So last week four of our youth traveled to Lansing for the annual "Gathering," as they call it, a four day immersion into worship that isn't quite like what they experience at their home church, small group sessions with people they had never met before, and even a day dedicated to community service with people in far different circumstances, to say the least. Now it is customary at the end of the final worship service for one of the adult coordinators to get up on stage to let all these teenagers know what the theme will be for next year's Gathering. However, before she did, she wanted to tell those high-octane youth something first.
She said there isn't much in this world that makes her cry, but being part of The Gathering with its transformative music, uplifting speakers, not to mention inspiring young people: all of it made her unable to contain her emotions year after year. This 40-something year old pastor stood in front of the hundreds in the crowd that late morning with tears streaming down her face as she said, "I don't want the church to die." You see, when she went to The Gathering herself decades ago there were sixteen hundred youth from all over Michigan, needing two hotels to house them all. This year they were closer to six hundred. She continued to go on, "We need you now more than ever, and come next year, my son will be at this Gathering. I don't want the church to die!"
Now I don't like to make it a habit of disagreeing with my colleagues. They tend to be smarter and wiser with much more experience at this whole pastor thing, but as far as I'm concerned the church is never, ever going to die. Perhaps I'm too naïve, perhaps I'm far too optimistic, or who knows what else, but the church is never going to die. God will never allow the bride of Christ to fade into the darkness. That isn't to say that it will never change. It has time and time again to respond to an ever-changing culture all over the world in the last two thousand years; and it will most certainly change in the generations to come. But the church will never face death, no matter how convinced we are of it.
Now we heard from the Gospel reading this morning that "we have seen [the] glory [of Jesus Christ], the glory as of a father's only son,* full of grace and truth." Absolutely! But we also continue to see the glory, and we will time and time again through the generations still to come. Do not think for a second that God will not use the church in whatever building, people, or format it exists in the future to help reveal that life-nurturing glory to the world. In other words, we do not need the youth to save the church or the world, for that matter: God already has that taken care of through Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Messiah, our Savior. The last thing all young people need to feel before they worship and serve this God of all times and places is this insurmountable pressure that if they do not fulfill all the above and then some, that they will be held responsible for this failure of declining worship attendance. We do not need them to save the world. Jesus already did. All this world needs now is reminders, reinforcement, a retelling of the One Who saved us all for eternity.
And that happened last Monday afternoon, when Lexy, Amber, Isabel, and Patrick walked into a retirement home filled with people who were not quite in their age group. And let's just say the four of them weren't so sure if they were looking forward to this form of community service, going into a place that is often viewed with the most depressing of attitudes. But then within a few minutes they were met with uncontainable excitement as they scooped out ice cream to a dining room filled with the residents of that place. Soon enough smiles overcame the elderly faces as the young people led songs of "Pharaoh, Pharaoh" and "Amazing Grace." And as they knocked on doors to let the people know there would be delicious ice cream just down the hall, one woman wheeled herself over to the door in her wheelchair, absolutely amazed that the younger generation was right there in front of her, because all she had heard and seen of them was through the news reports of bullying, drugs and violence, even in her very neighborhood. She could not thank us enough for simply being there, and she could only hope that we would return soon. The glory of God shined through only four youth.
So I dare you to walk up to either Lexy, or Isabel, or Amber, or Patrick, and tell them they did not make a difference; that they cannot make an impact on this world unless we have fifty in the youth group. I dare you to try to somehow convince any of our young people in this church that through their service projects over the last few months were all for nothing. I dare you to believe with the outside world that numbers determine results, including ministry itself, because I witnessed firsthand that it only took two of the youth bouncing a ball with a man, and one of the young people playing the piano, both of which happened in the Alzheimer's unit. None of those residents will remember what happened that day, but the smiles and laughter were a reminder enough to all of us, that in that moment light had penetrated the darkness yet again, just as it did in Bethlehem through
the newborn Lord of Lords long ago.
So don't think for a second that the church is somehow going to die in the next few decades. It won't. It's going to live as long as Jesus is alive, and that by the way, is going to be the case for eternity. Don't think for a second that the church somehow needs saved, and the world along with it. It doesn't. Jesus already saved it on the cross and out of the empty tomb. And the young people have more than covered what God desires: reminders, reinforcements, retellings of the story through their gifts, through their talents, through their passions. The church is going to be just fine in whatever shape it takes for the rest of its time on earth. God has it more than covered through the children of God forevermore. And so for all the young people here and beyond, the future and the present of God's church, we give thanks to God indeed. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon