Category Archives: Youth

Sermon, August 7

Today’s Isaiah passage comes to us from around 740 BCE. David’s once unified kingdom has split in two. Isaiah is a prophet in and for Judah, the southern kingdom, with its capital at Jerusalem. Within fifteen years, the Northern Kingdom – known as Israel or Samaria – will be conquered by the Assyrian Empire, its people killed or exiled. 

The word of God that Isaiah is given to speak is a word of warning about military threat from without, and corruption and injustice within. In this passage, Isaiah refers to Judah as Sodom and Gomorrah. That story, of two cities destroyed by God as a judgment on their behavior, was already ancient in Isaiah’s time. It has nothing to do with homosexuality, though some of you may have heard that in the past. Instead it’s a story about a city who had so lost its bearings that it responded to guests with violence rather than hospitality. Isaiah is saying that Judah has similarly lost its bearings – and is risking God’s judgment. 

In some other prophetic texts we’ve heard God’s people called back to the right worship of their God. In this passage, it seems like worship is the thing that’s going well. They’re bringing offerings to the Temple, they’re keeping the appointed holy days, they’re saying their prayers. 

But, say God and Isaiah, their hands are full of blood. Their piety only exhausts God, when there is so much pain and injustice among them. 

The implication is that unless things change – unless God’s people cease to do evil and learn to do good – then God will punish God’s people for their failure to follow God’s ways of mercy and righteousness. That punishment will take the form of military conquest and exile, as it will – very soon – for their northern neighbors. 

The idea that the calamities that befall God’s people are God’s punishment is widespread in the prophetic books of the Bible. But theologically, we don’t really need the concept of a punishing God to understand what happens to Judah – or to us. You just need to look squarely at systemic evils and how they work. The way they can rot a whole society, weakening the foundations even as they cause untold suffering among those affected.  

You can read Isaiah’s message here as threat – or as simple prediction. If you don’t correct the rot… the structure will grow weaker and weaker. Eventual collapse is inevitable, one way or another. 

Last weekend our high school youth got to take a hard look at some of the deep problems of our society. Eleven kids and five adults traveled to Racine for our four-day mission trip. On Thursday and Friday, we learned about, and helped out at, the Racine Hospitality Center, which serves hot meals and offers other services to those in need in downtown Racine. We prepped and served lunch, sorted clothing donations, did outdoor cleanup, and other tasks. 

It felt good to do what we did. We could see the impact of our efforts. And at the same time: the kids asked questions with no easy answers. 

The people we fed will be hungry again tomorrow. The mountains of donated clothes made us reflect on our habits of overconsumption and the destructiveness of fast fashion. The plazas and parks we tidied probably have this weekend’s beer cans on them right now. And we couldn’t help noticing that while most of us were white, most of the Hospitality Center guests were people of color.

On Saturday we drove up to Milwaukee and worked with staff from Lutheran Social Services to clean and paint an apartment, which will become the home for a refugee family, from Afghanistan or elsewhere. It was hard work, but it felt really good to scrub away the grease and grime from the kitchen, and to wash and paint the walls. And again, we found ourselves having questions with no easy answers. 

Looking at the broken bathroom, the tiny kitchen with rotting cabinets, we wanted better for the people who will live here. But the housing crisis means that agencies resettling refugees have to work with any landlord who will work with them. Refugees have no credit history; they may not have jobs. Lots of landlords aren’t interested in them as tenants. The ones who are willing… may not always have the nicest properties to offer. And yet, it’s what’s available. 

The Hospitality Center and Lutheran Social Services are doing the best they can under a lot of constraints. They simply don’t have the resources to lift people out of poverty and addiction, shift the entrenched dynamics of racism, or place each refugee family in a comfortable and stable home. They would if they could. We could hear those leaders’ frustration at how little they can do. But real change, deep change, is far beyond their scope – without a whole lot of support and action from the rest of us. 

The prophet’s call urges us to face the reality of what’s happening in our cities, our country – hold it up against God’s intentions – and acknowledge how far off we are, together.  Then begin the work of repair – somewhere, somehow. 

