Tag Archives: faith

30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.

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The devil’s question

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

A sermon on Luke 4:1-13

This past Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent; the time the church has set aside for penitence, reflection, fasting and prayer. It seems only right that we begin our Sundays in Lent with this story about Jesus’ temptation. This is a season when many of us put ourselves face to face with temptation – giving up things we love like chocolate, wine, perhaps whining. We do this to practice discipline (and sometimes to lose weight or give up bad habits), and, in doing so, we enter into prayer and build our relationship to God. Jesus’ temptation was far more formidable than chocolate – the devil tempted him with some of the more difficult things that we wrestle with every day. The need for self-reliance, the desire for power, the easy way out. But at the bottom of all of these temptations, and most of the temptations we face in life is the question, “Do you trust God?” That is what the devil is asking Jesus. Do you trust that God will provide for you? Do you trust that the path God is leading you down is the right path? Do you trust God with your life?

These are the same questions the devil asks us. Do you trust God? Or do you trust yourself?

Jesus had just spent 40 days in the wilderness. He had not eaten, and was very hungry. It is reasonable to imagine that he had not slept all that well either – sleeping out in the open, weather and animals keeping him awake. And here comes the devil, doubt and temptation personified, to offer Jesus a solution to his problems. You are hungry, Jesus, and you have the power to fix this on your own. Use your power for yourself, just this one time. Be fed. Fill yourself with what you have created by yourself. God might not give you the bread your stomach so strongly desires, Jesus. Fix it.

We are hungry. We are hungry for connection, for community, for meaning: we are hungry for love. The media and product peddlers take on the role of temptation and doubt personified. They tell us that we are not attractive enough, but there are pills and diets and surgeries and clothes to fix that. They tell us we are not complete, but there are cars and furniture and kitchen sets to fix that. They tell us we are not truly loved until we have extravagant presents to prove it. We are unsure of who we are and where we belong, we are told that the products we buy can help us define who we are, and along the way provide us with a community who is into the same stuff. We will find connection through our things. And we are surrounded by it, this message. It is in our ears and faces all the time. We absorb it through our pores. We doubt our worth and fall prey to the belief that we have the power to sate our own hunger. We fall into the cycle of spending our time to earn money to buy things to fill our hunger but it never lasts. And so we do it again, and again.

Jesus knows about this cycle. He knows that, on his own, he can do nothing, that it is only through God that he can act for good. Jesus knows that life is about so much more than that bread. He knows that he cannot fill himself on his own. He is hungry, he is weak, he is tired. I would imagine he is salivating at the thought of a meal. But he is also grounded in the Word of God, in scripture and prayer. He is grounded in faith in God and the knowledge that God can and will provide so much more than the things of this world, so much more than Jesus’ own power and abilities can bring him. It is his grounding in the word of God and trust in God’s promises that allows him to put aside his hunger and reply with words from scripture, “The human shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.”

By what are we living? The word of the world, or the word of God? Where do we put our trust?

The devil sees that this tack will not work. What else can he offer Jesus? What else might throw Jesus off track? An offer of power, perhaps? The devil offers all of the kingdoms in the world. Just the fact that the devil was able to show this to Jesus hints at the devil’s power. The devil claims that the kingdoms of the world have been given to him – is the devil lying, or does the devil control the major cities of the world? If the devil does have this power, this could make Jesus become the messiah the people of Israel were expecting – a mighty king, a political leader, come to free God’s people. This would be a very different king than the road Jesus is currently on. His power would be more visible, more worldly, would be seen in a way that those around him could understand. Moreover, it would be a power that he could understand, that he could control. Not only is the devil offering Jesus power and control, he is offering him it in a way that makes sense in this world. The power Jesus has, the role he plays in the world is almost never understood by those around him, not until after his death. All he has to do is pledge loyalty to the devil — in return he will recieve power, control and a different destiny.

Power. Control. Understanding. Recognition. We really like those words. Who doesn’t, at one time or another, daydream of being in charge of a kingdom, be it having control of your household for five minutes or having control of the world. We love control, and we really, really hate to admit that we aren’t in charge of much of anything. Most of us want to be recognized for what we do, to be seen as the one who just did that awesome thing. But we have a God who doesn’t show us the end of the story but lets us work it out. We have a God who asks us to do our good deeds on the down low. We have a God who asks us to pledge our loyalty to him and only him, in return for things that are hard to see, hard to explain, and often unrecognized by our world as being awesome. The world tells us the opposite – power is visible, control is ours, and we deserve to be recognized for what we have done. What are we willing to trade for some recognition, some power, some control? What are we willing to give up to God?

Jesus is still hungry, still exhausted, and can likely see some positive outcomes of the devil’s offer. After all, he is fully human as well as fully God. But he knows his call, he knows who he is created to be. Once again, the strength of his faith comes through. His grounding in God and knowledge of his path takes over and he is able to say, “Get behind me Satan: for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and no other.”

But the devil is not done. There is one more thing. And, really, it’s kind of bratty. Satan must be annoyed that Jesus keeps pushing him back with scripture, so he comes with some of his own. And through that, he manages to ask Jesus if he really trusts that God will protect him. “Jesus, God has said he will protect you. Do you really think he will? If you do, if you really believe in God, put his love to the test.” Or, the flip side of this question, “If you believe what God has told you about who you are, put who you are to the test.”

Most of us know this is a bad move in a relationship. It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to say, “If you really loved me, you’d…” Or to act out to see what your beloved’s response is. And yet… how often do we put God’s love to the test?  How often do we act out hoping for some response from God, for some lightening bolt from the sky. How often do we put God to the test by questioning who we are, by questioning if we are loved?

You are loved. I am loved. We are loved. By God. The proof in this lies in our lives, our community and in stories of God’s love passed down through the generations and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus  had the stories, he had the community, he was rooted in God’s love for him. He didn’t need to throw himself off a building to prove it. He knew.

The devil is done with him… for now. The scripture here tells us that the devil will come back – at an appropriate time. Not even Jesus could escape temptation. But he could face it down, he could push it back – and so can we. With Jesus’ help.

But, why? Why should we push back temptation? Usually temptation has something fun on the other end of the line. True. Usually it does. Just like a fish sees a tasty worm at the end of the line but misses the hook. Giving in to temptation usually does have some fun, but it almost always comes with pain, loss, grief, embarrassment, and more.

Jesus was able to push back temptation because he was deeply grounded in the word of God. Not just the words of God, though his knowledge of scripture and his ability to quote it certainly helped him in this situation. He was grounded in the word of God, the word that was there at the beginning, the word that lived inside of Jesus Christ and the word that lives among us today. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” We have the word in our midst! We have scripture, we have ritual, we have community, we have the Holy Spirit, we have the unending, always forgiving, never fading love of God. When the devil asks us, “Do you trust God?” We can look at all that we have been given, all that is around us, all that God has entrusted to us and respond with a mighty, resounding Yes.