Back in September of 1984, when I was six years old, I was promoted. I became a member of the Junior Department here at Saint John’s Church, which for over half a century was known to everyone just as “Mrs. Truax’s class.” I can still remember those first few weeks. We read through, of all things, the Book of Esther. The Sunday School superintendent had presented to me with a brand new black King James Bible on Rally Day, the Sunday before. I was very proud of myself for being able to keep up with all the sixth graders in the class, piecing together all the words.
And then, a few weeks later, the Junior Department changed dramatically. All those sixth graders were confirmed, and moved on into another class, taught by someone else over on the other side of the Fellowship Hall. I was the only one left. Now by the rules we follow in most parts of life, that should have been the end of the Junior Department. You just don’t prepare a Sunday School lesson each week for one six year old boy.
But Mrs. Truax did.Every Sunday, through most of my elementary school years, she taught a class of one. And she taught me with all the skill she had: a different story each week, Bible memorization games, paintings and maps. We sang and drew pictures and once made a terrarium in a Sanka can. It was a real class, usually the high point of my week. It opened to me the world of the Bible and the truths of the Christian faith that remain at the center of my life and my vocation.
She also trained me to serve as Saint John’s only acolyte for the same number of years, and then gave me a place to sit beside her—right here on the front row. If I’m honest, I don’t remember too many sermons from those days. What I remember is the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria Patri, and the verses of all those hymns we sang. I remember her mother who sat with us every week, the very distinguished Mrs. Weller, who wore hats covered in black netting and brandished a lacquered cane, carved with serpents. And I remember thinking just how important a job being an acolyte must be. I knew it brought such joy to Mrs. Truax to have me beside her, so surely, I thought, it must give glory to God as well.
Today, we give thanks to God for a woman who devoted her life to Christian Education. And as someone who also had a distinguished career as an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Truax would be one of the first to tell us that to teach and learn the Christian faith is a distinct process, a special kind of education. Christian Education is about stories and places and ideas to be sure—things to fill the mind. But it’s also about opening the soul, nurturing the spiritual impulses that sometimes rise up so strongly in the very young. It’s about helping the young to find a valued and respected place in the life of the congregation. The gifted Christian teacher, especially the teacher of children, is more a guide and a host than a lecturer, holding wide the door to life with God and beckoning the child to step closer to the light.
When Jesus parted the huddle of disciples and led a little boy into their midst in the story I just read to you, he was challenging them to honor and respect children. He called them to value children because they were humble, instead of despising them for their weakness, as was widespread in ancient culture. And Jesus also commanded them, and all others who would be His followers, to welcome children, to receive them graciously, with sincere love. In terms that He would also use to describe the hungry and the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, Jesus told His disciples to receive children as if they were receiving Him. You will find me in them, He was saying; so you must love them for my sake.
Above all, I think, that’s how Mrs. Truax taught us, we hundreds, maybe thousands of her students. She loved us so deeply. She loved me enough to prepare that lesson every week, to train me to serve as an acolyte, to form me in the disciplines of study, prayer and common worship that have shaped my life profoundly ever since. She loved us enough not to quit when she was already tired and in pain, when her efforts were ignored, when she was misunderstood.
She wasn’t just loving us for our own sake. She was finding Christ in us, and sharing with us that supernatural love that only He can give. Mrs. Truax cared for us as she cared for the Lord who had redeemed her and was her constant companion through all the joys and struggles of life. Children, I know, can sometimes be very charming, and the stories of the Gospel are compelling. But you can only go back to eight year olds with the Good Samaritan every October for fifty four years because something—no, Someone-- even more joyful and profound is drawing you to back to the classroom. Mrs. Truax loved the Bible, to be sure, and teaching was in her bones, as natural as breathing to her. But I think it was seeking Christ and finding him every year in those ordinary kids, that was what really brought this extraordinary calling to life.
It goes without saying that we aren’t likely to see another one like her soon. Volunteers just don’t sign up for 54 year stints, 52 weeks a year. It was a such a beautiful and important thing to name the Christian Education annex here after her as a sign of just how completely she gave herself to that ministry. Christian Education remains one of the great gifts that this congregation offers to the world. And if you trace back the story of Vacation Bible School here, or the Alive Program, you’ll find Mrs. Truax at the heart of the thing, full of wisdom and encouragement, committing herself completely to serving the children of God.
It’s been the curse of most Sunday School teachers I have worked with as a professional minister that in the back of my mind, I’m always comparing them to Mrs. Truax. In the parish where I now serve, the Sunday School coordinator was fretting to me the other day that she only has two teachers for the high school class, which means they will each need to teach at least twice each month during the school year. “This is the third year for those teachers,” she noted with a furrowed brow, “do you think they’ll burn out?” Not if they’re really called to this, I told her. They’ll find the strength they need. Think of Mrs. Truax, I thought. Jesus will meet them in the children, and in the love they share, He will fill them with joy, and help them all to grow closer to Himself.
Today, we send Mrs. Truax on, in part, to rest, something she never found so easy in this life. But even more, we send her on to share in the Lord’s joy and peace, to see more clearly the fullness of His grace, and to receive her long-promised crown. She sought Him for years among us, her students, and surely she found him from time to time—I suspect in the unlikeliest of places. Now she will see Him face to face, and share in His love with all who have taught and all who learned His way.