Isaiah is speaking at a societal level. But the same applies to our own lives and souls. Sometimes, in order to get unstuck or move towards greater wholeness, we need to face the bad news about ourselves. What writer Francis Spufford names as the Human Propensity to Eff Things Up.  We are all works in progress – we have places we need to grow and change, things we need to turn away from and towards. 

That’s truly hard work, and takes active discernment. We get a lot of messages from our culture, from people around us, from advertising, and so on, that wants to tell us what’s wrong with us. Maybe it’s your body. Or how your brain works. Or your gender or affections. We should not assume that any of that speaks with God’s voice. 

I believe we each have  an inner compass – that we have the capacity to know, deep down, where our lives need mending. But that knowledge can be clouded by circumstances, by other voices, by shame, by fear. If you feel like you need help discerning and naming, there are such resources; let’s talk. 

There is something deeply holy about seeking out and receiving the bad news about ourselves – as individuals or as a society. In fact it’s foundational. It’s the first step of metanoia, the ongoing transformation of heart and soul, mind and life that is at the heart of the Christian way. 

But if actively seeking out what’s wrong or broken, corrupt or amiss, doesn’t sound like much fun to you – that’s fair. Maybe it’s not the right time for you.  Maybe what God wants for you right now is gentleness and rest. Maybe you’re already doing this work – on the inside or the outside. 

But even when the time is right, it is tough to look at heavy truths about ourselves and our communities and country. 

Which brings me back to the Gospel. Or at least the first part of it.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father delights to give you the kingdom. 

There’s so much kindness embedded in those words! Jesus is speaking to his disciples, who are worried about how much they may have to give up to follow him, and the opposition and violence they will face.  Earlier in the same passage, he tells them, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Anyone remember the old gospel hymn – “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me?” 

Jesus is telling his friends and followers that they are known, and loved. That no matter what they face, they’ll never be alone. That they don’t have to trust in the things that make us feel secure – money, possessions, social status – because they are held by something stronger and safer than any earthly security. 

Fear not. Take courage. Don’t be afraid. That message shows up again and again in the Bible. It’s one of the most consistent messages of God and God’s messengers to humanity. 

I wonder what it would be like, not to be afraid.

To be able to face the places in our own lives where our Human Propensity to Eff things Up is doing its thing – the places where we are called to, and yearn for, renewal and amendment of life. 

Recently I helped someone close to me with an interaction with someone who owed an apology and didn’t want to give one. We felt frustration but also some compassion – because it seemed that for this person, the idea of acknowledging that they had crossed a line and acted inappropriately felt vulnerable and frightening. 

When we feel the call to change – from within or without – we may fear loss, uncertainty, the hard work of change itself. What would it be like to come to all that unafraid? 

What would it be like not to be afraid when we face the rotten foundations of our society, our common life? To face our own embeddedness in systems that elevate some and oppress others? The work of unlearning and relearning history, language, assumptions about other people? What would it be like to feel so secure in our belonging and belovedness that we could approach that work gladly, with curiosity and hope? To tackle it as if it were as simple as Isaiah makes it sound: Seek justice! Cease doing evil! Learn to do good! 

I wonder. 

Jesus tells his followers that fear shouldn’t hold us back from going where God sends us. Literally or figuratively; whether the journey, the work, is out there or in here. We are known and loved and held.

Don’t be afraid, little flock.

May it be so. 

High School Youth Mission Trip Photo Album

St. Luke’s, Racine, our home base.
An introduction to the Hospitality Center from Seth Raymond.
A tour of the neighborhood.

Dinner Thursday night.
We slept in the beautiful sanctuary.

Cleaning up the parks and other areas near the Hospitality Center.
Prepping lunch at the Hospitality Center.

Serving lunch to the Hospitality Center guests on Friday.
After a full day at the Hospitality Center, enjoying the pool!
Saturday: Cleaning and painting an apartment for a refugee family.

Saturday evening we hung out at Racine’s North Beach!

A Saturday night treat…
Prayer time.
We played a lot of board games, in the evenings.

Sermon, January 3

Who would you want to eat frozen pizza and watch cheesy movies with?

