Sunday, September 29, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan & Jeffri Christopher
preached at Plainsboro Presbyterian Church
A quick note that Plainsboro is the church I joined when I went to seminary. I came under their care halfway through my ordination process, in the middle of my divorce. They loved me. They loved my children. They loved my ex-husband. It is a good church, with good people.
I bring you greetings this morning from a congregation that resides in the in-between spaces. We do not have a building or an office. We do not have our own elders and deacons and sessions and committees. Rather, we make our home in many buildings; we borrow the church vans; we share office space and cadge off your internet service. In the late afternoon hours on Sundays we sneak into the kitchens of 3 churches. We eat leftovers you so obligingly leave for us from coffee hour or a church dinner. We are the church mice of your congregations. On Sunday mornings we may be hard to find in the midst of all the people, joyful noise, the lights, and the hustle. But after the people of God go home, and the building empties of light and sound, our students join together in this sanctuary or that fellowship hall, and we make ourselves at home. You might only know we were there because of the mouse droppings: the half-empty soda can, the broken chair, or the copy machine left on all night.
We are a congregation of youth and young adults ranging from 4th grade through people in their 20s and 30s or so. We include their families and a few older adults who have discovered newfound spirit and life at the margins of their churches.
We’ve been calling it a Ministry of Many, and we are a collaboration of several churches working to provide a space for youth and young adults to minister to one another, strengthen their faith, and return to their home congregations with a vision for how they belong in the family of God. I work primarily with Trenton Area Campus Ministry and Ewing, Covenant, and Lawrence Road Presbyterian Churches. West Trenton and Plainsboro support us in various ways with students like Jeffri, meals for our college students, funding for our ministries, and your prayers. We especially covet your prayers.
For the last year, Jeffri has been participating regularly in a youth ministry called L.O.G., which stands for Love Of God. She has been a student leader, inviting others to come to our retreats, working with our student team to plan three retreats for other high school students, and joining us for service work
and social events when she can. She has become an integral part of our youth ministry.
and social events when she can. She has become an integral part of our youth ministry.
This last summer our Ministry of Many joined up with the Presbytery of New Brunswick to attend the Youth Triennium in Indiana. Eight of our students and two of us adults got on a bus in the middle of July. We traveled two days to get to Indiana in the middle of a heat wave, and we joined 5,000 other students in a grand experiment of intentional Christian community. Jeffri joined us with the help of this congregation’s prayers and financial support. She is here to tell you about the trip.
Lasting just a week, Triennium became an important experience in my life that I will not be forgetting. Prior to going on the trip, we met a few times with the presbytery of New Brunswick to get acquainted with the members from the other church going on the trip with us. We discussed our concerns about the trip and most of us were anxious about meeting new people. Others were horrified at the thought of no air conditioning in the mid of July.(fans) But before we knew it, it was July 15 and it was time to begin our very long bus ride to Indiana. We arrived at the University of Purdue on July 16 and checked in to our dorms. The first day was pretty laid back and we were able to choose what we could participate in. In the evening, we experienced a worship service unlike any other. There were 5000 of us gathered in the Purdue University theater singing and even dancing to energizers that the hosts would have us do. Music would be blasting from all corners and a giant screen in the front would have the words “I am,” the theme of our retreat. Other volunteers would perform skits and sing music to help us understand the lessons they wish for us to learn from.
The following days, we would continue to participate in daily worship but new events were added to our schedule each day. The second day, we met with what we call “Small Groups.” From the 5000 people that attended, there would be 25 or so people to a small group. There were around 200 small groups total and we would each meet at different areas of the campus. In our small groups, we would discuss bible passages, put on skits and have personal prayer time. I was fortunate to have a leader who was knowledgeable about what we should be doing. Even so, I found it difficult to connect with the members from our group in such a short time. We only had about 2 hours a day for 3days with our small groups. But through our discussions, talks and activities, we were able to grow closer to each other. I found that I was also able to grow closer to my log family as well. I attended all my worship services with them and as a group, we were impressed by the way each worship delivered a different message.
In particular, the two worship services that stood out to me the most was the one outside in the amphitheater and the other inside the university theater. In the service outside, a woman named Theresa Cho preached about the “bread of life.” She discussed the story of the multiplication of the fish and bread. About 5000 of us were seated in the grass listening to her story when we looks at us and tells us to look around and realize that this many people were fed in the story and it was all because a youth had five loaves of bread and 2 fish. Toward the end of the service, we lit candles in the darkness and began to sing songs of worship. It reminded me especially of our Christmas service when we sing “Holy Night” with only candle lights. The only difference was that this was on a much larger scale. We stood in rows along the grass hill holding the candles. When we looked around us, all we could see were rows and rows of unending lights. The view was really beautiful to take in.
