Monday, July 20, 2015

Sermon -- "Tell Another Generation"

Here's the text of yesterday's sermon at Chevy Chase United Methodist Church. A few technical issues, so no audio file this time around. The text was Joel 2:21-28.

"Tell Another Generation"
As one of your United Methodist campus ministers at American University, a big part of my job over the summer is to participate in a series of New Student Orientation sessions. These sessions, held throughout June and July, are a chance for new students to meet each other, to learn more about the school, and to meet with advisors for academic planning and course selection. Each session includes a community involvement fair, where various student activity groups, such as the United Methodist Protestant Community, set up tables in one of the main dining areas in order to share opportunities for student participation. We hand out free candy, give t-shirts to people who sign up for our newsletter, and answer questions about spiritual life on campus.
Something that I’ve noticed over a few summers of these orientation sessions is a phenomenon that I call “Enthusiastic Parent; Reluctant Student.” What happens is that a parent approaches our table, very excited to find out that there are Methodists or Christians or whatever on campus, and asks us a bunch of questions. Meanwhile, their child, the new student, maintains a cool distance, physically separating themselves from the *clearly embarrassing* enthusiasm of their parents or at the very least not making too much eye contact with those of us behind the table. Sometimes, parents even complain out loud about their child’s reluctance to approach our table, which, as you might imagine, does not generally succeed at increasing the student’s level of interest.
I’m not sharing this in order to make fun of either parent or student – though this common phenomenon does lead to some genuinely funny moments. But in all of these encounters, I find myself really feeling for both the parent and the student. Both come into a new student orientation experiencing a complex web of excitement and anxiety, fear and hope. I’ve never been a parent, so I can only imagine the mixture of relief that a beloved child has achieved this milestone, mixed with anxiety about them being far away from home, mixed with excitement for all that is ahead of them, mixed, perhaps, with a bit of nostalgia and maybe even the fear of loneliness or a shift in parental purpose and self-understanding. I have, on the other hand, been an undergraduate student, and although it was more than a decade ago that I attended my own college’s new student orientation, I remember very well the swirling combination of anxiety, fear, relief, excitement, stress – you name it, I was feeling it.
And there’s something about a religious life organization table that just brings it all out. This phenomenon doesn’t happen as much to, say, the rugby club as it does to the religious life groups. All of those new college jitters get stirred up with the addition of another level of anxiety – for the parents, the question of whether the beliefs and values that they’ve tried to instill will remain important once their children leave home and begin their adult journeys. For the students, the question of how to claim their own identity, how to be their own person in a new setting free of the structures and parental influence of their childhoods. Faith, identity, meaning, purpose – this is deep, complex stuff that can sometimes surface over something as simple as whether or not they really need one of our free AU Methodist pens.
And these personal anxieties take form on top of a groundswell of deeper societal anxiety. Environmental catastrophe, racism, gun violence, sexual assault on college campuses – this is the stuff of internet newsfeeds and tense dinner table discussion. Our churches grapple with cultural changes and narratives of decline. Aging congregations ask, “where are the young people?”; young adults in the church ask “Why is it so hard for the church to change?” An older generation wonders whether they have created an environment unsafe for a younger; a younger generation wonders whether they have what it takes to change the world left to them by an older. Who is to blame for the mess we’re in? Who must take responsibility for changing it?
            “Hear this, O elders,” declare the opening lines of the book of Joel, “give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” Joel’s prophetic words are framed, from the very beginning of the book, as part of an intergenerational conversation, a passing on of wisdom and hope and challenge from one age to the next.
We don’t know very much about the person named Joel. We do know that his is a late entry into the library of prophetic literature. Many of the Hebrew prophets warn the nation of future exile if they fail to deal justly and mercifully with the most vulnerable members of society. Joel, however, writes after the exile to Babylon and the return to the land of Judah. The crisis to which Joel is responding is not the encroaching armies of foreign nations, but rather what us modern folk might think of as a natural disaster: a swarm of locusts has plagued the land, destroying crops and ruining livelihoods. In the midst of this ecological catastrophe, Joel calls the leadership of Judah to account for their unwillingness or inability to share the things of God with the next generation. “Call a solemn assembly,” Joel cries, “gather the people. Sanctify the congregation. Assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.”
Leave nobody out, Joel warns. Gather everyone. Everyone needs to hear what God is up to in the midst of this crisis. If there’s any way out of this locust-infested-mess, everybody better turn back and listen to God.
