Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sermon - "Just Hanging Out"

Well, now that I've been approved for licensing by my District Committee on Ministry, I suppose I'll share the sermon that I submitted to them for review. Thanks to Emma Claire Martin for filming and Rachel Ternes for reading scripture (Mark 6:30-44)...and all the rest of the AU Methodist Protestant Community for being awesome. 


“Just Hanging Out”
February 26, 2015
Kay Spiritual Life Center
American University


Fifty-five years ago, in January of 1960, four college guys were hanging out in their dorm room, just as they had been doing every night since they’d started as students at North Carolina A&T University. They referred to their nightly hangouts as “bull sessions” – unstructured time to bounce ideas off each other, reflect on life, and grow in friendship. On this particular night in 1960, one of those young men, by the name of Joseph McNeil, had something to get off his chest. Joseph had spent his winter break at home in New York, and while returning to school, he’d been denied service at the Greyhound bus station in Greensboro, NC.
            See, Joseph and his friends weren’t just college students. They were black men living in the Jim Crow South, facing all of the racism and segregation that entailed. So when Joseph shared his frustrating experience with discrimination on that night in January of 1960, the four men decided together that enough was enough. The very next day, on February 1, they went and sat at the “Whites Only” lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth’s. They sat there for half an hour, until the store closed.
            The next day, they went back, with twenty other college guys and four college women. And they kept coming back. Even as they faced heckling, harassment, violence, and arrests, their group grew and grew:
From four.
To twenty-five.
To hundreds.
To more than a thousand.
            Within two months, there were student sit-ins in 55 cities across 13 states. By July 26th, six months after Joseph McNeil shared his frustration with his friends during their late-night bull session, the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC was officially desegregated. And according to the International Civil Rights Center in Greensboro – which, by the way, is housed in the old Woolworth’s building:
By August 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, which resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Sit-ins at "whites only" lunch counters inspired subsequent kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins at segregated motel lobbies, swim-ins at segregated pools, wade-ins at segregated beaches, read-ins at segregated libraries, play-ins at segregated parks and watch-ins at segregated movies.[i]

