This sermon includes information about the Love of God (L.O.G.) student-led retreat program, which we began last weekend with the help of the L.O.G. community in South Bend, Indiana. I am grateful to the students and adults who brought us this program at their own cost, and to the Rev. Terry McBride (who was my youth pastor in 1985-1989). And thanks be to God for the gift of this ministry.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
A week or so before Jesus took his disciples up to the mountain top, Jesus had fed four thousand people crowded on a hillside. The people had gathered to hear him speak and brought their loved ones for healing. They had not thought to bring food, and so Jesus fed them, with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. After making plenty out of scarcity, Jesus sent away the crowds and wandered off again, alone in a boat. The local religious leaders came to meet Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven. It seems that the miraculous healings and the feeding of four thousand people from a nearly empty bread basket was not enough, so Jesus turned them away saying, “you know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Or in other words: you can figure out tomorrow’s weather just looking at the sky, but you see all that I am doing and cannot put together who I am.” So he left the religious leaders too, and met up with his disciples on the other side of the sea.
When he joined the disciples, Jesus discovered that they had forgotten to bring any bread to eat, and he sharply reprimanded them. He was not concerned that they had forgotten bread—he was more
concerned that they had forgotten that he could make do without bread. He was annoyed that the disciples too could not read the signs right in front of them. And so he called out to them, “Who do people say that I am?” “Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, a prophet,” they answered. And then he asked, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Simon Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus blessed him and praised him, “I will build my church upon you Peter, the Rock. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven!”
But of course this is the disciple Peter, and so within one paragraph he’d messed things up. As Jesus began to tell his disciples once again that he would suffer and be killed by the religious leaders (and on the third day be raised), Peter cried out, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you!” Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” The ups and downs and all arounds of ordinary, daily life with Jesus.
So it was six days after THAT. Six days after Jesus had fed and healed four thousand people. Six days after the religious leaders tested his patience with a further request for signs from heaven. Six days after the disciples fretted about bread again. Six days after Peter had precisely answered the question of who Jesus was. And six days after Peter incurred Jesus’ wrath for trying to protect this man he followed and dearly loved.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and James’ brother, John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. As the three of them stood there and watched, Jesus transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun. His clothes turned bright white. And suddenly before them appeared Moses and Elijah. Talk about signs! There they were on a mountaintop, watching their master glow, chatting away with Moses and Elijah—those long dead heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures. Overcome with awe? Joy? Passion? Peter said, “It is good to be here! I can make three little huts for you and Elijah and Moses!” I imagine Peter thought they might stay a while. This man he loved and followed could stay on the mountaintop, away from the cities, away from the religious leaders, away from the destiny of suffering and death that lay before him. They could stay a while and it would be good. Peter would build three little huts.
Peter had some precedent for building huts (tents, tabernacles). After all, the Israelites themselves built tabernacles and then taught their children how to do it too. They built dwelling places or sanctuaries for God to inhabit, and they did it out of a sense of reverence and awe for the Holy. It was a perfectly natural impulse for Peter to offer to build a hut for Jesus to stay awhile on that mountain—it was his automatic, birthrighted response to encountering the living presence of God.
There was a way to go about building a tabernacle, too. “You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. Ten cubits shall be the length of a fram, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame. There shall be two pegs in each frame to fit the frames together…” and on and on it goes in Exodus. If you ever decide to read the Bible from beginning to end, where you will get stuck is the middle of Exodus with the instructions to build the tabernacle. There you will find chapter after chapter of cubits and tent pegs and particular cloths, etc…First God tells Moses, then Moses tells Aaron, then Aaron tells the people…verse after verse, chapter after chapter. Rich and dense in detail, many a well-intentioned Bible reader has fallen into the vortex of the tabernacle. It is not unlike the written form of an architectural blueprint. It is not unlike the endless checklists I have for going on retreats: “Don’t forget the song books, extra towels, sleeping bags, air mattress, Bibles, extra roll of toilet paper, the first aid kit. The first aid kit shall contain: bandaids, first aid cream (but not Neosporin, some people are allergic), acetometaphin, ibuprofen, gauze, ace bandage, ice packs, cleansing wash (but not alcohol because it stings), hydrogen peroxide, tweezers, bug repellant and sunscreen, itch cream and aloe.” Cubits and bandaids, goats’ hair and acacia wood, bug spray and aloe: this is how we build our tabernacles, inviting God to dwell among us.
Our faith life is not so different from Peter, I think. We get it right, then we get it wrong. We experience sorrow and desperately act to protect those we love. We experience joy and grasp after it, frantically trying to make it stay. Like the Israelites and Peter, we long to build a sanctuary where God might dwell among us. We build churches and sanctuaries, we consecrate holy spaces. We build youth programs, because we want to teach our children how to make space for God—how to live a life of faithfulness to God. We’ve built a good youth program too—between our four churches we have a robust schedule of Bible studies, fellowship, service, retreats, fun, food, music, and caring adults wrapped around our students.
One of our programs, hosted by Lawrence Road Presbyterian, is called Love of God, or L.O.G. It is a student-led retreat program for students in 8th-12th grades. A community of students forms around the planning and doing of the retreat—the students meet for ten weeks prior to each retreat to pray, worship, fellowship, work on projects, and make space for God to dwell. There are well-established L.O.G. communities in other places, but last weekend was our first retreat in New Jersey. The L.O.G. community from South Bend, Indiana traveled here on a charter bus to teach us how to make this kind of tabernacle.
