Monday, September 24, 2012

What does "Youth and Family" mean?

And Family?
Over the past eight weeks, many people have told me how nice it is that I’m here. That it’s great that there will be someone for the youth here.
Now, I am very excited to work with the youth. I spent many summers at a Bible Camp before attending seminary, and on internship I discovered that the part of ministry that gave me the most energy was working with the youth there. The youth of Hope Lutheran are an amazing group of students I have had the privilege of getting to know through youth group and confirmation here at church. I am excited to work with them. However, my job description is a little broader than that.
I have been called to Hope Lutheran as the Associate Pastor focused on Youth and Family Ministry. Over the past few years, I’ve found that the term “Youth Pastor” is generally accepted and understood, but a "Youth and Family Minister" is a little more confusing.
Our concept of church is changing. It’s no longer just the time we gather for worship in a specific building, though that’s part of it. Church is the community of Christians living out faithful lives 24/7. Being church is something that permeates all of life—from home to work to worship—and it begins in the home.
From the time children can open their eyes, they are watching the world. They learn to talk, walk, and play from those immediately around them—their families. Parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, guardians, and grandparents are the first and most trusted teachers of young people. It is to these individuals that children, youth, and young adults will look to for guidance on what they should do and believe.
This is not a shirking of responsibility by any congregation or its employees and volunteers—it is simply reality. Faith begins in the home, and congregations are an extension of that. Pastors and volunteers cannot model faith or minister for you, but they can model and minister with you.
Does that mean that if you have no relatives in the area, this doesn’t apply to you? In no way. As it was said earlier, the church is an extension of family, and we are all part of that. Every person in the congregation has a connection to this community—and everyone in the community is connected to you as well.
That’s the “and family” part. It’s acknowledging the reality that everyone in a community is connected as church—that the adults teach, model faith, and learn from the youth just as the youth learn from, teach, and model faith to the adults. It’s acknowledging that youth are watching everyone to see how faith fits into life—not just the pastors. It’s working and ministering with one another to strengthen and deepen our collective faith. It’s realizing what a gift we have been given in our faith and community, and acting accordingly.
As a pastor called to be focused on youth and family ministry, my eye is on those programs and that philosophy. However, I can’t do this for you. It only works if I work with you—our shared efforts producing a greater result than either of us imagined. I am really excited to see what that looks like.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How do you say that I am?

This week's sermon is based on the Gospel Reading of the Revised Common Lectionary, Mark 8:27-38.

Every week, a group of people gather in this space to sing praise to, offer prayers to, read stories about, learn about, and worship this person called Jesus. Every week, we come together around word, water, bread and wine for this purpose.

But who is Jesus and why do we worship him?
This is the very question that is brought to us by today’s gospel: Who is Jesus? Who do we say that Jesus is?
We have many names for Jesus—you may have learned some of them in Sunday school, confirmation, parents' instructions, or church.
Jesus is the Son of God.
The Second Person of the Trinity.
The Savior of the World.
God with us.
Those are all great descriptions, but what does that mean, really? Who is Jesus?
Well, let’s start with Son of God. Jesus is in an unbreakable relationship with God the parent. That parent/child relationship that never can be erased. But Jesus’ connection is even deeper than that. Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. This Jesus is a part of God, equal to God, is God. Everything Jesus does in his lifetime on earth is in line with God because Jesus is one being with the Father and the Spirit—so in line with them because he is part of them. One being.
Jesus is God as human—Emmanuel—God with us. God speaks to us and walks with us in Jesus. As God with us, Jesus proclaims and lives a life of radical hospitality and inclusivity. Don’t believe me? Just ask some of the untouchable lepers Jesus spoke with and healed. Some of the children, women, poor, blind, widows, foreigners, strangers, sick and suffering people that society had written off. These are the people Jesus sought out, spoke with, loved, and healed. That’s our example. That’s God in the world.
Savior of the world. Jesus suffered and died on the cross and rose again three days later. He died for the sake of the world, so that we might be saved from the eternal consequences of sin—that is, death. Jesus loves the world and everyone in it. He died that we might have eternal life—Jesus himself tells Peter this is the plan in today’s lesson. Jesus is the Messiah sent to save the world from the hold that sin has on it.
So that’s who we say Jesus is.
How do we go about that?
Well, we have inherited some invaluable gifts as children of God to help us do that. 
Faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, who is God’s continued presence among us. This faith isn’t something we choose, but is a gift. We learn about it through the Word, most tangibly, the Bible. In the Scriptures, the story of God and God’s people from creation through Jesus to the early church are recorded for us to learn about and better understand our faith. We read from it every week so that we might grow and continue to be reminded of this story.
Two more things we are given: baptism and communion. These sacraments—these sacred traditions—are instituted by Jesus himself and promise us that God is with us.
In baptism, we gather around water and word to celebrate our unity with Jesus. We are assured that the Holy Spirit comes to us there not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus has done. Because of what God has done in us. Through baptism, we are joined to Christ and brought into the family of God as sisters and brothers.
Then there is communion--bread and wine. Common physical elements from daily life. Yet through this, we recall Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for us, and we are again assured by Jesus that he is here, present in the bread and wine, forgiving our sin and calling us to lead lives like his.
And guess what? We can lead lives like that. We are assured through baptism that we are united with Christ and brought to eternal life. Through communion, we are assured of this and that we are forgiven of our sin. Freed from those worries, we can simply live in response to these gifts.
In worship, we gather around word, water, bread and wine. We receive God’s gifts—God’s word, the Holy Spirit’s presence, Christ’s body and blood. We are assured of our connection to Christ and one another, and of the promises given to us in word and sacrament.
We are freed from the burdens of sin and given eternal life. We can go into the world, knowing—knowing­—that we don’t have anything to earn where God is concerned.
We are free to live a life like we have been saved and given gifts too great to keep to ourselves. We are free to live like Jesus—imitating the radical hospitality he showed to so many, including ourselves. We are free to respond to God’s call in our lives.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Clean or Unclean?

