Oh, I had fun today. I got to ‘play’ in worship with some really lovely people. It all started with an exploratory conversation with Ted Hickman, who provides pastoral leadership at Duryea Presbyterian Church in my Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. We met a few months agao and talked broadly about how much we love church, and how well we love this particular neighborhood (where I have lived for over ten years!), and how abundant are the opportunities to create more porous and fluid boundaries between the church and the local community.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Ted invited me to preach in his pulpit, on Youth Sunday, no less! We had a good time today. I invited the children into the sermon– right into the middle of it. And I invited a new friend and colleague, Zachary Walter, to participate in an improvised dramatic reading of Paul’s conversion from Acts, and then end the sermon with a song. I am enamored of paperless singing, but not quite confident enough to do it myself, so Zach stepped in with a drum, and his voice, and his big smile (it’s no surprise we get along– our energy and inherent goofiness are well matched!). Y’all, it was simply awesome.
I come out of a very traditional worship setting, and this was my first time really stretching. If you’ve ever thought of trying something new, do it! If it’s done with intention and thoughtfulness and a desire to be in relationship with your audience, failure is not an option. This has been my great learning from my chaplaincy internship at Weill-Cornell Medical Center. Sometimes the right words come out, and sometimes your tongue gets stuck to the roof of your mouth. But if you are present, and attentive, the words almost don’t matter. Or, at least, they are secondary to the emotional content of the exchange. This recognition has been the key to my new boldness, and it makes me that much more excited to be engaged in God’s work, in the pulpit, in the hospital, in the world.
Stay tuned for more new news out of Duryea Presbyterian Church. They are group of faithful stewards and disciples of the risen Lord who are ready to do a new thing. That they have invited me to join them gives me goosebumps and butterflies. To be continued…
Ok, enough rambling. I’m attaching the manuscript, but it is not nearly as much fun as the recording, if you have a little time to spare. I hope you enjoy.
The Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
Duryea Presbyterian Church
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Epiphany B3, Youth Sunday
In the summer of 2003, I had just completed my first year at Union Theological Seminary, and I found myself working for the ever-faithful, ever-delightful, Ruling Elder Joyce Seebrooks, (some of you may know Joyce!) who at that time was responsible for the Resource Center of the New York City Presbytery and the assigned steward for a particular fund providing grants to churches in the presbytery who intended to lead Vacation Bible Schools for the children and youth of their congregations and communities. Each summer, Joyce hired two or three seminarians to travel around to every single one of these churches, across all five boroughs (by public transportation!)- bringing greetings from the presbytery and a message to the children in the VBS. I cannot now remember if I did this job 2 or 3 summers in a row, but I remember clearly that first year. It was a hot summer- a good old New York City summer with enough sunshine and humidity to wilt even a tough Southerner like myself. That summer, I think my colleagues and I visited more than 30 congregations.
The bible passage we chose to share that summer was the story of Paul’s conversion from the Book of Acts. Coincidentally, according to the Anglican Church’s liturgical calendar, today is actually called Conversion of St. Paul Sunday. And so it seems fitting that I share that story again today with you. Because, Duryea, I visited y’all that summer of 2003, and I remember you and your faithful VBS and summer school leaders and your fellowship hall just teeming with children and teenagers and adult volunteers. Your VBS was LIVE! It was exciting! And you welcomed us into your midst with such extravagant hospitality. You gave me and my fellow seminary students the floor to offer our words of greeting and our story, and end our time with a song, which I am sure was a few rounds of This Little Light of Mine. I don’t sing well, but I sing LOUD. Loud enough for God to hear and be pleased, that’s what I know. It was good fun.
Now, we didn’t just read the story of Paul’s conversion; we acted it out with the children’s help. We were amateurs- there were no costumes; no speaking roles beyond the narrator; no rehearsed parts. We read the story from Scripture and let the kids find their way in as they saw fit. (In full disclosure, we did have one thing planned out– a time to shout. Because kids in church, and adults, too, are always being told to shush, and there is something just so expansive about yelling out loud in church with permission) And since today is Youth Sunday, and since there are some children in the pews, it seems like the Spirit’s asking us to act it out again, if you’ll allow me.
Now, I’d like to ask the kids who are here today, mine included, to come forward and sit in the front pews or on the floor. And I want y’all to listen close to the story, because there are going to be instructions for you to follow. Can you do that for me? Good.
Here we go.
The Story of Paul’s Conversion… (NRSV with some colloquial edits by me)
Now there was a guy named Saul, who was a bully who didn’t like anyone who was a Christian, and he walked around breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. One day he went to the head honcho in his town and asked if he could go to a city called Damascus, and look for any men and women who followed Jesus, so that if he found any he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you hurt me?”
5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are hurting.6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen you in a vision come in and lay his hands on him so that he might be able to see again.”
13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many people about Saul, about the bad things has done in Jerusalem; 14and here he has permission to arrest anyone who says your name.”
15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for I have chosen Saul to teach ALL people about me, even kings and queens and people who have never heard of me; 16I know who he is and what he is done. He will be accountable to me.”
17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and Saul could see again. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after eating some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Kids, y’all did a great job. I think you deserve a round of applause! And to Zachary Walter, our intrepid and improvisational actor this morning.