And a tabernacle it was! We took up the entirety of Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church. Every air-conditioned space had students sleeping in it. The lounge, the Sunday school classrooms, the sanctuary, the fellowship hall. We turned junior hall into our dining room, and made the little classroom off that hall our office. Upstairs another classroom was staging room for our spirit team. The sanctuary, cleaned up on Friday night, became our worship space. The fellowship hall, cleaned up every morning, became a feast space, a room for small group discussion, and doubled as the Talk Room, where students gave talks on a variety of faith related subjects.
To make the talk room, we placed 6 pop-up canopies, 2 by 3, wrapping them together with a striped fabric swatch that matched the green canopies. We hung Christmas lights about the edges of the canopies, and used floor lamps to create ambience. Our Talk Couch, from which the students offered their talks, is a light-colored leather love seat, which the students sign when they give their talks. In a few years the couch will be full of the names of dozens of students who have given talks at L.O.G., a testimony to the commnity forming around these students with God at the center. It is a tradition for L.O.G. programs to have a light-colored leather couch to sign; we try to get one donated, because light-colored leather couches are expensive. This couch was a craigslist find (Thanks to the Bochantins!)—picked up on the side of the road and deposited into the church garage to await the retreat. It’s a recliner couch, and not in the best shape, so as the students attempted to pile onto it, it began to fall apart. Another of our volunteers “fixed” the couch with some 2x4’s, transforming it from a recliner to a love seat, and removing the reclining levers to therefore remove temptation.
We hung banners all about, another of our traditions. We gathered in a predictable pattern for this retreat—anyone who has been on a L.O.G. retreat in any of the 7 or so communities that exist, would recognize this pattern. The retreat is a protestant iteration of a Catholic men’s renewal retreat called Cursillo. One of our volunteers had made a Cursillo weekend twenty years ago. After observing for a few minutes she pulled me aside and said, “I think this is very similar to Cursillo!” And of course, she is right. The pattern of this retreat has been taught through several generations now, across denominations and through many churches. Participants attend the retreat, then they become the team for the next retreat. Habits and traditions are passed down from one group of students to the next. Changes are made, but they are incremental and small. It is very much how we hope to pass on our faith to our children, I believe. It is how, a thousand years later, Peter witnessed the presence of God and instinctively offered to build a hut, a tent, a tabernacle. I will build a dwelling place for you, Lord! That you and Moses and Elijah might be always with us!
Yes, we have done a fine job building a tabernacle of youth ministry, and I expect we will keep at it and refine it over time. At our first L.O.G. retreat, 38 students and 6 adults from Indiana joined our 14 students and 10 adults from New Jersey. At our next retreat in December, we will have only New Jersey students as we begin to grow on our own. But we have a fine start, and other youth ministry events going on besides. A fine and shiny tabernacle indeed.
On Sunday night, as the Indiana students got ready to go home, we gathered one last time in the sanctuary to sing and fellowship. As part of that I offered up thanks for all of the people involved—the students, the adults, the New Jersey students and adults for trying something new, the churches who trusted us with their students, and Lawrence Road for giving us space.
One student raised her hand and said, “I don’t mean to be out of place, but there’s someone we forgot to thank. We forgot to thank God.” And she was right! What a wonderful thing it is to be taught by our students. I had been so busy building a tabernacle for the Lord to dwell, I forgot that God already inhabited that space. Once again, drawn into the building and working of things, I had forgotten to thank and praise God for the privilege. How great it is to be called out on that by our students!
I think we worry a lot about our children. The daily process of raising children is sometimes a slow grind—day after day of homework, preparing food, cleaning laundry, scrubbing bathrooms. It goes by impossibly slow at times. But in the larger view, the years spin by—these youth are only on loan to us. By the time they have reached jr. high our children have absorbed the lessons we have to teach—they are on their way out the door. (To be sure, many of them will come back through our doors, but even then they will build their lives without so much as a by your leave.)
Youth ministry is the process of teaching our students how to build a tabernacle for the Lord to dwell in, even when their lives are transient and unsettled. We hope they will remember how to do that. But we are also reminded by Peter’s experience that God will not be confined to our tabernacles. The Spirit goes out before us, ignoring our walls, our tent pegs, our boundaries. When our children leave the tabernacle we built and discover their own wilderness, the Spirit goes out before them, even when we can’t. The student from Indiana reminded me that it isn’t the tabernacle that matters, but God who inspires, indwells, inhabits all that we do.
When we are afraid for our denomination, our church, our children, the world, the future, when we confront racism and sexism and joblessness and homelessness, and war and prisons, and even death, in those moments when we are flattened against the mountain because of the unexpected radiance of God, Jesus comes to us and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And then he leads us away from our sanctuaries and straight into the world where the Spirit is already at work.
Jesus walked away from that mountain and Peter left behind his dreams of a dwelling place for God. Our God is bigger than a hut or a tent or a tabernacle, and will not be confined to the spaces we create and consecrate. Our Lord Jesus walked down the mountain from his transfiguration and encounter with God, and the first thing he did was heal a child with epilepsy. This is what we are called to do every Sunday in worship, and it is what I think we hope to teach our children: Go out from this sanctified space into the world to love and serve others. For indeed, the Spirit goes before us, abandoning our tents and inner sanctums for the world in need. Get up and do not be afraid.
*Another sermon, "The Prodigal Daughter," addressing a time when we lost a student to suicide. Despite our best efforts, there are places only God can follow.