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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

To Walk by Brooks of Water

Pacific Crest Trail by Junaid Dawud
Sunday, January 4, 2015
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church

This morning for the children's sermon, I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carles. And I told the children about how when the caterpillar goes inside the cocoon, its body liquifies and becomes a puddle of goo inside the cocoon. I said that this HAS to happen in order for the butterfly to form out of the liquid goo. And one of the children said, "Oh! THAT is why when they first come out of the cocoon that their wings are wet!" And yes, the butterfly
hangs from the cocoon for an hour, gently swaying in the breeze to dry their wings.

And isn't that the great story of our faith? That out of a puddle of goo we will be redeemed.

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 37:7-14

I will let them walk by brooks of water,
In a straight path in which they shall not stumble

I’ve been sitting with this image for a couple of weeks now, and I like it. It has a delicate, sweet feel to it, doesn’t it? After a time of warfare and defeat, exile and abandonment, the Lord has decided to regather her people, the people of Jacob, of Israel. After a time of great social upheaval, poverty, and fear, the Lord will provide redemption for the world: there shall be grain and oil and wine, flocks and land to replace what was taken. After the long season of hardship, life will be like a watered garden, and there will be dancing and festivities. Sorrow will turn to joy, and those who mourn will be comforted. The people will be satisfied, says the Lord.

We will walk by brooks of water, in a straight path, and we will not stumble.

Those of us who have known great difficulty and sorrow will, in the end, know joy and satisfaction. In the end times, all will come right with the world. We will be reconciled to God, and that lost vision of peace and wholeness intended at the beginning of creation will be restored to us and to God. My friends, we will roam the garden again. That is the promise of God.

A few weeks ago I went to see a movie called Wild. It is the story of a woman named Cheryl Strayed who decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada, through some of the most rugged terrain on the west coast, running the entire length of California, Oregon and Washington states. It is 2663 miles long and ranges in elevation from sea level to a peak of 13,153 feet. From desert to redwood forest to high sierra mountains, it runs through 25 national forests and 7 national parks.

The movie itself was a flop—in fact as I sat there 4 people left the theater in the first 20 minutes of the movie. What stuck with me was not the acting or the story or even the scenery, but rather this: walking beside brooks of water is not always easy or peaceful, the path is rarely straight, and we stumble dreadfully often along the way.

Midway through the trail, Cheryl realizes her hiking boots are too small. As she rests on a rock, her feet are in terrible pain. Removing her shoes, she finds that her big toenail has come loose and is bleeding. She peels off the toenail, and as she rocks in pain her elbow knocks over one of her boots, sending it flying hundreds of feet down the rocky trail. In frustration, Cheryl screams with rage and throws the other boot down the trail too. She sits barefoot for a few minutes and then finally duct tapes her shower shoes to her feet and continues on down the trail. She limps into camp 150 miles later, still wearing the duct taped shoes. She’s hot, smelly, dirty, bruised and bleeding.

For those of us seeking to walk by brooks of water, the journey is often a lot more like ripping off toenails and duct taping things back together than it is like watered gardens or feasts of bread and wine and oil.

These last several months, since I last preached with you in September, I’ve been working with our youth. We’ve been trying to walk by brooks of water, without stumbling too badly, trying to walk that straight path. Our youth group is a challenging context—students coming from many different backgrounds and many different churches. We’ve got suburban white kids who have grown up in the churches I serve. We’ve got black kids from Trenton—some of whom attend church occasionally with family, but most of whom don’t spend much time in church. We’ve got black and brown youth from working and middle class families. We’ve got poor white kids coming. We’ve got the occasional student who comes from money. We have students whose parents are in jail and students whose parents are police officers. We have students whose parents are drug addicts and students whose parents are social workers and nurses providing treatment and care. We have several preachers’ kids, including my own. On our trip to Montreat last summer we had 8 people in the van and 5 of them were preachers’ kids. That is a whole other challenge, let me tell you.

Not only that, but I work for 3 churches who all have different visions for what youth ministry means. We are pulled in several directions, rarely satisfying anybody. Many of our church folks want to see youth find Jesus. Many of our youth just want to roller skate and eat pretzels.

It’s been a challenging time to minister with youth. Racial tensions are at explosive levels, with the high murder rate in Trenton, police shootings around the country, protests nationally and close to home—initially sparked by the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, but continuing now for Eric Garner, John Crawford, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Jerame Reid. We are praying for everybody involved—we want better for both our communities and our police officers—we want wholeness. Many of our youth are growing up in poverty and financial insecurity—and that is not just limited to our city youth or our youth of color. Most of the families I am working with are one paycheck or less away from financial difficulties. These days people ask me how much it costs for their kid to go roller skating with us, and I always say $10, but pay what you can.