My son offered to help me with my sermon this week, to lighten my workload during our family vacation. And I accepted, because I’d already decided on a topic where I could use his input. It was his suggestion that I start my sermon with that question. And, you know, it’s not a bad place to start. Because eating frozen pizza (warmed up in our Presto Pizzazz Pizza Cooker) and watching cheesy movies is what our middle school youth group does together every Friday evening. And what we have in today’s Gospel is Jesus as a middle-schooler, seeking a context and a community with space for his developing faith.

In this story, found only in the Gospel of Luke, we meet twelve-year-old Jesus – presumably on Passover break from seventh grade at Nazareth Junior High.   This is the only story of Jesus’ childhood that appears in any of the Gospels.  There are tales about Jesus as a child in some later texts, like the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written probably a hundred years later than the Gospels found in the Bible. In one story, Jesus is five years old, playing on the riverbank.  He forms twelve sparrows out of clay, and is playing with them.  But then some pious grownup sees him and says, ‘Today is the Sabbath, when observant Jews are not supposed to do any work. Making those clay sparrows was work, and you have profaned the sabbath!’   And Joseph comes over and says, ‘You bad boy, what are you doing, breaking the sabbath?’ Then Jesus claps his hands, and tells the sparrows, ‘Fly away!’ And they come to life and fly away, singing.

Other stories don’t go so well. Once a kid was running past Jesus and brushed by his shoulder, and Jesus got mad and said, You will go no further! And the kid fell down dead.  And everyone in the street said, ‘Who is this kid, that everything he says comes true?’ And the parents of the dead kid came to Joseph and said, ‘You are not fit to live in this city, with a boy like that! Either teach him to bless instead of cursing, or move away!’…

I don’t see these stories as real accounts of Jesus’ life. I think that Jesus’ life as a child and young man were mostly unremarkable and/or unknown, and that’s why those years are almost invisible in our Scriptures. Later stories like these are a product of the human impulse to fill in the blanks and create an interesting backstory.

But I think there is some insight in their portrait of Jesus – not as a perfect, holy child –  “Mild, obedient, good,” as it says in the verse of “Once in royal David’s city” that we don’t sing – but instead as a very human kid with some remarkable powers.

The Church – the big-C church, that encompasses all our churches – has taught for two thousand years  that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Both completely a human being and completely God.  A paradox and a wonder. What it means for us in looking at this Gospel story is that while Jesus was most assuredly not a typical 12-year-old, he also was a typical 12-year-old.

A scholar named James Fowler lays out a map of the Stages of Faith Development, based loosely on Piaget’s work on child development.  It’s not a perfect framework, but it’s helpful. It points out why we study Scripture and explore faith in different ways with younger children, older children, teens, and adults. And it helps explain why youth group is so important for kids in that Jesus-in-the-Temple age group.

So what’s going on with middle school age kids? The ten-to-thirteen-ish age group? These kids are beginning to move out of  what Fowler calls the Mythic-Literalist phase, the phase of our older elementary kids. The Mythic-Literal stage of faith development is the stage in which a child begins to take on for herself the stories, beliefs, and practices of her community. The playful imagination of younger children gives way to more linear and cohesive thinking. Rules, beliefs, and stories are all very important,  and are held firmly and literally. The stories and explanations of faith orient the child in the world, telling him who he is and why things happen. Deeper symbolism isn’t consciously understood, though it is at work, most assuredly.

As kids move into their middle school years – especially bright, inquisitive kids, and especially in a faith community that encourages thoughtfulness and questioning – they start to notice and wonder about some of these stories and teachings. Contradictions within the texts, and between the texts and daily life,  start to motivate deeper reflection and engagement.

Pre-teen and teenage youth begin to move into  what Fowler calls the Synthetic/Conventional phase of faith. Here’s what Fowler says about it: “In Synthetic-Conventional faith,  a person’s experience of the world now extends beyond the family  [to include school, peers, … work, and more]. Faith must provide a coherent orientation in the midst of that more complex range of involvements.  Faith must synthesize values, [information and lived experience]; it must provide a basis for identity and outlook…” In this stage, “trust is shifted from stories and explanations and is now placed in the need to belong to a group…. One finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective [or community] ….  Authority [may be] located in … traditional authority roles [and] in the consensus of a valued, face-to-face group…. One of the hallmarks of this stage is [imagining] God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Parent, Friend, Companion, Beloved, and Personal Reality. The true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply.”