And it all started with four college students. In a dorm room. Just hanging out.
            Don’t get me wrong. A movement like the sit-in movement required a massive amount of coordination, planning meetings, and strategy sessions. But isn’t it remarkable that such a massive movement had its inception in a late night dorm room conversation that, on other nights, might just as easily have been about sports, or school work, or – if it happened in 2015 – what was getting the most upvotes on YikYak.[ii] There is something important that happens when people share together in the unstructured time of friendship building, joke telling, and idea sharing – the kind of informal conversations that happen in the dorm room or dining hall or on the campus quad. Somehow, it’s when that kind of time gets interrupted by the pressing needs of the day that inspiration can strike and that the seeds of action can be planted.
            Tonight we heard a passage from the gospel according to Mark. Biblical scholars have often noted that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is on the move. There’s a word used in Mark’s gospel that’s usually translated as “immediately” or “right away.” That word appears about 40 times in Mark, though we miss it because translators use so many different English words for the same Greek word: “At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). “Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began teaching” (Mark 1:21).  “Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit began screaming” (Mark 1:23). “Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.” That’s a lot of immediacy – and that’s just in the first half of the first chapter! Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel, is nothing if not a man of action.
            And yet in tonight’s passage Jesus seems a bit weary of all of the immediately-suddenly-right away-activity. The disciples have returned from their mission in the surrounding villages, casting out many demons, anointing many people with oil (as we’ll do later in this service), and healing. They are sharing stories with Jesus, telling him “everything they had had done and taught.” And the text says that they kept getting interrupted by people coming and going, so much so that there wasn’t even time for a snack. So Jesus says: “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for awhile” (Mark 6:31).
            What follows is a story that’s familiar to anyone who grew up going to Sunday School, and probably even to a lot of people who didn’t. From just five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus miraculously feeds five thousand people. It’s one of the few stories that appears in all four gospel narratives. Matthew even tells it twice. And each time this story is recorded, it’s preceded by Jesus taking his disciples and withdrawing from the crowds, from all the frenzied activity of healing and preaching. Perhaps, in the midst of the stressful and dangerous work of being a disciple, Jesus felt that some unstructured time was needed. Time to share stories, to encourage each other, to rest. Maybe even time to tell a few jokes. Time, you might say, for just hanging out.
Of course, Jesus’ planned time of seclusion and rest doesn’t quite work out. Word gets out, Mark tells us, and there’s a hungry crowd waiting for Jesus and the disciples when they arrive at their retreat spot. And yet I find it remarkable that even Mark’s action-oriented, always-on-the-move, immediately-at once-suddenly Jesus finds it necessary to look for some time alone with his friends. I imagine that, even as they “departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place,” as the text tells us, they continued to spend time together, hearing about each other’s journeys, sharing frustrations and joys, getting to know each other better.
We aren’t given any details about what Jesus and his disciples talked about during this time together. And I don’t know much about what those four college guys – whose late-night dorm room conversation sparked a movement – talked about on all the other nights that they spent hanging out. I assume that often their conversation turned to their experiences as African American men living in a city ruled by Jim Crow. I imagine it was no accident that they allowed their time together to be interrupted by their calling to enact social change. But I also imagine that they talked about all sorts of other things, school and relationships and family.
So I wonder: What if there’s a necessary connection between informal conversation among friends and the ability to respond with passion and determination to the interruptions of injustice and human need? What if that’s why the gospel writers tell us that Jesus withdrew with his disciples prior to this miraculous feeding of the multitudes? What if there is something important, even for the miracle-working Jesus, about unstructured time? Something that allows for transformation and healing to occur, instead of burnout and bitterness? What if there is a link between sharing a meal together and being able to feed the hungry?
What if there is something very, very important – something very faithful, very spiritual – about just hanging out?
Now, American University is a place that prides itself on activity. Last year, the Princeton Review rated AU as #4 in the country for Most Politically Active Students.[iii] There are a lot of things happening here, events and meetings, internship fairs and job interviews, teach-ins and protests. And many of these things have an air of urgency about them. You need to get an internship – at once. We need to respond to this international situation – immediately. When you graduate, you’ll need to find a job – right away.
You can get a lot done that way. And often, situations of injustice and human need really do call for urgent response. And yet, I worry. I worry that in the midst of all of the frantic activity, all of the urgent doing, we can forget how important it is to just be with each other. Even here, within the United Methodist-Protestant Community, it’s tempting to over-program ourselves, to pack our calendars with organizing and events and agendas and planning meetings.
Don’t hear me wrong. I love that you all want to do so many good things. I love that you put to shame all the shallow stereotypes about lazy Millennials that get strewn over various media outlets. And you can’t do that without planning meetings and agenda items. But I guarantee you that when you look back over your college experience, the most transformative aspect of your time here will not be in any single event or conference or activist campaign. What you will miss the most about this place is the time you spend just hanging out with each other – in the dining hall after the our weekly planning meeting; on the floor of the chapel after a worship service; in dorm rooms and apartments and out on the quad.
Like Jesus and the disciples withdrawing together before the miraculous feeding, unstructured time for informal conversation is not to be confused with apathy or a denial of the urgent problems of the world. I’m not talking about sitting alone in your room binge-watching House of Cards. I’m talking about spending time together, steadily building friendship and listening to each other’s stories. It’s what we call Christian fellowship. When we do that, we are somehow preparing ourselves to be faithfully interrupted by injustice and human need. We are tending the seedbed out of which transformative action may grow. And in so doing, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus, what we are seeking for and praying for and hoping for is not, ultimately, the next big activity or the next successful event. What we are seeking for and praying for and hoping for is something so much more than that. It’s summed up in the words of our communion liturgy, which we will share together in just a few moments: “until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast together at the heavenly banquet.”[iv]
We’re looking forward to a feast. To a party. There’s going to be great food – way more than a few pieces of fish and some bread. And you know what? I bet we won’t need a set agenda for our conversations there. I bet we’re going to get to just spend time with each other, singing and laughing and sharing stories.
Funny, isn’t it: that the great, hopeful vision of our faith seems to have less to do with hectic activity than with – well – just hanging out.

[i] This quote, and the information preceding it, may be found on the website of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC:
[ii] YikYak is a social media site that is popular on college campuses. 
[iii] From the American University website:
[iv] “A Service of World and Table I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 10.