Similarly, in the other worship service inside, the preacher told us to take out our cellphone lights and hold them up high. The song “Lights will Guide you Home” began to play and we sang along to the song. All other lights were turned off so that only the lights from our cellphones were lit. Thousands of sparkling lights went up as the song progressed. We would sing the chorus again and again until it became a kind of prayer. It was another beautiful way to end a worship service.
On the last day, many of us wanted the experience to last longer but we were told to hold on to what we found here and keep it with us wherever we go. Choosing to go on this trip was a decision that I’m glad I made. Even today, I can remember what it felt like to be part of such a huge event. I thank this church for allowing me to be part of such a unique and unforgettable experience.
Our scriptures this morning reflect the theme of this year’s Youth Triennium: “I Am”. This was the question posed for the week: “Who do you say that I Am?” We pondered so many answers:
“I am who I am.”
“I will be who I will be.”
“I am the bread of life.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the gate for the sheep.”
“I am the good shepherd.”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
“I am the way, the truth, the life.”
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.”
So many answers to this question, “Who are you God?” And since we are made in God’s image, the question bends around back to our human souls, “Who do we say that we are?”
This is our abiding effort in our Ministry of Many, in this Congregation of Church Mice: we seek a way to articulate our stories, to know who we are and where we have come from. In our work with students and with one another, we challenge ourselves to share deeply of our lives, and to model for one another trust and integrity. Our youth and young adults come by this behavior naturally, but it is work that is not easy to do in the spotlight of Sunday morning. So we work on it over pizza. We work on it while bowling. We work on it at the college. In smaller spaces, in places of trust and love, we explore our stories and find the words to tell them.
And not only that, but we take the broken pieces of our lives that so often do not make sense, and we glue them together with God’s story. We use the Spirit as a framework to weave a tapestry of joy and sorrow, love and anger. Our human lives are intricately woven by God into patterns we do not recognize until enough of the weave is finished. Our work with the youth and young adults is to help them step back far enough to see the potential of what is coming as the threads come to life in Christ’s hands.
And it is from there that we begin to see how our own stories intersect with the stories of others. When we can tell the story of who we are, we can listen better to the stories of who others are. We can hear God’s own story with fresh ears.
As I work with these students, I ask myself constantly, “And who am I?” Over the years my answer has changed, my story has become more complete, more nuanced. Where once I might have answered, “I’m just a white girl from California,” I can now tell you more than that. I can tell you that I am the granddaughter of people who came on the Mayflower. I can tell you that on my father’s side we owned plantations. And slaves. I can tell you that I am also the granddaughter of dirt poor Swiss immigrants. And that I am the granddaughter of an Irish man who beat my grandmother. I am the granddaughter of a tiny, fierce woman with a spine of steel. After living in New Jersey, I can look back on my years in California and know that California was a beautiful place, but terribly dry—that I did not know that the color green could be so lush until I moved here to New Jersey. I can look back at my years in California and say that it is a state terribly divided by racism and xenophobia, that white and brown people do not mix except under specific circumstances. I can tell you that New Jersey is no less divided but much messier in how we are divided.
Who do I say that I am? If you find my blog, you will know that I say that I am a queer woman, a pastor, the single mother of two sons I co-parent with Bernie. And that I love cats. And you will know that I love these youth and young adults with every ounce of my being, and that I believe in them and their potential. I believe in the way God’s story intersects with their stories (and with mine), and that if we can find the right words, we can love one another and treat one another with justice. I believe this.
And it is here that I see who God is. I see God in the faces of each of you here this morning, supporting Jeffri in her journey forward. I see Christ in the myriad ways you gather as a congregation to be the body of Christ. The Spirit moves in the prayers written on the origami doves dangling above my head, and the Spirit moves powerfully through the prayers written on your hearts.
Moses, a young-ish man himself, approached a burning bush. He was uncertain, frightened, intrigued, troubled. The bush sent him on a quest to free his people from Egypt. It was a ridiculous quest, full of pipe dreams and illogical hope. God knew Moses’ story of insecurity and instability, and when Moses asked for assurance, God said, “I am who I am. I will be who I will be.” And for further detail, God simply said, “I was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Joseph. That is who I am.” Moses was left to discern God’s story in the story of his ancestors, and to discover God in the story of his own life.
This then was the theme of Triennium, and the work the children did for a week, in the heat of Indiana in July. It is the work the youth and young adults do every week at L.O.G., at Trenton Area Campus Ministry, and in each of our churches. They are discerning their own stories, and they are learning from your stories. If God’s identity can be found in the stories of our ancestors, then it is absolutely true that God can be found in your stories. We covet your prayers. We covet your stories. And we thank you for helping to show the way. God bless.