Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sermon 7/14 "Eyes of the Youth"

The Good Samaritan. You know, I smile thinking about this, just a few weeks after Vacation Bible School, where the Good Samaritan was the Bible story one of the days. I stood up front at the end of the day, and prompted the kids: “Who did we learn to serve today?” The kids answered with an exuberant, “Neighbors!” And I said, “And who is our neighbor?” Jubilantly, they replied, “Everyone!”

And we've all heard that part of the Gospel, right? This was difficult for the disciples to get their heads around, with their biases and prejudices against different local populations. Samaritans were the bad guys. Levites, priests, these are supposed to be the good guys. Yet the good guys behaved...I don't know, cowardly seems strong, but I think they behaved like cowards. They turned tail and ran. They willfully closed their eyes to the plight of another human being. They made up excuses as to why they shouldn't help. Can't you picture it? “Oh, I bet that guy in the ditch only got there because he was mixed up in alcohol or drugs.” Assuming the worst in another human being. That is cowardice. Only this Samaritan, the guy that wasn't supposed to help, goes out of his way to help this man he doesn't know. Bravery. And Jesus' point is clear. The expert of the law, who asked the question, correctly identifies the neighbor. “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus' challenge comes through: “Go and do likewise.”

Yet, despite the fact that this is one of the best-known stories in the Bible, I stand here today and I'm still just not sure we've got it. Or, I’m not sure we’ve got ALL of it. I think we’re starting to see the man, and help the man on the side of the road, but at some point don’t we need to ask if we need to make the road safer? How do we move from privileged charity to justice? I mean, pick your issue. Me? I have. I've spent years during high school, college and after struggling to identify which neighbor needed me the most. Homeless folks in McMinnville? Victims of foreclosure and shady banking practices in Philadelphia? Families in Mexico desperate for a home? Countless people in Palestine, Rwanda, Congo, or India, cast down by society solely based on past quarrels and struggles? Migrants, or maybe I should just say HUMAN BEINGS, dying on the US-Mexico border? Individuals unable to gain basic rights because of their sexual orientation? Or our elderly neighbors, living next door to us in abject poverty and filth, scared of losing their independence if they ask for help? Which one of these neighbors do I go to? And what about those other neighbors? Will anyone help them? Will anyone work against the systems that put them on the side of the road in need of help?

And what about us as a church? We have expanded our mission programming to include the Open Door program, to include the Backpack program, and as a congregation we are active in food banks, mentoring programs, and volunteering throughout the community. But where are the neighbors that we are passing by? Where are we scared to act bravely? And how do we move past charity work and into justice work, striving to change the systems that create these inequalities?

I've struggled with my lack of focus on these issues. I've written about it, I've prayed about it, asking God to take away this curse for me of seeing too much, focusing too little. I've watched friends of singular passions achieve great success in serving their neighbors, starting non-profits in various sectors, working with NGOs in foreign countries, entering into the ranks of the employed in education or business, changing lives. I wanted that simplicity. I knew I wanted to help people. But if I chose just one of these things, how could I keep from looking over my shoulder at the next one? Which one mattered most?

I came back to this church, to this job, because I believe the people that best see “neighbors” are the youth. Of this church. Of many churches. Not in churches. But the youth seem to understand something, grasp something that maybe we all once had, but no longer do. I wrote a poem while I was in Newport about it:

His clear, exuberant voice greeted me as soon as I rounded the corner
his blonde, curlish locks barely visible
above the front of his stroller
The face of his father greeted me differently
and I can't help but pause
and contemplate
a world of youth
void of the curse of life experience
and pain
a world
where each stranger you meet
brings hope
new possibilities.
the world is created new through the eyes of the young.

I came to this job, with these kids, 5 of which I get to accompany to Indiana this week, because the youth are the ones who are willing to challenge our notion of “neighbor.” Youth carry few of the biases and prejudices we've accumulated in our years of individual baggage. They see possibilities anywhere and everywhere, friends to be made instead of foes to defeat. The hyper-competitive world we live in has not yet corrupted the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. I need that encouragement. But more importantly, the world needs that. We, as a church need that.

You see, the opportunity to work with youth is where I see all of these issues of “neighbor” colliding. Working to educate and expand the world for youth is a task that combines all the topics I mentioned above. Any part I can play to help cultivate an awareness for the size, beauty, and diversity of the world these youth are growing up in is a task I will gladly and willingly take on. And yes, that carries a bit of homelessness. That carries some questions of equality struggles. That carries some economic conversations. What is justice? Who is our neighbor? The youth will tell us—if we are willing to listen.  

These kids (and a couple very lucky adults) are leaving for a week at Triennium they'll be talking about for days, months,  even years to come. My challenge, as youth director here, and I think our challenge as a church, is to not belittle or dismiss the revelations these youth come back with. This isn't a time to relate their experience to your own life, “Oh yes, I've done something like that.” This isn't a time to project our own failures and attempts on them, “Oh, we've tried that. It didn't work.”

Too often I've found myself thinking the same thing. In my time in Newport and here, working with youth, I find myself clinging to my experience in youth group, my vision of how things should be done. It is difficult to let go of my past, my own incredibly positive experiences, enough to let the youth develop their own, on their terms. And I don't think the answer is forgetting our own history, or how we did things. But we do need to allow the freedom for a new future, a future envisioned by the eyes of the children, the youth.

There will always a tension there, between tradition and emergence, between new ideas and the way it has been. But I want to implore us to explore those differences. Too often I think we refuse to engage simply because we know we might disagree. And so, youth dismiss adults (“their ideas are old-fashioned”) and adults dismiss youth (“we've tried that, it didn't work. They'll change their mind when they get older”). The fact of the matter is, wisdom abounds in both groups, but pride prevents us from seeing it.

“With age, comes wisdom.” That's the common phrase. But Jesus tells us that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must be like children. Perhaps this is the time to acknowledge the wisdom and insight these youth, all of these youth, have into the eyes and heart of Jesus. They see the neighbor on the side of the road to Jericho. Can we let them teach us how to see?

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