Refugee Children From East Africa

Sermon: The Return Journey

Last Wednesday night I was sitting a circle with our youth and chaperones on the Mission Trip. We’d completed our work for the day. We had just retuned from a fun evening out kayaking in Portland Harbor. And we had already talked about the days “highs and lows” and where they had seen God. Intending to wind down our gathering, I asked if, now a little past the mid-point of our week, anyone had any questions or comments about how things were going.

Rookie mistake.

Saugatuck Youth Group at the East End Beach in Portland, ME
Saugatuck Youth Group at the East End Beach in Portland, ME

Another hour-and-a-half of discussion began. And it wasn’t logistical questions— they were pros, they knew what they were doing. No, this was a full 90 minutes of gushing love and praise for one another that culminated in a massive group-hug.

Now, some of you who know our youth here may not be too surprised to hear this. Saugatuck is not a church afflicted with a half-hearted youth group— these kids dive in all the way. They work hard and they clearly love one another.

But let me just add a layer on top of this:

This year on the trip, we took four students— Jessy, Nick, Mark, and Gabe— whose families are not members of our church. Two of those four were brand new to our group. One of them knew absolutely no one else going on the trip before stepping into the church last Sunday morning. When we told the field-staff we were working with this, they wouldn’t believe us. All four of these students were so well integrated into the group by the time we got out of our cars at the first rest stop that you would think they had all grown up together.

I believe that what I experienced this past week with our youth is what church is meant to be.

This week we did a lot of work. We met a lot of people. We learned a lot of things. But what we felt most was a lot of love.

One of our projects for the week was to lead a daily Kid’s Club for local children, many of the them from refugee families, most of them drawn from public housing apartments located just down the street from one of the centers we worked at. The lesson plan for our Kid’s Club programs were centered around 1 Corinthians 13. You probably know it: “love is patient, love is kind.”

I didn’t realize how significant this was going to be, so this didn’t make it into our scripture reading for today, but I want to read for you the first part of this chapter, before Paul starts describing love:

What if I could speak
all languages
of humans
and of angels?
If I did not love others,
I would be nothing more
than a noisy gong
or a clanging cymbal.
What if I could prophesy
and understand all secrets
and all knowledge?
And what if I had faith
that moved mountains?
I would be nothing,
unless I loved others.
What if I gave away all
that I owned
and let myself
be burned alive?
I would gain nothing,
unless I loved others. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Contemporary English Version)

Paul is writing to a church that is tearning itself apart.

They are arguing over everything from what constitutes “moral sexual behavior” to the right way to set up the table for communion. They are struggling to decide who should be their leaders. They can’t really decide what they think makes a good leader, either.

Paul tries in this letter to give them guidance and advice on how to practically navigate these questions.

But then he gets to this chapter and he says “you know what, though: you can get all of the rest of it right— you can follow all the rules, perform all the right rituals the right way, meet all the qualifications— but if you don’t have love it’s meaningless.

Tuesday morning, I was standing next to Jessy in a serving line at the soup kitchen we sent a team to each day.

I was looking to my left, asking the next person in line if they’d like the oatmeal that I was serving. When I turned my head back, Jessy was gone. And then I realized she was actually standing right in front of me. One of the people in line was using a walker and was struggling to carry their tray. Jessy had jumped around to the front to carry it for them without a moments hesitation. Even though it left her station in the serving line empty, Jessy understood that what was most important was showing this man love.

Later on that day, we regrouped at the Kid’s Club site. As I walked into the room, the group that was working with the children that day was getting a round of musical chairs started. Now, as Michael will tell you, musical chairs is a game that is designed to make children cry. Every round another child “looses” and is out. And it can get ugly.

But that’s not what happened in this game. Sophie led the way, intentionally loosing in the first round to go take care of a couple of children who hadn’t joined the game. And then one by one our youth systematically got themselves out, setting an example of what graciousness looks like. They weren’t playing to win, they playing to make sure that the younger children had a good time. And then the older children in the group we were working with started following their example, letting the younger kids win. And then the younger children started doing the same for one another. And so the entire game went by without a single tear because our youth intentionally did it “wrong” in order to show love to these kids.

These stories may seem simple and even ordinary, but I believe this is the whole ballgame.

In our evening gatherings led by the Experience Mission staff, we spent a little time talking about Romans chapter 12. We read the first two verses today in church: present yourselves a living sacrifice, and be transformed by the renewing of your mind Paul writes.

Sacrfice is a tricky topic theologically both because the langague of sacrifice has developed particular connotations that many of us find hard to chew and because in reality, there are a lot of possible intepretations of sacrifice langugage in the scriptures.

But with that said, the interpretation that I find most compelling has to do with covenant. As Jesus says when he gives his disciples the cup on the night of the last supper: “this is the new covenant made through my blood.” The sacrifice that Jesus makes is about establishing a relationship, a covenant, between God and us. It’s about saying “the proof of the promise that I am making is what I am willing to give up.” God gives a tremendous sacrifice for this covenant, and that requries a tremendous amount of love. But that is exactly the point, I believe: the word becomes flesh and dwells among us, God incarnate becomes one of us, because God is making a promise that we will always be loved.

So when we think about sacrifice, I think it has to be with this in mind. The question we should pose is “what are we willing to give up in order to show others that they are loved?”

And so the seemingly ordinary stories— the gestures of kindness that last only a moment, the conversations that last only a few minutes— take on a new significance. As one of our youth very eloquently put it, while on one level these moments might seem small and insignficant in the grand scheme of our lives, in the context of another life they may mean the world.

Now, at least to me, I find that when we are thinking about showing love to other people, people out there beyond these four walls, it’s easy for us to see how these seemingly small, ordinary moments are so important. We can rattle off all the ways in which we can contribute to making their lives better by volunteering just a little of our time and energy.

But what does that look like inside these walls?

I know that I am leaving in a couple of months, and so perhaps my vision of what the church should look like carries a lot less weight than it did a few weeks ago. But these last several months as we have been wrestling with some major questions in the life of this congregation, I have been struggling to answer this question: what even is this thing we call “church”?

Is it the building where we meet? Is it the people in this room? Is it the ministries that we carry out— the mission projects we sponsor or the church school classes we organize?

Is it all of these things blended together into some sort of theological salad?

On Friday after we left Portland, we stopped for a “fun day” at Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts. There were a couple of our group for whom roller-coasters were “new,” and understandably pretty scary. There was an old wooden ride at the park, one that was relatively tame and made a good “first coaster.” Our youth rallied around their friends, waited in line for 30 minutes to take them on this ride, and as I watched them pull back into the station the entire group started cheering and high-fiving the two who had never done this before. I’m not sure if those two students did any other rides that day, but they knew that their friends supported them.

Saugatuck Youth Group Eating Dinner at Root Cellar in Portland, ME
Saugatuck Youth Group Eating Dinner at the Root Cellar in Portland, Maine.

I believe that is what church is about. A simple sacrifice of time and a gift of supporting energy and praise. But it demonstrated their commitment to eachother.

For two hours every night this past week I have listened to our youth tell stories about one another. About the things they saw eachother do, the things they learned from one another, the ways in which they felt inspired and encouraged by eachother. Words cannot describe how rejuvinating those discussions were. That was genuine community. That was love. That was what church is meant to be.

And so as I wind down my time in this community, that’s my dream: may this be a place that is defined by love. A place where we cannot help but pour out encouragement for one another. A place where genuine community is what we experience whever we are together. A place where we make sacrifices for one another because we know that what truly matters is not doing everything exactly right but doing everything with love.

Amen.

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