(Luke 2: 41-52, 18: 15-17)
A new year always brings any number of beginnings, and this second Sunday of 2017 is no exception. Already we’ve installed and ordained four of our new elders. We’ve celebrated the first communion. And today, Grace and I are launching the first sermon series of the new year – this one on the 2020 Vision your session adopted last June.
A quick recap – our 2020 Vision is the product of a lot of hard work from the session-appointed Long Range Planning Task Force, with input from the pastors. It consists of five guiding principles designed to help our church become, as we’ve taken to calling it, an “indispensable community presence.” You may have seen this vision on poster boards as you came into church this morning; you’ll see it in other places in the coming weeks. The five guiding principles of our 2020 Vision are:
- Create space for children and youth to fully engage in the life and leadership of the congregation.
- Foster a strong congregational identity and vitality through life-changing, relational mission.
- Transform our understanding of how best to utilize our facilities, campus and financial gifts toward future-focused ministry.
- Nurture a culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth both in and out of the church.
- Welcome and actively embrace the broken, the uncertain and the doubting.
So for the next five weeks, Grace and I will preach on one of these each Sunday. This morning, we look at that first one:
Create space for children and youth to fully engage in the life and leadership of the congregation.
Now let me say this: while these principles are not in any particular order as far as importance, I do think this one is critical for our church’s future. For any church’s future, really. I’d also suggest that its importance is hinted at pretty convincingly in our two readings from Luke today – in ways you and I might not have noticed before.
Because if you’re like me, you’ve typically viewed the Bible’s lone story of Jesus as a youth as nothing more than confirmation of his divinity; of just how amazing and awesome he was, even at a young age. To more than hold his own in dialogue with the most learned religious scholars of his day – it certainly comes across at least as “proof” of Jesus as the son of God.
But context often can give us new lenses by which to see things we hadn’t seen before. So as I was thinking about this passage this past week, and as I was also thinking about our first guiding principle – create space for children and youth to fully engage in the life and leadership of the congregation – I found myself focusing less on how the synagogue leaders were blown away by Jesus, and more on how they allowed space for this twelve-year old kid in the first place.
I mean, the pastor in me thinks, okay, Passover just wrapped up – the busiest time of year for these priests, the same way Advent and Christmas are for us clergy. And as the crowds that once swelled to huge numbers begin dissipating and going home, surely these guys are itching for some R&R.
Except there’s this kid hanging out in the temple all by himself. And he’s asking lots of questions and sharing lots of thoughts. He wants to be heard. He wants to have some skin in the game.
So what do the synagogue leaders do? They put their vacation plans on hold and stick around for him. They embrace this 12-year old kid, when it would’ve been so easy to tell him to take a hike, go find his parents, get out of there. They make room for him.
So much so that, when his frantic parents finally find him there, Jesus tells them what’s the big deal, I’ve been hanging out in my Father’s house. And again, we hear that and think to ourselves, of course that’s something Jesus would say – he’s God’s son, so naturally he’s going to describe the synagogue as “his Father’s house.”
But again, I’ve got this first guiding principle stuck in my head, and I’m hearing something different now. I’m hearing a twelve-year old boy expressing how comfortable and at home he feels in the synagogue because the people there welcomed him. And not only that, they engaged him. They listened to what he had to say, they treated him with dignity and respect. They went out of their way to create space for him.
So let’s put aside for a moment that this is the son of God, and of course he’s going to be brilliant, and of course he’s going to astonish the religious leaders with every word that comes out of his mouth. That’s a great sermon; I’ve actually preached that sermon before. But it is not the sermon for today. The sermon for today is this:
The people in that “church” went out of their way to intentionally create space for a 12-year old kid to be fully engaged in the life and leadership of the congregation.
And if you want to know if this had an impact on him down the road, look no further than sixteen chapters. People were bringing kids to Jesus – even infants, we are told. But when the disciples saw it, they ordered them not to do it. Or, as The Message translation puts it, they shooed them off. You know that expression actually has an official Merriam-Websters definition? It says – get this – “to drive away, as if an unwanted animal.”
