages of 3 and 9. She has written several books—part memoir, part observations of life from her field of work as well as her personal experience. One of her books, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, includes a delightful story that reminded me of my ninth-grade health class. Unknowingly, Kate agrees to be the “classroom parent” during the month in which “human sexuality and reproduction” is to be taught to her daughter’s middle-school class. Apparently, the classroom parent takes an active role in teaching what is considered the “extracurricular” curriculum. The teacher is delighted by Kate’s presence. “As a mother of four, you will bring so much relevant experience to this unit of study!” she exclaims. Kate isn’t as certain: “I don’t know if I really am the best parent to help with this particular unit study,” she explains, “You see, my children were all accidents.” “Oh dear,” the teacher deflates. And after a bit of consideration, the teacher comes up with the perfect solution—she will teach the practical aspects of the topic, and Kate can do the values piece. “Values?” Kate inquires. “Sure!” says the teacher excitedly, “Morality, meaningful relationships, and so forth . . . since you ARE a woman of the cloth!”
Kate shows up on the assigned day and winds up doing a recap of the “practical aspects” of the topic, which concludes with the whole class having to recite together exactly what body part goes where during the actual act of which they were being educated. Kate writes:
We chanted it a few times, at first hesitantly, then with increasing confidence. We began to vary the emphases; we made it into a reggae with a little rhythmic drumming on the desktops. . . . When the decibel level was sufficient to rattle the jars of naturally pigmented liquid watercolors on the art supplies shelf, I brought it to an end with a fierce look and declared them all adequately sex-educated for the purposes of the day’s discussion. I erased the word SEX from the board. In its place I scrawled:
NOTHING MATTERS MORE THAN __________.
Nothing matters more than . . . than what? I hope that an answer swam into your brain. I would caution that it may not be the answer, but at least the wheels have begun to turn. The children in Kate’s class began to call out that which mattered to them: family, the earth, friendship, pets, music. Kate wrote them all on the board. “These are definitely things that matter. Which one matters most?”
The children in Kate’s class felt a bit like we might be feeling now, having to choose just one thing. “This is actually, like, hard,” one little girl said. I think we would agree. It is surprisingly difficult to fill in the blank: Nothing matters more than __________.
“Will there be a test?” one student asks.
And Kate replies:
No test, at least not in school. And I’ll tell you something else: You will probably spend the rest of your life not only answering this question, but also figuring out how to live your live according to what your answer turns out to be. Once you’ve filled in the blank, this sentence will become, in effect, your working definition of God.
For all of us who have struggled to understand God, or where God is in the midst of such a complicated world, perhaps this is a key. When we can name the one thing that matters most—that matters more than all other important things—then our hearts may be enlightened with a new perception of the Divine.
In the scripture reading from Acts, Paul is saying goodbye to the Ephesian leaders because he is compelled to go to Jerusalem, feeling led by the Holy Spirit, although also with a sense of foreboding. He suspects that he will be persecuted there, as that has been his experience everywhere. But he cares little about the potential hardship. “What matters most to me,” Paul says, “is to let everyone I meet know all about the incredible extravagant generosity of God.” Paul might boldly fill in the blank in “Nothing matters more than __________” with discipleship, or witnessing, or proselytizing. Regardless of his one-word answer, Paul’s mission is clear. He will work tirelessly, even to his own demise, to teach and preach about the Divine Source and to build communities centered by God’s love. Our scripture excerpt this morning describes the church as a community of holy friends, and Paul charges the congregation from which he is about to depart to guard and protect one another. “God’s people are worth dying for,” he exclaims. He reminds this community of new believers to be true to each other and their mission. They must know—and live out—what matters most.
While filling in the blank in “Nothing matters more than __________” is certainly a personal spiritual quest, it seems we should also work at discovering the answer for Plymouth Church . . . and then striving, with each gathering, excursion, discernment and decision, to live it out. In a church where we celebrate a diversity of opinions, beliefs, paths and practices, I wonder if it is possible to find unity for this community around the question “What matters most?” And if we could—would it change the way we do church together?
I believe so.
This is a sermon that comes with homework. Or perhaps I should say this is a sermon that comes with a recommendation for spiritual practice. I want you to take some necessary time and then fill in the blank. . . .
Nothing matters more than __________.
When your heart settles on an answer, how does this become your working definition for God?
I promise to tell you my answer . . . but not quite yet. For this sermon has a part two. Come back on August 18 for the big reveal. I invite you to share your discernment with me and what new understandings you discover in your answer.
I promise I won’t make you recite your answer—or any human anatomy either—in front of the congregation.
Kate Braestrup, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010), p. 156.
Ibid, p. 157.