To our 21st century ears, Joel’s theologizing of disaster can seem strange, even harmful. Surely there are natural, scientific explanations for a locust and famine. Surely God – who, as Joel reminds the people, is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” – surely such a God does not inflict harm on people, including children, just to prove a point. The God that I believe in, the Jesus that I follow, does not go around causing natural disasters and random acts of violence in order to convince us to improve our behavior.
Yet there is something powerful about Joel’s reminder to seek for the voice of God in the midst of an age of anxiety. To stop and listen to what we might be called to do together when change is scary, when disaster strikes, or when violence seems to reign supreme.
“Do not fear,” begins the passage from Joel that we heard this morning. And in case we missed it, it’s repeated – “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green, the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.”
Even as environmental and economic catastrophe rage all around, Joel calls God’s covenant community back to a hope in the ever-generous abundance of God. “You shall know that I am in your midst,” God declares. I am with you. I am with you. You are not alone.
And then – and here, perhaps, we come to understand why Joel has been so insistent that all the people, young and old, have been gathered to hear this message – we hear the words that have become familiar in the Christian tradition through the story of Pentecost:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old folk shall dream dreams, and your young folk shall see visions.”
For Joel, the culmination of the hope that he comes to offer the beleaguered and distraught people of God is a vision of intergenerational inspiration, in which people of all ages and genders – and we can add of all races, of all language-groups, of all abilities and orientations and political affiliations and national backgrounds – all find themselves dreaming anew, imagining anew, speaking out anew about the things of the Spirit.
            In the midst of ecological crisis, God says, “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you.”
            In the midst of violence caused by deprivation and distrust, God says, “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you.”
            In the midst of massive societal change, God says: “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you.”
            In the midst of intergenerational anxiety and tension, God says, “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you, young or old or anywhere in between. And you will dream new things, and see new things, and speak new things.”
            Now, it’s a bit strange being a guest preacher in a congregation that I don’t know very well. I don’t know each of you, and your unique stories and situations. I don’t know whether some of you are about to send a kid off to college, or if some of you are going off to college yourselves. I don’t know if some of you are worried about whether a younger generation is going to carry on the mission and ministry that you’ve put so much time and effort into cultivating; I don’t know if some of you are worried that an older generation will never get out of the way and let you lead.
            What I think I know is this: God’s still got some Spirit waiting to pour out on us. God’s still got some Spirit waiting to pour out on American University. On Chevy Chase United Methodist Church. On the church in the U.S. and around the world. God’s still got some dream-inspiring, vision-inducing, imagination-provoking Spirit to pour out on all of us.
            But we’ve got to take the time and make the space to receive it. And if sons and daughters are prophesying, and older people are dreaming dreams, and younger people are seeing visions – then we darn well better figure out some ways to share all that with each other. 
            As usual, there are no easy guides for how to do this, no quick 3-step solution to the challenge at hand. Instead, here is one story: last week I attended a big, raucous Christian festival in North Carolina, called the Wild Goose Festival. On the last day of the festival, I helped my friend Alicia facilitate a conversation about growing a new generation of leaders in the church. An intergenerational group – from 12 years old to 76 – sat together and shared their first memories of leadership, and the things that make them feel affirmed or discouraged as leaders. Youth shared their hopes and their fears. Older adults asked how they could be more supportive, and shared some of their own feelings of being pushed aside or not listened to.
            Of all the many wonderful things I experienced at that festival – and it was a wonderful experience – that conversation gave me the most hope. It felt like we were taking the time to listen to each other’s dreams and visions, to create a space of sharing and collaboration in the midst of a societal context of anxiety and fear and division.
            We can create such spaces – here, in our churches, in our communities, in our families. We can ask questions, we can listen, we can share from a place of honesty and of Spirit. What it might look like exactly, I can’t tell you for sure – but we can do it, and we must. Otherwise, we might just miss what it is that God is pouring out among us.
            So gather the people. Sanctify the congregation. Assemble the aged. Gather the children, even infants at the breast. Listen for what God has to say: “Do not fear. Do not fear. I am with you – all of you – always.”


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