Last month we went ice skating in Brooklyn, meeting up with the youth group at First Spanish Presbyterian Church. As we walked to McCarren park, a mile away from us, police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Romero were ambushed and killed while sitting in their car.

Our context is less like a watered garden and more like wilderness survival in harsh conditions. What hope do we have to offer in the midst of this?

We’re trying to hold together this youth ministry with duct tape. The path is crooked as all get out, and we’re stumbling around. But by God, we walk by brooks of water.

This thing we are doing with the collaborative youth ministry, well, I often think it is doomed to failure. People ask me sometimes what we are doing to make this ministry sustainable long term, and I have to laugh. Because I am often not sure how I am going to pull off next week’s pizza and movie night, much less have any idea how to plan for volunteer development and curriculum planning three years out. Our volunteers are living fractured, splintered lives themselves, holding together their families and careers with duct tape too.

We have a diverse group of students who don’t always mix together easily. We have a youth group where people are welcome to be out of the closet—to be openly gay. And yet not all of our parents and students are comfortable with that stance. We have white and brown and black youth who love each other one minute and who tear each other apart the next. We have students who have spent their lives in the church, and others who could barely tell you a single story from the Bible.

I think the place where we are working at our best is the L.O.G. retreat program. We come together as a community weekly on Wednesday nights for 20 weeks of the year. We take over this church building twice a year for weekend retreats. We gather for special events and activities throughout the year. The students and volunteers work hard to create a place of trust and love and care—we try as best we can to envision what God’s watered garden might look like and to make that happen. We manage it, I think, for short periods of time. For 48 hours twice a year, here at Lawrence Road, we walk by brooks of water and we sing and rejoice and pray and find joy.

But even in that celebration, even in our focused and sustained unity toward peace and love and wholeness, we stumble. We get weary. We argue with each other. We forget how much we love each other. We wander down crooked paths, desperately seeking God’s living water. We lose toenails and have to duct tape our shoes to our feet. This promised land, these beautiful end times, when the Lord will bring us home and we will be satisfied with what God gives us, well it all seems a long way off most days.

I find myself weary on this journey. And there is so much work to do to clear the straight paths. I imagine many of you are weary too.

We pause this morning in this journey to eat together. In a little while we will take communion with one another. And as we eat the bread and drink the juice, we will stand still beside the living water of our Lord Jesus Christ, called into his presence just as he called the disciples to supper all those years ago.

Last spring we held a retreat at Camp Johnsonburg in north Jersey. We had some New York kids with us and some New Jersey kids too. We spent the weekend talking about identity and learning each others’ stories. And on Saturday night, we shared communion with one another there. Our preacher/teacher for the weekend was Cláudio Carvalhaes, and Cláudio told our youth to remember this time together. So that sometime later in life, when they were tired and worn and scared (as we all are from time to time), they could go to a church—any church—that serves communion. And then they could take that bread and that cup, and in the eating and drinking with those people then, they could recall THIS night, with THIS loving community, and they would REMEMBER that they are loved and cared for and that there is hope.

That is what we do this morning as we take the bread and the juice. As we gather around this table with one another. Bring to this table those who have loved and nurtured you in this life, along this journey. Bring to this table other times of love and joy and care. Bring to this table your sorrows and griefs, and your duct taped shoes. For you are known here. The one who walked a path of death and grief has gone before you, and before he left he poured out the wine and broke the bread and left it here just for you.

And then, sometime in a few years, when you are tired and worn and scared (as we all are from time to time), you can go to a church—any church—that serves communion. And then you can take that bread and that cup, and in the eating and drinking with those people then, you will recall THIS morning, with THIS loving community, and you will REMEMBER that you are loved and cared for and that there is hope.

A month ago I had breakfast with some of our youth. They weren’t Presbyterians by birth or by culture. They haven’t got the hang of our rituals and habits yet. And we haven’t got the hang of who they are yet either. We are learning each other.

We had bagels and juice, and as we spread the cream cheese and spilled the juice, I told them the story of Jesus’ last supper. I told them how Jesus had twelve best friends that he spent most of his time with. And these students, they know what that is like. I told them that he washed their feet before supper, and they thought that was really weird. I told them that two of Jesus’ friends stabbed him in the back—one of them sold him out to the authorities and the other pretended not to know him. “That’s messed UP!” they yelled with their mouths full of bagel. And then I told them that even though nothing was perfect, even though his friends had let him down, even though he was going to die, Jesus still ate with them and loved them and cared for them. “That’s weird, man,” they said.

And you know, they’re right. It’s really weird.

And still, we walk by brooks of water.

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