So: In this phase, our worldview and experiences broaden, so faith is exploratory and inquiring, working to put the pieces together. And our social worlds broaden,  so faith is social and interpersonal, grounded in connection and belonging.

Let’s come back to our Gospel story,  and look at Jesus as an extraordinary, but also and ordinary,  twelve-year-old kid. We see a Jesus whose experience of the world now extends beyond his family… a Jesus who needs independence and freedom  to follow his own interests and questions. I can’t even begin to imagine  how terrified and furious his parents would have been,  after losing him for FOUR DAYS.  But there’s something abidingly true about this scene – “WHAT were you THINKING? Don’t you know how worried we were?” “Look, I just needed some time, OK?”

That’s why I treasure having a church community in which my middle-school kid, and all our middle-school kids,  can connect with other faithful adults, people who respect them and love them, who’ll be there for them  when they need a break from their parents, but still need somebody to trust.

We see a Jesus who has questions – and answers – of his own.  A Jesus who is actively working on putting the pieces together.  Digging into the holes and the contradictions, working on making sense of it all, weaving what he’s learned  into a way of understanding self, God, and world that can guide him into adulthood.

That’s why I treasure having a church community in which my middle-school kid, and all our middle-school kids,  can ask their questions, and share their provisional answers. Where there are open-minded, thoughtful folks around willing to share their viewpoints and stories, and also willing to listen, respond, encourage. Sharon and JM, our Middle High Youth leaders, are stepping up to be the designated hitters  for the curve balls and spit balls our youth may toss their way; but it’s not just them. Many of you know our kids,  not just their names, but what they like, what they care about, what they struggle with. I’m so grateful for that, as both a pastor and a mother.

And we see a Jesus seeking community.  Seeking relationship with a group that will give him affirmation, connection, and direction.  Maybe the other twelve-year-old kids in Nazareth weren’t interested in the same kinds of things as Jesus. Maybe his local synagogue didn’t have a youth group. So the best peer group he could find  was the teachers in the Jerusalem temple.  As we talked about this story, my son remarked,  “Jesus was probably kind of a quirky kid, and having a youth group where it was safe to be quirky  might have been really important to him.”

That’s why I treasure having a church community that has chosen to invest in creating and sustaining  that space for our youth. That’s committing funds and space  and a LOT of volunteer time to developing a community for our youth,  a group where it’s safe to be their quirky selves, to laugh and struggle and wonder and share, and grow into kind, thoughtful young adults  with hearts turned towards God and the world.

Independence and questioning  within the safety of a trustworthy community.  That’s what Jesus found in the temple, when he was twelve. That’s what our kids –  as many as six of them, when they all show up and bring friends! – that what our kids are finding here,  what they’re building here. This is holy and important work. Please keep it, and them, in your prayers.

This Gospel was just asking for me  to tell you about our youth group – a new and growing ministry at St. Dunstan’s – and talk a little about the who and what and why. But I hope there’s more here too. My favorite thing about this particular Gospel story from Luke is that it gives us this vivid moment of Jesus’ humanity.  Maybe it was the God in Jesus that drew him to the Temple and kept him there, but there is so much of the human Jesus here too – failing to mention to his parents that he had this plan to just, you know, stay in Jerusalem when they left; and sassing them – let’s call it what it is – when they finally, frantically track him down.

I asked my son, How does it feel to think about Jesus as a twelve year old? And he said, ‘It feels like I’m more like Jesus.  It feels like, we will all be twelve, or we’ve all been twelve, and so was Jesus. Knowing that Jesus went through his teenage years too is reassuring.‘

Our prayers and hymns, our rites and Scriptures place so much emphasis on the divinity, the God-ness, of Jesus. And rightly so;  that is what makes us Christians.  But I welcome and treasure the moments in the Gospels that remind me of Jesus’ person-ness.  That invite us to imagine him  sprawled over a chair in the youth room, eating frozen pizza and watching cheesy movies  with the rest of the gang, and probably fitting right in.