For a number of good reasons, we tend to think of Paul as the main character and hero of this story. The narrator spends a lot of time telling us who he is, both before and after his conversion– first, a dangerous enemy of the fledgling Christian community in Jerusalem and Damascus, but then, on the other side of this mysterious and mystical experience, a passionate disciple of Jesus Christ, one so devoted that he was prepared to lose his very life for the cause. “His transformation was the biblical equivalent of Clark Kent becoming Superman or Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, with the twist that Saul was surely ‘bad’ and Paul was purely ‘good.’” (This and the following paragraph are heavily drawn from this sermon by Luke Bouman)
But Paul is neither the protagonist nor the hero of this story. God is. It is Jesus, not Paul, who has the vision and shares the vision of what the Church and its mission might be. It is God, in Christ, who chooses not to ‘smite’ Saul, or demonize him, for being on the wrong team, but instead takes Paul’s gifts of zeal and persuasion, and puts them to work for the Gospel. That is heart of this story– the extraordinary power of forgiveness and conversion working even when we are ‘at odds’ with God. The first good news of this story is that God doesn’t give up on Paul, God does not give up on us.
The second good news of this story is the vision of the Church revealed through Paul’s conversion– of a church so ‘big’ that the doors open wide enough to welcome us even when we are at enmity with God, because God loves us and desires us to join the beloved community, no matter how badly our actions might contradict God’s claim upon us.
God cracks open our long-held beliefs about who belongs within and outside the fold. God invites Saul, the religious fanatic, the persecutor of the early Christians, and says to him, “I want you. Your presence is missing, and without you, this community cannot be made whole.” God sets the table and sends out the invitations to a guest list unthinkable in its radical welcome, and we must not forget that.
But we do forget sometimes.
We forget and think we send out the invitations; think that we are the hosts of the banquet. We tell people what they ought to wear to church and how they ought to behave; when and how to sing, when and how to pray, when and how to give money. And we leave people outside the doors who cannot muster the nerve to follow so many rules just to get inside. All kinds of folks get left outside, and God is looking at us, and looking at them, and saying, “But I want them here. Their presence is missing, and without them, this community cannot be made whole.”
We don’t have to understand why God does this. Ananias sure didn’t. Ananias thought it prudent to argue with God about Saul’s history and character. But Ananias relented; and trusted God just enough to do what he was told to do.
Can we trust God enough to do what God is telling us to do? To follow God’s lead. To answer God’s call. To reach out with a radical inclusiveness that we don’t even understand? It might mean rethinking how we are doing virtually everything, until the moment comes when what we do on Sunday mimics the great banquet that God prepares for us,a feast where we will be elbow to elbow with friends and strangers, lovers and enemies, the good, the bad and the ugly, and God will smile and say, Yes, you are all here.”
That is ‘BIG’ church.
‘Big’ church is also what I used to call the 11am worship service when I was still a child. ‘Big’ church was for the adults. It’s when they sang songs I didn’t understand, prayed really, really, really long prayers, and had a sermon in between that sounded to me like all the adults in the Charlie Brown series, “mwah, mwah, mwah, mwah…” We went, anyway, because our parents were in the choir and Sunday school was before worship and because… well, we had to. But ‘big’ church never felt like ours.
Now, I have spent seven years in parish ministry NOT doing children’s ministry. But I have seen children, and raised children, and pastored young families enough to have learned a thing or two. I know that the more we involve our children in acts of worship and learning and song and praise, the more likely they are to be engaged as adolescents and young adults. Y’all know that. I’ve only known you a little bit over a long time, and I know that about you. Your summer school, your fundraisers, your liturgists on Sunday mornings…
I also know that children can be squirmy, and sometimes loud, and oftentimes bored in “BIG” church. Some adults are so happy to have children in worship that the noise and distraction register only as joy. And other folks, good and faithful folks, find squirmy children and chatty toddlers distracting from their reflective practice of worship. Some young families have great intentions about bringing their kids to worship, but the task of getting everyone fed and dressed and out the door on a weekend morning is insurmountable. I also know that just about every child under the age of three has a nap that coincides directly with 11am worship. So going to church means skipping a nap, which is a huge gamble that rarely pays off for weary parents.
And I know a lot of young families that don’t come to church at all, but not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because something else is holding them back. I am in a generation of adults who may or may not have been raised with a religious tradition– a generation for whom church on Sunday is not a habit, or a spiritual discipline, or even a essential aspect of faith identity. I don’t like the term ‘unchurched’ any more than I like the trendy term ‘nones’- they belie the prevalence of men and women who are having very deep and faithful conversations about the importance of raising their children within a community of faith, providing the kind of moral, ethical and religious upbringing that they may or may not have had themselves. But they don’t have a church affiliation, or a denominational identity. They may not know the old hymns or The Lord’s Prayer. For them, church is a clubhouse with secret handshakes and strange language. And I think, I really truly believe, that we as the church have to lay aside our own judgment and expectations if we want to offer a truly inclusive welcome to all who come to see what we’re about.
And we might have to take a really close look at how we do things, to see if we hold on to old habits and routines because they suit us best, not because they provide the warmest welcome. Now here’s my truth– I’m really good at asking the right questions, but finding the answers?… Well, I think the answers only come with the prayerful discernment of the whole community.
I know churches that hold Sunday school during the main service, so that adults can worship in silence and stillness, or, so that they won’t have to spend all day in church. I know churches who have children’s prayers, or children’s sermons, or both, or neither.
And no matter what the configuration or the programming, carefully thought out by a church’s leadership, someone is always unhappy. It’s the way church is– human, flawed, in need of forgiveness.
Ultimately, I believe our role as disciples of the risen Lord, is to be in a constant conversation with God about “Big” church. It’s not about growing numbers; it’s about being a church that is so ‘big’ in its understanding, that there is room for everyone, for the children, for the unaffiliated, for the ones who are, even now, at odds with God. It’s about being a church that is ‘big’ enough for people we will never understand or appreciate, but about whom God has said, “I want them here. Their presence is missing, and without them, this community cannot be made whole.”
Because, at some point, we were ourselves ‘that’ one, and it was God who reached out and said, “It’s you that I want.”
May it be so.