How many times down through the years, I wonder, has the church been guilty of “shooing its children away” – of complaining when they’re noisy in the pews or running too fast down the halls, of minimizing their presence to very specific roles that say more about what we want from them than what they need from us; of making decisions on their behalf without including them in the conversation?
We are told that Jesus heard and saw what his disciples were doing. And I have to think in that moment that something triggered in Jesus’ mind – a memory from years before, way back when he was twelve, a memory about this one time when some church leaders welcomed him with open arms; created space for him…
And that is why I think Jesus responds without hesitation: Don’t say that! Don’t get between them and me. Let the children come, and do not stop them, for God’s kingdom belongs to them. The church belongs to them.
You look at every measurable study out there, and the statistics bear it out every single time: the greatest indicator of whether children and youth grow up to be faithful and faith-filled adults hinges on two indisputable truths: one, parents who make church attendance and involvement a priority in not just their kids’ lives but in their own; and two, a church family who actively and intentionally welcomes, empowers and creates space for children and youth. 82%, according to one renowned study. That’s huge.
It’s huge for us parents, because it reminds us that making church a priority for our kids and plugging them in to things like Sunday school and youth group and children’s choir is only half the story. We, too, must be actively engaged ourselves. Hear me out, my fellow parents: if we want our kids to study and learn about the faith, we need to be studying and learning about it, too. If we want our kids to cherish worship, we’ve got to be sitting in the pews and cherishing it right with them. If we want our kids to pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ that’ll impact the rest of their lives, we’ve got to be willing to pursue that relationship as well.
So it’s huge for us parents, but it’s also huge for the whole church. Because the single greatest thing we can do to assure our children and youth stick around and become not just followers of Jesus but leaders of the church, is to create space for them to start doing those things right now. That is why our 2020 Vision begins the way it does. It is that important.
And truth be told, in some ways we’re doing it already. For years now, our children have led worship through the beautiful sounds of our children’s choir. For years, our high schoolers have literally gathered us to worship and led us out of it as acolytes. For years, our youth have led an entire worship service, doing everything from preaching the sermon to sharing musical gifts.
More recently, you’ve seen children lead the Call to Worship, something we started doing last fall, something we did today. You’ve seen our youth read scripture, something we’ve been doing for a couple of years now, something we also did today.
But we need to do more if we want to become the church God is calling us to be. That is why next month, our youth will take on a greater leadership role in their acolyte ministry, organizing and scheduling themselves so they have a greater say and ownership in what they do and how they do it. And one year from today, right down here, we will ordain and install, for the first time in our church’s history, a member of high-school age to the office of Ruling Elder of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Charlotte.
Those are the ways we already know we’re living into this first guiding principle of our 2020 Vision. But by no means can they be the last. In fact, it is essential that we as a congregation continue to think of new ways to engage our children and youth in the life and leadership of things here. And may I suggest that the best way to do this, the place to begin, is by asking our children and youth themselves.
I’m dead serious about this. Those religious leaders didn’t talk at Jesus, they listened to him. So perhaps we should do the same. Ask your kids, or anyone’s kids, what they love about this church. What they don’t love about this church. What they want to see happen here. What ideas they have to help us “grow together and welcome all on Providence.”
I promise you, they will tell you what they think, and it will amaze you. As long as I am here I will never forget what they told me, when I asked them to give the charge at my installation service nearly four years ago this very month. I have not-so-jokingly referred to it as less of a charge and more of marching orders! It was Keeley O’Keefe who stood at that lectern and spoke, but it was all of the youth speaking with her. And even though I was the one standing down on those steps receiving her words, I promise you, it was every single one us standing there. This is what they charged us with. Listen:
The Youth of Trinity Presbyterian Church charge you to engage us in all aspects of the church. While we are not yet adults, we are still a vital part of this family. Treat us like the members we are; let us have input in decisions that affect our congregation. Let us have a voice in how the church serves others. We want to be active participants during this new chapter in our church’s life. Let us partner with you to shape Trinity’s future.
Folks, if that doesn’t blow you away like those religious leaders were blown away by Jesus in the temple, I don’t know what will. Let them come, Jesus said. Let them lead. For the glory of God, and for the future of this great church.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/the-no-1-reason-teens-kee_b_6067838.html, visited on 1.3.2017.