This sermon is based on the lectionary readings for Sept. 2, 2012: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and James 1:17-27.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and entrances, and one person in their time plays many parts.
I tend to think Shakespeare got that one right. The whole world as one big stage and all of us people in it just play-acting. Putting on a show for this situation or that one. Making sure we got it right. This motion here, that topic there. There are situations pre-scripted for us and ones we improvise. This mask here, that one there. This hat or that one depending on your role in this scene. Teacher, parent, child, student, adult, doctor, worker, servant. If you do this, you’re part of this group, if you do something else, you’re part of that group.
Today’s Gospel talks about the pre-scripted versions of religion—specifically the ones that decide if you’re part of this group or that one. The Pharisees, seeing the disciples and knowing that Jesus and his followers are Jewish, remind them of their customs. Wash your hands before you eat. Keep that which is common away from yourselves, that you may be more holy.
What are they talking about? I suppose to understand this play we should discuss the setting...
In this case, tradition dictated that to be clean one must wash. Makes sense. This wasn’t a functional thing, though, with soap and water to get rid of the dirt and germs. It was ceremonial. A bit of water cleansed you so that whatever you put in your mouth would also be ritually clean and you would stay pure. That was the sort of washing the Pharisees were talking about. The disciples, however, are eating without that water on their hands.
So, the Pharisees point it out. The disciples are not adhering to the social code handed down from past generations. Time-honored tradition, the way it’s always been. One little condition. It’s really not even that much of an inconvenience, really. A little water, a few moments, and we’re all fine again.
How often do we do that? Need people to do things our way? The way it’s always been? The way it was last year? How easily to we react to correct those who do something differently than we do?
Well, Jesus has something to say about that. And guess what? It’s NOT that tradition is bad. Jesus doesn’t say that at all.
What Jesus says is this: we’re not playacting. Not here.
It’s not about the masks you put on to fit into this or that group. It’s time to take off the masks—in this case, of tradition—and look at the character motivation underneath it. Hear again the words Jesus uses: hypocrite, intentions. This is about motivation. This is about meaning.
It’s not about the right lines or the right gestures, it’s about motivation. It’s about what’s behind those lines and actions. Is it that desire to remind ourselves of God and God’s presence among us in our lives or is it about making sure everyone else follows our rules? Goes through the motions? Keeps everything the way it’s always been? It doesn’t have to be just about tradition, either. We could also ask whether we’re making changes something just for the sake of drawing new lines.
As the reading from James says, those who go through the motions and forget about living God’s word and presence are like people who look in a mirror and then forget what they look like—Maybe they do put on a mask and then forget what they are reflecting.
Well, today Jesus reminds us.
It’s not about the masks we put on. It’s not about projecting a particular front or putting on a certain manner or routine. It’s about having integrity. It’s about knowing what we’re reflecting, who we’re reflecting, and showing that by what comes from inside us.
What does come from inside us? Things go through us and are placed on us from the outside, yes, but what comes from within? Most tangibly, our words and our actions. Jesus reminds us that these need to be meaningful—we need to understand what we do and why we do it. Our words and actions should never be empty gestures. We are called to live with a bit more integrity than that.
Now, does that mean that we forget tradition? Of course not. Tradition connects us to centuries of faithful generations, and many of the traditions are designed to reinforce our relationship with God. That’s really important. But just like change for change’s sake doesn’t make sense, tradition for tradition’s sake doesn’t make sense anymore, either. Putting conditions on God’s unconditional love doesn’t make sense. That’s when it becomes a mask and we need to look beneath it to see what’s there.
This isn’t a place for masks. It’s a place for meaning—for reflecting the light of Christ within us. How each person does that is going to look different because we’re all different people. But we work to live with integrity—here in this building and outside of these walls. This part of our lives—this Christ within us—permeates every part of our character and affects what we do here and everywhere else.
So we are challenged this week—when we speak, when we walk out to the world around us—what comes out of us from within? What are those things that we say and do, and why do we do them? What is our motivation in each case?
You don’t have to have a microphone and a room of people to do this. Habits build. Whatever you say or do will slowly influence your attitude and later words and actions. Whether we work to make others fit into our conditions, or reach out to show God’s unconditional love to more of God’s world, it’s important to notice what we do or say and why we do that.
I can assure you that at some point, something you say or do will be noticed by someone you don’t expect. Whether a kid, co-worker, complete stranger at the gas station, whatever, someone will see what we do and infer from that who we are and who is reflected in us—good or bad.
So, if “All the world’s a stage,” we need to figure out our character motivation. Because it’s not about the mask, the costume, or the makeup. We’re on an improvisational stretch here, and before the curtain goes up, we need to know what’s beneath our character’s surface in order to know what our character will do.
If we start from the inside, the outside will naturally follow.